Goodbye, Lieutenant — Columbo and me (1927–2011, 1968–2003)Jun 26th, 2011 | By Randall White | Category: USA Today
The death of the actor Peter Falk this past Thursday, June 23, 2011, at his home in Beverly Hills, California, at the age of 83, is worth commemorating for a host of good reasons. But I have a particular reason myself.
Peter Falk — and more exactly, or especially, in his “defining role” as Columbo, which ran intermittently from 1968 until 2003 as a TV show and a series of television movies — is (almost) the only Hollywood actor anyone has ever told me I resemble. And I have been told this often enough, by people who have never met and do not otherwise know each other, to suspect that it probably does contain some slight grain of truth.
According to the Wikipedia article on the TV series: “Lt. Columbo is a shambling, disheveled-looking, seemingly naive Italian American police detective who is consistently underestimated by his fellow officers and by the murderer du jour … Despite his unprepossessing appearance … he shrewdly solves all of his cases and secures all evidence needed for indictment. His formidable eye for detail and meticulous and dedicated approach become apparent only late in the storyline.”
I like to think that I dress a little better than this. I am not Italian American. (Though neither was the East European Jewish Peter Falk.) What some people have seen of Falk/Colombo in me, I choose to believe, is that despite my unprepossessing appearance etc, I shrewdly solve all my cases and secure all evidence needed for indictment.” (What people have seen, that is to say, is NOT the “shambling, disheveled-looking,” etc, etc. Of course I am not a police detective either, or an actor, but …)
As I read through the various recent obituaries and retrospectives on Peter Falk’s career, I see a few other things I can admire and/or identify with. And this might further explain why others have seen what they have seen.
As one source reports, eg, “Columbo … never had a first name.” He nonetheless “presented a contrast to other TV detectives. ‘He looks like a flood victim,’ Falk once said.” Even so, the actor went on: “Underneath his dishevelment, a good mind is at work.” From another source I discover that “Mr. Falk” also offered a solution to the ultimately formidable detective’s unknown first name. He “joked that it was ‘Lieutenant.’” (And that, for better or worse, is a joke I wish I had thought of myself.)
Earliest days …
One thing I did not at all know about Peter Falk until I started reading his obituaries and so forth a day or so ago was that his “right eye was surgically removed when he was three because of a retinoblastoma [ie cancerous tumour of the retina]; he wore a glass eye for most of his life.” As Richard Corliss has explained in his Time magazine retrospective, the future Los Angeles TV Lieutenant had “had one of the great loopy stares in movie history, courtesy of a glass eye that was the trophy from a childhood disease.”
I can’t say I have anything exactly like this myself. But I can report that my left eyebrow is upside down, so to speak, as a result of a youthful accident. (I hope most people do not notice this, any more than I figured out that Mr. Falk’s loopy stare was attributable to a glass eye.)
I can identify to a somewhat greater degree with Peter Falk’s formal education and early employment. In 1951 he graduated from the New School for Social Research in New York City (where he had been born, in 1927) with a bachelor’s degree in literature and political science. Then he obtained a Master of Public Administration degree at the Maxwell School of Syracuse University in upstate New York, in 1953.
With this academic background, but without any remotely serious enthusiasm, he wound up as a management analyst with the Connecticut State Budget Bureau in the state capital at Hartford.
Falk’s first stage appearance, however, had been at the age of 12 in a summer camp production of The Pirates of Penzance. This gave him an acting bug. His parents’ scepticism about the practical prospects of actually making money this way put the bug on a back burner until later in his 20s. But while working with the Connecticut State Budget Bureau he joined a community theatre group called the Mark Twain Masquers.
The Masquers were subsequently supplemented by a professional acting class once a week in Westport, Connecticut, with the English-born actress Eva Le Gallienne, by then in her mid 50s. With her encouragement, he finally left his job with the Budget Bureau in 1956, and moved to Greenwich Village in New York City, to pursue an acting career.
The miracle career …
At about this point in his life, the similarities between Peter Falk’s experience and my own, some 18 years later, start to become extremely superficial.
In 1960 he played the supporting role of 1930s killer Abe Reles in a movie called Murder Inc. The New York Times film critic Bosley Crowther, said the movie was only “an average gangster film.” But he praised Falk’s “amusingly vicious performance.” Falk was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Academy Award for Abe Reles. And this became his “breakout role” — the “miracle” that “made my career.”
The next year Falk was nominated for another Oscar for his role in Frank Capra’s last movie, Pocketful of Miracles. His other 1960s movies included It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, Robin and the 7 Hoods, The Great Race, and Penelope (with Natalie Wood, and in which Falk played the police detective Lieutenant Horatio Bixbee — who may or may not have been a precursor of Lieutenant Colombo a few years later).
Some might say that Peter Falk as a heavyweight movie actor never quite repeated his first crescendo in the early 1960s. But his TV career had begun in 1957, and he was nominated for an Emmy Award in 1961, for his performance on an episode of the short-lived ABC series The Law and Mr. Jones. In 1962 he won an Emmy for The Price of Tomatoes, a Dick Powell TV drama. His first television series was in the title role of the drama The Trials of O’Brien, in which he played a lawyer. The show ran in 1965 and 1966 but was cancelled after 22 episodes.
