Q&A: Peter Falk — actor by accident?
When I interviewed Falk on the Burbank Studios lot in 1986 it was easy to see where the lovable Columbo got his eccentricities — and his raincoat.
“Columbo” the TV show may have died and gone to syndication heaven, but Columbo, the slightly off-center but lovable homicide detective, is alive and well in the person of Peter Falk.
Falk no longer runs around in a rumpled raincoat constructing cases against rich and powerful murderers. But after just a few minutes in his new office on the Burbank Studios lot, it becomes clear where the deceptively casual Lt. Columbo inherited his endearing eccentricities.
Falk, 57, is surrounded by a gallery of photographs — his two daughters, himself, his hero Ted Williams in full swing — and half a dozen black-and-white sketches of his own making.
Friendly and shoe-less, he slouches back in his swivel chair, feet on his desk top, flicking his cigarette in the general direction of the stand-up ash tray next to him. Later, hunched over his desk, he doodles as his gravelly, familiar voice with its East Coast pool-room accent starts, stops and sometimes approaches inaudibility.
He’s a regular guy who seems more eager to talk baseball than acting, but is still willing to spin plenty of stories about himself.
He began his adult life as a cook with the U.S. Merchant Marine (the childhood tumor that cost him his right eye didn’t stop him from being a good amateur athlete, but it did keep him out of the Marines). He kicked around at several colleges, including Syracuse University, where he picked up a masters in Public Administration.
Before that he attended Manhattan’s very liberal New School of Social Research, a fact which helped keep him out of the CIA when he applied for work there in 1953.
His 1946 vacation to Yugoslavia during his college years and his inadvertent membership in what was considered a “pink” Merchant Marine union, he points out with glee, made him such a hopeless CIA candidate that his interviewer laughed him out of the office.
Falk began acting full-time in 1955, after quitting his job as an efficiency expert for the State of Connecticut. In 1956 his off-Broadway work as the bartender in “The Iceman Cometh” brought him some attention and eventually led to steady work as a heavy in TV and films.
By 1961 the son of a department store owner in Ossining, N.Y., had been nominated for two best-supporting Oscars (as a vicious killer in “Murder, Inc.” in 1960 and as a Brooklyn hood in “Pocketful of Miracles in 1961). He also had won an Emmy for his portrayal of a truck driver in a TV play called “The Price of Tomatoes.”
Since then, his credits have ranged from “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad World” (1963) and the Neil Simon comedies “Murder by Death” (1976) and “The Cheap Detective (1978) to “Husbands” (1970) and “A Woman Under the Influence” (1974), a pair of small-budget but powerful films done with his longtime friend, actor/director John Cassavetes.
In 1972 Falk won a Tony for Simon’s “Prisoner of Second Avenue.” He hasn’t done any TV acting since the immensely popular “Columbo” went off the air in 1977 — after 40 episodes and three more Emmys over five years — but he’s been kept busy in movies.
His latest is “Big Trouble,” a screwball comedy directed by Cassavetes and co-starring another of Falk’s Hollywood cronies, Alan Arkin, with whom he last teamed in 1979 in “The In-Laws.”
In “Big Trouble, which opens this month, Falk plays an amiable but quite insane con-man who lures Arkin, an unwitting, hard-working insurance salesman, into a crazy scheme to defraud his own company. It’s a typically wacky role for a short and stocky man whose likeable and very human characters always seem to have a great deal of the real Peter Falk shining through.
How’s life been treating you since your “Columbo” days? Do you miss being the center of all that attention?
FALK: I’m trying to find some way to say this … Fame is a terrific thing. It has its advantages. But I don’t think most people realize how quick it grows old. What you have to say about fame, if you’re talking about its relationship to happiness, is that it’s overrated.
You ask what do you miss about Columbo. What you got a kick out of? It’s great to be on the cover of Time magazine. But what you get a kick out of was when you looked at the dailies and saw that character do something that tickled you, and you enjoyed it so. The way you played the scene and the whole damn thing worked. What you miss is the frustrations when they didn’t work the way you wanted them to, and the delight when they did work. It’s great when people ask for your autograph, but it’s a poor second to doing something that tickles you.
Did you ever seek fame or dream of being famous?
FALK: I never dreamed of it. Just the opposite. No. I grew up in Ossining, N.Y.. and I put in my time on the street corner. I put in my time in the pool room, and I liked sports. I would have been embarrassed to tell any of my friends that I had any idea of being an actor.
My conception of being an actor was very naive and very romantic. I thought actors were some rare species. I thought they were artists, and I thought artists were Europeans. They came from Europe, ’cause I never saw any where I came from.
