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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

There are people who'd sell their mother down the river for a box of genuine Cuban cigars (or maybe even a half a box), and then there is Peter Falk, the self-effacing, soft-spoken, cigar smoking star of the hit TV detective series "Columbo," who confides, "I'll smoke anything anybody gives me. I'm not particular. On 'Columbo' I smoke the cheapest cigars you can buy. They come six to a pack.

"I love the smell of cigar smoke," continues Falk, who also smokes cigarettes. "I remember Joe Mantegna inviting me to a party at this restaurant on Beverly Boulevard that Jack Nicholson owns. I think it's called the Monkey Bar, and it's also part cigar club. Well, when I walked in there, there was such a thick cloud of cigar smoke that you could hardly see across the room. I got hit by that great smoke. Oh, it was heaven. It reminded me of the old Madison Square Square Garden or my days in the pool room when I was a kid growing up in Ossining, New York. You just don't find many public places today where you can go and fill your lungs and nostrils with delicious second hand smoke.

"Recently I went to a party Dabney Coleman was throwing for his daughter, who had just got married. Well, a guy there took out a Cuban cigar and handed it to me. I thanked him and eagerly lit it up. I was so eager I didn't even bother to get out my cigarette lighter. I just grabbed the candle on the table where my wife and I were sitting and used that. Well, the first couple of puffs were heaven. And then suddenly the whole 25-buck cigar went up in flames that got bigger and bigger. I said, 'What is this--Halloween?' I thought it was a trick someone was playing on me. I nearly burnt the joint down before I could put it out. At that point I couldn't see what was so great about a Cuban cigar. And then it dawned on me what had happened. I'd gotten wax from the candle all over the cigar when I was lighting it. That's what turned it into an incendiary missile from Havana."

Falk laughs and, cocking his head to one side in his inimitable Columbo fashion, adds, "I guess the point of all this is that as much as I like to smoke them, the affection and the care that real cigar smokers heap upon their stogies is something that is absent with me."

Falk enjoys smoking cigars so much that the plot of his first "Columbo" of the new season, "A Trace of Murder," which aired in May on ABC, was built around cigar smokers. "The fellow who gets killed doesn't smoke cigars; the fellow that they're framing does smoke cigars. Who's framing him? The wife, or the man she's having an affair with? Now Columbo goes to the murder scene. So does the man who's having an affair with the wife; he's the forensic expert on the case. So the forensic guy is the one involved in framing her husband, who he and the wife are trying to get rid of so they can live happily ever after. Or should it be 'whom'? Well, who the hell cares about good grammar in such a suspenseful situation?" He interrupts himself with a laugh. "One of the ways they frame him is to leave a piece of the kind of cigar that he smokes at the scene of the murder. This cigar is an expensive one. It's made of a very distinctive kind of Havana tobacco leaf, and it becomes an important piece of evidence."

Despite Falk's heavy cigarette habit, he hasn't slowed down. "I've been smoking 55 years and my mother, who's 92, has been puffing for 71. It's easy for me to deceive myself that it's all in the genes. I've never even tried to quit. I must admit, however, I have imagined looking in the mirror on the [hypothetical] day I got the bad news regarding the 'big C' and saying, 'You weak, stupid sonofabitch. It serves you right.' "

Falk says he can understand the position of vocal nonsmokers, but "I just wish they weren't so wacky. You could light a cigarette in the Grand Canyon and, 12 miles away, there's a voice with a pair of binoculars saying, 'Put that out! I'm allergic to smoke.' For Christ's sakes," he laments, "I hear you can't even light up outdoors at Dodger Stadium anymore. What kind of a world is this getting to be where you're not even allowed to smoke outdoors at a ball game?"

Peter Falk was born in Manhattan on Sept. 16, 1927, to Michael and Madeline Falk. Later the family moved to the Bronx, and when Falk was around 6, they settled in Ossining, on the Hudson River, a hamlet better known for the presence of Sing Sing Penitentiary than for being the childhood home of the future Lieutenant Columbo.

Falk's mother is Russian and his father was Polish, with a mix of Hungarian and Czech further back in their ancestry. So, contrary to Falk's public image, he is not an Italian but a mixture of very hardy Eastern European stock.

