Saturday, July 16, 2011

Peter Falk: Offer You His Raincoat

On June 23rd, 2011, Peter Falk fell away from this world and, at that moment, this world became a lesser place. By now the tributes surely number in the thousands and possibly (probably) everything that can be said about his career has been said so I'll not lead you down that path again. Instead, I'd like to tell you how Peter Falk wove his way through my life and into the life of my step-daughter without ever knowing it. But he did and did so powerfully.

Peter Falk was the first celebrity of which I have any recollection. That's because every time Columbo rotated its way back into the NBC Mystery Movie line-up, my family watched it. My mom, my dad, my brother and my sister. We all watched Columbo, together. And even though I was too young to follow the show, I enjoyed it. Peter Falk had a comforting presence that made everything seem all right. Columbo never got rattled, never lost his nerve or his temper. He was calming, deliberate and patient. He was, like my own father, a perfect role model.

Although I didn't realize it until later, there was something extraordinary about Columbo, something that would have failed, and miserably, without Peter Falk. I didn't realize as a kid that mysteries weren't supposed to show you who the killer was in the opening shot. By the time I saw Agatha Christie murder mysteries later, a part of me wondered, "How come they're not telling us who did it from the start?" Columbo, unlike any other mystery, showed you the murder and then showed you Detective Columbo figure it out (save two episodes). Think about that: The viewer saw the murderer in the opening scene. That meant that figuring it out couldn't be the thing that held your attention. It had to be held by a character figuring out something that you already knew! There's a reason no other mysteries bothered with this format: They didn't have Peter Falk.

And it was Peter Falk that held my famiy's attention. It was him. He kept us coming back and all of us fell in love with him, watching him on our television at home, in Charleston. Charleston, South Carolina.

And it was in Charleston, South Carolina, in the summer of 1974 that we got news that Columbo was coming to town. An episode was going to be filmed at The Citadel, the military college located in Charleston. It got even better. Richard, a neighbor and friend of my dad's, worked at The Citadel and was put in charge of public relations. One day my dad came home and told everyone that Richard had set it up. We we're all going to meet Peter Falk!

The excitement from my sister was about as palpable as anything you can possibly imagine. She didn't just love the show, she was in love with Peter Falk and couldn't believe something so astonishingly lucky could possibly be happening to her.

"Boy," she must have thought, "did we pick the right town to live in!"

Yes, we would all meet Peter Falk. Well, everyone except me and my mom. When the day came, I didn't want to go. I was little and still didn't really understand it all and even though he was a comforting figure, I was a kid and it was hot and, well, my mom and I stayed home. My dad took my brother and sister to The Citadel and they got an autographed picture from him and got to take pictures of themselves hanging out around and sitting in Columbo's famous Peugeot 403 while the cast and crew worked out the nuts and bolts of the episode. We still have those pictures, of course, as well as the autographed photos to my sister and brother. And they all thought he was great. How could they not? Story after story about Peter Falk reveals a man of generosity and kindness and friendship. My brother and sister and dad were not let down.

When the episode aired, By Dawn's Early Light, with Patrick McGoohan and Bruno Kirby, we watched proudly as the episode revealed itself to be one of the best the show had ever offered up. And to think it was filmed right there, right there in Charleston! And my brother and sister and dad had been right there, on the set, for one day of the filming.

As I grew older I watched Columbo in reruns and slowly understood the brilliance of Falk's portrayal. In 1979 I saw The In-Laws with my mom and loved it. I started to really get Peter Falk. Then I saw him in movies like Murder, Inc and The Brinks Job and, finally, the semi-improvised works of John Cassavettes. Eventually, I wondered why he wasn't more celebrated than he was.

I still wonder that.

After that I went to college, got a job and started living life. I got married, got divorced and in the luckiest stroke of my life met Laura, a wonderful woman with wonderful children and we fell in love and got married. Her daughter, Elle, was a toddler when we met and I've watched her grow over the years and take on many of the same interests as Laura and I. Like any kid, she loves watching certain movies over and over. One of those movies, early on, was The Princess Bride. Thanks to her, I've probably seen that movie, in pieces or whole, a hundred times. Don't ever ask me to watch The Princess Bride. I've seen it. Believe me, I've seen it.

But like I said, she loves classic films too and, by chance, a couple of years back, we decided to rent It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World to watch with her. In it, she saw and recognized Peter Falk. What's more, she liked him. He was the sweet, wonderful grandfather, after all, from The Princess Bride, how could you not? So when all the original episodes of Columbo suddenly showed up on Netflix Instant, we decided to give them a try.

We loved them. They were an instant and gratifying hit. We watched an episode at least every Friday, sometimes one or two others during the week. Eventually, we made it through the entire original series and, when we finished, felt a little sad that it was over. There were other, of course, later Columbos made in the eighties and nineties but, somehow, those felt different. We were going to watch them anyway but the original Columbo was done.

That was about three months ago. Shortly after finishing our run, I found a copy of Falk's autobiography, Just One More Thing, at the library bookstore we go to and bought it. It's told in simple anecdotes rather than chapter after chapter of long winded, ghostwritten prose. It's Falk, through and through, and in it he shows a penchant for dismissing himself and exalting others. As soon as Elle saw it, she got excited. Laura and I gave it to her so she could look through it from time to time, whenever she wanted.

Then, within two weeks of that purchase, we heard the news that Peter Falk had died. When Laura told Elle she teared up. It was like losing a grandfather, even if it was a grandfather you never met in person. And so, I gave thanks that day that Elle had met Peter before he left this world. I gave thanks that he had fascinated me enough as a child that I reconnected with him later in life and, through that, Elle and I had found a new connection. When I first met Peter Falk it was through a shared experience with family. When I bid him farewell the family was new but the shared experience was the same.

And now, for the last time, goodbye Peter. And thank you. Thank you for everything.