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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson





Building façade in Cannes, France

Columbo (1927-2011)

I heard someone say on the radio that Peter Falk had played Lt. Columbo for 25 years. That’s surely a mistake, I thought. But then I looked it up, and it’s actually true.

I also learned that Falk did not actually originate the character that he so seamlessly owned and which, I supposed, also owned him. Columbo made his first appearance in a TV episode called, aptly, “Enough Rope” in 1960, as part of the anthology series The Chevy Mystery Show, and he was played by Bert Freed. The episode as written by Richard Levinson and William Link, who subsequently adapted the story as a stage play. Falk first played the character in a 1968 TV movie called Prescription: Murder. Three years later he played the detective again, this time in a TV movie called Ransom for a Dead Man, which became a pilot for a regular series. Columbo then became one of the revolving series (along with McCloud and McMillan and Wife) under the title NBC Mystery Theater. In one form or another, Columbo was a regular staple of network television through 1978. The unkempt investigator returned in 1989, and new installments could be found in the TV schedules most years through 2003.

Columbo’s staying power is impressive, given that all characters of this type (i.e. quirky mystery solvers) are essentially an exercise in telling the same story over and over. The gimmick with this series is that the mystery was not about whodunit (the story inevitably began with the commission of the murder with the criminal’s identity clear) but how Columbo would catch him or her. Audiences never seemed to tire of the disheveled, apparently clueless detective’s “Oh, there’s just one more thing…” signaling he was about to close the trap on the superior-feeling, smug perpetrator.

One of the conventions of the series was that Columbo (like Harry Morgan on December Bride, George Wendt on Cheers and David Hyde Pierce on Frasier) frequently referred to his wife, but she was never seen. But we did end up seeing her (maybe) on an ill-fated spinoff, after Columbo went off the air in 1978, called Mrs. Columbo. The title character was played by future starship Voyager captain Kate Mulgrew. But the powers that be obviously thought better of the premise, probably since the beloved original series’s ratings weren’t carrying over, and the struggling show’s title morphed to Kate Columbo and Kate Loves a Mystery. By the end, the Columbo connection was severed entirely and Kate’s surname mysteriously changed to Callahan.

Lt. Columbo (his first name was never given, although many claim to have seen “Frank” on an ID that got flashed in an early episode) is such an entrenched figure in our popular culture that he tends to overshadow Falk’s film career. (Does anybody remember that in the mid-1960s Falk starred as a lawyer in a show called The Trials of O’Brien?) But the man made quite a few notable movies. Falk’s New York mug and voice pretty much guaranteed that he would play gangsters, as he did in Murder, Inc. and the Rat Pack vehicle Robin and the 7 Hoods. If anything, he was born to play Damon Runyon characters, which he did (playing Glenn Ford’s henchman Joy Boy) in Frank Capra’s final film, Pocketful of Miracles. He did his share of genre work in films like Sydney Pollack’s war movie Castle Keep, in which he played a sergeant, alongside Burt Lancaster and Patrick O’Neal.

Falk is particularly well known and respected for his collaborations with director/writer/actor John Cassavetes. He starred in such Cassavetes films as the 1970 bromance drama Husbands, the 1974 romantic drama A Woman Under the Influence, the 1976 crime drama Mikey and Nicky and the 1986 comedy Big Trouble. (He had a cameo in 1977’s Opening Night.) He and Cassavetes also acted together in the 1969 Italian crime thriller Machine Gun McCain. By the way, for one of the most entertaining experiences you can have with a computer, go to YouTube and find the interview Falk, Cassavetes and Ben Gazzara did upon the release of Husbands on Dick Cavett’s chat show. Was it post-modern performance art or were they all really drunk? Whatever the explanation, it is riveting television, even four decades later.

Despite all the years he spent playing detectives and crooks, let us not forget Falk’s considerable comedic skills. Many of us first noticed him playing a cab driver (alongside former Dead End Kid Leo Gorcey and Jack Benny valet Eddie “Rochester” Anderson) in the comedy classic It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World. And he and Alan Arkin turned out to be one of the most hilarious movie comedy double acts ever in the 1979 Andrew Bergman-penned flick The In-Laws. In 1987 he was the grandfather who narrates the story in Rob Reiner’s The Princess Bride. And in 1990 he played the flamboyant writer of radio scripts, Pedro Carmichael, alongside Barbara Hershey and Keanu Reeves in Tune In Tomorrow…, Jon Amiel’s adaptation of Mario Vargas Llosa’s quasi-autobiographical novel, Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter.

If you are like me, however, none of these considerable movies are the first ones to come to mind when you think of Peter Falk. The one that I always think of first is Wim Wenders’s exquisite 1987 film Wings of Desire. Ostensibly, Falk plays himself. The credits list his character as “Der Filmstar,” but we know that he is playing himself because, when someone recognizes him, they call him Columbo. His role is pivotal. It is he who ultimately convinces Bruno Ganz’s character to give up being an angel and become mortal. In fact, Falk is revealed to be a former angel himself. According to film scholar Richard Raskin, Wenders cast Falk in the movie specifically because he needed someone who was recognizable universally to give the character a certain kind of credibility. The first time we see Falk, it seems a strange bit of casting, but in the end the gambit works. It helps to complete what is an unusually spiritual experience on celluloid.

Because Falk played himself in the film, in a strange way his very life became part of the artistic collaboration. In hindsight, we see his life and work as somehow blessed. And the culmination of his mortality becomes evidence of the spiritual origin of art. (Seventeen years after Wings of Desire, as it happened, Falk played another angel, a bumbling one called Max, in a TV movie called When Angels Come to Town.)

Thanks for all the entertainment over the past half-century, Peter Falk. And what we wouldn’t give for, oh, just one more thing…

-S.L., 30 June 2011


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