Peter Falk: As You Wish

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.


  1. Tdixon says:

    I am very saddened by his passing. What a great actor. I know he was in many other great roles but I have to admit cclumbo is perfect!

  2. John says:

    I loved his take on Bogart’s Sam Spade in “Murder By Death” –

    “You pit your wits with me, little man, and you won’t have your wits to pit with, know what I mean?”

  3. Jeff Heise says:

    The first thing I ever saw him in was THE GREAT RACE when I was 8, and during the pie fight when he runs in and shouts “Hey, Professor!” and gets hit with what seems like a hundred pies in rapid succession never fails to make me laugh until tears come out of my eyes. That performance and WINGS OF DESIRE are my favorites of his, and Leonard’s assessment saying he made it look easy puts Falk in the same category as Cary Grant, James Garner and (IMHO) Richard Boone.

  4. brian says:

    My favorite of all the films Peter Falk appeared in is A Woman Under the Influence that is a masterpiece by John Cassavetes which I think is his best film of all the films he came to direct, as far as Leonard Maltin is concerned, since he gave it just a 2 star rating in his book which to me is being sensitive, he should give it another chance. This is 1 powerful and heartwrenching film.

  5. Linda says:

    I don’t remember Colombo as much, because we had only one TV station, sharing three networks on one channel, so it didn’t show all the time, so I remember him most in Pocketful of Miracles and other movies. So thanks for remembering him in his other work.

  6. Jason says:

    A wonderful article. I loved Peter Falk in ‘Wings of Desire’ and thought he was hilarious in ‘Made’. He will be missed.

  7. nshepard says:

    Peter Falk a very underrated Actor, who touched many lives , in many ways. Loved him in “The In-Laws.” As Maltin stated,Falk’s stage perfomances were legendary, yet often over looked by Critics in general. We still have a great body of work to view, and it is very high quality. R.I.P.

  8. Karen Snow says:

    What a lovely tribute. I admired his talents in both comedy and drama very much. Stunning performance In “A Woman Under The Influence”.

    I remember seeing “The In-Laws” on the heels of getting some horrendous emotional news, and how through my tears, I realized I was laughing harder than I ever had in my life, and I have always been thankful to that film for getting me through the day. And every time I’ve seen the film since, it never fails to work its magic (Tse tse flies carrying off Ecuadoran babies ??? Come on !!)

    My favorite comedic line reading from Falk, is from “Pocketful of Miracles”, where in response to a crack from Hope Lange, he responds with: “If you wasn’t a broad I’d kick you in the stomach”. Priceless !!

    He will be missed.

  9. Bill Kirchner says:

    Lest we forget, there was Falk’s wonderful but short-lived TV series of the early 1960s, “The Trials of O’Brien”.

  10. J.C. Vaughn says:

    Thanks for this very nice piece about one of my favorite actors. The In-Laws is really hard to beat, as was Colombo.

  11. tom Meyers says:

    A great piece of writing about a man who I consider one of the great American film / TV actors of all time and I wish I were around to have seen him and Jason Robards in The ICeman Cometh on stage in the late 50s!

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