The obituaries of Peter Falk headlined his portrayal of Columbo on television, and understandably so. He played the character for years and years, so the wily detective burrowed his way into the consciousness of audiences around the world. But my daughter, who’s 25, never saw the show: she knows him best as the story-telling grandfather in The Princess Bride, and I suspect many other young people would concur. A colleague in my age range zeroed in on the hilarious picture The In-Laws, in which he worked so well opposite another masterful comedic actor, Alan Arkin. And I remembered how great it was to watch him and Jason Alexander perform a terrific two-character play called Defiled at the Geffen Playhouse back in 2000. It was an exceptional —
—piece of theater and the two stars were in top form.
There was only one problem: Falk was cast as a detective, and it took a little time for the audience to grow accustomed to the fact that although he was a New York policeman, he wasn’t Lieutenant Columbo. Typecasting can be a strait-jacket for any actor, but by the end of the play the audience was cheering and I think the point was made.
Because of his looks, speech, and demeanor, Falk was pretty much pigeonholed as a contemporary urban character, not unlike Al Pacino some years later.
He worked steadily on television in the late 1950s and early 60s (Have Gun, Will Travel, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, The Untouchables, The Twilight Zone, et al) and earned Oscar nominations for two of his earliest films, Murder, Inc. in 1960 and Pocketful of Miracles in 1961. He was equally at home in the raw, emotional dramas created by his friend John Cassavetes (Husbands, A Woman Under the Influence) and broad comedies like It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World and The Great Race. I liked him best in off-kilter comedies like The In-Laws, and thought he and Cassavetes were great in Elaine May’s uneven comedy-drama Mikey and Nicky.
In fact, he’s often the best thing about a movie. I’m thinking of The Brink’s Job, Happy New Year, Cookie, and Joe Mantegna’s Lakeboat, just for starters. In recent years he added spice to Jon Favreau’s Made, and was a perfect match for Paul Reiser in The Thing About My Folks.
One film is in a class by itself: Wim Wenders’ haunting and lyrical fantasy Wings of Desire. No one was more surprised to be cast in this unique German film than Falk himself—and no one could have brought more down-to-earth charm to this other-worldly story. (If you watch the “making-of” feature on the DVD you’ll hear both Falk and Wenders discuss how he came to be in the movie, and how they worked together; it’s a great story.)
Yet Falk’s name isn’t often mentioned as one of the great American actors, in spite of all his good work, and I think I know why: he made what he did look easy. It seemed organic, and that’s why people responded to his performances so strongly. So never mind that there may not be a space for him in the pantheon of great performers. Moviegoers who have enjoyed his work all these decades, and people who continue to discover his movies in years to come, will know the truth.