RIP Peter Falk 1927-2011

Peter Falk, an actor best known for playing the rumpled, cigar-chomping, raincoat-clad detective Lt. Columbo on the eponymous tv show from 1971 until 2003 (including full seasons and made-for-television movies) has succumbed to complications of Alzheimer’s Disease at the age of 83.

Falk was the recipient of awards and accolades too numerous to mention, but here are a few: "Columbo" was, of course,  his most famous role by far, for which the actor was nominated for an Emmy ten years in a row. He won four times for that role, but he’d already been nominated twice and won once for other projects. In 1961 he became the first actor to be nominated for an Emmy and an Oscar in the same year when he was nominated for his performance as a vicious killer in 1960’s Murder, Inc. He was nominated for an Academy Award again the following year for director Frank Capra’s penultimate film, Pocket Full of Miracles, opposite Bette Davis and Glen Ford.

While instantly recognizable due to his glass eye (he lost his right to cancer at the age of three), with his gravelly, New York accented voice and brash style, he may have been stuck playing hoodlums if not for his good friend, actor/director John Cassavetes. They made six films together that showcased the depth and range of his abilities (as well as their own relationship): Machine Gun McCain , Husbands  (a tour de force of pent-up male emotion complete with self-indulgent, self-flagellation and cruelty which are now staples of films that deal with the fragility of the male ego and about which Falk said, "there was no character, there was only me."), A Woman Under the Influence, Mikey and Nicky, Opening Night,  and Big Trouble.

My favorite is A Woman Under the Influence from 1974, directed by Cassavetes and although he didn’t appear in the film it co-starred his wife, Gena Rowlands.  Falk played a laborer on a road crew whose eccentric wife is so beyond-the-norm eccentric that she’s considered mad.  Nick Longhetti is a role rife with conflict; a passionate combination of frustration and compassion, anger and tenderness, confusion and confidence.  Gena Rowlands (along with director Cassavetes) garnered all of the praise for that film, but Falk’s friend wrote him one hell of a part.  See it once and you won’t forget it. The movie changed the way that mental illness is portrayed on film.

Along with the brilliant and personal dramas, I’ll remember the comedies such as The Great Race, The Brink’s Job, the original version of The In-Laws, The Cheap Detective and one of my very favorite movies, Murder by Death; but I’m sure for at least one generation, he’ll always be the Grandfather in 1987’s The Princess Bride. These last two, especially, need to go straight into the queue if you have not seen them. If you have, watch them again… in memoriam.

"I was in disguise in disguise in disguise. You work hard for fifty bucks a day in this racket." Sam Diamond, Murder by Death
"Yes, you’re very smart. Shut up." Grandpa, The Princess Bride

Peter Michael Falk, actor, born 16 September 1927; died 23 June 2011

2 responses to “RIP Peter Falk 1927-2011

  1. This One Goes in YOUR Classic File!

    What I love about your succinct yet evocative post is that it captured so perfectly (as I see it) the essence of the man and the actor — the roles that were on the one hand iconic and on the other (or sometimes the same hand) endearing, frequently downright charming. He will never be forgotten.

    PS – Thank you for fleshing out the productive and no doubt loving relationship Falk maintained for so many years with Cassavetes and Rowlands. A threesome touched by Heaven.

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