Friday, June 24, 2011


Peter Falk (1927-2011)

One more thing…before I get started talking about the great Peter Falk, who died Thursday at 83 after a long battle with Alzheimer's disease, as memorable as his creation of Lt. Columbo was in the pantheon of iconic television characters, he needs to be remembered for far more than just that role, even if it may have been his most famous — maybe even his best — and earned him four Emmys and 10 Emmy nominations. He also did considerable screen work and some Broadway. He was capable of the most searing drama of John Cassavetes and the broadest of comedy. He was a talent.

As with many actors of his generation, he began his career on live television in the 1950s, appearing in many of the shows that featured theatrical productions staged for viewers at home as well as the occasional guest appearance in an episode of a recurring series. According to IMDb, his first television appearance came in 1957 on Robert Montgomery Presents in a presentation of Return Visit. This came shortly after his Broadway debut in 1956 in a revival of George Bernard Shaw's Saint Joan where Falk played an English guard. Also in the cast as a member of the ensemble was none other than Robert Ludlum, before he abandoned acting to become a novelist. Also in 1956 on Broadway, Falk appeared as a servant in the comedy Diary of a Scoundrel whose cast included Roddy McDowall, Howard da Silva, Margaret Hamilton, Jerry Stiller and future killer on multiple episodes of Columbo, Robert Culp. Falk didn't return to Broadway for about seven years, concentrating on television and movies.

In 1960, he made his film debut in Pretty Boy Floyd. The same year, he also appeared in Murder, Inc. as a violent hit man for the notorious crime syndicate of Jewish gangsters run by Louis "Lepke" Buchalter in the 1930s. It earned Falk his first Oscar nomination as best supporting actor. He still stuck mainly to TV after that, though an appearance on a 1961 episode of The Law and Mr. Jones won him an Emmy. He hit most of the big series of the time at some point: The Twilight Zone, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, The Untouchables, Have Gun — Will Travel.

In 1961, he made another big feature, this time with some big names. He co-starred with Bette Davis and Glenn Ford in Frank Capra's remake of his own Lady for a Day, retitled A Pocketful of Miracles. Falk played gangster Ford's none-too-swift sidekick and it earned him his second consecutive Oscar nomination for supporting actor. Movie roles started to come easier after that, though he still did a lot of television, including an appearance on a 1962 episode of The Dick Powell Theatre called "The Price of Tomatoes" that garnered Falk another Emmy nomination.

As the film roles started coming more frequently, he took advantage. In 1963, he was one of the two cab drivers caught up in the chase for the money buried under that big W in It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. The next year, he appeared in The Rat Pack vehicle Robin and the 7 Hoods when it was released. He did take time off to return to Broadway in 1964 to star as Stalin in The Passion of Josef D. by Paddy Chayefsky. In 1965, he joined Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis for The Great Race. That same year, he tried his hand as the lead of his first television series, The Trials of O'Brien, but it only lasted one season.

Heading back to the big screen, he made the comedy Penelope with Natalie Wood in 1966; Clive Donner's adaptation of the play Luv in 1967, again with Lemmon and with Elaine May; and Anzio in 1968 featuring a cast that included Robert Mitchum and Robert Ryan. Falk also made a TV movie in 1968 called Prescription for Murder that introduced the world to a homicide detective named Lt. Columbo, even though he would not reappear again until 1971.

In 1970, Falk made his first collaboration with John Cassavetes in Husbands. Cassavetes' films remain an acquired taste for just about everyone, film lovers included, but he brought out sides and shadings in Falk that you never saw anywhere else. He directed Falk again opposite his wife Gena Rowlands in 1975's A Woman Under the Influence and his portrait of a blue collar Italian husband trying to deal with a mentally unbalanced wife really is a thing of wonder. Falk and Cassavetes worked again on screen together in 1976's Mikey and Nicky, a very unusual portrait of a friendship, only it was Elaine May in the director's chair in that case. Cassavetes even appeared as one of the killers on an installment of Columbo. He made a cameo as himself in Cassavetes' underrated Opening Night. He worked for Cassavetes on his final film, Big Trouble in 1986, which reunited Falk with Alan Arkin and Andrew Bergman, Falk's co-star and writer of The In-Laws, but I haven't seen that one since word was not good.