In Ossining, Michael and Madeline made a fairly good living running a dry goods store. Because of its proximity to Sing Sing, Ossining benefited from the traffic going to and from the penitentiary and therefore was more prosperous than many small towns during the Great Depression years.

But the Falks had more serious problems than trying to make a living in those days. "When I was three years old, I was attending a pre-kindergarten school, in the Bronx," Falk recalls. "Because my mom was working in my father's store, there was no one at home to take care of me, so I attended one of those day-care places. One day my teacher called my mother in and told her that I ought to have my eyes examined, because I was always cocking my head to one side when I was attempting to look at something. So my mom took me to a doctor, who examined me and found a malignancy in my right eye. He took her aside and told her that I'd have to have the eye taken out right away. So like in a day or two, they checked me into the hospital. I remember standing in front of an open elevator door with my mother and the doctor in the hospital. I wasn't quite sure what was happening to me. Suddenly Mom said to me, 'You just get in the elevator, son. I have to go back to your room and get my purse.' Then the doctor took my hand and walked me into the elevator. I remember telling him, 'Just hold on a minute. My mother went to get her purse. She'll be right here.'

"The next thing I knew I was asleep, and it was all over."

Pretty traumatic for a three-year-old to wake up and find he had only one eye.

"Another memory I have of that period is of me and my mother standing in front of a store window, looking at eye patches. I wore one in the beginning, but after I was a little older they gave me a glass eye. Glass eyes aren't as practical as the plastic ones that came in a little later. In hot weather the glass eye used to stick. I remember being told to take it out every night and put it in a glass of water. Sometimes I did, and sometimes I got careless and just put it on the table next to my bed. After a while the glass eye starts getting scratched, and it has to be replaced if you don't want to look like you have a terrible hangover. But the plastic eye is much lighter, and more comfortable."

Falk admits that in the beginning he was terribly self-conscious about having a glass eye, and dreaded the moment when someone would ask him about it. "But then there's that time when you finally realize that no one gives a shit whether you have one eye or two. What helped me was knocking around doing sports with the guys."

Falk participated in most of the team sports in school, baseball and basketball in particular. He was good at both games in spite of his handicap, once he got over his self-consciousness. "I remember once in high school the umpire called me out at third base when I was sure I was safe. I got so mad I took out my glass eye, handed it to him and said, 'Try this.' I got such a laugh you wouldn't believe."

In spite of his size, the five-foot-nine Falk also made the town basketball team, which during the season went up against the Sing Sing team, inside the prison. "Because of my eye I wasn't a very good shooter, but because of my size I was fast as hell and that's why they used me. But the inmates were too tough for us. We got our ass beaten by them.I remember one inmate who was a terrific player. His name was Piggy Sands. He was in for life. But he sure could play basketball."

During his senior year, Falk received his first taste of acting (except for an appearance in a summer camp play several years before) when he filled in for a fellow student who had fallen sick two days before the performance. Ironically, he played a detective, taking the stage in the third act.

Although he was a good student, Falk had no idea of what he wanted to do when he got out of high school in 1945. The one way of making a living that never crossed his mind was becoming an actor. "In Ossining when I was growing up, I put my time in on the street corner, or in the pool room, and I liked sports but of course could never play any of them professionally because of my one eye. But I would have been embarrassed to tell any of my friends that I had any idea of being an actor. My conception of being an actor was very naive and very romantic. I thought actors were some rare species. I thought they were artists, and I thought artists were Europeans. I thought they were from Europe, because I never saw any actors where I came from."

In the summer of 1945, Falk enrolled in Hamilton College in upstate New York. "I thought college was going to be like high school, where I never worked too hard to get by. I loved everything about high school and I thought college would be the same. But when I got up there, I was in for a shock. No women. Small population because of the war. And half of the guys were veterans who had been in the war and were up there studying. They were very serious, so it was no fun there. And as I said, no girls. I only stayed about a month. So I thought I'd see if I could get in one of the [armed] services. The war was on its last legs, but it wasn't quite over."

