Peter Falk, TV's Columbo, Dies At 83: The Fresh Air Remembrance Peter Falk, who was known for his portrayal of the disheveled and seemingly inept homicide detective Lt. Columbo, died on Thursday at age 83. Fresh Air remembers the actor with excerpts from a 1995 interview.
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'Just One More Thing' About Falk, TV's 'Columbo'

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'Just One More Thing' About Falk, TV's 'Columbo'

'Just One More Thing' About Falk, TV's 'Columbo'

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TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Peter Falk, who was known around the world for his portrayal of Columbo in the NBC TV series, died Thursday at the age of 83. We're going to listen back to an interview with him. Falk also had a movie and stage career. He was directed by John Cassavetes in "Husbands" and "A Woman Under the Influence." He won a Tony for his performance in Neil Simon's Broadway show "Prisoner of Second Avenue."

In his role as Columbo, Falk became synonymous with the word rumpled. On Google, I found 683,000 results that had both the words Columbo and rumpled. Columbo was a detective in the L.A. Police Department who seemed so disorganized, distracted, yet polite, in his rumpled raincoat that he appeared harmless, but he always solved the murder.

The first time Falk played Columbo was in a 1968 made-for-TV movie called "Prescription: Murder." Here's a scene from the film with Falk and Gene Berry.

(Soundbite of film, "Prescription: Murder")

Mr. PETER FALK (Actor): (as Columbo) Well, listen, there's one more thing. You don't remember what your wife was wearing that night, do you?

Mr. GENE BERRY (Actor): (as Dr. Ray Flemming) Well, Carol had so many dresses. Is it important?

Mr. FALK: (as Columbo) Well, yes, in a way, it is.

Mr. BERRY: (as Dr. Flemming) Well, let's see now. Why, yes, she was wearing a blue wool dress with brass buttons, if I'm not mistaken.

Mr. FALK: (as Columbo) Uh-huh. Uh-huh. Yeah, that's what the stewardess said. She's back in town, by the way, and I spoke to her, and she told me your wife was wearing a blue wool dress with blue kid gloves.

Mr. BERRY: (as Dr. Flemming) Well, then that's probably it.

Mr. FALK: (as Columbo) That's funny though. If she came home from the airport, what did she do with the dress and gloves? When we went over to your apartment last week, we couldn't find them.

Mr. BERRY: (as Dr. Flemming) Well, they may have been stolen.

Mr. FALK: (as Lt. Columbo) Yeah, maybe, maybe. Did you put those on the list of stolen items?

Mr. BERRY: (as Dr. Flemming) Really, Lieutenant, how could you expect me to notice they were missing?

Mr. FALK: (as Columbo) Still, it's puzzling when you think about it. I mean, why would a guy steal a dress and a pair of gloves? What are they worth?

Mr. BERRY: (as Dr. Flemming) People don't always do the rational thing.

Mr. FALK: (as Columbo) Oh, they sure don't. You learn a lot about that in my line. Well, I guess you do in yours too.

GROSS: I spoke with Peter Falk in 1995.

What was the part of Columbo like when you first read it?

Mr. FALK: It was very good. It was somebody that I immediately wanted to play. The basic thrust of a guy appearing less than he actually is, that was always there. And the - that disarming quality of not ever appearing formidable was always there.

I think that when we started to make the series, they would often write scenes that were supposed to be humorous, and those were the ones that made me very nervous.

GROSS: Why?

Mr. FALK: Because I didn't think they were funny, and they were kind of cute. And so I would tamper with those all the time to make sure that they were - that they were funny, that they were humorous, not funny, and that they were more subtle and more believable.

And the other thing that I guess I insisted upon was that I think that he is by birth a polite man. But he's also canny. So he's not above using his politeness. But the fact that he is polite makes it easier for him to play polite.

