Jeff Smith 6 p.m., Oct. 8
Just last night I thought of Peter Falk. A stop at Big!Lots was in order following the re-opening night gala of Coronado’s beautifully-renovated Village Theatre. Among the hundreds of reasonably-priced, factory-sealed DVDs lurked a copy of The Strange One, Ben Gazzara’s long-suppressed debut feature.
The last time I saw Gazzara was in the Quartier Latin segment of the omnibus film, Paris, Je T'Aime (2006). He appears in an interview on The Strange One DVD extras and the before-and-after comparison is devastating. Forty-pounds thinner after being diagnosed with throat cancer in 1999, the actor had difficulty raising his voice above a whisper. I thought about Falk, as I am wont to do whenever the name Ben Gazzara comes up, and wondered where he’d been hiding. The answer arrived overnight and it isn’t good.
Peter Falk, the rumpled, good-natured character actor with the glass eye and the “lazy L” died at his Beverly Hills home yesterday at age 83.
I was surprised to learn that apart from a TV movie (made early in their careers), Gazarra and Falk had only worked together on one feature, John Cassavetes’ Husbands. Perhaps it’s the Cassavetes connection, but their pairing was so ineradicable (and natural), four or five collaborations between the two seemed more likely.
Contrary to popular belief, Peter Michael Falk was not Italian, coming instead from Eastern European Jewish stock. He took up acting at the age of 26, but did not officially declare himself an actor until two years later when he quit his job as a CPA and moved from Hartford to New York.
Falk had his right eye surgically removed due to a malignant tumor at age three. He wore a glass prosthetic for the rest of his life. A theatrical agent warned him of the potential difficulty a one-eyed actor would face when trying to land major roles. Upon filming his first screen test, Columbia Pictures head Harry Cohen told him, "for the same price I can get an actor with two eyes."
Falk’s first film role was as a writer in Nick Ray’s Wind Across the Everglades. It didn’t take long for Hollywood to cast him as a criminal type in the back-to-back trio, The Bloody Brood, Pretty Boy Floyd, and Murder, Inc. His reputation for comedy was simultaneously established and cemented as the scene-stealing gangster, Joy Boy, in Frank Capra‘s swan song, Pocketful of Miracles (1961).
Capra spoke of Falk in his autobiography, The Name Above the Title: "The entire production was agony . . . except for Peter Falk. He was my joy, my anchor to reality. Introducing that remarkable talent to the techniques of comedy made me forget pains, tired blood, and maniacal hankerings to murder Glenn Ford. Thank you Peter Falk."
A pan-and-scan TV screening of Pocketful introduced me to Falk, and I was delighted to make the connection when I got around to that Sunday matinee of Blake Edwards’ uproarious homage to slapstick cinema, The Great Race. It wasn’t until years later and films like the ones he made with Cassavetes (A Woman Under the Influence, Husbands) and Elaine May‘s Mikey and Nickey (the greatest Cassavetes film Cassavetes didn’t direct), that I realized just how effortlessly Falk made the transition between comedy and drama.
Falk is best know to American television audiences as Columbo, the popular cigar chomping, trench coat-wearing detective on the long-running NBC crime series of the same name. Some say it’s Frank, others Joseph, and one went so far as inventing Phillip, but according to the show’s writers, Columbo had no first name. Falk himself believed “Frank” to be the character’s forename, while eagle-eyed viewers spotted “Joseph” on the badge the character occasionally brandished.
Years before testing one’s knowledge of trifles became a board game sensation, Fred L. Worth, a former air traffic controller from Sacramento, California, had written several trivia encyclopedias. Worth decided to include a total fabrication in one of his books hoping that when someone “borrowed” his falsity, he would be able to claim ownership. Worth assigned Columbo the first name “Philip.” When Trivial Pursuit came along and used one of the author’s encyclopedias as a source for one of their game cards, Worth sued for copyright infringement claiming $300 million in damages. The case was eventually thrown out of court without coming to trial.
As inseparable from the role as Kojak was his lollipop, Falk was not the first choice for the slouched-over lead. Veteran character actor Thomas Mitchell died as he was set to star in a Broadway bound version of Prescription Murder (1962), the play that begat Frank Columbo. The script was retooled for television on The Chevy Mystery Show with Bert Freed in the lead. Lee J. Cobb declined the part citing a scheduling conflict while jug-eared groaner, Bing Crosby nixed the idea of working on an episodic TV series because it conflicted with his vital work on the golf course.
Falk was married twice, first to Alyce Mayo (1960–1976) and later Shera Danese (1977 – 2011). His daughter, Catherine Falk, followed in her old man’s footsteps. She is a private detective in real life.
Falk was responsible for so many memorable performances, but one will always stick out in my mind as a favorite. You gotta’ love Wim Wenders for having the foresight to cast Falk as an angel in Wings of Desire.
More like this:
- Dig a Hole: Ben Gazzara — Feb. 5, 2012
- Dig A Hole:
Deranged Character Actor Roberts Blossom— July 14, 2011
- Dept. of Cinematic Muses — June 22, 2011
- What's Your Favorite Twilight Zone? — June 12, 2011
- Barton Fink, Rear Window, Columbo: Season Four — Dec. 13, 2007