Falk laughs as he remembers trying to join the Marines. A pharmacist's mate was giving the eye test, but according to Falk, he wasn't very sharp. "He never noticed that I covered my false eye twice and read the chart 20/20 both times with my good eye. I thought I was in, but suddenly the doctor in the next cubicle looked over and said to the pharmacist, 'You dumb cluck, can't you see he's tricking you?' " With that, the doctor took over the examination and, of course, discovered Falk's glass eye.

Three months later, having been rejected by the armed services, he joined the Merchant Marine. "There they don't care if you're blind or not," says Falk. "The only one on a ship who has to see is the captain. And in the case of the Titanic, he couldn't see very well, either."

After he was assigned to a ship, Falk walked into the sleeping quarters, which were empty, "except for a big fat guy named Joe, who was sitting in the upper bunk across from mine. I don't know what got into me, but for some reason I decided to play a joke on him. So when he asked me how come a young kid like myself was in the Merchant Marine, I told him I had a slight physical problem. With that, I sat down in my bunk and took out my two front teeth--at that time I had a bridge on my upper front teeth. Anyway, I took it out and laid it on the bench in front of my bunk. Then I reached in and took out my eye and dropped it on the bench next to my teeth. It made a nice sound effect. As Joe was doing a double take, I then bent over and with both of my hands pretended to be twisting my leg, as if I had a false leg, which I was unscrewing to take off. Suddenly Joe's face went white, and he leaped off his bunk and said, 'I'm going out on deck for a while.' "

Harking back to his formative years, Falk says, "There's a time when you're young when you're very sensitive about things like a false eye. But once you get older you realize you can get a laugh with it. Now it's second nature to me. I mean, if somebody asks me which eye is the bad one, I have to stop and think about it."

After a year and a half in the Merchant Marine, Falk returned to Hamilton College, where he stayed for two years, except for the summer in between at the University of Wisconsin. He then transferred to the New School for Social Research in New York City, after which he fell in love with a girl and followed her to Paris.

The two bummed around Europe for a few months and wound up, after the border opened, behind the Iron Curtain in Yugoslavia, where Falk stayed for six months, supporting himself by working on a railroad for the Tito government, and, finally, succeeded in getting himself arrested over a minor incident involving currency that a restaurant wouldn't accept. After he was released, Falk returned to New York, thinking, "Jesus Christ. I'm 26 years old. I'd better do something about earning a living." Whereupon he enrolled in Syracuse University.

It was at Syracuse where Falk met his first wife, Alyce Mayo. He married her five years later, in 1958. The couple eventually adopted and raised two daughters, Jackie, now 29, and Catherine, 26. Alyce and Peter were divorced in 1976 but remain friendly.

Prior to enrolling at Syracuse, Falk received a bachelor's degree in literature and political science from the New School around 1950. He then earned a master's degree in public administration from Syracuse, which enabled him to land a job as an efficiency expert in Hartford for the state of Connecticut.

"I was such an efficiency expert that the first morning on the job, I couldn't find the building where I was to report for work," he recalls. "Naturally, I was late, which I always was in those days, but ironically it was my tendency never to be on time that got me started as a professional actor."

While he was working in Hartford, Falk got a hankering to start acting again. He'd had some experience fooling around in amateur productions, starting in high school and into his college days. So he joined a community theater group in Hartford called the Mark Twain Masquers, where he was paid nothing but acquired a lot of experience. "I did one play after another--The Caine Mutiny, The Crucible, The Country Girl...in fact, you name it, I did it.

"While I was with the Masquers, I learned that France's first lady of the theater, Eva La Gallienne, was giving an acting class for professionals at the White Barn Theater in Westport, Connecticut. La Gallienne was internationally famous, with a reputation as an actress that was right up there with Helen Hayes, Judith Anderson and the other important ladies of the theater.

"Westport was about two hours from Hartford, but I decided I'd like to see what it would be like to be working with professionals, so I drove down, and somehow lied my way into the group, which met every Wednesday. But I was always late because of the long drive down from Hartford. So I went to my boss--I had a vacation coming--and told him I didn't want a vacation. I just wanted him to let me off every Wednesday afternoon early. He said OK, but I was still always late because of the traffic. And my car, which was always breaking down.

