Peter Falk answers the door to his gigantic Spanish-style Beverly Hills mansion looking more like a sophisticated French artisan than the tattered-trench-coat persona of Lt. Columbo that Americans have known for two decades.
"Let's go around back to the garage," he intones in his gravelly mumble. He points to a pair of black iron gates that open onto the driveway that then disappears.
The "garage," it turns out, is actually a sprawling set of two plush offices so large that he could rent them out as separate residences. "Well, it used to be the garage," he cracks.
He opens a back door to reveal a large art studio with hardwood floors and a high-beamed ceiling. Two easels display charcoal etchings of women in repose, done by Falk. A long line of bookcases are filled with art books by Degas, Matisse and Egon Schiele. On the ground are four of the actor's six Emmys.
If you were expecting discombobulated Columbo, you'll be disappointed. The 67-year-old actor is erudite, focused and happy to talk about his starring role in the current Disney film "Roommates," a comedy-drama centering on the combative relationship between an octogenarian grandfather and his grandson. Based on a newspaper story and subsequent book by Max Apple, Falk shines as Rocky, a hard-working curmudgeonly Polish baker as crusty as the bread he bakes. During the course of the film, the actor ages more than 30 years, ending up, with the help of extensive prosthetic makeup, at age 107.
"I realized right away that it was a dream part," Falk says. "I thought, 'If you can't score with this one, hang it up! Retire.' "
Falk says he was particularly intrigued by Rocky's complete lack of self-doubt, a trait he admits he does not possess in real life. " 'Case closed. Conversation over,' " he snaps. "Those are his favorite expressions. In life, everyone has some notion in their heads that if we say this or wear that or behave this way, it's going to make a good impression. But Rocky is completely devoid of that."
"Roommates" co-star D.B. Sweeney, who plays Rocky's grandson, says that Falk "is somewhat of an archetype in a way because everybody knows him from 'Columbo.' But when I was growing up, two of my favorite films were 'The In-Laws' and 'Mikey and Nicky.' I don't think he has had the movie roles recently that he deserves, maybe because he is so ubiquitous as Columbo."
Like his character in "Roommates," Falk comes from humble beginnings. Born in Manhattan and raised in Ossining, N.Y., the actor still considers himself a New Yorker despite the fact that he has lived in California for 35 years.
"I don't like getting up in the morning, getting in a car, driving on a freeway and stopping at a gate where two guards are standing there, then walk into a studio that looks like a bunch of airplane hangars," he grumbles. "Christ! You gotta pack water if you want to go to the basketball game!" Not that he'd bother with the Lakers, since Falk has installed an enormous satellite dish in his back yard so he can monitor his beloved Knicks.
When Falk was 3, he underwent surgery to remove a malignant tumor and lost his right eye in the process. The ordeal remains his earliest and most vivid memory.
"I remember the day of the operation," he says. "My mother was walking with me down a corridor. When the elevator came, she said: 'Oh, you go ahead, I forgot my pocketbook' or something like that. I can't visualize the operating room, but I remember saying, 'Don't start until my mother comes. She's on her way. She'll be right here. Wait a minute. What are you doing? She's hasn't come yet.' " He looks frightened at the thought more than 60 years later.
Feeling self-conscious as a child and young teen-ager with one eye, he still considers himself to be a loner. He attended Hamilton College in Clinton, N.Y., earning a degree in political science, and then, after graduation, worked for the state of Connecticut as an efficiency expert. Then, even while earning a master's degree in public administration at Syracuse University, he landed a role in an Off Broadway production of "The Iceman Cometh."
Since then, Falk has had a distinguished, varied career, although many of his better screen roles have been obscured by "Columbo." He has starred in such diverse films as "A Woman Under the Influence," "Husbands," "Wings of Desire," "The Princess Bride" and "The Great Race." He was nominated for Oscars in 1960 for "Murder Inc." and in 1961 for "Pocketful of Miracles." Despite the accolades, he insists, "acting is like golf--analysis leads to paralysis."
Making "Roommates" caused him to confront his own mortality. "I don't dwell on it," he says. "But I guess everybody hopes that they go in their sleep and that it won't be long and painful. My father (who died in 1984) had Alzheimer's, so I think about that. . . . I'm in my 60s, but I can see myself going another 25 years."
"Columbo" made him rich in the '70s, when he was the highest-paid actor on television. (He reportedly received a whopping $2 million--in 1977--for just four episodes of the show.) Based on the present size of his estate, the expensive jewelry his wife, actress Shera Danese, is frequently photographed wearing, and the white Rolls-Royce and two Range Rovers parked in the driveway, he still commands a hefty salary.
But success has not come without its cost. His first marriage, to pianist Alyce Mayo, ended in divorce in 1976 after 16 years. They had two daughters, Catherine, now 24, and Jackie, 28. Falk is reportedly estranged from Catherine, who announced a couple of years ago that she planned to become a real detective.
His second marriage, however, to Danese in 1978, seems to have provided the actor with nothing but happiness. "Well, in order to get a divorce, you have to be in sync," he says, laughing. "My wife loves to get all dressed up and go out, and I'm this gloomy Virgo. It works because of the mutual recognition that we are two democratic narcissists. She does what she has to do, and I do what I have to do. We respect that."
This week, the actor begins rehearsals for a television movie of the Neil Simon play "The Sunshine Boys." (The play was made into a movie in 1975 starring Walter Matthau and George Burns.) Falk plays the Matthau role, while Woody Allen co-stars in the Burns part.
He has also just completed work on a new "Columbo" television movie for ABC, due to air for May sweeps. Up close, the actor remains a strange hybrid of the Everyman that Columbo represents and the megabucks Hollywood player that he reluctantly embodies.
"There are similarities between Columbo and Peter," says D.B. Sweeney. "He is extremely meticulous like Columbo is. And they're both highly idiosyncratic fellows. The first time I ever sat down with him, we were about to begin reading over the script, and Peter pulled out five different pairs of eyeglasses. And there was something wrong with all of them--one of them had a faulty right earpiece, another had one of the lenses about to fall off. But he felt that among the five of them, he had one good pair of glasses. He's very endearing."
Unlike many actors who stubbornly refuse to return to the role that made them rich and famous for fear of typecasting, Falk has no qualms about the prospect of throwing on the rumpled trench coat again in the future. "Sure, I'd do it again," he says smiling. "God willing, if there is another good script. I love doing them."
Besides, someone has to pay for all those cars.