I was very sorry to read about the passing on of the veteran actor Peter Falk a week ago.
While he acted, in a career spanning several decades, in a number of Hollywood films—he was even nominated for a couple of academy awards in the 1960s, although he did not win on either of the occasions—and television series, it is for his eponymous lead role in the detective series Columbo that Falk would be remembered by posterity.
I was too young when Columbo was first aired in the 1970s, but watched the re-run of the cult series in the 1990s. I was hooked up so much on the series that I’d tape the episodes, which were usually aired on the day-time television.
While there were several renowned actors who gave stellar performances in various episodes of Columbo, the success of the series rested, in my view, on its unusual structure, high quality scripts, and the bravura performance of Peter Falk as the shabby, self-deprecating detective who lulled the murderer into a false sense of security before striking him down with the metaphorical killer punch.
Columbo was a remarkable series. The structure of the plots never varied. The viewers knew who the murderer was right at the beginning; the viewers also knew how the murder was carried out. The rest of the episode was all about how the bumbling Columbo, outwardly gullible, giving a good impression of not being excessively burdened with grey cells, inched, step by step, towards his quarry. There were no car chases, no breathtaking action scene, yet it was riveting stuff.
Falk invested Columbo with credibility. The middle aged detective who drove an old banger, and who talked all the time about his wife and dog (neither made ever an appearance in any of the episodes) was treated by his opponents (the murderers) as an intellectual lightweight to their eventual peril.
I was interested to read in one of the obituaries that in real life Falk shared some of the characteristics of his small screen alter ego. Just as Lieutenant Columbo incessantly harried his suspects for clues and to find the chinks in their armour, so did Falk, in real life, hassled the studio bosses for improving the quality of the scripts.
Like many famous stars of successful television serials and sitcoms (Seinfeld and Friends are two titles that immediately come to mind—Jason Alexander (Seinfeld) and David Schwimmer (Friends) are very talented actors, but the success they once enjoyed in the cult sitcoms has proven to be illusory) Falk was unable to replicate the success of Columbo in Hollywood films. He left Columbo in the late 1970s to concentrate on his film career, which, despite a spattering of releases, went nowhere. Columbo was revived in the late 1980s (the later episodes were not as brilliant as the first ones). He was in his sixties by then; he wore the same shabby coat, smoked the same cigar; and had the same mannerisms—all the ingredients that had catapulted Columbo to cult popularity more than a decade earlier; but this time round the critics complained that the series and Falk had become predictable. Falk left Columbo after a series, complaining that the quality of scripts had deteriorated.
After reading about Falk’s death I scrounged through my DVD collection and found The Sunshine Boys, the 1995 television version of Neil Simon’s 1972 Broadway hit (of the same title). Woody Allen played Lewis while Falk played the cantankerous and cranky Clark.
As I watched Peter Falk deliver pithy one liners with great panache I laughed aloud till there were tears in my eyes; and I wasn’t sure they were all of mirth.