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.


Vanwall said...

A lovely memento to celebrate Falk with - he was a great actor, period. My earliest memory of him is from "The Great Race" which i saw in the theater, and was certainly discombobulated when I began identifying him in dramatic parts, he was amazingly chameleonic that's a for sure! I loved McGoohan and Falk's playing off each other, they did it so well a coupla times.

Greg said...

A great actor, period - I completely agree. And in Dawn's Early Light he and McGoohan are just perfect together.

Fred said...

I was going to pull out my rumpled old camel-colored raincoat and wear it to court this week, but the 90+ weather in NYC put the kibosh on those plans.

My family also used to watch Colombo religiously, and that episode, Dawn's Early Light was a particular highlight since it brought two of our favorite actors from two of our favorite shows together. It was Number Six meets Colombo! As a result of our love of the show, we used to always buy Colombo yoghurt (which my folks never told me had absolutely NO relationship to the show -- they just wanted me to eat yoghurt) and watch for Peter Falk in whatever film or show he showed up in (such as the much critically-maligned Castle Keep which my brothers and I loved). Thanks for a wonderful tribute.

Troy Olson said...

A fantastic tribute to Falk, Greg -- I love stories that can relate our love of movies/TV with real life. Give this whole endeavor even more value :)

My wife and I caught Colombo in reruns (we weren't quite old enough to watch them during their original run) and immediately became hooked, to the point we bought the DVD's and still watch them from time-to-time (my personal favorite episode: Etude in Black). Falk was a one-of-a-kind performer.

Jandy Stone said...

What a great post, Greg - I teared up a little myself at the end, along with your stepdaughter. I watched Columbo a few times growing up, enough to know I enjoyed it but not enough to call myself a fan. Most of my Falk memories are tied up with The Princess Bride. And The Cheap Detective/Murder by Death, interestingly enough.

Greg said...

Fred, there are so many things Falk has done that endeared him to me but I never saw him in Castle Keep.

And love the yogurt story. I would've eaten it too if I thought it was associated with him.

Greg said...

Troy, I really love the "The Bye-Bye Sky High I.Q. Murder Case" if only for the fever pitch with which Theodore Bikel plays his part. Also love the one with Louis Jourdan as the chef who kills with poison in the wine. One of the pleasures of Columbo was watching Falk interacts with all those great actors!

Greg said...

Jandy, Elle loves Murder by Death! She's watched that a hundred times, too and laughs herself silly every time. Still haven't watched The Cheap Detective with her, though. That may have to be next.

bill r. said...

I'm very late to this, but great post, Greg. Your description of what was so unique about COLUMBO's structure, and the fact that Falk made it work, makes me wonder about how the show came to be. What if they couldn't get Falk? Was it developed for him? I don't know, but if it wasn't, and they got someone else, what the hell kind of show would it have been?

One of my favorites is unfortunately a little vague, but I think it might be the one Spielberg directed. The important thing is that at one point towards the end, Columbo has to badger a female witness to give up some vital information, and he works on the angle that a person was murdered, and that person had a family, and he starts yelling at her. It's unlike any other Columbo moment I've seen. It came very early in the series (and may have even been the first episode; my COLUMBO knowledge is not what it should be) but if you come to it later, as I did, it's very powerful. And Falk, needless to say, owns every second.

Greg said...

Bill, that is an early one. Columbo in the first season, like all shows, has a few character elements that haven't been developed yet. Still, there are only a few lackluster episodes and only one outright bad one (directed by Patrick McGoohan, oddly enough) in which 1) Falk was sick during the filming and it shows! 2) They changed the methodology of the show and made this episode a whodunnit instead of the usual "we see the murderer first" type and 3) it was just an outright bad script. The way Columbo figures out the mystery is beyond lame and beneath the character.

But, outside of that one, most were good and a few were excellent.