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Remembering 'Columbo' Star Peter Falk... Oh, And One More Thing
June 27, 2011  | By David Bianculli  | 1 comment
 
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Peter Falk, who died last week at age 83, embodied one of the most popular and durable characters in all of TV history, the mystery-solving sleuth of NBC's Columbo. There's a lot to love about Falk's characterization of the mumbling, fumbling but never bumbling Lieutenant Columbo -- and a lot to remember, too, including the time I had lunch with him and faced an unexpected pop quiz...

Falk enjoyed a long and varied career, winning five Emmys -- four for Columbo, easily his dominant signature role. His initial big break came in 1960, playing a thug in Murder, Inc. His first appearance as Columbo came in 1967's Prescription: Murder, a telemovie based on the stage play by Richard Levinson and William Link.

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The series, a movie-length drama rotating with two others in an NBC "mystery wheel," premiered in 1971, with an episode written by Steven Bochco and directed by Steven Spielberg -- two then-unknown youngsters who, in subsequent decades, carved out fairly impressive careers.

Columbo, which ran originally from 1971-77 on NBC, was revived by ABC with occasional new installments in 1989, the last of which ran in 2003. But it was the old series, which first inverted the standard mystery formula by showing the murder and murderer up front and making the drama about the cat-and-mouse chase between suspect and investigator, that holds up best. Featuring "killer performances" by such gifted actors as Patrick McGoohan, Jack Cassidy and Robert Culp, it was one of that decade's smartest and cleverest shows.

Mark Dawidziak, who literally wrote the book on Columbo (the out-of-print, much-sought-after The Columbo Phile), told me yesterday, discussing Falk's most famous role, that "for television, Columbo is the closest we've got to Sherlock Holmes." The only TV sleuth who stands on the same high ground as Falk's Columbo, Dawidziak said, was James Garner's Jim Rockford from NBC's The Rockford Files.

The genius of the writing, which came from producers Levinson and Link, accounts for about 40 percent of the character's phenomenal appeal, Dawidziak estimated. The other 60 percent, he said, was from Falk's performance, adding up to a recipe for magic that made the show, and the character, immortal.

"Peter brought a lot of himself to that character," Dawidziak said. "The way Columbo approached a murder mystery is the way Peter approached the acting profession -- with meticulous attention to detail." He insisted on time to rewrite, rethink, and, once the actors were hired, to rehearse, and budget time and money for multiple retakes.

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I'm proud to report that, screening the 1971 Columbo pilot for my Rowan University TV students 40 years after it was filmed, the mystery holds up nicely -- and, once students are prepped to watch for and enjoy the class warfare between the well-to-do killers and Columbo's rumpled detective, they laugh loudly and often at Columbo's mannerisms and deflections. "Oh, and one more thing," now as much as then, is a catchphrase that delights.

Oh, and one more thing...

The last time I saw Peter Falk, it was at a hotel restaurant, meeting him to interview him about one of his final Columbo telemovies. But instead of starting by talking about what he'd already filmed, he insisted on road-testing an idea he and the writers were concocting for a possible future episode.

The thing I remember was the way Columbo found the smoking gun that nailed the murderer to the crime. The details he laid out had something to do with a posted letter, and that Columbo found the votal clue when searching the suspect's office desk. There were no fingerprints on the envelope, Falk told me, and the envelope was standard issue, and the address was a printed label -- yet somehow, Columbo connected the letter to the killer.

"How'd he do it?" Falk asked me, smiling -- and it was clear he was throwing down a gauntlet. Give up, and we'd have a decent but perfunctory chat. Guess correctly, and the rest of the lunch would be a blast.

So I took a shot. Explaining I had been geeky enough to collect stamps as a kid, I could imagine that the killer had ripped the stamps improperly down the perforation, and stuck part of the next stamp, or an incomplete stamp, on the envelope. If Columbo was able to match the missing piece to the killer's roll of stamps, like two pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, he'd have his proof.

Falk laughed loudly, clapped his hands together even more loudly, and said I got it exactly.

The rest of lunch was a total joy -- just like watching an episode of Columbo.

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My other major memory from that lunch was telling him that he should take one of the best old Columbo scripts -- maybe one featuring Patrick McGoohan -- and perform it on Broadway during a summer hiatus. He got a twinkle in his eye (yes, that eye), got silent for a few minutes, then smiled like a Cheshire cat.

"That," he said, "could make a LOT of money."

Miss you, Peter. Thanks for the good memories -- and the great television.

