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Talk with Falk

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

There are people who'd sell their mother down the river for a box of genuine Cuban cigars (or maybe even a half a box), and then there is Peter Falk, the self-effacing, soft-spoken, cigar smoking star of the hit TV detective series "Columbo," who confides, "I'll smoke anything anybody gives me. I'm not particular. On 'Columbo' I smoke the cheapest cigars you can buy. They come six to a pack.

"I love the smell of cigar smoke," continues Falk, who also smokes cigarettes. "I remember Joe Mantegna inviting me to a party at this restaurant on Beverly Boulevard that Jack Nicholson owns. I think it's called the Monkey Bar, and it's also part cigar club. Well, when I walked in there, there was such a thick cloud of cigar smoke that you could hardly see across the room. I got hit by that great smoke. Oh, it was heaven. It reminded me of the old Madison Square Square Garden or my days in the pool room when I was a kid growing up in Ossining, New York. You just don't find many public places today where you can go and fill your lungs and nostrils with delicious second hand smoke.

"Recently I went to a party Dabney Coleman was throwing for his daughter, who had just got married. Well, a guy there took out a Cuban cigar and handed it to me. I thanked him and eagerly lit it up. I was so eager I didn't even bother to get out my cigarette lighter. I just grabbed the candle on the table where my wife and I were sitting and used that. Well, the first couple of puffs were heaven. And then suddenly the whole 25-buck cigar went up in flames that got bigger and bigger. I said, 'What is this--Halloween?' I thought it was a trick someone was playing on me. I nearly burnt the joint down before I could put it out. At that point I couldn't see what was so great about a Cuban cigar. And then it dawned on me what had happened. I'd gotten wax from the candle all over the cigar when I was lighting it. That's what turned it into an incendiary missile from Havana."

Falk laughs and, cocking his head to one side in his inimitable Columbo fashion, adds, "I guess the point of all this is that as much as I like to smoke them, the affection and the care that real cigar smokers heap upon their stogies is something that is absent with me."

Falk enjoys smoking cigars so much that the plot of his first "Columbo" of the new season, "A Trace of Murder," which aired in May on ABC, was built around cigar smokers. "The fellow who gets killed doesn't smoke cigars; the fellow that they're framing does smoke cigars. Who's framing him? The wife, or the man she's having an affair with? Now Columbo goes to the murder scene. So does the man who's having an affair with the wife; he's the forensic expert on the case. So the forensic guy is the one involved in framing her husband, who he and the wife are trying to get rid of so they can live happily ever after. Or should it be 'whom'? Well, who the hell cares about good grammar in such a suspenseful situation?" He interrupts himself with a laugh. "One of the ways they frame him is to leave a piece of the kind of cigar that he smokes at the scene of the murder. This cigar is an expensive one. It's made of a very distinctive kind of Havana tobacco leaf, and it becomes an important piece of evidence."

Despite Falk's heavy cigarette habit, he hasn't slowed down. "I've been smoking 55 years and my mother, who's 92, has been puffing for 71. It's easy for me to deceive myself that it's all in the genes. I've never even tried to quit. I must admit, however, I have imagined looking in the mirror on the [hypothetical] day I got the bad news regarding the 'big C' and saying, 'You weak, stupid sonofabitch. It serves you right.' "

Falk says he can understand the position of vocal nonsmokers, but "I just wish they weren't so wacky. You could light a cigarette in the Grand Canyon and, 12 miles away, there's a voice with a pair of binoculars saying, 'Put that out! I'm allergic to smoke.' For Christ's sakes," he laments, "I hear you can't even light up outdoors at Dodger Stadium anymore. What kind of a world is this getting to be where you're not even allowed to smoke outdoors at a ball game?"

Peter Falk was born in Manhattan on Sept. 16, 1927, to Michael and Madeline Falk. Later the family moved to the Bronx, and when Falk was around 6, they settled in Ossining, on the Hudson River, a hamlet better known for the presence of Sing Sing Penitentiary than for being the childhood home of the future Lieutenant Columbo.

Falk's mother is Russian and his father was Polish, with a mix of Hungarian and Czech further back in their ancestry. So, contrary to Falk's public image, he is not an Italian but a mixture of very hardy Eastern European stock.

