January 19, 2007 / 3:39 AM / 13 years ago

Peter Falk comes clean in folksy memoir

LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - Peter Falk has been in many films and television shows — more than 150 by a loose count. Chances are, though, that a century from now he’ll be remembered largely for his role as a slouching, poorly dressed, head-scratching, cigar-smoking, raincoat-wearing detective who took great interest in people’s shoes — and this was long before O.J. — and offhand comments that can lead to great truths.

Falk has inhabited the role of Lt. Columbo, no first name given, since 1968, and every now and again he dusts off his old fedora for another run at the ever-forgetful, seemingly incompetent gumshoe who just happens to figure out a modus operandi that would stump a Sherlock Holmes. Death by ice. Death by Doberman. Death by Robert Vaughn.

He has made a great, memorable detective. Imagine what the world would have missed, though, if Falk had been successful at an early, ill-fated career move, trying out as a CIA agent. It seemed a good idea, he writes in his memoir, “Just One More Thing: Stories From My Life,” because he was in school training to become a Washington bureaucrat, another seeming improbability. Rather than go for the nine-to-five job, he decided to sign up for overseas spy service, but the interview, he writes with considerable understatement, “did not go as I’d planned.” The agent in charge looked over the desk at him and questioned Falk’s union membership, affiliation with the “pinkish” New School for Social Research and a bizarre field trip that found Falk building a railroad in postwar Yugoslavia.

Not only could he not work for the CIA, Falk was told, but he couldn’t work anywhere in Washington.

Sweet words, both for admirers of Falk’s work and for the actor himself, who had ideas of taking to the stage all the while.

Soon, Falk tells us, he found a job as an efficiency expert — another improbability, if Columbo is a mirror of the man — and started landing roles in community theater. A comment by the great acting teacher Eva LaGallienne set him on his path, he writes. When he appeared late time and again, delayed by his day job, she asked him how he made a living. When he replied that he wasn’t really a professional actor, as he’d said he was, the grande dame replied, “Well, you should be.”

As the vignettes that make up Falk’s memoir attest, there were still dues to pay. Harry Cohn, the irascible head of Columbia, rejected him, bellowing that for the money Falk was asking, “I can get an actor with two eyes!” (For the curious, there’s a reason for Columbo’s squint, and Falk adds a few parlor tricks as well.) He wound up playing the lead in a film that, curiously, seemed not to have any actors, and he got arrested in Cuba for his troubles.

The dues-paying paid off. Ever better known, Falk made decent money doing more or less what he wanted to do. He worked with John Cassavettes, a challenge and a privilege, and he single-handedly kept the nation of Romania from rising in revolt. He turned down a part in “The Godfather,” found true love, played an earthly angel in Wim Wenders’ great film “Wings of Desire,” starred in the hilarious “In-Laws” and the now-classic “Princess Bride” and crafted a scene for the movie “Roommates” that might have saved that film had it ever been shot.

Oh, and he also inspired a couple of cartoon characters, one of them Mumbly, the cartoon mutt gumshoe.

About all these things — less Mumbly — Falk spins entertaining yarns that spin and dive and twist as one of Columbo’s loopy, brow-furrowed monologues, embracing decades and long moments in bursts of well-chosen language. His memoir never goes deep, but it works, and admirers of the good lieutenant — or Corp. Jack Rabinoff, or Sgt. Rossie Baker or even Lt. Horatio Bixbee — will find it to be good fun.

Reuters/Hollywood Reporter

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