When I eventually got up enough courage to become one, I thought that Heaven on Earth was not being the star — that was out of the question. Heaven on Earth was being admitted to the Actors Studio. If I ever got admitted to the Actors Studio, that’s the end of the line — that was …
Lee Strasberg’s Actors Studio?
FALK: Yeah. That was in New York City. That was just the place where actors used to go to rehearse among themselves. In those days, that was the big thing. You never got paid for it. Nobody except for a few people. If I had a dream, my dream was that I would be able to make a living on the stage, in New York, as an actor. That I would be a working actor who got paid for acting. And I would have some credibility with other actors. I didn’t become one until I was 26 years old. I mean, I didn’t announce to myself that I wanted to be an actor.
It’s been reported that you started out wanting to be a politician. Was that just because there was nothing else to do?
FALK: No. When I was in school they kept making me president of the class, so I thought, “You’ll be a politician.”
Where did you go right? When did you change your plans?
FALK: I think I realized, once I matured, that I wasn’t cut out to go out and kiss babies.
You didn’t have any burning desire to get elected Governor of New York?
FALK: No. The desire to be a politician left me very quickly.
Are you politically oriented now?
FALK: Yes. I’m interested in politics. We all have to be. But it’s unfortunate, the amount of cynicism that’s connected to politics. I think it’s bad for the country. I think a lot of the cynicism might be justified, but it would be a healthier country, particularly in terms of big offices, if we could be tough on these guys, but on important things. Frequently we get caught up in being tough on them in unimportant ways. It makes it tough for people to go into politics. There’s a real danger that good people are staying away. It’s just too rough.
I think we oscillate from one extreme to another, so that the feeling that one man, whoever is President, is responsible for all the good, is responsible for all the evil, is very hard for me to believe.
I think the politicians are totally lucky, totally lucky. Something happens that’s actually out of their control — oil prices go up and everything is thrown out of whack. Oil prices go down, they get lucky. They make it sound like they did it. I think the country is too complex. These are short term things. In two years, it can go bad again. So I can’t get that worked up about those things.
Why did you choose acting?
FALK: There must have been some thing in me that drew me to it, because wherever I was, I’d end up acting. I’d al ways go in through the back door … in high school … and at Syracuse University.
Then when I was in New York at the New School of Social Research, there was a place called the Dramatic Workshop, very well known. It was run by Erwin Piscator, a German Expressionist director who left Germany in the ’30s. And I was majoring in whatever the hell I was majoring in — I don’t remember. History?
Whatever it was, I was just stalling you know? But I knew one thing — the less work I could do the better I liked it. And I saw you could get credit for being in a play. The guy said, ‘Oh no, you gotta have these prerequisites, you gotta take fencing or something.’ I said, ‘I don’t want to do that — could I read for the play?
So I read for the play and they give me the lead. And this guy offers me a scholarship to go become a drama major. And I remember sitting in Louie’s Tavern, laughing my rear off … this guy is asking me to be an actor. He thinks I’m one of these dopes. He thinks that I don’t know this is amateur night here, what we’re doing.
You can’t make a living as an actor. What am I going to do, starve in a garret in Greenwich Village? Not for me. I was above it all.
Secretly, I was so thrilled. But I was so frightened, so intimidated that I would never admit it. So, I told him no. And that was only out of fear, fear of failure. I really wanted to do it.
I went to a lot of different colleges and I’d always end up doing a play. When I finally got a job where people were paying me — I was going 9 to 5 in Hartford, Conn., as a government efficiency expert — I couldn’t even find the office. I was no efficiency expert.
But they had a little theater over there and now I gravitate over there. My life used to begin at night, when I’d go to that little theater and act. So, no matter where I was, l ended up onstage acting.
But I could never confront it, face it and say that that’s what I wanted to do. Because I thought to be an actor you had… what did you ask me?
How you ended up being an actor — I think you answered it: You don’t know. You just ended up being one.
FALK: Oh, oh, oh. Why I ended up being an actor. Jim Backus said if I wasn’t an actor I’d be a box boy in Food Giant.
Food Giant? That must be a New York grocery store?
FALK: Don’t they have Food Giants out here?
As an actor, you seem to have gotten pretty good reviews. Have you ever been really blasted by critics?
FALK: I don’t remember bad reviews in television, but I got bad reviews in theater and in movies. The first review I ever got on the stage was in 1956 by the leading critic in the country at that time, Walter Kerr, in my first play in New York — the New World Premiere of Molière’s “Don Juan.” It had never been done before in this country — and if that production has anything to do with it, it never will be done again.
