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You Think You Know Them

Susan Freudenheim is a Times staff writer

Jason Alexander rushes into the Founders Room at the Geffen Playhouse, apologizing profusely for being late after getting caught in traffic en route to the theater where he and Peter Falk will be performing in “Defiled,” opening May 31. In Lee Kalcheim’s play, a young librarian and a cop nearing retirement meet after the former wires his beloved library with bombs and threatens to blow it up in an attempt to stave off the advance of the technological world.

Alexander greets Falk warmly, and the two settle in for a conversation about art, life, the theater, film and television. These two icons of American TV--George Costanza and Lt. Columbo--initially seem both a bit like their famous characters, and yet very different. After rehearsing for two weeks, they also seem compatible, despite obvious differences--most notably, Falk is 72, Alexander 40.

Like his character, Falk appears the rumpled gentleman and bemused veteran, while Alexander is neatly groomed and focused in an almost businesslike manner.

In addition to television, Falk has had a long career on stage since 1956, when he played in “The Iceman Cometh” opposite Jason Robards. He’s also done many films, and after closing at the Geffen he will begin work in the Artisan mobster drama “Made.”

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Alexander also began his career on the stage, where he played in the original cast of Neil Simon’s “Broadway Bound” and won a Tony for “Jerome Robbins’ Broadway.” Alexander’s production company, AngelArk Inc., has signed on with 20th Century Fox Television and is developing a television series in which he will star. He will also be seen next month playing Boris Badenov in Universal’s live-action/special-effects film version of “Rocky and Bullwinkle.”

For the moment, however, they are just two guys talking about their craft.

Question: Had you met before coming to work on “Defiled”?

Jason Alexander: He won’t remember, but I met him on the lot.

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Peter Falk: It was outside the commissary.

Alexander: He’s right! Steel-trap mind. I was very intimidated, so he came over to me first. And I said, “You are my father’s favorite actor,” and then it was a mutual stroke fest.

Falk: I’d never met anyone from the “Seinfeld” show; Jason was the first.

Q: Did you watch the show?

Falk: Along with 10 million other people on this planet. It was probably one of the best shows in the history of the business. So I was impressed.

Alexander: But would you like me to quote every episode of “Columbo”?

Q: Each of you has created such indelible characters. How does that work for--or against--what you want to do otherwise in your lives?

Falk: I think if I complain about being typecast I sound crazy to the average person on the street. Because what he sees is the guy that’s making a lot of dough. Who gets good seats at the basketball game. And what’s he complaining about? It ain’t cancer being typecast. You’ve got to count your blessings.

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I’m not saying that I wouldn’t be a better actor if I had been able to play different kinds of parts. Actually, I have played them--just nobody saw them! [both laugh]

Alexander: I have a love-hate relationship with it. I sit down and say: “The 180 little plays [‘Seinfeld’ episodes] we made are still so vital to people, and this character has made such an impression in peoples’ lives.” I could work on the stage and in film for years and years and never make that impression again.

The only downside is that, being 40 years old, I have to realistically do other things in my career. . . . It’s not that I can’t do them, or that people don’t ask me to do them. Still, it closes a lot of doors. When I walk onto a screen, the first impression the audience has is “Hey, it’s George!” And that’s a hurdle they’ve got to get over.

They will get over it, there’s no question. But if you’re a producer and you’re having a serious piece done, you don’t necessarily want to walk into that moment, if you can avoid it. And since there’s 30 other guys for every job I’m up for, it does close doors.

So what else does it do? It makes me work harder. That’s why I have a company. So the producer who has to confront that moment is me. But it also gave me an outstanding career and a very comfortable life for my family. So you can’t piss and moan about it.

Falk: I did a Mamet play in San Francisco. And when the ladies come to a matinee, and I open the show, and on the third line I hit them with a [expletive]--I want to tell you, there is a gasp. They are disappointed. They don’t want to hear that. They love this guy--why is he saying that? And before they recover, I hit them with another one! A pall goes over that theater!

Q: We talked about how busy you keep yourself. How much work does it take to stay busy?

Alexander: About three years before “Seinfeld” ended, I started thinking about the end of the show. Historically, when actors finished a very popular TV show, they were not invited to the dance for a while. Carroll O’Connor, Alan Alda--guys who were at the top of their game--you didn’t see much of them for a while. And I thoroughly assumed that would be the case for us. So I started to prepare another kind of career. I thought mostly it would be directing, but then I did a film for Fox, and it fell into being a production company. The idea of developing material started to happen. Which is a lot of fun. The problem is, it’s like fishing: You throw out a hundred lines because there’s only going to be two bites. In the last six months, all of a sudden, we’re getting a lot of bites. It’s mayhem. But most of the stuff is self-generated.

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Q: Peter, what about you--do you want to be working all the time?

Falk: When I’m doing something, I don’t take a back seat to anybody. But when I’m not doing something, I am very content to go out to the golf course or draw. I love to talk or play golf. And occasionally I like to talk to my wife.

I’ve often said, my idea of heaven would be to get up in the morning, have a good breakfast and spend the rest of the day drawing.

Q: So what brings you here? Here you are in this small theater. It’s hard work, and neither of you has to do it. What’s the attraction?

Falk: Well, it’s a good play. There’s a strange combination of tension and humor--it’s a very funny, serious play. I like that. And I don’t like big theaters. I don’t like to talk too loud. [laughs] Somebody said it’s easier to act honestly quiet than honestly loud. And there’s a certain amount of truth in that.

Q: “Defiled” deals with the changeover to a technological world, and how that is a threat. Does that resonate for you?

