Friday, June 24, 2011

Good-bye, Columbo

Yes, I know American actor Peter Falk--who died Thursday night at age 83--did many other things before starring in the long-running TV series Columbo. To quote from The New York Times’ obituary, he had “a wide-ranging career in comedy and drama, in the movies and onstage ... He was nominated for two Oscars; appeared in original stage productions of works by Paddy Chayefsky, Neil Simon and Arthur Miller; worked with the directors Frank Capra, John Cassavetes, Blake Edwards and Mike Nichols; and co-starred with the likes of Frank Sinatra, Bette Davis and Jason Robards.” (The International Movie Database [IMDb] offers a lengthy rundown of his credits).

However, like author Ed Lynskey, I shall always remember Falk best as rumpled but shrewd Los Angeles police detective Lieutenant Columbo (no official first name), a role in which he first appeared 43 years ago. Along with McCloud and McMillan & Wife, Columbo--created by William Link and Richard Levinson--became a bedrock element of the 1970s “wheel series,” the NBC Mystery Movie. And Falk quickly established his protagonist as “Joe Everyman,” according to Link--a cop who didn’t exhibit the investigative pretensions of many classic fictional sleuths, but in fact had no shortage of wits. “[H]e’s got a brain like a computer, although he hides it,” Link says. “And that’s the way he sucks these murderers in. ... He doesn’t seem like the brightest guy, not the sharpest knife in the drawer; he’s always talking about his wife and relatives. So [the murderers] give him leeway. But he’s just conning them there before he goes in for the kill.”

Writing earlier today on The Wall Street Journal’s Web site, author Lee Goldberg captured Columbo’s appeal nicely:
Yes, Columbo was brilliant, as outrageously so as Hercule Poirot or Sherlock Holmes. But thanks to Falk’s humanity and humor, his pitch-perfect performance and shrewd choices, he made Columbo more than a character to us and much more than a collection of colorful quirks. He made him a living, breathing person.

With his hang-dog looks, driving up in his wretched car (personally selected by Falk from the Universal Studios motor pool), schlepping into the crime scene in his wrinkled overcoat (pulled from Falk’s own closet), looking at everything with his one, good eye while chewing on a cigar stub, Columbo was immediately relatable to us, to people the world over, in a way that no TV cop had ever been before ... or has been since. We’d all met guys like him. Many of us were guys like him. ...

In every story, Falk’s Columbo showed us what a grave mistake it was to judge a person by how they dressed, the car they drove, or how much education they had. Every time he brought down one of those rich, highly educated, supremely self-confident, outrageously good-looking murderers, he not only chipped away at our ridiculous notions of what makes a hero, he offered us escape in an entirely different way. Falk made us believe, through his deceptively simple performance, that we didn’t have to be rich, well-dressed, or have an Ivy League education to be the smartest person in the room ... nor did we have to be physically perfect, and the consummate tough guy, to be a man.

We just had to be true to ourselves.
I’ve written many times on this page about Columbo and Falk and the series’ development, because that show and character meant a great deal to me when I was growing up. The NBC Mystery Movie first got me interested in crime fiction, and I have been a loyal fan ever since. I own all of the regular Columbo episodes on DVD (though not the subsequent teleflicks), and I was thrilled last year at the chance to interview William Link about that show and his collection of Columbo short stories. To me and many others, I suspect, Falk’s Columbo--with his cigars, his wont to ask “just one more question,” his battered Peugeot, his unseen but evidently extensive family, his lethargic basset hound, and his stealthy genius--became more than a familiar figure; he became a friend. And the news that Falk, and with him the lieutenant, has died comes as a shocking event. Even though, with the actor’s worsening Alzheimer’s disease, we all knew he couldn’t be long for this world.

As a small way of paying tribute to Columbo, I’ve gathered here some videos--samplings of an acting career well spent, and a series destined to live on well past the hour of Falk’s funeral. They don’t fill the gap of Falk’s absence. But they remind us why that absence seems momentous.

A preview of the Columbo series on DVD:

Jamie Lee Curtis made her TV debut playing a waitress in this 1977 episode, “Try and Catch Me”:

Columbo with John Cassavetes in 1972’s “Étude in Black”:

Columbo with Robert Conrad in 1974’s “An Exercise in Fatality”:

Columbo’s less-than-elegant descent of a canyon crime scene:

Peter Falk, in character, takes part in a 1977 Dean Martin roast:

READ MORE:Peter Falk, 1927-2011,” by Andrew O’Hehir (Salon); “Remembering Peter Falk: His 10 Best Movies,” by Gary Susman (The Moviefone Blog).


Kiwicraig said...

Great post Jeff. Columbo was a little before my time, and didn't really show on NZ television when I was growing up, so this morning (NZT), I just put up a post pointing to lots of other people's comments about Falk (who I remember from the Princes Bride) and Columbo. I noted then (a few hours ago) that I was looking forward to your eventual post, given your great coverage of crime TV. It was worth the wait.

Barbara said...

Columbo was unique. My husband and I loved the character and couldn't imagine that the part was first offered to Bing Crosby of all people. Only Peter Falk could do Columbo justice. I didn't realize he had Alzheimer's; it just isn't fair. He was a superb actor, a great loss for us.