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Newsday: On Peter Falk

One of the best profiles on Peter Falk appeared in this very paper - Newsday - in 1989. It was written by our own Linda Winer, one of the finest critics of theater in the world, who hung out with Falk to produce this piece...It's well worth reading. Please head to the jump...


PETER FALK is dressed nice - and in Beverly Hills yet - which already seems a little like a joke. He's asking a photographer, "How many chins have I got?," and squinting into smoke from a cigarette he just lit for the atmosphere. You think he should be wearing Columbo's grungy raincoat, bringing the elite to justice with a self-effacing "Oh, excuse me, sir, just one more question . . .

"Or he should be getting sprung from the slammer to reclaim his status in the Brooklyn mob and saying stuff to his hotshot teenage daughter like, "I can't tell if you're really smahht or retahhded." Instead, here he is, Hollywood's favorite New York thug, not far from his nice Beverly Hills home and looking casually elegant to promote "Cookie" - the movie opening Wednesday with Falk as the aforementioned gangster-papa, Emily Lloyd as his kid Cookie, with direction by Susan Seidelman and screenplay by Alice Arlen and Nora Ephron ("When Harry Met Sally").

Soon he will be in New Orleans with Barbara Hershey to make a movie based, he says with his own strange rhythm and candor, "on a novel by a very well-known South American novelist whom I don't know" (that is, Mario Vargas Llosa's "Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter"). Then it's back to L.A. for the second season of his reborn "Columbo" for ABC. It is hard not to like this man. First, he seems able to talk without moving his lips, a trick that gives his conversation a conspiratorial quality, as if he's muttering to you and you alone, probably on a bar stool.

Second - maybe this really is first - what comes out are articulate, generous, witty, shrewdly no-nonsense observations from a working actor who, at 61, has managed to have both a career and an interesting life. In the past 18 months, he has played a pushy old grandfather-narrator in "The Princess Bride," an enigmatic American actor in Wim Wenders' dark Berlin fantasy, "Wings of Desire" (out on video this month), a con man in Ecuador in the Cyndi Lauper-Jeff Goldblum floppola, "Vibes."

He also coproduced his new series of two-hour "Columbo" movies - and still had time to use some of his season tickets to the Knicks. Somehow, he has built an identity that's both affably eccentric and regular guy. He's a TV star who shows up in esoteric movies, a character actor who plays the lead, a leading man who does more buddy films than love stories. He's the kind of old-time Joe who talks about "pictures," not "movies" or "films," and Hollywood is always the "business," not the "industry." As the late John Cassavetes, the maverick actor-film maker and long-time Falk buddy, used to say, "He's deep. He's gentle.

He's two thousand years old. He's somebody everybody falls in love with." For one so deep and ancient, he's also hilariously obsessive about details, especially costumes. Not for nothing are we talking about Peter, the son of Falk Department Store in Ossining, N.Y. - the town with the prison known as Sing-Sing. To hear him talk about acting, you'd think it's all in the haberdashery.

Everyone knows the story of the Columbo raincoat, bought on 57th Street in 1967. "Four years later, I was doing Columbo and said I wanted to wear this coat. Brown," says Falk. "Have him wear everything brown. Dye the suit brown. Just a little color, a dab of green in the tie. Got the shoes. My shoes. Brown shoes." In that coat, Falk won his Emmy in 1972 and became a Time cover a year later. "And that's the coat we still use. Oh, yah, it's very fragile," he says tenderly. "It's threadbare. I have to put a saucer of milk out for it every night. I don't wear it everyday because it'll fall apart, but I wear it once or twice every show." Why a raincoat in sunny L.A.? "I know, it doesn't make any sense. Doesn't make any sense at all."

Sensible or not, this is hardly the first time a coat has taken over this tough guy's career. First, there was the camel hair in "Murder, Inc.," the vicious 1960 gangster film that got Falk his first Oscar nomination. "I always remember that coat," he says softly. "I spent four weeks trying to find that coat. In the beginning, when you're acting in amateur theater and off-Broadway, it was unheard of that anyone else would get your costume. And it was important to get a good costume.