--

Peter Falk's final interview was in 2007, for the TV Time Machine online radio show hosted by Jim Benson. Falk and Dawidziak were the guests, and Dawidziak recalled yesterday, "Peter was in wonderful form. He talks about his childhood, he reads from The Columbo Phile...

"I have great affection for that interview," Dawidziak added, "as I had great affection for Peter."

You can hear the interview by clicking HERE.

 

6 Comments

 

Michael said:

The first time I met Peter Falk, he was doing interviews for a "Columbo" retrospective at a museum in New York. A reporter came up and quizzed him in great detail about a very tiny inconsistency in one of those 20-plus-year-old episodes.

Falk sat quietly for a moment. Then he looked at the guy who asked the question. Then he looked at me and said, "He scares me." Then, after the longest pause, he laughed.

Great moment. Great actor. Greatly missed.

[Thanks for remembering, Michael, and for sharing. I sure hope I wasn't that reporter... -- DB]

Comment posted on June 27, 2011 11:10 AM


Eileen said:

Welcome back! And, thanks for your tribute to the wonderful Peter Falk.

TV just didn't get any better than Columbo. Everything about this show was just a delight from the plots to the guest stars to Columbo himself. Personally, I never looked at Jack Cassidy or Robert Culp the same way after they had appeared on Columbo. The show was perfect. We are not likely to see this type of writing and characterization any time soon.

And those of us old enough to savor the memory of those shows also remember Peter Falk the Film Actor. I recently watched the movie A Woman Under the Influence, and was again riveted by Falk's amazing performance. To be able to go neck and neck with the formidable Gena Rowlands is a feat in and of itself. Peter was a regular in the John Cassavettes' films, and apparently when this one was having distribution problems, Peter donated money he'd made on Columbo to see the project through.

RIP, Lt. Columbo, you will truly be missed on the big & little screen.

Comment posted on June 27, 2011 1:26 PM


Mac said:

"The Trials of O'Brien". David Burns, Elaine Stritch, Joanna Barnes - an ensemble cast ahead of its times. For everyone's dream of a "TV Land" that treats TV like TCM treats movies, this would be great to watch again. Given time to find its legs, it might have proven better than "Columbo". Some reports say Falk liked this better. I did. The best "Columbo" episodes had an equal to Falk in scene stealing, so the Patrick McGoohan episodes seem to hold up nicely. One jarring irritant is that they were Universal dramas with severe edits and an overall (universal?) cheapness about them. The day he died, I got out "Robin & the 7 Hoods" to watch the part where he sings. A hoot. And, of course, he will be remembered as the narrator of the kiss that bested the five most passionate kisses of all time in "The Princess Bride". Falk left them all behind.

Comment posted on June 27, 2011 9:11 PM


Mark N said:

Dear David
I got 2 words for you....."Serpentine....Serpentine"

Comment posted on June 29, 2011 10:13 PM


Columbo said:

"Oh, and one more thing..." is the most memorable quote that Lt. Columbo has made in his Columbo movie series.

[Hence the headline... - DB]

Comment posted on December 20, 2011 1:39 AM


J A Last said:

COLUMBO aka Peter Falk remains my 96 year old mother's favourite watch on the small screen. Great writing, great characters, great production values and overall GREAT ENTERTAINMENT! Strangely, no graphic violence, foul language, unsavoury behaviour. Instead, rather 'endearing' villains, fused to intriguing plot lines and constant visual interest .... and, of course, Mr Peter Falk.

There is something that you Americans have which is special - strangely 'relaxed' and utterly convincing in terms of performance. COLUMBO demonstrated all of that in bucket loads. So, a very big 'thank you' to all concerned.

Comment posted on February 26, 2012 11:32 AM
 
 
 
 
 
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1 Comments
 
 
matthew pierce
I could talk about columbo ,peter falk and what they mean to me for a long time but to sum it up something about watching columbo feels so good !! I own every columbo even the movies from 1989 -2003 I rewatch them all the time. I have shed tears from it(not ashamed) my whole family loves columbo even my 24 yr old sister. the show is brilliant the actors are sensational. favorite killer goes to Robert Culp with Patrick Mcgoohan very close second. It makes me so sad that someone who brought such joy to millions of people had to end up with his mind taken away just like the late great Dudley Moore. I'm a 35 yr old bodybuilder who to look at me wouldn't think he appreciates a Tv show from the seventies. but I appreciate artistic people and feel not a lot of young people have that. I listen to Beethoven Robert Johnson Etta James Billie holiday I watch Fawlty towers charlie Chaplin and I find it hard to talk to people my own age about these things just wanted to express myself
Mar 2, 2015   |  Reply
 
 
 
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