Versatile actor Peter Falk returns to his role as the legendary cigar smoking sleuth, Columbo.
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"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.