Peter Falk: The One-Eyed Man Was King

Best known as TV's wily, shambling Lt. Columbo, Falk was also a working-class movie hero, in a half-century career playing comic gangsters, harried husbands and one great granddad

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What a mensch was Peter Falk. An average-Joe hero, he embodied the best of us on our worst day. He was best known as TV’s Lieut. Columbo, who, for 30 years, taught snooty murderers that, however crafty they thought they were, he was smarter. Every episode in the series was a class struggle, which reached its peak in the mid-1970’s, played as a comedy of manners and won by the wily proletarian. But Falk, who died last night at 83 at his Beverly Hills home after a draining siege of Alzheimer’s, was also a significant figure in American cinema. He spanned the gulf between mainstream movies (like The Cheap Detective and The In-Laws) and indie movies (notably those of John Cassavetes) with the ease of a Colossus navigating a mud puddle.

He had one of the great loopy stares in movie history, courtesy of a glass eye that was the trophy from a childhood disease. But Falk’s ocular eccentricity would not relegate him to weird comic status; he saw acutely into the human condition of the American male, 20th century, second half. Blessed with a crinkly face that viewers found it hard not to smile back at, Falk would stab the air with his cigar stub as an artist used a paint brush. He played tough guys, gangsters and cops, hundreds of times, managing to show the fraternity of both groups, the humanity of each. A modern folk (or Falk) poet of exasperation, he used a repertoire of eloquent gestures to portrait the weight of the human condition; the slow descending of his shoulders had the grace of Pavlova’s dying fall in Swan Lake.

(See pictures of Peter Falk’s life on screen.)

Falk, born in New York City in 1927, didn’t let his disability stop him from participating in sports. In a 1997 interview for Cigar Aficionado (a magazine for which the actor could have been every issue’s cover boy), he recalled a baseball game in high school: “The umpire called me out at third base when I was sure I was safe. I got so mad I took out my glass eye, handed it to him and said, ‘Try this.’ I got such a laugh you wouldn’t believe.” It was an early example of Falk’s career trajectory: winning by losing, falling upward.

Rejected by the Army for World War II service, Falk enlisted in the Merchant Marine. Back in the States and bored with college, he tried joining the Irgun, but the war for Israel’s independence ended before he could help. By 1953 he had secured a master’s in public administration from Syracuse University, and got a Connecticut state job in Hartford, where he started working in theater. Soon he was on Broadway, with a small role in the Phoenix Theatre’s 1956 production of Shaw’s Saint Joan and, the following year, in an adaptation of Ostrovsky’s Diary of a Scoundrel, with Roddy McDowall, Robert Culp and Jerry Stiller.

(Read TIME’s 1973 cover story on Columbo.)

The forceful patois of his rough-tenor voice must have made an impression in revivals of classical European dramas; but Falk’s was a face made for the movies’ medium close-up. He got an early starring role in Julian Rothman’s Z-minus The Bloody Brood (1959). Playing Nico, a drug dealer masquerading as a beatnik creep, he watches an old man collapse in front of him with a heart attack and lets the man die as a kind of performance art. (“Death is the last great challenge to the creative mind.”) He would play variations on that role, minus the preening sadism, for most of the next decade: in the films Pretty Boy Floyd and Murder, Inc. and on TV in The Untouchables. Graduating to gangster parts in A-list movies, he appeared in Frank Capra’s Pocketful of Miracles, as the chief bad guy in the Sinatra-Dino-Rat Pack Robin and the 7 Hoods and, finally above the title, as Maximilian Meen in Blake Edwards’ The Great Race.

In the 1969 Vegas crime film Machine Gun McCain, he played the mob boss as harried CEO. (“What’s the matter, I can’t make an investment? I’m not allowed to make a dollar? I ain’t got that right?”) The movie wasn’t a keeper, but it cemented Falk’s friendship with John Cassavetes, its star. Soon these two and some other adventurous spirits — Ben Gazzara, Seymour Cassell, and Cassavetes’ wife Gena Rowlands — formed a kind of Rat Pack of indie film to make, under Cassavetes’ direction, a series of anguished, sprawling, semi-improv psychodramas. Falk was one of the wandering spouses in the 1970 Husbands, and the decent guy watching his wife (Rowlands) spiral into madness in the 1974A Woman Under the Influence. He also teamed with Cassavetes when they played two pals in Elaine May’s nighttime odyssey of anxiety, Mikey and Nicky.

While other members of the troupe might flex their Actors Studio chops to chew the material to gristle, Falk usually kept his tone nuanced and conversational; he was one of the few Method-era actors who didn’t demand a big screaming scene as a statement of his power and purity. Somehow he knew that he had already commanded the viewer’s attention, and that a whisper — or, in Columbo’s case, the trademark pause at the suspect’s door and a querulous pitch to the phrase, “Just one more thing…” — was as good as a wail.

Neil Simon, who had given Falk a Broadway lead as the unemployed businessman contemplating suicide in the 1971 The Prisoner of Second Avenue (Jack Lemmon got to play that role in the movie version), finally handed the actor two starring film roles in the classic-mystery parodies Murder by Death and The Cheap Detective. In the first, Falk was “Sam Diamond” (think the hard-boiled shamuses Sam Spade and Richard Diamond), one of five detectives summoned to solve a crime. In the second film, as “Lou Peckinpaugh,” Falk anchored Simon’s comic hommage (commage?) to The Maltese Falcon, Casablanca and the prime films of Humphrey Bogart — a movie icon, who like Falk, spent a decade playing supporting roles as gangsters before he found his star voice as a grizzled guy on the right side of the law. (In 1996, Falk and Woody Allen played the pugnacious old vaudeville stars in a TV remake of Simon’s The Sunshine Boys.)

He had first played Columbo in the 1968 TV movie Prescription: Murder, which became a series in 1971 and continued off and on until 2003, for a remarkable 35-year fusion of performer and character. But because each season contained no more than eight, and usually three to six, feature-length episodes — and because the movie audience loved Falk as much as TV spectators did — the actor was one of the few living-room stars able to duplicate his clout simultaneously on the big screen. He became a reliable conduit for crime capers with a comic tinge: a light retelling of The Brink’s Job and Andrew Bergman’s The In-Laws, with Alan Arkin as a nebbishy dentist drawn into a possible murder scheme by Falk, the father of the groom. The two actors later paired for the ill-fated Big Trouble, which Bergman walked away from as director, to be replaced by Cassavetes — his last, most frustrating gig behind the camera.

As Cassavetes had subsidized his indie films with roles in so-so movies and TV shows, so did Falk use Columbo as his day job, allowing him to go trekking into illuminating back alleys. In Wim Wenders’ angel tale Wings of Desire, he plays a visiting Hollywood actor (and ex-angel) who teaches a new friend some primal joys, simple things: “To smoke, have coffee. And if you do it together, it’s fantastic!” (Falk also appeared in Wenders’ Wings of Desire sequel, Faraway, So Close.)

That craggy, warm voice of authority was perfect for one of Falk’s late signature roles: the old man reading his grandson the story that is the movie The Princess Bride. Who better than Falk could sell a kid the idea of the greatest kiss the world has ever seen? Who wouldn’t want a grandpa, a friend, even an enemy like the ones Falk played? Even now, at his death, we wish, like the boy in The Princess Bride, that Peter Falk could come over and read to us again tomorrow.