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Personal Interviews
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Peter Falk

“The truth is, no one is like Colombo.  He’s unique.  If he were up for an auction, he would be described as ‘One of a kind—a human with the brain of Sherlock Holmes who dresses like the homeless.’”   —Peter Falk

The truth is, no one is like Peter Falk.  He is truly unique.  His inspired portrayal of Lieutenant Columbo elevated the character from a run-of-the-mill television sleuth to the unassuming, loveable, shabby, cigar-smoking, doggedly persistent, and intelligent but absentminded detective who has endeared himself to two generations of fans throughout the world.

stolen For the last five decades, Peter Falk’s versatility and screen presence have made him a favorite with fans and directors alike.  He has entertained and inspired legions of fans during his career with a broad range of eccentric and unforgettable characters, from a cynical soldier in Anzio (1968) to a loving grandfather in The Princess Bride (1987), and from a dangerous mobster in Murder, Inc. (1961) to a conflicted family man in Husbands.

Peter Falk’s acting career began off-Broadway in 1956.  The following season he played opposite Jason Robards in an extremely successful off-Broadway production of Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh. In 1961 he was nominated for an Academy Award for his portrayal of violent hit-man Abe Reles in Murder, Inc.—his first feature film.  The following year he was nominated for an Academy Award for his role as Joy Boy in Frank Capra’s Pocketful of Miracles.  Throughout the 1960s he appeared in several memorable roles in such films as The Great Race, It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, and Anzio.

The 1970s were among the most productive and creative years of Peter’s career.  He collaborated with his good friend John Cassavetes on several independent films including Husbands (1970) and A Woman Under the Influence (1974), both of which are credited with helping launch the independent film movement.  In 1971 he won a Tony for his performance in Neil Simon’s Broadway hit The Prisoner of Second Avenue.  He continued to work with Neil Simon during the 70s, delivering two unforgettably hilarious send-ups of Bogart-type P.I.s, as Sam Diamond in Murder by Death (1976) and Lou Peckinpaugh in The Cheap Detective (1978). A year later he played the charming but unpredictable Vincent Ricardo in the classic comedy hit The In-Laws.

His favorite role of all, that of Lieutenant Columbo, first came to him in 1968 when he played the detective in a television movie.  In 1971, Columbo was picked up as one of the rotating features of The NBC Mystery Movie, a series which ran until 1977.  Falk has played the role off and on since then, winning four Emmy awards and scores of nominations. The most recent Columbo television movie aired in 2003.

At the age of 79 Peter Falk, who is also an accomplished artist and an avid golfer, still maintains a busy schedule and is showing no signs of letting up. His highly entertaining book of reminiscences and anecdotes, Just One More Thing, was just released by Carroll and Graf.  His most recent film, Checking Out, opened in theaters last month.

AFG:  Well, I’ve just finished reading your book [Just One More Thing] and I really enjoyed it.  It was so funny.  I found myself laughing out loud at the stories.  So many times when I’ve read autobiographies by actors, I’ve found they can be very boring, but yours was so entertaining.

PF:  Well, that’s music to my ears.  I said in the Foreword that when I was a kid an autobiography was the life of Abe Lincoln and, you know, I felt somewhat similar to you in the fact that detailed versions of some actors’ lives never held my interest. But I was tempted to write an entertaining book that would have stories that could be read rather quickly.  I like to read before I go to sleep and I go to sleep about twenty minutes [after getting into bed], so it’s nice to be able to read a story that you can read in three minutes, get a laugh, and then go to sleep! [laughing]  So that was my objective, and I appreciate your comments.

AFG:  When did you decide to write it?

PF:  I think about two years ago, maybe three, because I would write it sporadically.  Obviously if you have to go somewhere and make a movie—you find yourself in New Zealand, right, and you’re making a movie—you’re not going to do a lot of writing on a book!  And during the course of the last three years I’ve made Columbo films and I don’t know how many movies—three or four movies.  As a matter of fact, I think I’ve got a movie opening today.

