A squinty eyed man in a dowdy raincoat was on the television one evening, his tousled black mop of hair capped his overall scruffiness and his appearance was somewhat creepy to the watching six year old, a feeling intensified by the man’s thick, gruff accent.
At that very young age I took an instant dislike to Columbo. It wasn’t a rational dislike; the rationale of a six year old is as arbitrary as the patterns of snowflakes and perhaps now looking back I can see that it was because he didn’t fly a Colonial Viper or wear a cape and his very appearance on the TV was taking up valuable hours which would have been better filled airing my favourite sci-fi shows.
Columbo and the man who personified him, Peter Falk, passed away after a long battle with dementiaand as a wiser and older man I realise that television has lost one of its greatest characters.
Columbo was unusual for a cop show. The 70‘s suffered an over-abundance of explosive police dramas like the slicker Starsky and Hutchor Kojak, as well as a glut of Dirty Harryand Deathwishfilms in which the level of testosterone was cranked so high you could smell the machismo from Jupiter. Clint Eastwood and Charles Bronson may well have scored high in the pyrotechnics and body count charts but Peter Falk and his awkward, cigar toting Columbo quietly went about their business of unravelling deceitful crimes without the over-the-top bravado of their excessively macho TV compatriots.
It was Falk who steered the Columbo ship with his anally retentive quest for quality scripts which drove his producers to a point of despair, but that served as a terrific weapon for his directors who would use his drive for high standards as an opportunity to squeeze more filming time out of the financial backers and ultimately deliver a better show.
The show ran for seven years and as time went on Columbo and Falk, equal agitators and thoroughbreds in person and in character, became one and by the end, when Falk’s fears that the show had become predictable were mirrored in public opinions, he called time on it with his producers stating that courtesy of the dogged actor they had a vastly better show than when they first hit the airwaves.
William Link and Richard Lewison confirmed that their writing adapted to accommodate Falk’s personality more, basing Lieutenant Columbo more and more on the actor of whom they said,”Let’s face it, Peter was scruffy and forgetful, but at the same time he was charming and had a very good brain.”
The show was a hit for the most part, save for the indiscretions of a few six-year-olds who would rather have watched The Six Million Dollar Manor Space 1999and as Columbo came to a halt in the late 70‘s Falk shifted across the divide between TV and film.
His big screen career failed to elevate him to the same level of success as his TV work, especially with such badly received offerings as California Dolls (1981) in which Falk managed a female wrestling team.
That lack of success prompted a mildly begrudging return to the more familiar ground of Columbo which was revived through a set of films in the late 1980′s.
“I held them off for 11 years, but my wife was sick of having me around the house, she said if I didn’t go back to work she was leaving me,” said Falk.
Perhaps his relationship with Columbo was comparable to his marriage at that time. The pair were always at odds and as unpredictable as a stirring volcano, like Falk’s on-off relationship with his TV alter-ego. Sheralyn Danese was his inspiration and nemesis, and because of their tempestuous outbursts they were affectionately known as the “Fighting Falks.”
The marriage outlasted the squalls and his wife left a very moving and personal message of explanation on the late actor’s website which reads:
When Peter Falk, my loving husband of 31 years, became ill shortly after a surgical procedure, one of my main concerns was to respect his privacy. However, Peter’s adopted and estranged daughter, Catherine, violated Peter’s right to privacy by filing a public petition in the Los Angeles Superior Court to be Peter’s conservator.
After an evidentiary hearing, the Court appointed me to act as Peter’s conservator. Thereafter, my representatives and I were invited to appear on television shows and to speak to numerous news reporters regarding both the legal disputes and about Peter’s current medical condition.
I, along with my representatives, are now declining all media invitations because I believe that it is more important than ever to respect my husband’s privacy at this very difficult time.
Shera Danese Falk.
That six-year-old clearly didn’t know what he was thinking when he scorned Columbo. The lack of lasers, high tech sound effects and car chases understandably made it less interesting than Star Trek or The Incredible Hulk but I realise now that there was a cerebral quality and clever pace to the show that will no doubt enjoy a reprisal with the passing of the one eyed man who made it a subtle classic.
Oh, there’s just one more thing…