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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.


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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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