In March 1971, Lt. Columbo appeared again in a television movie called Ransom for a Dead Man, but that fall, Columbo became a regular series — or as regular a series can be when it's on irregularly. It was part of NBC's rotating lineup of Mystery of the Week and would share its time slot with McMillan & Wife and McCloud. Columbo stayed on the air until 1978. Then, in 1989, ABC brought the rumpled detective with the broken-down car back. They tried an alternating format, but their other series sucked so they just continued doing occasional Columbo movies until 2003, only Falk also was the executive producer now. He also wrote an episode. He directed two outings back in 1972.

In early 1971, Falk made his last appearance on Broadway in the original production of Neil Simon's The Prisoner of Second Avenue. He and Simon must have been good partners, because Falk later appeared in two original spoofs that Simon wrote for the big screen. The first was 1976's delightful Murder By Death with a truly all-star cast: Eileen Brennan, James Coco, Alec Guinness, Elsa Lanchester, David Niven, Peter Sellers, Maggie Smith, Nancy Walker, Estelle Winwood and, of course, Truman Capote. Also playing a small role, and up until then probably most recognizable as Stretch Cunningham on All in the Family, a younger James Cromwell. The premise had the stars playing spoofs of famous literary detectives and Falk plays Sam Diamond, which means Sam Spade which to most people means Bogart and Falk does a hilarious Bogart satire. So funny in fact that Simon resurrected it in the 1978 film The Cheap Detective where Falk did Lou Peckinpaugh with another all-star cast in a spoof of all Bogart films. It wasn't as good as Murder By Death, but Falk was just as great.

Falk had another release in 1978, now largely forgotten, that I haven't seen in years but that I do remember enjoying when I was a lot younger and that was The Brink's Job. Directed by William Friedkin, it told the true story of a hard-luck would-be criminal who manages to rip off an armored car for a sizable amount of cash. He's surprised to find that the robbery doesn't even make the news and after some snooping, he discovers it's because Brink's has such poor security they didn't want it reported. Of course, it goes to his head so he and his gang plot an even bigger score. In 1979, Falk made what's probably one of the purest comic pleasures put on film, a movie so funny that even having Arthur Hiller as director didn't screw it up. Of course, I'm referring to The In-Laws where, frankly, I think Falk's off-the-wall portrayal of Vincent Ricardo and Alan Arkin's work as dentist Sheldon Kornpett, his flabbergasted, unwilling partner in hijinks, both deserved Oscar consideration in this crazy farce written by Andrew Bergman. If you've never seen it, you owe it to yourself to do so, but don't get the recent remake by mistake. Serpentine!

The remainder of Falk's film credits contained two certified gems and a lot of misses such as 1981's All the Marbles, where he managed female wrestlers; a cameo in the underwhelming The Great Muppet Caper the same year; 1987's Happy New Year, where the makeup was the star; Cyndi Lauper's try at screen fame in 1988's Vibes; a mobster in the dumb 1989 comedy Cookie; and 2001's Corky Romano. However, he did appear in some films that earned some good notices that I didn't see such as Joe Mantegna's directing debut of a David Mamet script called Lakeboat in 2000. He also made a very funny appearance in the first season of The Larry Sanders Show. The two film classics he made post-1979 were Wim Wenders' exquisite Wings of Desire, where he played himself but he had the ability to talk to the angels (click here to see the scene), and The Princess Bride, where he played the kindly grandfather reading the story to his sick grandson (Fred Savage) and us.

He wasn't done with the stage yet either. In 1998, he earned raves appearing off-Broadway in Arthur Miller's Mr. Peters' Connections.

What a range and I can't even add up the hours of enjoyment this man has given me through his work all my life. Thankfully, the work still remains to enjoy.

Rest in peace, Mr. Falk.

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Excellent tribute to a one-of-a-kind actor who will be sorely missed. Thanks, Ed.
Wonderful tribute to my favorite actor of all! I must make a couple of corrections, though. He was only nominated for the episode of The Law and Mr. Jones and actually won the Emmy for The Dick Powell Theater episode "The Price of Tomatoes". Also, Falk directed only one, not 2, episodes of Columbo. The one he directed was called "Blueprint For Murder", and he never directed again.
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