In Ossining, Michael and Madeline made a fairly good living running a dry goods store. Because of its proximity to Sing Sing, Ossining benefited from the traffic going to and from the penitentiary and therefore was more prosperous than many small towns during the Great Depression years.

But the Falks had more serious problems than trying to make a living in those days. "When I was three years old, I was attending a pre-kindergarten school, in the Bronx," Falk recalls. "Because my mom was working in my father's store, there was no one at home to take care of me, so I attended one of those day-care places. One day my teacher called my mother in and told her that I ought to have my eyes examined, because I was always cocking my head to one side when I was attempting to look at something. So my mom took me to a doctor, who examined me and found a malignancy in my right eye. He took her aside and told her that I'd have to have the eye taken out right away. So like in a day or two, they checked me into the hospital. I remember standing in front of an open elevator door with my mother and the doctor in the hospital. I wasn't quite sure what was happening to me. Suddenly Mom said to me, 'You just get in the elevator, son. I have to go back to your room and get my purse.' Then the doctor took my hand and walked me into the elevator. I remember telling him, 'Just hold on a minute. My mother went to get her purse. She'll be right here.'

"The next thing I knew I was asleep, and it was all over."

Pretty traumatic for a three-year-old to wake up and find he had only one eye.

"Another memory I have of that period is of me and my mother standing in front of a store window, looking at eye patches. I wore one in the beginning, but after I was a little older they gave me a glass eye. Glass eyes aren't as practical as the plastic ones that came in a little later. In hot weather the glass eye used to stick. I remember being told to take it out every night and put it in a glass of water. Sometimes I did, and sometimes I got careless and just put it on the table next to my bed. After a while the glass eye starts getting scratched, and it has to be replaced if you don't want to look like you have a terrible hangover. But the plastic eye is much lighter, and more comfortable."

Falk admits that in the beginning he was terribly self-conscious about having a glass eye, and dreaded the moment when someone would ask him about it. "But then there's that time when you finally realize that no one gives a shit whether you have one eye or two. What helped me was knocking around doing sports with the guys."

Falk participated in most of the team sports in school, baseball and basketball in particular. He was good at both games in spite of his handicap, once he got over his self-consciousness. "I remember once in high school the umpire called me out at third base when I was sure I was safe. I got so mad I took out my glass eye, handed it to him and said, 'Try this.' I got such a laugh you wouldn't believe."

In spite of his size, the five-foot-nine Falk also made the town basketball team, which during the season went up against the Sing Sing team, inside the prison. "Because of my eye I wasn't a very good shooter, but because of my size I was fast as hell and that's why they used me. But the inmates were too tough for us. We got our ass beaten by them.I remember one inmate who was a terrific player. His name was Piggy Sands. He was in for life. But he sure could play basketball."

During his senior year, Falk received his first taste of acting (except for an appearance in a summer camp play several years before) when he filled in for a fellow student who had fallen sick two days before the performance. Ironically, he played a detective, taking the stage in the third act.

Although he was a good student, Falk had no idea of what he wanted to do when he got out of high school in 1945. The one way of making a living that never crossed his mind was becoming an actor. "In Ossining when I was growing up, I put my time in on the street corner, or in the pool room, and I liked sports but of course could never play any of them professionally because of my one eye. But I would have been embarrassed to tell any of my friends that I had any idea of being an actor. My conception of being an actor was very naive and very romantic. I thought actors were some rare species. I thought they were artists, and I thought artists were Europeans. I thought they were from Europe, because I never saw any actors where I came from."

In the summer of 1945, Falk enrolled in Hamilton College in upstate New York. "I thought college was going to be like high school, where I never worked too hard to get by. I loved everything about high school and I thought college would be the same. But when I got up there, I was in for a shock. No women. Small population because of the war. And half of the guys were veterans who had been in the war and were up there studying. They were very serious, so it was no fun there. And as I said, no girls. I only stayed about a month. So I thought I'd see if I could get in one of the [armed] services. The war was on its last legs, but it wasn't quite over."

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 fact, you name it, I did it.

"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.

Giove Olimpo July 20, 2012 5:48pm ET
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