I opened that show and Walter Kerr opened his review on me — it’s burned into my memory: ‘Peter Falk got the evening off to a wonderfully paralyzed start with 10 minutes of totally unaccented exposition.’
That play was my introduction to method acting. The director was trying to get rid of that artificial presentation of acting where you come out … Ahh, incidentally, George Segal ended up in that production. I remember his blue pastel knickers and the buckles on his shoes. And I remember my buckles. It was fun.
How did you end up in Hollywood?
While I was still in New York, I did a Hollywood picture, a Twentieth Century-Fox picture with Mai Britt and Stuart Whitman as the stars, but they came to New York because it was about New York gangsters –“Murder, Inc.” (1960).
I had never been to Hollywood before. I rarely got above 14th Street. Off-Broadway was down in the Village, and that’s where we lived. I hadn’t been in a movie. “Murder, Inc.” came to New York and I got the part, and then I got nominated for an Academy Award.
Did that Oscar nomination have a big effect on your career?
FALK: That was the turning point in terms of recognition outside the small group of people in New York City. As a result, Frank Capra cast me in “Pocketful of Miracles” (1961). That was the first picture I ever made out here. Glenn Ford. Bette Davis. That was Ann-Margret’s first movie.
Then I got nominated for it. So, I said, ‘Geez, how long has this been going on? All you have to do is get in a picture and you get nominated. There’s nothing to this.’
So in your first two movies you were nominated for Oscars?
FALK: And in the same two years I was nominated for an Emmy for “The Price of Tomatoes” on the “Dick Powell Theater.”
Do you enjoy being an actor?
Which do you prefer doing … TV, film or stage?
We’ve heard that when you first moved out here to Hollywood, you thought filming — with all the lights and paraphernalia, etc. — was very artificial?
FALK: Right. But I feel the reverse now. I believe you can be more subtle on film, more real on film. Playing in a big theater, I’m more aware of the artificiality.
Which of your roles are you most proud of?
FALK: I would say “Columbo.”I thought I was good in “Under the Influence.” I liked my work in “The In-Laws.”
You’ve done a lot of movie work with your friends Alan Arkin, who was in “The In-Laws,” and John Cassavetes, who’s directing your new movie, “Big Trouble.” Is it more fun shooting movies with your pals?
FALK: Yeah, it’s nice working with guys you like, guys you get along with, guys you respect. But that’s no guarantee that things won’t go bad. But l am comfortable with Alan and I do enjoy him and respect him a lot.
Are there any movie roles you wish you hadn’t taken?
FALK: I thought I was lousy in “Luv.”
Just looking back on it, or for any particular reason?
FALK: No. I thought it was lousy when I was doing it.
Was it the wrong part?
FALK: Well, a lot of it was probably my fault. Some of it was the script.
Let’s talk about “Columbo.” What made it such a success, so special? Was it just you, or was it the concept?
FALK: I think it was the character of Columbo, primarily. I don’t think you could separate it out — the character, the story, the fact that it was a mystery. But I think the hub of it starts with the character. That’s the heart of it, the soul of it.
Newsweek called Columbo a “lovable, low-key guy.” Lovable, eccentric — was that what it was?
FALK: Ahhh, well, what was it?
People like somebody they can identify with. A man or person not above them, but among them. Ahhh, so, I think they identified with the common aspects of Columbo. I mean, he’s like everybody — he’s one of us.
But at the same time, people have always been attracted to heroes — people who are bigger than life, exceptional. In some ways, Columbo was both.
Elaine May said he was an ass-backward Sherlock Holmes. Holmes was smart, but he was an aristocrat. Columbo was just like everyone who walks the streets.
On the other hand, there’s something exceptional about his mind. That had something to do with it: his lack of pretension — people like somebody who’s not affected, they like somebody who’s human.
By human — what do I mean by human? He’s got a sense of humor, about himself. He’s interested in what human people are interested in — ‘What did you pay for that pair of shoes?’
His wife is on his mind. Guns make too much noise — ‘I don’t want to go to target practice. There’s too much damn noise there.’ It’s a human thing. You get a new raincoat in that one episode, it’s a human thing to feel uncomfortable in something new. It’s stiff.
He nails a guy who’s got a lot of dough, is handsome, is on top of the world, because a guy reached too far, greedy — he regrets that. He regrets that the guy had to go that route. It’s a human thing.
Also, the clues were good, the murders were clever, and the twists at the end were delicious and unexpected and convincing.
You had good writers?
FALK: We didn’t cheat. We didn’t make a lot of shows — only six or eight a year.
Where’s the raincoat?
FALK: The raincoat’s in my house. It was my raincoat.
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