He taught me a valuable lesson: get yourself a good coat. The acting is secondary. Years later I was offered another part and I remembered Frank Capra and I went out and got myself a good coat. I added a cigar, and I’ve been eating pretty good ever since."
Peter Falk at the AFI Life Achievement Aware: A Tribute to Frank Capra, 1982
TV fans mourned the loss of Peter Falk this weekend. I liked his film work, particularly Pocketful of Miracles (which he absolutely walked away with) and Wings of Desire. But it was his gift of the character Lt. Columbo that brought him into the lives of several generations of TV fans and set a standard for the TV mystery that hasn’t been surpassed.
Columbo was part of the NBC Mystery Movie on Sunday nights in the 1970s, and it was syndicated on late Saturday afternoons for much of the 1980s. That’s when it became a cherished weekend ritual for me every week. That's when I saw the original episodes so many times that I can play "I can name that episode in 5 seconds." The stories which TV Guide dubbed “howchatchem” rather than “whodunit” were interesting and well written, but it was the cavalcade of film and theater stars working on the small screen that was the biggest thrill.
I remember in frightening detail the plots and much of the dialogue from many, many episodes. For instance, the One Where:
Ruth Gordon, a mystery writer, kills her niece’s husband because he killed the niece.
Ida Lupino is an “Aimee Semple McPherson” evangelist type, and her husband Johnny Cash murders her to get away from her blackmailing him.
Ricardo Montalban is a matador who murders his assistant’s son to protect his reputation.
Janet Leigh wants to make a comeback with John Payne and has to kill her husband Sam Jaffe to do it
John Cassavetes as a “Leonard Bernstein” type kills his lover when she threatens to tell his socialite wife Blythe Danner and rich mother-in-law Myrna Loy
Richard Basehart and Honor Blackman accidentally murder their theater producer John Williams (that one turns on a pearl that drops inside an umbrella that is then given to Madame Tussaud’s)
Louis Jourdan murders a restaurant owner he’s been extorting money from
Roddy McDowell murders his aunt Ida Lupino’s husband James Gregory to take over the business
Celeste Holmes is the older sister of Joyce Van Patten who kills their brother who was going to sell their family museum
Ray Milland is an orchard grower who murders his nephew to break an iron-clad trust fund
And so many more from the original seven seasons.
When TV Was the Lesser Screen
Don’t forget that in the 1970s it was a very big deal for movie stars to act on television. They generally considered it beneath them. (This was also the era when it was chic to say “I don’t watch television.”) But part of the very texture of the series is the sheer acting chops on the screen. It’s obvious how comfortable Peter Falk is with these guest villains, who may have done the show because of Falk’s own New York stage acting and Hollywood bona fides. It’s a formula that would sadly devolve into a parody of itself later in the decade when Aaron Spelling got his hands on it for The Love Boat and Fantasy Island.
The Dream Team on Columbo
Peter Falk hid the strength of Columbo’s intellect under the rumpled coat and the unflappable politeness. The “oh, just one more thing” was beaten into the ground, but Falk’s performance had much more to it than that. The character is in LA, and he's not given a back story, but there's still an aura that beneath the wrinkles is an Italian mensch from Brooklyn with real street smarts to go along with the high IQ. In the few times his character wore a tuxedo for a formal function (“Forgotten Lady,” “A Case of Immunity,” and "Murder Under Glass") the handsome side of the actor came through.
On the creative side Falk was surrounded by established and up & coming writing and directing royalty of varying magnitude: Steven Spielberg, Ben Gazarra, Norman Lloyd, Sam Wanamaker, Jonathan Demme, and Nicholas Colasanto (Coach from Cheers!) all directed. Steve Bochco, Steven J. Cannell, and Dean Hargrove wrote along with Levinson & Link. That’s a lot of talent coming together.
The original series ran from 1971 to 1978. It did not have a “series finale.” The final episode on May 13, 1978 was “The Conspirators” where Columbo tracks an IRA gun runner (and I learned that Sinn Fein means “Alone Together,” one of the important clues of the episode). Falk brought the character back in 1989 for two seasons and a bunch of special episodes, with the last appearance of the character on January 30. 2003. I never got close to those shows.
More from Falk’s tribute to Capra:
“[Pocketful of Miracles] was my first Hollywood picture. I went to see Mr. Capra and said, “Mr. Capra, This is a comedy. And I think you ought to know that I’m not funny.
He said, what do you mean? I said, 'I’m a New York actor, I’m a serious actor.'
He started to chuckle and says, ‘Don’t worry Peter. You’re gonna be all right. Look at it this way. Maybe no one else will be funny, and you’ll be the serious relief.’"
We’re glad that Peter Falk took Lt. Columbo seriously. He gave rise to Bobby Goren, Adrian Monk, and Greg House at the very least and kept our little grey cells working on some very interesting puzzles.