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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 2)

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.


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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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