AFG:  Which one?  As a matter of fact, I was just going to ask you about that.

PF:  It’s called Checking Out and it’s with Laura San Giacomo, myself, and my wife Shera Danese.  She’s got a really juicy part in it.  It’s based upon a Broadway play, and the subject matter is one of the central issues of our time.  When I was growing up, people used to live to 60 or 65, and now it’s not uncommon to live to 80, 85, 90.  And that’s what this movie is about.  It opens with a guy who was an actor—he calls himself the ‘Barrymore’ of the Yiddish theatre. [laughing]  He’s lost his wife—she was also an actress—and he has children who live in various parts of the country.  They receive a letter from him.  The audience doesn’t know what’s in the letter, but they see the alarm on the faces of the children.  Whatever they are doing, they stop immediately, and they all rush to the airport to get to New York.  When they get there, there he is, [saying,] “Hi, come on in,” and what he’s talking about is having a big party with all his friends.  Then you find out why they were alarmed.  It is because that night—the night of the party—after the party is over, he wants to go into his bedroom and take some pills and put himself to sleep.  But his point is this: “I’ve been very lucky and I feel good.  I’m at the top of my game, and I don’t want to slowly degenerate week by week, weaker and weaker, and have you guys come to the hospital and say, ‘Oh, look at the way he looks.’  Let’s get it over with while I’m on top.” Anyway, that was the Broadway play, and that’s the movie.  And I believe it’s opening today in New York.

AFG:  I can’t wait to see it.  You’re in the role of the fellow who writes the letter?

PF:  Yeah. [laughing]  I’m the Barrymore of the Yiddish theatre.

AFG:   So were you interested in mysteries before the Columbo series?

PF:  Not really, no.  No, if you ask me about mysteries, I didn’t read a lot of mysteries!  I had read a little Sherlock Holmes and, like the rest of world, I was very impressed with that.  I thought that his insights into clues and into what really happened were genuinely brilliant and surprising and unanticipated. And I loved the relationship between Dr. Watson and Sherlock Holmes but, and I think I talk about this in the book, or at least I insinuate it in the book, and that is that Sherlock Holmes was an impressive person. He was a formidable figure.  If he entered a room you would be very aware of his power...

AFG:  …and intimidated.

PF:  Intimidating.  Exactly.  Exactly!  But what struck me as being interesting would be to play a guy that in every respect was just as common as the guy next door, the kind of guy who would be working in a gasoline station, but one thing distinguished him from everybody else—his ability to catch the guy who committed murder.  So you have the greatest living detective on the planet who, as I said in the book, dressed like the gardener, and it was that thing that distinguished him from Sherlock Holmes.  And that was good for me because, as I said in the book, I sound like I’m from the street.  I dress in life like I’m from the street, and I thought that being ordinary . . . that’s easy for me.

AFG:  And it’s easy for the criminal to feel he’s gotten comfortable with you and then make mistakes.  If I were a criminal and if I had met Sherlock Holmes, I’d make sure to have all my lies and anything else well-rehearsed beforehand.

PF:  That’s just exactly right.  The more they were willing to slough me off—you know, I was just another schmuck—the better I felt, because that’s what I wanted.  I wanted them to think that.  So anyway, doing Columbo was . . . you know, you got to be lucky as an actor.  Luck has a great deal to do with it.  I often mention the fact that Jason Robards, when we did The Iceman Cometh—whichever year that was in the middle 50s—had been acting in New York for fifteen years.  Nobody had ever heard of him.  He lived in a one room apartment and he didn’t have any money, but he was a great actor fifteen years before The Iceman Cometh. And everything changed because he happened to get into a hit play.  If you’re a wonderful actor and you’re not in a hit, forget about it.  Nobody knows you’re alive! 

AFG:  Oh, that’s true.  Luck does play a part.  There are so many actors who were brilliant actors and they’re just forgotten.  And even today when you look at some of the big stars in Hollywood, so many of the big actors who play the leading roles aren’t really very good, you know.  Yet 40 or 50 years ago they were great.  They had a real presence.