In 1968, with Peter Falk in his early 40s, his TV odyssey of Lieutenant Colombo began. And it would survive through various intermittent incarnations all the way down to 2003 — when Falk was in his mid 70s. As it happens, he “did not originate the role of Lt. Columbo of the Los Angeles police. Bert Freed first played Columbo in a 1960 teleplay.” Even more surprisingly: “Nor was Mr. Falk the front-runner for the part when NBC wanted to revive the character in 1968 for a made-for-TV movie, Prescription: Murder. The network hoped to cast entertainer Bing Crosby for that program.” (I cannot see this at all myself, but it is apparently true.)
All told, Falk eventually appeared in 69 Colombo “episodes” — over 11 intermittent “seasons” and with two additional “pilots” and eight “specials.” (These complete works, as it were, are documented in varying degrees of detail under the “Episode Guides” heading on The Ultimate Colombo Site! “created by Stephen Burns, Bob Hoey and Ted Kerin.”)
Lieutenant Colombo was the unambiguous defining role of Peter Falk’s career — and the Los Angeles police detective won him four more Emmy awards. But even without Colombo he would enjoy a credible TV, movie, and occasional stage acting career. As just one case in point, he “also appeared in a number of art house favourites, including the semi-improvisational films Husbands  and A Woman Under the Influence , directed by his friend John Cassavetes, and Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire , in which he played himself.”
Falk’s later TV and movie credits included The Princess Bride (1987), Cookie (1989), The Sunshine Boys (1995), The Lost World (2001), and The Thing About My Folks (2005). He made his last movie, American Cowslip, in his early 80s, in 2008. (He had told the New York Times in 1990: “Never have thought about setting goals — so I never had to worry about achieving them. My career just sort of happened. And as a strategy? It hasn’t worked out all that badly.”)
A summing up …
On June 4, 2009 Shera Danese, Peter Falk’s second wife, of some 31 years (although they “filed for divorce twice and reconciled each time”) put out a poignant press release. It noted that when her “loving husband … became ill shortly after a surgical procedure, one of my main concerns was to respect his privacy.”
I also find myself wanting to respect the privacy of Peter Falk’s last few years — in some degree at least. But I don’t think it is telling too many tales out of school (it is all available on the net, in any case) to say that after some apparently quite extensive dental surgery a few years ago, he slipped into an increasingly severe case of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.
Even at the height of his career Falk’s private life seems to have remained comparatively private. But it is certainly well known that he married “his fellow Syracuse University student Alyce Mayo” in 1960. They adopted two daughters but divorced in 1976.
Then: “A year later [on December 7, 1977, in fact] Falk married actress Shera Danese, who regularly appeared on Columbo,” and “was 21 years his junior.” (Ms. Danese also “played the role of the prostitute Vicky in the film Risky Business  featuring Tom Cruise and Rebecca De Mornay in the lead roles. Her roles on television included episodes of One Day at a Time, Serpico, Baretta, Three’s Company, Kojak, Family, Hart to Hart, Starsky and Hutch, and Charlie’s Angels.” She also “has the distinction of having played a suspect or victim in more episodes of Columbo than any other actor.”)
I have never thought myself that Colombo was anything more than casually interesting TV. I am virtually certain that I have not seen all 69 “episodes.” My only even vaguely systematic encounter with the program has been over the past few days, researching this commemorative piece. And I think Peter Falk at large — as an actor and as a fellow human being who haphazardly earned an MA in public administration before finally settling into the career he really wanted — is a considerably more interesting character than his defining role.
I also think Peter Falk’s Colombo himself is a somewhat more intriguing character than he is usually given credit for. (He drives, eg, on Falk’s own ultimate inspiration, a Peugeot 403 — a rare model of a rare enough brand of French automobile: Colombo isn’t just dishevelled but ultimately brilliant: he’s also, in his own way, hip and cool, or something like that.)
In the very end, what has made Colomobo so popular I think, is the way in which he caters to the self-serving ideas so many of us have about ourselves. Many if not most of us feel that we too are underestimated by our fellow officers and by the murderer du jour. We believe that despite our unprepossessing appearances, we shrewdly solve all of our cases and secure all evidence needed for indictment. I know that I certainly identify with this kind of happy perception. And that may very well be why I have been told often enough, by people who have never met and do not otherwise know each other, that I somehow actually do resemble the Peter Falk whose defining role was Lieutenant Colombo.
I can only conclude by seconding the epilogue offered by Mike Spinelli at jalopnik.com: “RIP Peter Falk, you magnificent bastard. Thanks for making trench coats, french cars, absent-mindedness and eye-tropia cool. Or at least, anti-cool.” (Though I hasten to add that I am not absent-minded — well, not too absent-minded, yet. I do not, again so far, suffer from eye-tropia, I think. And I have never driven a french car!)