A squinty eyed man in a dowdy raincoat was on the television one evening, his tousled black mop of hair was a mess and his overall appearance was somewhat creepy to this six year old viewer, a feeling intensified by the man’s thick, gruff accent. He seemed smarmy in some undefinable way, or was it self-assured?
Whatever the case, 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 presence on the box was taking up valuable TV hours which would have been better served airing my favourite sci-fi shows.
Fast forward a few decades and my six year old’s random rationale is long gone. Columbo and the man who brought him to life, Peter Falk, has passed away after a long battle with dementia and 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 were rife with explosive police dramas like the slicker Starsky and Hutch or Kojak, as well as a glut of Dirty Harry and Deathwish films in which the level of testosterone was cranked so high you could smell the ego from Jupiter. Clint Eastwood and Charles Bronson may have scored a lot of points 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 compatriates.
It was Falk who steered the Columbo ship with his almost anally retentive quest for quality scripts which drove his producers crazy, 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 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 much better show than when they took their first steps with him.
William Link and Richard Lewison confirmed that their writing adapted to accommodate Falk’s personality more, basing Lieutenant Columbo on the actor himself 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 see The Six Million Dollar Man or Space 1999 and as Columbo came to a halt in the late 70‘s Falk stepped into his movie shoes.
His big screen career never really elevated him to the same level of success as his television work, no thanks to such badly received fare as the 1981 California Dolls in which Falk managed a female wrestling team, and that lack of success prompted a somewhat begrudging return to the more familiar ground of Columbo which was revived through a set of films in the late 1980’s – a part which it seems he was born to fulfil.
“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 in Hollywood as the “Fighting Falks.”
The marriage outlasted the eruptions and his wife has left a very heartfelt 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 talking about when he scoffed at 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…
Please leave a tribute to Peter Falk and Columbo in a comment.
Read about Etta James and Norman Wisdom who also suffered with dementia and how apple juice, a Mediterranean diet and exercise can help to stem related problems.
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