You put time into that. "So when we did 'Murder, Inc.,' I went Downtown on the East Side looking for this coat and a hat. I remember one mob guy who liked the picture says, 'Jeez, that coat! You could rent that out for an office.' It was really big. But I got lucky on that picture, so, when I came out here to do this comedy gangster movie [Frank Capra's "Pocketful of Miracles"], I insisted on wearing the same coat. And I got nominated again! I was afraid to move without the coat." It is hard to laugh at his superstitions. Falk, a late bloomer who lost his right eye to a tumor when he was 3, managed to win three athletic letters and the presidency of his senior class.

Still, his glass eye flunked the Marines. He spent 18 months of World War II as a cook in the Merchant Marine. He got a bachelor's degree from the New School in business administration and a master's in public administration from Syracuse University. 'I WAS STALLING," he growls. "I had no interest in public administration. I don't even remember what we studied there. Budgets, whatever the hell it was."

But the head of the school was part of a New Deal Washington training program. "And every spring he'd take his thirty kids to Washington and introduce them to all the guys and get them jobs. "And I wanted to be a spy! I really did! I thought, 'A spy! That'll be good! I'll be in Paris. I'll wear a hat, there will be a girl, a cafe, hahahaha.' " What if the CIA hadn't turned him down? "It might have been interesting," he muses. "Of course, the CIA screws up so often, it could have been embarrassing. I have no idea. So I never was in the CIA." Instead of espionage, he ended up an efficiency expert for the Connecticut State Budget Bureau and, in his mid-20s, he was sneaking off to amateur theater rehearsals. His horrified father asked, "You want to paint your face and make a fool of yourself all your life?

" In 1957, face painting led to the role of the bartender in an Off-Broadway revival of "The Iceman Cometh." But then came Hollywood, where Columbia boss Harry Cohn said, "For the same price, I can get an actor with two eyes." "That's a dead-on quote," says Falk, "and he was trying to be nice. He was! He said, 'I'm concerned about your deficiency.' Deficiency! I didn't know what the hell he was talking about. But you take a guy like Harry Cohn and start telling him he doesn't know his business, that nobody would see it, blahblahblah and, pretty soon, this guy reaches a point and says 'Hey, shut up, kid.' " When Columbo came along, Falk already had done one short-lived TV detective series, "The Trials of O'Brien," but someone else - would you believe Bing Crosby? - was the creators' first choice.

Near the bottom of the list was Falk, who quickly helped turn Columbo into one of the most famous TV characters of all time. There were no guns, no chase scenes, just an unlikely sloppy little guy - a rational thinker Falk described as "an ass-backwards Sherlock Holmes," but actually fashioned after Petrovich, the detective in "Crime and Punishment" who pretended to be a bumbler as he pursued Raskolnikov. The series was off the air for 11 years, resurfacing last season as one of three rotating series in the "ABC Monday Night Mystery Movie." "I didn't want to stop completely," he says.

"I just wanted to cut down so I could do other things. I was devoting nine months a year to do eight Columbos, but it didn't make sense economically to have two or three Columbos a year. What makes sense to the networks and the studios is to be able to lock up a night. Then you're talkin' about real money." BETWEEN COLUMBOS, Falk made a lot of pictures, including the cult comedy classic "The In-Laws," and plenty of unmemorable commercial scripts about Brink's robberies and cheap detectives. Then ABC came up with another life for "Columbo" - only each episode runs two hours instead of 90 minutes.

"It means we're working fourteen-fifteen hours a day, like doing a two-hour movie. I liked them at an hour and a half, but they wanted two hours. This year, we're supposed to do six, next year three. Then we'll be in good shape." Falk is loaded with easy charm, but he's also a legendary worrier. His buddy Ben Gazzara once described him as so "tenacious he wants to repeat takes two hundred times to get it right." Falk says he enjoys "the tension between freedom and order. We want to be free, but at the same time we need a framework." Sometimes, perhaps, the frame cracks. Emily Lloyd, in an interview with Premiere magazine last March, says Falk turned a stage slap in "Cookie" into a real one - then hit her again.