"Now Eva La Gallienne was a very formidable woman, in keeping with her worldwide reputation, and she had very little patience with excuses. One evening when I arrived late, she looked at me and asked, 'Young man, why are you always late?' and I said, 'I have to drive down from Hartford.'"

She looked down her nose and said, "What do you do in Hartford? There's no theater there. How do you make a living acting?" Falk then had to confess that he wasn't a professional actor at all. Whereupon she looked at him sternly and said, "Well, you should be." That was all the aspiring actor needed to hear. He drove back to Hartford, and the next morning told his boss he was quitting.

Falk stayed with the La Gallienne group for a few months--just long enough to get a letter of recommendation from the renowned actress to a theatrical agent at the William Morris Talent Agency in New York.

"I don't remember his name," recalls Falk. "But I do remember that about three minutes into our meeting he told me, 'You know, son, you could never do television or the movies.' Now, I didn't know what he was talking about. It never occurred to me that he was talking about my eye, because it had become so natural with me to only have one eye. But aside from that, I didn't know what he meant. Whoever expected to be in the movies and go to Hollywood, anyway? I just wanted to be a stage actor. My goal was just to get into The Actors' Studio. That would have made me happy. And if my expectations went beyond that, I would have said, 'If I could just once be on Broadway, if I could walk into a bar and there were other actors there, and they would know that I was also an actor, and that I was making a living as an actor, that would be all I asked of life.' And television at the time--it was around 1952--was just starting, and who expected to get into that? So when this agent said that to me, I said, 'I just want to be on the stage.'"

The agent was sufficiently impressed with La Gallienne's letter that he managed to get Falk a small Off-Broadway role in the American premiere of Moliere's Don Juan. "They weren't paying anything. So lots of time you'd go to rehearsal and people wouldn't show up. So the director would say to me, 'You take that part.' So I got a bigger part. They kept firing the Don Juans. And they also kept firing the directors. But there was one person who showed up every week. That was me. So by the time we were about two weeks from opening night, I had the second lead. I remember that George Segal had a small part in that production, too. I remember his costume. He wore blue satin knickers and black shoes with silver buckles. And I wore the same. I said to George, 'What the hell are we doing in these ridiculous outfits?'

"The last director they brought in was a Method director, from The Actors' Studio. He said to the cast, 'The trouble with this play is that everybody's posturing. You have to stop acting and just say the lines straight. No accent. If I catch you acting, I'll fire you.'

"So that's how it was done opening night, which also was closing night."

Falk will never forget the review he got from The New York Times critic Walter Kerr, who was considered the dean of Broadway critics. Kerr's opening line read: "Peter Falk got the evening off to a wonderfully paralyzed start, with 10 minutes of totally unaccented exposition."

Falk claims he wasn't particularly upset by Kerr's review, because "I can be completely objective about things I'm in. I knew from the start it was a bomb."

Despite this unpromising start, Falk, with the help of the William Morris agency, continued to pick up minor roles in Broadway and Off-Broadway productions until he finally made a name for himself as the bartender in the 1956 Off-Broadway production of Eugene O'Neill's The Iceman Cometh.

Falk has to chuckle as he recalls an interview in the mid-1950s that he and an agent had at Columbia Pictures with movie mogul Harry Cohn. Though Falk had come highly recommended by a Columbia scout ("the next John Garfield"), Cohn wasn't sold. "Then he said something I didn't understand," Falks recalls. "[He said,] 'Young man, I'm concerned about your deficiency.' I had no idea what he was referring to. After a couple of passes, he put it into words: 'Your eye, young man, your eye. I'm concerned about your eye.' " Falk replied that it was nothing to be concerned about, but Cohn wanted a screen test, which Falk felt was unnecessary. "Cohn ended the conversation: 'Mr. Falk, for the same price, I'll get an actor with two eyes.' P.S.: I took the screen test and flunked."

After that minor setback, Falk cemented his reputation by appearing in a number of Broadway productions in the late 1950s--Saint Joan, Diary of a Scoundrel, The Lady's Not for Burning, Bonds of Interest and The Passion of Josef D.