And the other thing that used to bother me about the early scripts - not the early scripts, any of the scripts - was in the final scene, if you had what actors used to refer to as Moshe(ph), Moshe the Explainer Scene.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FALK: And that's when the detective, he takes two pages - he talks for two pages, and he explains everything that happened. And as the actor, you can hear the people snoring. You know the audience is tuned out. They're not interested.

So the trick is to have that final scene remain a scene and have the cat and mouse going back and forth and the audience plus the villain, they don't know what in the hell this guy's driving at, but they're interested. You show them just enough to keep them interested, keep them guessing. What is he going to do? And when you finally nail the guy, that should be the end of the show. There should be about three lines after that, and that's it.

It was things like that that - and clues. Clues can't be transparent, and if they're obvious to the audience, then he's not Sherlock Holmes.

GROSS: I like the way you described Columbo as looking like less than he actually is. That's something that's easy to identify with. Did you identify with that?

Mr. FALK: I've always been sloppy, all my life. I never could keep myself together. And I am, in person, a bit misty.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FALK: I can't keep an umbrella more than three days. That was when I used to live in New York. You'd lose it, and I'd lose everything and frequently walk into walls. So I understood that quality. And I am a slow thinker, and I am attracted to ambiguity. I'm not somebody that has black-and-white answers to everything. And that kind of fits in with Columbo.

So the slowness and the methodicalness and the sloppiness, that was all very easy for me.

GROSS: And of course I should ask you about the raincoat, Columbo's raincoat, which I believe you bought.

Mr. FALK: Well, there was a dispute over that because I...

GROSS: What, over who really bought it?

Mr. FALK: No, the dispute - I always said that I read that in the script, but Lincoln Levinson(ph) said no, it wasn't in the script. But I seem to remember seeing it in the script. So whatever it is, I did buy it. I didn't buy it at the time. I had already had it. But I said this is what I want to wear.

And I knew what I wanted to wear underneath it too. I wanted everything to be tan and brown all together, a little dash of dull green in the tie. And that's about as flashy as he got.

And the suit that fit in the least was a seersucker - kind of seersucker blue and white. So I said dye that. And they dyed it and got out all that white and whatever the hell it was. I don't remember. But it had to be dyed. And that became tan. And the shoes were mine too. They were a pair of shoes I picked up in Italy, I don't know, a long time ago. They happened to be fairly expensive shoes, handmade shoes, but they were very comfortable, and they were clunky.

GROSS: And that was important, clunky?

Mr. FALK: Clunky was important, yeah.

GROSS: For that sense of being slightly uncoordinated?

Mr. FALK: I think you always wanted that contrast because the people that he was going after, they were always...

GROSS: Wealthy.

Mr. FALK: They were always, yes, God's chosen.

GROSS: Right.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FALK: They all have long necks and...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FALK: And they all could buy suits off the rack, and they fitted them, and they looked good, and their teeth were white, and they had dough, and they spoke well. And so clunky shoes were a good contrast.

GROSS: I have one more Columbo question for you. Do you think that your long association with that character has worked for you, against you, both in your - in the other part of your career, the part outside of Columbo?

Mr. FALK: Well, I always say the same thing, Terry.

GROSS: Say it again.

Mr. FALK: I'll say it again. Being known as Columbo, it ain't cancer, so...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FALK: I mean I make a lot of dough, and the listeners, you know, I think it's difficult for the average person to say what is - what is he complaining about, that he's typecast? Who the hell cares? I mean, he does make a lot of money and he gets good seats in restaurants. So I don't feel that that's something that people are really interested in.

But to answer your question, I think arguably I probably would be a better actor if I hadn't spent so much time playing that one role. I think that kind of diversity and that kind of challenge - I might be a better actor. I don't know. I'm not sure. I think probably I would be. But so what?

GROSS: We're listening back to a 1995 interview with Peter Falk. He died Thursday at the age of 83. We'll hear more of the interview after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: Let's get back to my 1995 interview with Peter Falk. He died Thursday at the age of 83. He was known to TV viewers around the world as Columbo. He also had a stage and film career. Here's a scene from the 1974 film "A Woman Under the Influence," which was directed by John Cassavetes and starred Falk and Gena Rowlands.