The young English actress, who triumphed as another smart-mouth teen in her movie debut, "Wish You Were Here," claims she hit him back, shouting "You don't hit an actress! If I hit you every time you said something I didn't like, you'd be black and blue by now!" Falk - a family man with two daughters in college - shrugs off the incident as something that happens in rehearsals. "The character is always on the verge of either strangling her or slapping her and she's always on the verge of being terribly rebellious. There is a scene where he does hit her and, in the course of rehearsing that scene, she was snotty and I was the father.

That's what happens. That don't mean nothing. It don't mean nothing to me, at any rate." But maybe after the intense, freewheeling improvisations on a Cassavetes set, Falk can feel hemmed-in on more conventional shoots. Although he made a mainstream reputation playing crooks and cops, he walked on the psychological wild side with his pal John and his often meandering, frequently brilliant journeys through middle-class, middle-aged angst. Cassavetes, who died earlier this year of cirrhosis of the liver, first roped him into doing "Husbands" in 1970.

Four years later, Falk also put up half the money for "Woman Under the Influence" - and was left with fabulous stories to tell. "John," Falk says with a sigh. "He was a true original. He was really fertile. He had his own vision and fantastic courage. And he was impossible. "He was attracted to the impossible - and that's a very attractive quality in a person. He always wanted to do what I would consider - what normal people would consider - to be impossible . . . But something was on his mind besides fame and money. He was always hocking his house. He was boiling over with ideas. John would take a picture and play it for people. He didn't care whether it was ready to be seen, whether they liked it or not. I'd say, 'You're not gonna show this to people, are you?' It was five, six hours long. He didn't care. Yes, he was an extraordinary guy. "I never understood a word he said," Falk says softly. "Yah, I miss him." Does he find it boring to work for more traditional directors? "I wouldn't say it's boring," he says with wicked deliberation. "But I would say that you do get annoyed, you get irritated when the approach is so . . . pedestrian, so uncreative, so unstimulating.

So it's not boring. You're too frustrated to be bored." Falk says Wim Wenders didn't remind him of Cassavetes, exactly, but "Wings of Desire" was "like doing an independent picture." FALK WAS hired to fly to Berlin, but there was no script and he didn't meet the director until 2 a.m. in "some joint." Falk was to play an American actor whom even Berliners knew on the street as Columbo. Without a script, Falk was encouraged to talk about his own concerns.

So his character mutters: "I wonder if the director likes my work; they always say you're wonderful, no matter what you do." He also says, "People like detective stories. I grant you, it's dopey." And, of course, "Get a good costume. It's half the battle." The character also sketches, because Falk likes to draw. During the hit Broadway run of "Prisoner of Second Avenue" in the early '70s, Falk used to go to the Art Students League. "Mostly, I draw the figure. Mostly naked women," he adds with a sweet grin, "I don't care if their hair is up, or their hair is down." So Falk played himself and he drew pictures. But, naturally, "I hadn't seen the costume and I was worried. There was no script to worry about, but I had to worry, so mostly I worried about the hat. Good hats are hard to find." HE AND WENDERS finally met in their hotel and "I keep putting these hats on. This goddamn thing is good from the side.

But from the front! This one I look like a rabbi and this one I look like I'm gonna get married in. And this one, the brim is good. But look at the crown! We get done with all that and he says, 'I don't know about the costume, but we've got a good scene here.' And we did." When that happens, directing looks easy. But Falk, who says he might want to direct an independent picture someday, thinks directing is "pretty scary." As for theater, although he got his start there, and, a few years ago, enjoyed a tour with David Mamet's "Glengarry Glen Ross," there are no plays in his future. "I used to have this idea that you can spend years in the movies and TV and then, at the drop of a hat, say 'Oh, I'll go back and do the theater,' " he says. "

But it's not that easy. "To be a theater actor, I think you have to do plays all the time. Sure, I miss some things about the stage. The thing I like is the immediacy. But then I complain, 'I gotta do the same part for six months.' We're spoiled." Oh, excuse me, sir, just one more question . . . Are there roles Peter Falk cannot play? Long pause. "Well," he says thoughtfully, "I'm not sure I could play a part where I had to laugh a lot. Fake laughing is hard. And I guess most people would say I'm a mutt and couldn't play somebody who was a thoroughbred, someone with breeding - you know, someone with a long neck."


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