Saturday, June 25, 2011

Of Peter Falk, Columbo, Husbands and glass eyes

      Anyone who has the chuztpah to pull out his glass eye and use it to taunt a baseball umpire is someone who has the stuff to be a winner in life. 

     Peter Falk, glass eye and all, was a winner.

     Everyone knows by now that Falk died yesterday, June 24. He was 83 and suffered with Alzheimers disease for about three years. The star of beloved Columbo  and many films had a start in life that would doom many others. He had a tumor at 3 years old that caused him to lose an eye. He also had a slight speech impediment. 

       Falk loved to tell a story about his glass eye. He was an  athlete in high school. Once, after he was called out at third base, Falk took out his glass eye, handed it to the umpire and said, "you'll do better with this."

     That's the stuff that makes legends.

     Falk was born in Manhattan, lived some in the Bronx and later in Ossining, NY. He went to college in New York, quit and joined the Merchant Marine, then returned to college and got a degree in public administration budgeting. Bah. Boring.  While working in Hartford, Connecticut as a pencil pusher, Falk got into local theatre. He made his Broadway debute in 1956.  The next year, he won a film role as the bartender in Eugene O'Neal's The Iceman Cometh.  Falk got early recognition after a role in Murder Inc. earned him an Oscar nomination.

       It was in 1967 that Falk created Columbo. He got the role after Lee J. Cobb and Bing Crosby turned it down. Falk blew off suggestions for a dapper attire and used his own raggedly trench coat, picked out a Peugot from the motor pool and made the Columbo character truly his own. The pilot, Prescription for Murder, aired that year.

     Most people think Columbo came after Falk's most notable movie roles, but it came first. The show aired off and on for the next three decades. Great roles: Falk was one of the trio of Husbands with Cassavetes and Ben Gazzara, a landmark film noted for its departure from traditional movie methods. That was 1971.
    Falks very best work ever was playing the husband of Gena Rowlands in A Woman Under The Influence, 1976. Rowlands was Cassavetes' real life wife. It was a movie Cassavetes wrote and directed. Rowlands was nominated for an Oscar. It is a blistering story of a wife trapped and growing more claustrophobic, the film showing her descent into madness. 

   But man, beloved Columbo had staying power. The last round of feature length shows aired in the early 1990s and attracted the elite of movie stars. Watch this:

   Peter Falk beloved trenchcoat and all will be missed. RIP.


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