Friday, June 24, 2011

The Late Great Peter Falk

Peter Falk, the actor best known for playing rumpled television detective Lt. Columbo and who appeared in films ranging from Pocketful of Miracles (1961) to The Great Race (1965) to The Princess Bride (1987), passed Thursday, 23 June 2011 at the age of 83. For the past few years he had suffered from Alzheimer’s disease.

Peter Falk was born pm 26 September 1927 in Manhattan, New York. For a while when Mr. Falk was very young his family lived in The Bronx, but it was not long before the family moved to Ossining, New York where Mr. Falk grew up. His first appearance on stage was when he was only twelve, when he appeared in a production off Pirates of Penzance at camp (where, coincidentally, one of his camp counsellors was lifelong friend and fellow future actor Ross Martin). He attended Ossining High School where he excelled as an athlete, despite having only one eye (his right eye was removed at age three due to a retinoblastoma and he afterwards wore a glass eye).  After high school he attended Hamilton College in Clinton, New York. He dropped out to enlist in the Armed Forces, but was classified 4-F due to having but one eye, whereupon he joined the Merchant Marine. Afterwards he attended the New School for Social Research in New York City where he received a bachelor's degree in political science. He then attended Syracuse University where he received a master's degree in public administration.

After leaving Syracuse University Mr. Falk took a position with the Connecticut budget bureau as an efficiency expert. It was while in Connecticut that he joined an acting troupe called the Mark Twain Masquers based out of Hartford. He studied acting under Eva Le Gallienne at the White Barn Theatre in Westport.  It was then at the age of 29 that he moved to New York City to become an actor full time. His professional début was in an off Broadway production of Molière’s Don Juan in 1956. He also made his début on Brodway in a production of Saint Joan. In 1957 he appeared in an off Broadway production of The Iceman Cometh. It was also that year that he first appeared on television, appearing in episodes of Robert Montgomery Presents, Camera Three, and Studio One.

The late Fifties would be a very busy time for Peter Falk as an actor. On Broadway he appeared in Diary of a Scoundrel. On television he appeared in episodes of such shows as  Armstrong Circle Theatre, Kraft Theatre, Decoy, and Have Gun--Will Travel. He made his movie début in 1958 in Wind Across the Everglades. He appeared in the films The Bloody Brood (1959), Pretty Boy Floyd (1960), and Murder Inc. (1960).  For his role in Murder Inc. he received an Oscar nomination for Best Actor in a Supporting Role, but lost to Peter Ustinov for his role in Spartacus (1960).

The Sixties would see Peter Falk very much in demand, as he would be for the rest of his career. On Broadway he appeared in The Passion of Josef D in 1964. On television he starred in the lead role of the short lived series The Trials of O'Brien, which ran from 1965 to 1966. He guest starred on such shows as The Aquanauts, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, The Twilight Zone, Naked City, The Dick Powell Theatre, Wagon Train, and The Red Skelton Hour. In 1967 he appeared in the television movie, historic Prescription: Murder, historic as the first time Peter Falk played Lt. Columbo. He appeared in such films as Pocketful of Miracles (1961), Pressure Point (1962), It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World (1963), Robin and the 7 Hoods (1964), The Great Race  (1965), Penelope (1966), Too Many Thieves (1967), Machine Gun Mccain (1967), Castle Keep (1969), and Husbands. He received a second Oscar nomination for Best Actor in a Supporting Role for his part in Pocketful of Miracles.

The Seventies see Peter Falk assume his most famous role on a regular basis, appearing in the lead role on the series Columbo. Lt. Columbo was a dishevelled detective whose bumbling demeanour hid a razor sharp mind. As a result, the culprits of the murders on the show always underestimated Columbo, who always knew they had a committed the crime--for him it was simply a matter of figuring out how. One of the rotating series of the umbrella series The NBC Mystery Movie, Columbo would outlive it by a long shot. It ran on and off from 1971 to 2003. On television Mr. Falk would also guest star on The Name of the Game. He appeared in such movies as A Woman Under the Influence (1974), Murder by Death (1976), Mikey and Nick (1976), The Cheap Detective (1978), The Brinks Job (1978), and The In-Laws (1979).  On Broadway he appeared in The Prisoner of Second Avenue.

Peter Falk would work less from the Eighties to the Naughts, although he was still very much in demand. He appeared in the films The Great Muppet Caper (1981), All the Marbles (1981), Big Trouble (1986), Der Himmel über Berlin (1987 Wings of Desire), Happy New Year (1987), The Princess Bride (1987), In the Spirit (1990), Cops n Robbers (1995), Roommates (1997), Made (2001), Undisputed (2003), Three Days to Vegas (2007), Next (2007), and American Cowslip (2009). He continued to appear on television as Columbo, as well in such telefilms as A Town Without Christmas, Wilder Days, and Finding John Christmas.

This had been one of the harder eulogies I have ever had to write. Peter Falk numbered among my favourite actors of all time, and not simply because he played my favourite television detective. Peter Falk was an incredibly talented actor who could play large variety of roles. Indeed, even after playing Lt. Columbo for years, Peter Falk was never typecast because he was so flexible as an actor. He could play a hardened killer, as he did in Murder Inc., or he could play a loving if curmudgeonly grandfather (and narrator of the story) in The Princess Bride. He could play a sergeant in the Army more interested in making love than war (Castle Keep) or a CIA agent with a precarious grasp of his sanity (The In-Laws). He was equally adept at both comedy and drama. Indeed, I suspect Peter Falk was nominated for the Oscar for Best Actor in a Supporting Role for Pocketful of Miracles because he simply acted circles around even the more experienced members of the cast.

Of course, there can be no denying that Peter Falk was best known for playing Lt. Columbo on the series Columbo on and off for thirty years. Indeed, while Peter Falk was not the first actor to play the rumpled detective (that would be Bert Freed in the episode "Enough Rope" of The Chevy Mystery Show in 1960), Peter Falk made the role all his own. Indeed, if many of the obituaries in the mainstream press read more like obituaries for Lt. Columbo than Peter Falk, perhaps it was because Mr. Falk was so great in the role that it is inconceivable anyone else could play it. In part this may be because Lt. Columbo and Mr. Falk were in many ways alike. Lt. Columbo was a rumpled detective and a bit of a bumbler whom the murderers on the show never suspected was a brilliant detective. Peter Falk was an ordinary looking guy--hardly a matinee idol--who possessed an acting talent that surpassed many other actors. Both Lt. Columbo and Peter Falk could fool and surprise individuals who never suspected that they were both incredibly remarkable men.

Indeed, in playing Lt. Columbo Peter Falk created what may be one of the five television greatest characters of all time. That Peter Falk would pour his incredible talent and so much energy into a character on a TV series also shows why Mr. Falk was such a great actor. Unlike many actors, Mr. Falk was not a snob. Even though he worked with such directors as Frank Capra, Blake Edwards, and John Cassavetes, he would take work in television and devoted the same attention to his craft that he did in feature films. What is more, Mr. Falk was not simply a great talent, but reportedly a true gentleman as well. When singer Johnny Cash guest starred on Columbo he recalled how kind Mr. Falk was to him despite his inexperience in acting. In Cash: The Autobiography he wrote, "Peter Falk was good to me. I wasn't at all confident about handling a dramatic role, and every day he helped me in all kinds of little ways." Peter Falk was one of the great acting talents in both movies and television, beloved by those with whom he worked and audiences alike. He may be best remembered as Lt. Columbo, but he did so much more.

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