PF:  They did, didn’t they.  They really did.  They had something truly unique about themselves.  That’s absolutely true.  Cary Grant, Cooper, and all those guys . . . .

AFG:  Burt Lancaster . . . .

PF:  Yeah, Burt Lancaster.  Just seeing them in a room, sitting down bullshitting with them.  Burt Lancaster.  I made that picture in Yugoslavia with him—Castle Keep.

AFG:  Oh, yes.  Castle Keep.  That was the World War II picture, right?

PF:  Right.  And it was based upon a novel that today no one would even consider making into a movie.  And you know what I remember about that?  I wanted very badly to do an Herb Gardner play, and he was trying out actors for it.  I grabbed a plane from Yugoslavia, where I was making Castle Keep, and came to New York to read for Herb Gardner.  But while I was there, I picked up The New York Times.  On the front page there was a story about a castle in Yugoslavia that burnt down.  It was Castle Keep.  It was the castle that was the heart of our story!

AFG:  Really!

PF:  Yes!  And it caught on fire.  There was a huge blaze and it destroyed the set that we were working on at the castle.  At any rate, that was a minor anecdote that I remembered as we’re just now talking.  But what reminded me of it was Burt Lancaster and his willingness to fight, to spend whatever money was necessary to make that film properly, make it right.  Yes, he was all right, Burt.

AFG:  I draw and paint in oil and some of your drawings in the book are great.  When did you decide to start drawing?

PF:  That was another mystery about my life. [laughing]  I guess as I was writing this book, I realized there’s a pattern in my life.  I graduated from high school in 1945, and it took me twelve years to decide to become an actor.  And I didn’t start drawing until . . . God only knows!  Oh!  I drew when we were in Yugoslavia, I happened to draw a valise of Italian leather that I had, and then the sculptor—who lived within the castle—came upstairs.  We were having coffee in my room and he said, “Who did this?”  And I said that I did.  And he said, “Pretty good.”  And I said, “Yeah, but I could look at it.  I had it right here in front of me.”  And he thought I was retarded! [laughing]  “You looked at it.”  He explained that that’s what artists have been doing since the beginning of time.  How dumb can you be!  But in answer to your question, it was sometime after that incident.  I was doing a play in New York, a Neil Simon play with Lee Grant—The Prisoner of Second Avenue.  I was walking down 57th Street and saw this building that said Art Student’s League and I wandered in.  And that’s when I started drawing.  I don’t know how old I was—45 or something like that.

AFG:  So I know you’re doing some watercolors.  Have you tried to do anything with oil paints?

PF:  No, I’ve never painted with oil.  I move very slow.  I didn’t get married until I was 33.  I had walked past that Art Student’s League a hundred times—it’s on 57th Street, a very popular street, and my hotel was on 58th Street—and why I stopped one day and decided to go in that building I don’t know, but when I went in, I’ll never forget how quiet it was.  There were wooden floors and doors but no people.  When I passed a couple of doors, I was curious about what was behind them.  When I opened that one door, as I said in the book, there she was up on a platform, completely naked, lit from above—a model being drawn by students.  So I signed up and I started to go there and I got hooked.  I was there every day, and sometimes I would hire a model and draw at night after the performance of the play.  At 11:30 at night I would be drawing. 

AFG:  I know that you were a good friend of John Cassavetes.  What was he like as a person, and what was he like to work with?

PF:  John was inimitable.  He was like Columbo—one of a kind.  John responded to his own voices.  There was not a copycat bone in his body.  Last night I was reminded of something he said to me one day.  He had said, “I’d rather work in a sewer than make a picture that I didn’t like.”  And that’s absolutely true—he would have.  He would be interested in working in a sewer because he would be interested in the other guys working there too, but to make a picture that he didn’t like—he couldn’t do that!  He couldn’t do that for one day.  And John’s sets, like I said in the book, were inimitable.  They were unlike any other movie set I’d been on.  There was none of that formality, whereby it got absolutely silent before the director said, “Action.”  You never knew what the hell was going on.

 


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