Peter Falk: My Last Chat With Columbo

Classic Columbo

The phone connection was terrible, but the voice was unmistakable. I don’t believe there was any voice of the past 50 years more instantly recognizable than that of Peter Falk.

It was 2005, and we were discussing his new movie, The Thing About My Folks, written by and co-starring Paul Reiser. It was a slight little film-Falk played Reiser’s dad, whose wife (Olympia Dukakis) has left him. Inevitably, the conversation turned  to  Columbo, the gravel-voiced TV detective Falk played on and off from 1971 to 2003.

For his movie, Reiser had modeled Falk’s role after his own real father-and he had sought Falk for the role specifically because of how his father loved Columbo.

Paul Reiser, Peter Falk, "The Thing About My Folks"

“That was a pleasure to hear,” Falk told me. “Paul’s father used to sit and roar at Columbo. That’s great. That is great!”

Falk said that playing Reiser’s father had gotten him to thinking about his own dad, and the qualities that he remembered about him.

“He believed in work,” Falk said. “My father’s whole life was work. He had a retail store in Ossining, New York, and I mean he was down there at 6:15 every morning. The store didn’t open until 9, but he hadda be down there. That’s all he knew. He loved that store. And most of the women who came into that store, they liked him.

“He was a nice man. And he didn’t make any difference-white, black, brown, whatever. He used to go up to this place, what was it called…Maryknoll…”

At this point I just had to interrupt, because suddenly I had found a personal connection here, and when you have a connection to Columbo, you grab it with both hands.

“You mean the Maryknoll Seminary?” I asked, and it was as if Falk had discovered we shared the same mother.

“Yeah! Right!” he hollered. “How did you know that?”

“I’ve been there,” I answered-as a kid, during one of my own father’s endless variety of Sunday afternoon family drives up the Hudson Valley.

“No!!” Falk barked. “How do you like that? Gee whiz!!!”

I could hear the smile in his voice, and I marveled for a moment at how one of the most famous people in the world-and make not mistake, Peter Falk, in the guise of Columbo, was just that-could spontaneously find enthusiasm for the most fleeting of common map points with a fellow he’d never met.

“Well, my father used to sell them sheets and pillow cases!” he enthused, and burst into a long, loud laugh.

“What else can I tell ya?” he asked. “Anything else I can help ya out with?”

My mind raced, because I’d promised to keep Falk for just five or ten minutes talking about this little movie. We chatted about the beauty of the Hudson Valley, where The Thing About My Folks was filmed, and he enthused about his co-star Olympia Dukakis (“In about a minute and a half I’d felt like I’d known her all my life. She doesn’t have an ounce of bulls-t in her”). He mentioned that he’d just finished reading her book, and I asked if he’d ever toyed with writing a book of his own.

“Actually,” he said, “I am writing a book (Just One More Thing, about his long career in show biz, was published in 2007). “I’ve worked with some terrific actors. The list of guys that came on the Columbo show, I mean they were world-class actors from all over the world-Oskar Werner, Laurence Harvey, Donald Pleasence, you know…foreigners.

Robert Culp

“Robert Culp came back about three times, and Jack Cassidy, he came back about three times.

Jack Cassidy

They were perfect. And then there was Patrick McGoohan. Me, Universal Studios, (Columbo co-creators) Bill Link and Richard Levinson, all of us are eternally indebted to Pat McGoohan.”

That surprised me. Patrick McGoohan, forever linked to his 1960s series Secret Agent (also known as Danger Man), and The Prisoner, was yet another repeat villain on Columbo. But Falk considered McGoohan’s contributions central to the show becoming an all-time classic.

Patrick McGoohan

“I think he’s the only actor in television history to win back-to-back Emmys for guest performances in a two-hour movie,” Falk said. “The first time he was on with us he won the Emmy, the second time he went on he won the Emmy, but the second time he also directed it, and he made an enormous writing contribution. And he never got a nickel for that. He can’t help himself. He has to start writing. He’s a wonderful writer. A genius. And a great, great Columbo villain!”

I observed that Falk himself had started out playing villains, in films like Murder, Inc.(earning one of his two Oscar nominations),

Murder, Inc. (1960)

but soon the studios discovered that people liked him too much. He laughed at that, and explained that he could never have been a Columbo villain. He just wasn’t smooth enough.

“I was a street-guy villain,” he recalled. “I was a street-corner villain. I was an illiterate villain. All rough edges. But, say, McGoohan, you could hear his brain humming, and I’m telling you just sitting opposite him and he’s playing these characters I could hear him thinking. It was terrific.”

As the years passed and Falk worked less on TV and in the movies (he would appear in just three films after The Thing About My Folks before he was stricken with Alzheimer’s), he found his favorite retreat in a small art studio he’d set up in Venice, near Los Angeles.

Self-Portrait

“I’m a draw-er,” he said. “I’m old fashioned. I really think you should know how to draw before you start painting. I use charcoal and graphite, I put a skylight in. In my house, I turned the garage into an art studio. So I’m awash in art studios.

“I get a hold of a female model. And sometimes she’s even wearing clothes.”

You can still see some fine examples of Falk’s work on his website, PeterFalk.com.

Not long after our chat, I watched for the first time Wim Wender’s 1987 German classic, Wings of Desire, a fantasy about angels watching over the human residents of Berlin. I was surprised to see Falk turn up in the film-his character, a famous American screen actor, is referred to in the titles as “der Filmstar,” but everyone calls him “Columbo.” One of the most endearing things about Falk was that he never ran away from the character who made him a household name. In fact, he embraced that rumpled detective, and that’s clear even in Wings where, on the streets of Berlin, he smiles that squinty smile (the result of having lost an eye to cancer at age 3) each time someone recognizes him and calls out his TV name. He also is seen sketching in the movie, making impromptu drawings of film extras as they wait for the next camera setup.

"Wings of Desire" (1987), with Bruno Ganz as a reluctant angel

You should rent or buy a few Columbo episodes this week, just to remind yourself of the effortless charm Peter Falk brought to his work. But you should end up with Wings of Desire, a surreal film in which Falk’s character uniquely bridges the gap between angels and humans.

It’s nice to think of him now, checking in at St. Peter’s reception desk. He heads halfway through the Pearly Gates, stops, puts his hand to his forehead and swings around. “Oh, St. Peter,” he calls. The old Apostle looks up from his ledger, slightly annoyed.

“I’m really sorry, St. Peter…but there’s just one more thing that keeps bothering me…”