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Talk with Falk

Versatile actor Peter Falk returns to his role as the legendary cigar smoking sleuth, Columbo.
Arthur Marx
From the Print Edition:
Pierce Brosnan, Nov/Dec 97

(continued from page 5)

With two Oscar nominations and an Emmy in two years, the previously little-known New York stage actor asked all his friends, "How long has this been going on?" But in 1962, Falk made what was to many a strange choice for his third film--a movie shot in the Soviet Union. "It wasn't the script, that's for sure. And it wasn't, I should add, that I was a Communist. The truth is, I was curious."

The filming got off to a shaky start; the Italian director refused to use Falk in the role. "They hired me off an 8x10 glossy. They thought they were getting Sal Mineo. That's the God's truth. The director got what he wanted--a 'bambino' "--and Falk got another role.

Since then, Falk's film credits have ranged from It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963) and the Neil Simon comedies Murder by Death (1976) and The Cheap Detective (1978) to Husbands (1970) and A Woman Under the Influence (1976), a pair of low-budget but powerful films done with his longtime friend, the late actor-director John Cassavetes.

It was his appearance as Lieutenant Columbo in a 1968 TV movie of the week, Prescription: Murder, however, that led to Falk's biggest success and worldwide fame as the cigar smoking, raincoat-clad detective.

"Columbo" was never intended to be a series. Falk was just a character in a movie of the week that happened to garner a big rating. "When the network people came to me and said they thought we should make a weekly series of the character, I said no way," says Falk. "It's too difficult to come up with a good story week after week. It can't be done. So they went away, and the next year they came back to me with the same idea. And again I nixed it, and for the same reason.

"But the third year they came to me with a way they believed it could be done. It would be a Sunday night detective series in which I would do eight a season, Rock Hudson would do eight [as a police commissioner on "McMillan and Wife"] and a third actor [Dennis Weaver, who played a deputy marshal on "McCloud"] would do another eight. That way the strain wouldn't be too hard on anybody, but especially the writers. So I said OK and they scheduled it for the 1971 season."

While now it seems almost inconceivable that anyone but Falk could have portrayed Lieutenant Columbo, the role was initially offered to Bing Crosby, who reportedly declined because the series would interfere with his golf game. Lee J. Cobb was also considered for the part.

Between 1968 and 1971, when the first show of the "Columbo" series was aired on NBC, Falk stayed busy. After Prescription: Murder, he appeared in the films Anzio, Castle Keep, Machine Gun McCain, A Step Out of Line, Husbands and Operation Snafu. None was terribly memorable, except for Husbands, which was directed by Cassavetes and costarred Falk and Ben Gazzara.

Falk did, however, score a major success on Broadway in 1970, when he garnered excellent reviews as the lead in Neil Simon's Prisoner of Second Avenue. "Working with Doc Simon was such a joy," recalls Falk. "You can always count on those laughs when you show up on the stage. I'm thinking of putting Doc in my will."

Falk had to step out of Prisoner after a season, for he had already committed to the "Columbo" series, which debuted in the fall of 1971. The first episode was called "Ransom for a Dead Man," and it was an immediate hit. The series ran until the 1977-78 season and earned Falk five Emmy Awards for best actor in a dramatic series.


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Comments   1 comment(s)

Giove Olimpo July 20, 2012 5:48pm ET

What is the name of Columbo's cigars?


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