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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 3)

"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."


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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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