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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 4)

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.

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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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