He Gets a Kick Out of Columbo
“Hey,” Peter Falk says enthusiastically to a handful of people. “Come on over here and watch this.”
Falk turns off the lights in a small editing room at Universal Studios, puts on his glasses and flicks on a projector to watch the opening reel of “Columbo Goes to College,” which premieres Sunday on ABC. It’s the first of three Columbo mysteries scheduled to air this season as two-hour movie specials.
Falk watches intently as the action unwinds. “Do you see where I made the changes?” an editor asks Falk. “Yeah,” he says. “It looks a lot better.”
Falk turns on the lights. “I always like to look at my performances in the editing room.” Falk also doubles as the co-executive producer of “Columbo.”
“We just finished shooting this and now we are cutting it. We’re under the gun,” he says.
Falk has two Oscar nominations to his credit (for “Murder, Inc.” in 1960 and “A Pocketful of Miracles” in 1961) and he won a Tony Award in 1972 for Neil Simon’s “The Prisoner of Second Avenue.” But he is indelibly identified by the public as the shrewd, cigar-smoking, trench-coated Los Angeles police lieutenant.
Even in person, Falk seems a lot like his TV alter ego. He certainly shares Columbo’s “I-don’t-give-a-damn” attitude toward his appearance. His bushy hair is unruly and his clothes have a distinct lived-in look. Falk talks casually and methodically as he rocks back and forth in his chair.
Falk has been playing Columbo on and off for nearly a quarter of a century, making his first appearance in the 1968 NBC movie “Prescription: Murder,” with Gene Barry. He starred in the successful NBC series version from 1971-77 and revived the character two years ago for ABC’s short-lived “Mystery Movie.”
Columbo also has brought Falk four Emmy Awards for outstanding actor--in 1972, 1975, 1976 and last September, when he beat out favorite Kyle MacLachlan of ABC’s “Twin Peaks.”
But Falk isn’t the only--or even first--actor to play the detective. Thirty years ago, Bert Freed played Columbo on a segment of NBC’s “Chevy Mystery Show” entitled “Enough Rope.” Two years later, Columbo creators Richard Levinson and William Link wrote a theatrical version of “Prescription: Murder.” Thomas Mitchell starred as Columbo and Joseph Cotten appeared as the murderous psychiatrist, the same role Gene Barry would later essay. Although the play never made it to Broadway, it toured the United States with much success.
“Their first choice for the series was Bing Crosby,” Falk says.
“Yeah.” he says with a laugh. “Thank God, he liked to golf.”
“Columbo Goes to College” finds the detective battling wits with two wealthy college friends who murder their criminology professor when he learns the two stole the final exam. “We know who did it, but we don’t know how they did it,” he says.
“You don’t find out how they did it until the end of the show. It is a fantastically ingenious murder. They are similar to Leopold and Loeb in that they are exceptionally smart. Ordinarily, Columbo would be dealing with their fathers, but this time he is dealing with the offspring.”
Is ABC trying to attract younger viewers to the series by making the antagonists in their early 20s?
“No,” Falk says, running his hand through his hair. “If you get a great story, I don’t care if the villain is two years old or if the villain is 102 years old. The tough part here is to come up with a clever murder, to come up with a surprising, delightful, puzzling ending that people will get a kick out of that they can’t predict, but when they see it they say, ‘Oh yeah, that makes sense.’ ”
Falk receives fan mail from police officers about Columbo. “You get cops saying, ‘I use the Columbo technique,’ ” he says with a smile. “Or you go somewhere and a cop will come up and say, ‘We have got a Columbo on the force who we call Columbo and on his birthday we bought him a raincoat.’ They send me pictures of cops dressed as Columbo. So they get a kick out of it.”
Sales managers even offer classes in the Columbo technique. “It’s an approach to selling,” he says, “where you start out very nice and light and talk about other things and then you get them.”
Audiences, Falk maintains, enjoy watching Columbo solving unsolvable mysteries for the same reason such sleuths as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes and Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot have intrigued fans for decades.
“They are all colorful,” he says. “They all have their own eccentricities. They are interesting. I think that Columbo is like Holmes in a sense that the audience is waiting for him to find some little thing. They don’t know exactly what, but we show them enough so they can possibly guess.”
The second Columbo mystery, yet unscheduled, stars George Hamilton as the host of an “Americas’s Most Wanted” genre of show who commits murder. The third one begins production in January.
“We might do a fourth,” Falk says, “if we have the script in time. I get a kick out of playing Columbo. I enjoy the show; the only thing I like is having enough time to go to a movie now and then.”
He leans back in his chair content. “This (schedule) is perfect,” he says with a sigh. “God is good.”
“Columbo Goes to College” airs Sunday at 9 p.m. on ABC.