In 1960, Falk was offered the role of a vicious killer in a low-budget gangster film, Murder, Inc., with May Britt and Stuart Whitman. He was hired out of New York, where the picture was filmed, because the producers were too cheap to transport actors from Hollywood, and they wanted to take advantage of the New York background. Falk's appearance as Abe Reles, the syndicate's top killer (who, not incidentally, was a cigar smoker) turned out to be one of the major turning points in his life, for it led to his nomination for an Oscar for best supporting actor at the 1961 Academy Awards.

"It all began on a rainy afternoon in a bar in Greenwich Village," Falk recalls. "I was sitting with Ben Gazzara and Sal Mineo. I had been knocking around Off-Broadway but [Murder, Inc.] had just come out and I got splashy reviews. Sal said, 'You should campaign for an Academy Award.' What's that? I didn't know there was such a thing. Sal said it was true--you take out ads; it had been going on for years. Sal had been a kid actor in Hollywood, so I believed him, but it sounded far-fetched. Hollywood, Academy Awards, Ingrid Bergman--that was another world. Sal was just being nice, but I couldn't take it seriously.

"That same year, 1960, I got a gig on 'The Untouchables.' My first trip to Hollywood. Abe Lastfogel, a legendary agent and head of William Morris, called me into his office and said, 'You should campaign for an Academy Award.' I said, 'That's what Sal Mineo said.' He said, 'Well, do it!' [I said,] 'What do I do?' [He replied,] 'Take out ads, hire a press agent, spend money.' That's what I did, and what do you know--I got nominated.

"Now we're in our Volkswagen [Falk and his wife, Alyce] and we're headed to the Academy Awards. 'What do you think of my chances?' I asked. She answers, 'You'll be lucky if they don't take back the nomination.'

"Now we're in our seats; the press agent, Judd Bernard, is seated on my right. It's my category and I heard a voice say, 'And the winner is Peter...' I'm rising out of my seat. '...Ustinov.' I'm heading back down. When I hit the seat, I turn to the press agent: 'You're fired.' I didn't want him charging me for another day."

Nevertheless, the nomination was a coup for Falk. He repeated the feat the following year, when he was nominated for best supporting actor in Frank Capra's Pocketful of Miracles, which starred Bette Davis and Glenn Ford. Again he didn't win, but it was the start of a long and illustrious Hollywood career in films and television. In 1961 he won an Emmy for his portrayal of a truck driver in the TV play The Price of Tomatoes.

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.

"People are still asking me why the series was such a success," Falk says. "Was it me or the concept? Personally, I think it was the character of Columbo. But I don't think you could separate it out. I mean, point to any one thing. The character or the story or the fact that it was a mystery. But I think the hub of it starts with the character. That's the heart of it, the soul of it.

"People like somebody they can identify with. A man or person not above them. So I think they identify with the common aspects of Columbo. I mean, he's like everybody--one of us. But at the same time people have always been attracted to heroes, people who are bigger than life, exceptional. In some ways, Columbo is both."

Falk recalls actress and screenwriter Elaine May saying that his character was an "ass-backwards" Sherlock Holmes. "Holmes was smart, but he was an aristocrat. Columbo was just like everyone who walks the streets. Dirty raincoat, a dog, a wife. Not much money. On the other hand, there's something exceptional about the way his mind works. Also, he's human. He's interested in what ordinary people are interested in. The price of clothes, for example. 'What did you pay for that handbag?' he asks a rich suspect. 'I'd like to buy one of those for my wife. Her birthday's coming up, but I don't think I can afford it. You wouldn't know where I could buy something like that for about half the price?' And for a cop he's very offbeat. He hates noise, the sound of gun shots; he hates violence, unlike today's 'action heroes' in films, who thrive on one huge explosion after another."

Finally, says Falk, the clues were good, the murders were clever and the twists at the end were delicious. And then there were the cigars.

"I don't remember at this late date whose idea it was for me to smoke a cigar on the series. It was probably mine, since I enjoy smoking so much and cigars looked like a much more macho smoke for a detective than cigarettes. I do know I came up with my outfit--the beat-up raincoat and worn-out brown shoes," he says.