She played a suburban housewife with two children who's having an emotional breakdown. Falk played her husband, who loves her but is worried sick about what's happening to her. Here's a scene.

(Soundbite of film, "A Woman Under the Influence")

Mr. FALK: (as Nick Longhetti) You're going to be committed. Go into the hospital until you get better.

Ms. GENA ROWLANDS (Actor): (as Mabel Longhetti): I'm not sore at you. I mean, you hit me. You never did that before. (Unintelligible). You feel bad about it. I always am miffed at you, and you always are miffed with me, and that was always just how it was, and that's it. Till death do us part, Nick, you said it. Remember? Do you, Mabel Mortenson(ph), take this man? I do. I do, Nick. I do. Remember, I said it's going to work because I'm already pregnant.

Mr. FALK: (as Nick) Don't let that mind run away on you now.

Ms. ROWLANDS: (as Mabel) Do you remember how you laughed?

Mr. FALK: (as Nick) Don't...

Ms. ROWLANDS: (as Mabel) You laughed. Do you remember? And he was (unintelligible).

Mr. FALK: (as Nick) Don't do that.

Ms. ROWLANDS: (as Mabel) Hey, don't be sad. I know you love me.

GROSS: Let me switch gears to another aspect of your acting career. I'm thinking of the long association you had with the actor and director John Cassavetes. What struck you as different about his approach to directing...

Mr. FALK: Everything.

GROSS: ...than what you were used to?

Mr. FALK: Everything. Everything John did was original, everything. Every bone in his body was original. He was the most fertile man I've ever met. I'll never meet anyone as fertile as he was.

GROSS: When you improvised with Cassavetes in a movie, what was the process of improvisation like?

Mr. FALK: There's much less improvisation in his movies than people think. I could make a lot of money if I would bet somebody, I'd say you point out the scenes to me that are improvised, and when you're wrong, you pay me, and when you're right, I'll pay you.

You can't tell the difference between what's improvised and what isn't improvised in John's scenes. John introduced a new standard of spontaneity, a new standard of spontaneous behavior in acting. Nobody did that before. He started that.

There were times when John would want you to improvise. There were other times where it was strictly written, and you were expected to follow the script.

GROSS: Working with Cassavetes, did that bring out a certain spontaneity in you, in your performances?

Mr. FALK: Oh yeah, it did, but it took me a long time to trust him, because actors, we have our own idea about how we, how we act, and you rely on - well, technique has a lot to do with acting. Technique has a lot to do with the craft of acting, and that's the one thing John didn't want. I mean, he didn't want you to be technical, even in the best sense.

You can get an actor who's an extremely capable technical actor, and nobody can tell the difference.

GROSS: What strikes me with Cassavetes' movies, one of the many things that make them different is that there's a lot more - everything's slower. There's more space around actions and words. There's silences and pauses and just a lot of room. And I was wondering if that made it -made you pace yourself differently in a performance, knowing that the camera was going to be on you maybe for a long time and in moments that to another director might seem like an off-moment and not an on-moment.

Mr. FALK: Yeah, that's the one thing John never wanted you to think about, and the way he directed prevented you from thinking about that, whether or not you were going to take more space or whether you were going to take less space or whether this scene called for whatever, this kind of mood or that kind of mood.

He was trying to get you to get rid of all that crap, just behave, behave, let me worry about it later on. And then he would cut the scene. But while you were doing it, he would do anything to stop you from thinking. He would do anything to stop you from trying to figure out how am I going to do this. And he would never tell you anything.

And the reason he wouldn't tell you anything was because he was afraid of words. He was afraid that those words would then be re-translated into some clich´┐Ż.

GROSS: Well, why wouldn't he tell you? He just - he didn't want you thinking?

