Appreciation: Peter Falk, 1927-2011 [updated]
Just one more thing.
Peter Falk, who died Friday at age 83, was an actor of great and invisible skill who played many parts over a five-decade career. He was a late bloomer but quickly embraced on the stage and screens big and little — by 1962, he had been Oscar-nominated twice, for gangsters respectively chilling and comical in "Murder, Inc." and "A Pocketful of Miracles," and won an Obie playing Eugene O'Neill opposite Jason Robards.
Later, he acted troublesome characters for director John Cassevetes in "Husbands" and "A Woman Under the Influence," was brilliantly funny as a reckless CIA agent in "The In-Laws," and narrated, grandfather-to-grandson, "The Princess Bride."
But of all his roles, the one he played the longest will be the one longest remembered: Lt. Columbo of "Columbo," of all American television detectives certainly the greatest, and the greatest in a time of great television detectives, including James Garner's Jim Rockford and Telly Savalas' Theo Kojak.
From beginning to end, the show cleaved to its formula: There is no mystery in "Columbo." We know whodunnit from the beginning, and we presume that he does too. All the pleasure comes from the slow springing of the trap, the unraveling of the game the victim he imagines he is playing, and Columbo's final minor variation on the phrase, "There's just one other thing," delivered with a hunched half-turn upon his arrested exit.
"Columbo," which became a series in 1971 after a Falk-starring 1968 TV movie, was of course, a team effort — it was a particularly well-written series, whose feature-length running time allowed for extraordinarily long scenes between the detective and the week's guest killer — but television is in the end predominately an art of personality, and episode after episode Falk was the product the show sold and the artist who sold the show. (He had in fact, been preceded in the role, in one-off dramas, and a stage play, by other actors.)
Columbo's rumpled, broken-down aspect did not betoken world-weariness; the show, indeed, was a comedy, a comedy of human frailty in which the murderers were usually people of means, substance and power. It was never Columbo's job to punish the unfortunate, and even in victory, he was never superior or censorious, merely satisfied and somehow amused. That humor we took to be the actor's own.
Falk was on the face of it an unlikely hero: Old World ethnic (his people were Eastern European Jews), short of stature, with a glass eye and an impudently thick head of dark hair that finally went to gray — Falk's last "Columbo" appeared in 2003, when the actor was 76, and he continued to act until he began to suffer symptoms of dementia in 2007. But all these things worked ultimately to his advantage, made Falk seem not so much "relatable" as familial: a sort of beloved, room-brightening uncle. It also accounts in part for the universality of his appeal — through "Columbo," he was famous everywhere.
There was something solid about Falk, and it's no surprise to learn that he spent time in the Merchant Marine — you have already imagined as much — or that he worked on the railroad in Yugoslavia. (More surprising is the master's degree in public administration.) Indeed, it wasn't until he was almost 30 that he got serious about acting, and the fact that he had lived a varied life before he got serious about acting means that there is a fullness to his work unavailable to actors whose experience of the world amounts mainly to acting.
When director Wim Wenders cast him in his 1987 film "Wings of Desire" (and its 1993 sequel "Faraway, So Close"), as the actor Peter Falk as an angel come to Earth, who sacrificed immortality for a mortal life of sensation, it felt almost breathtakingly right: "When your hands are cold, you rub 'em together," he tells angel Bruno Ganz, whose presence he senses. "That feels good."
That love of life was the essence of his acting. It was as if Wenders had discovered the actual truth about the actual man.
The angel played by Bruno Ganz was misidentified in an earlier version of this post as Otto Sander.
— Robert Lloyd
Photo: Peter Falk in "Columbo." Credit: Universal Pictures
Bottom photo: Falk as Columbo in 1996. Credit: Associated Press