By Eleanor Ringel Cater
Before he found his perfect persona in a rumpled trenchcoat and a shambling manner…
That is, before he became world-famous as the TV detective, Columbo, Peter Falk had a strong movie career, which included two Oscar nominations for best supporting actor.
The first was for playing a homicidal thug in 1960‘s “Murder Inc.”
The second was for a light-hearted riff on the same sort of mobster in Frank Capra’s last movie, “A Pocketful of Miracles.”
Falk was headed toward becoming the Joe Pesci of his era — the go-to guy if you had a gangster role to cast, funny or murderous. Falk did play another bad guy — again, more of a spoof than a killer — in “Robin and the Seven Hoods” He was the villain to Frank Sinatra and his Rat Pack.
(Trivia note: this may be the only time that two one-eyed actors ever co-starred in the same picture. Falk lost his eye to cancer at age 3. That didn’t stop him from becoming a respectable high school jock and when he thought a ref had made a bad call, he’d take out his glass eye and hand it to him. The other was Sammy Davis Jr. who lost his eye in a car accident. One wonders if they ever traded eyes on-set…just for a goof.)
But Falk refused to let himself be typecast. By the time he died last week, age 83, after a battle with Alzheimer’s, he had made over 100 movies…and many of those were made even as his Columbo character became a TV fixture.
Falk could do almost anything. Broad comedy for instance…Perhaps my favorite memory of him is as Jack Lemmon’s eager but dim assistant in “The Great Race.” It was released when I was a teenager and I thought Falk was cuter than Lemmon and Tony Curtis combined.
He also appeared in the Borsht belt extravaganza, “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad world,” featuring everyone from Milton Berle to Ethel Merman.
Falk did drama, too, exceptionally well. Especially on stage where he once played Josef Stalin. He did it in movies, too, starring in a couple of John Cassavetes buddy-noire pictures, “Husbands” and “Woman on the Verge.” Later, he co-starred with Cassavetes in “Willie and Phil,” a darkly funny little number directed by Elaine May.
I take back what I said about “The Great Race.” My all-time favorite Falk performance is in “The Princess Bride” when he reads the main story aloud to his grandson, interrupting the action with Falk-ian commentary.
He was also terrific in the original version of “The In-Laws,” playing opposite Alan Arkin. This is the one to see, not the wretched remake with Michael Douglas and Albert Brooks.
Dark-haired and with a voice like gravel, Falk had a unique quality. And while he may have gotten typecast as Columbo, in a way, he created a kind of typecasting for dozens of “eccentric” TV gumshoes who followed in his wake.
I almost forgot: perhaps you can best enjoy his essence as actor and icon in the ineffable “Wings of Desire,” Wim Wenders’ haunted black-and-white meditation on the nature of angels. No, Falk doesn’t don wings. He plays himself…and for that, we all know, a rumpled trench coat would do.
In a way, it was just as good as a pair of wings.