Falk: I think average people are much more aware than ever before that technology is driving the machine. Technology is in everybody’s lives. I have a master’s degree, but I can’t make a long-distance telephone call in an airport. Just the thought of trying, I’m so stumped by that, I don’t do it!

Alexander: I sit around with my friends and family and talk about this wonderful Internet that we have. It’s a wonderful tool. And yet I do in some way believe that it could be the device that will bring down mankind. The ability to alter reality, to alter truth to a global audience, with very little accountability, to me is what George Orwell wrote in “1984.” It makes truth a very subjective thing. And I think that’s dangerous.

Q: You both seem to have a real love for theater.

Falk: When I did “Prisoner of Second Avenue” on Broadway, I was about 44, and I had my first panic attack. At one point [during rehearsals, director] Mike Nichols said, “I’m going to sit in the back and I’ll let you know [what it’s like].” And I started to talk and he said, “Can’t hear you!” and I went a little louder and he said, “Can’t hear you!” And I went really loud and he said, “Almost!” And I started to scream and he said, “Perfect!” And I screamed all the way through the first act. I have never been so humiliated in my life.

That’s just an example of what it’s like to have worked before a camera and then 10 years later go back on the stage. To be bigger than life, which I consider great theater to be, you’d better stay on the stage with some regularity. Don’t think you can just hop back in.

Alexander: I became an actor for the theater. I had no real fantasy about film and television. The thing that always attracted me to the stage is, it’s scary. You’re very safe on a television set, a movie set. If you screw it up, they’re going to keep doing it until you get it.

I wanted to be a magician before I wanted to be an actor. Well, this is the greatest illusion in the world. We go inside that room, we make people believe that the theater they walked into is a library. There’s a real bomb there, and that there’s a life-and-death situation going on. But if we drop the ball on the illusion, it’s all gone, and we can’t get it back. That is absolutely frightening, challenging. If you’re an adrenaline junkie at all, you live for that.

The reason I don’t go back to the stage very often is I love being a dad, and it’s a terrible schedule for a family. When [“Defiled” director] Barnet Kellman called me and said, “I want you to take a look at this,” I said, “OK, but I have no time, and frankly no inclination right now to do a play.” And I read 10 pages and I said . . . “Oh [expletive]. I used to know how to act and I don’t know if I can do this anymore.” I think the last full play I did was in 1992, I did “Give ‘Em Hell Harry” at the Tiffany. But I was closer to being a stage actor then; I’d only been off for a couple of years.

Most of the stuff I’ve been asked to do has been light comedy. This is a funny play, but it’s more than light comedy. So, it was a very challenging thing to ask myself, “Can I pull this off?” So I got scared, and I asked my wife, “Can I accommodate this schedule for half a summer?”

Falk: You know what Jason said about the adrenaline rush--opening night, or even for the first week, every night coming to the theater, there’s a terrific excitement to it. You know, you can have the camera in front of you, and a lot of times, in the middle of the take you feel good, and when it’s over, you feel good. But I want to tell you, it’s not quite as intense a satisfaction as being on the stage. When there’s dead silence out there, and you know that they’re listening to every word. And then when you hear them laugh . . . when that cannon goes off. That’s really thrilling, deeply satisfying.

Alexander: What I love about it is, it’s all us. It’s a very direct communication. On this night, with this audience, this is what I’m going to do. There’s no editor to flop it. There’s no line that’s going to come out to change the whole quality of the performance. I couldn’t watch a lot of the last couple seasons of “Seinfeld” because we shot very, very long shows, and they would yank as much as 11 minutes. And the audience wouldn’t know, but I would watch it and think, “I had a seven-line speech, and they took out line two, five and six. If I knew they were going to do that, I would have done the other lines differently.” So, to me it’s not a satisfactory experience. Here, that is not going to happen.

Q: Plus you’ll never see it.

Alexander: [Laughs, mugs] Exactly. I can think I look fabulous up there--I’m thin! I have lots of hair!

Q: Can both of you talk a bit about how you feel you fit into the world of Hollywood?

Falk: When I was starting out, I never thought of myself as being in the movies. I mean, you have to think back to the 1950s. Who would have thought that I would have anything to do with Clark Gable? Do you expect to be knighted by the queen of England? You’re going to the moon or Mars? That’s how remote those things were at that time.

Alexander: Hollywood is an illusion. It’s an illusion that Leo DiCaprio breathes better air than the rest of us. But it’s a wonderful illusion, and people want that illusion, so why not? But, what’s interesting is when guys like Peter, or Hoffman, Pacino, De Niro--guys that all look like and have an affinity for the Everyman--can step in and show you the extraordinary in the ordinary, that’s what I think people have embraced in both our careers.

Falk: I don’t think of Hollywood in terms of leading men, or young leading men. But the idea that a picture has to earn $300 million to $400 million, and focus on the illiterate teenager. I think that’s the worst--the situation that we have now. And I don’t know the answer.

Alexander: There’s always been a lot of teen-based stuff, and that’s OK. But on the other hand, as a producer, we’ll say, “Hey, we’ve got a movie we can make for $6 million.” The studios are not interested in a $6-million movie. They will say, “If you can make that movie for $25 million, we’ll take a look at it.” And we’ll say, “But we can make it for 6!” And they say, “Yeah, but that’s not viable for us.”

That is a bizarro land. That’s a world that makes me say, “I’ve got to leave!” *

* “Defiled” begins previews Tuesday and opens May 31 at the Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Westwood. (310) 208-5454. $20-$42. Ends July 2.

A selection of drawings by Peter Falk will be on exhibit at the Geffen during the run of “Defiled.”


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