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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 6)

"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.

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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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