Mr. FALK: He didn't want you thinking, and if you start talking about what the character is feeling, you do have that danger of saying: Oh, I understand now. This is how you play embarrassment. And you play it the way you've seen somebody else play it, or you have some idea of how to play it.

And what usually happens is that the behavior lacks the ambiguity that most behavior has, where it's not just - there are different kinds of anger. There are different kinds of charm. They - they're not all the same, and there's mixtures involved at any given moment in time. And I think that's why the behavior in his pictures - to me, at any rate - are more interesting. So he wouldn't tell you anything. And...

GROSS: So this threw you off-balance, having...

Mr. FALK: Yes.

GROSS: ...technique taken away from you and...

Mr. FALK: Yes. Yes, and I was off-balance, and I was irritated, and I was angry, and I was afraid, and I was nervous. I was all those things. He had to break - break everybody down. And he did. And it was good that he did. And he was able to do it.

GROSS: I want to ask you. You have a glass eye. And I think that happened when you were three, you had a tumor removed?

Mr. FALK: Yeah.

GROSS: And I guess they removed your eye too?

Mr. FALK: Yeah, it was a malignant tumor.

GROSS: Do you think that that's - that you've made that work for you as an actor, to affect your image, to use it as something that looked menacing or that makes you look more vulnerable?

Mr. FALK: Well, none of that was consciously - I mean the only thing that I would be aware of when I was acting was to try to avoid looking 100 percent walleyed, you know, so that if you were to look in one direction, and one eye went all the way to the left, and the other one was still in the middle, I try to avoid that. But I have never consciously felt as though I'll use it in some way.

GROSS: Could you not get shot from certain angles because your eye wouldn't move, and that would be the only eye on camera?

Mr. FALK: I'm better off from the left side because(ph) I think that that minimizes the walleyed thing.

GROSS: Uh-huh. Did kids pay you to look (unintelligible)...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FALK: That would've been good. No, they no, they never did that. No, when you were a kid, you know, I used to dread that moment when somebody would say what's the matter with your eye or something like that. And it was a turning point, I don't know, when I was 12 or 13 years old. I think it had to do more with playing ball with the guys, because once you started knocking around with those guys, they were so open about it, and they would say it so freely, and it was usually a gag or a joke or knocking you or whatever the hell it is, that by then it didn't mean anything to me anymore. I was very comfortable with it.

GROSS: Did it interfere with...

Mr. FALK: Because I realized - the other thing is then I realized I could get a laugh with it.

GROSS: Now, did it interfere with anything that you wanted to do?

Mr. FALK: No, no, not at all. No, the main - well, I think one of the main problems with the eye was the fact that my mother would - if I'd go play football or whatever sport, she was always nervous about it. And I always thought that was ridiculous, nothing to be nervous about. You know, when you're that age, nothing can happen to you.

And you could always get people's attention if you took a spoon and tapped it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Oh, gosh.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FALK: I remember the first night I was in the Merchant Marines. There was this black guy from San Francisco no, I think he was from Oakland. He didn't know me, I didn't know him. We just shared this (unintelligible) together for the first night. And he was sitting up in the top bunk opposite me, and I came in and I sat down. It was already very, very late, and he had his pajamas on.

So I started getting undressed. At that time, I had - my front teeth were knocked out, and I had removable bridge. So I took out that bridge and put it on the table. It had a nice sound effect, a little clunk, when that went down. And then I popped the eye out, and then the glass hit the tabletop. That had a nice sound effect.

And he's up there, he's up there watching me. And then I bent over, and I started unscrewing my knee. It was a gesture, you know, where I started turning it, and it looked like I was about to remove my leg.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FALK: And I always remember him saying: Excuse me, I'll be right back.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FALK: He went somewhere, probably the men's room.

GROSS: Well, I want to thank you so much for talking with us.

Mr. FALK: Well, you're very welcome.

GROSS: My interview with Peter Falk was recorded in 1995. He died Thursday at the age of 83. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

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