He also remembers who was responsible for the dog on the series. "Second season of 'Columbo,' Nick Cavasanto, the director, comes to me and says, 'I think you ought to have a dog on the series.' I said, 'Nick, there's not going to be any dogs. I've got the raincoat, I've got the cigar and I've got the car. That's enough. We're reaching.' He says, 'OK.'

"Next day I come in, I'm wandering around, looking at the sets when I bump into Nick. He says to me, 'Come in and look at the doctor set.' I go in, and lying on the table is this dachshund. It's a huge lump. It's just laying there. It's about a thousand years old. It could hardly walk. Now, I thought, if they were gonna use a dog, they were going to pick some frisky, cute little thing. So I said, 'That's the dog you want?' He nodded, and I said, 'You got it.'

"The problem with having a dog is they don't live long enough. The first dog we used was in '71, and he was very old. He passed away in '73 and his replacement was much younger.

"I never took much time in makeup; a glance in the mirror on the way to the john--that's it. If you're playing Columbo, who cares what you look like, as long as you look bad. So I'm ready fast, but we couldn't shoot. We had to wait for the dog. He was in makeup--sitting in a chair, munching dog bones while they applied the clown white to make him look older. Thirty minutes shot to hell."

In real life, Falk and his wife of 20 years, Shera Danese, have five dogs--two Pekinese, a Shih Tzu and two big mixed-breed dogs they rescued from an animal shelter--all of whom sleep in the bedroom with them in their eight-room Beverly Hills home.

Danese, an actress in her mid-40s, played the female lead in "A Trace of Murder." Vivacious and full of life, Danese "loves to dress up, and go dancing," according to Falk. "She's great at parties. Me, I hate parties and dressing up. When I was young, I thought the only reason to go to a party was to pick up a girl. But after you're married, I just never knew what a party was for.

"Personally, I'd rather stay home and practice my hobby. I draw naked women," he confides with a sly smile. "I work in charcoal. I draw them with their hair up, sometimes with their hair down. I have a number of models who pose naked for me whenever I ask. How'd I get into such an exotic hobby? Well, I'll tell you. One day I wandered into the Art Students League of New York, and there was a naked woman on a platform with a light on her. That was good enough for me. I said I'd be there every day, and I was. I appreciate the female form. The human body is a fantastic thing. I can't draw landscapes or boats."

Falk has set up an art studio in his garage. "I get obsessed and can go on drawing for 12 or 13 hours at a time. Shera has a great sense of humor about it. I don't know how she feels about my models, but about my work she says, 'You're not going to bring that crap into the house, are you?' "

Today, Falk is a very healthy 70 and is looking forward to appearing in as many new "Columbos" as he cares to develop under his ongoing producing and acting deal with Universal Pictures. Since the first "Columbo" series went off the air in 1977, he has appeared in a dozen films, including A Woman Under the Influence and The In-Laws, with Alan Arkin as his costar, a particularly hilarious vehicle for the two actors.

Last year, Falk taped a TV version of Neil Simon's The Sunshine Boys for CBS, with Woody Allen. In this remake of the Broadway hit, Falk takes the Walter Matthau part while Allen has the role George Burns played so masterfully in the film version. The show is scheduled to air Dec. 28.

Today, Falk is famous around the globe--way beyond his headiest expectations--but he believes that fame is "overrated. The best part about it is the money--you don't have to worry about it, like when you're first starting out." He sighs and settles back on his comfortable couch. "I'm lucky. I don't like to boast, but today I've got a lot of dough."

Falk tries to keep in shape by playing golf whenever he has the chance. He has a 14 handicap and finds that having one eye is not much of a hindrance in the group with whom he plays. "The way most people play golf," he says, "it doesn't make much of a difference whether they have one eye or two."

Asked how he feels about getting old, and if he's surprised to find himself turning 70, Falk responds with the same laid-back attitude you'd expect to come from Lieutenant Columbo: "No, I'm not surprised. What did you think was going to happen? The way I look at it, it's the best of two alternatives."

Arthur Marx is the author of three books and two plays about his father, Groucho.

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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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