Rogue of the Week: Peter Falk

Friday, 24 June 2011 13:47 Written by  Jordan DeSaulnier
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Rogue of the Week: Peter Falk

Peter Falk, a screen and television actor of inestimable wit, personality, and dedication enjoyed a career that spanned over fifty years and included roles that could have been played by no one else.  Sadly, Falk's family confirmed today that the actor passed away at his home in Beverly Hills at the age of 83, after years of struggling with Alzheimer's Disease and related dementia.  The wholly unique actor is our latest Rogue of the Week, in posthumous celebration of his seemingly effortless ability to bring a sly sense of humor and endearing humanity to roles in any genre, for any audience.

His most famous role was undoubtedly as the trenchcoat-wearing, cigar chomping television detective Columbo.  Falk made his debut as Lieutenant Columbo in the 1968 TV movie Prescription: Murder, and the popularity of that film subsequently led to the Columbo series, which had episodes every third Sunday from 1971 to 1977.  He would go on to reprise the role a number of times in television specials, beginning in 1989 and continuing into the 21st Century. 

The investigator concealed his formidable intelligence, which he would then reveal with a certain amused satisfaction.  Of the character, with his distinctive look and seemingly bumbling manner, Falk once explained, "He looks like a flood victim.  You feel sorry for him. He appears to be seeing nothing, but he's seeing everything. Underneath his dishevelment, a good mind is at work."

Born in New York way back in 1927, Falk underwent brain surgery for a malignant tumor at the age of three, which also resulted in the loss of his right eye.  Though his glass eye would eventually become part of his charm and persona, it apparently presented a challenge in the earliest days of his acting career.  Despite this, the one-time roommate of both Dustin Hoffman and Gene Hackman went on to earn Supporting Actor Oscar nominations with two of his first cinematic performances in Murder, Inc. and A Pocketful of Miracles before going on to roles in comedies such as It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World and The Great Race.

Though he would go on to play a number of excellent comedic characters, arguably his very best comedic work came later, in Arthur Hiller's 1979 action-comedy The In-Laws.  In the film, Alan Arkin plays ordinary dentist Shelly Kornpett, whose daughter is about to get married.  Falk shows up as father of the groom Vincent Ricardo, a somewhat deranged, larger than life CIA agent who takes Shelly on a manic ride to Central America for some unconventional espionage.  Arkin and Falk make for a perfect odd couple, with Falk's lively performance driving the entire film and perfectly delivering the classic advice on avoiding gunfire, emphasizing that Shelly run in a "serpentine" fashion.

While his generous sense of humor shone through in almost all of his creations, Falk was not simply a comedic actor.  The finest examples of his dramatic work were his semi-improvisational collaborations with actor/writer/director John Cassavetes, starting with the comedically-inclined drama Husbands in 1970.  In Elaine May's drama Mikey and Nicky, he and Cassavetes played the title characters.  Most memorably, though, Falk starred alongside Gena Rowlands in Cassavetes' A Woman Under the Influence.  Falk is simply brilliant as the devoted and loving husband to a psychologically unstable wife and mother in the powerful, devastating drama.  It's a film and a performance that cannot adequately be described without actually partaking.

Speaking of indescribable, there's Falk's role in Wim Wenders' Wings of Desire, where professional actor Peter Falk plays professional actor Peter Falk, who also happens to a former heavenly angel who deigned to become human.  It's a graceful, wonderfully human turn in a film not quite like any other.

For a whole generation, though, Falk will be always be remembered for his role in Rob Reiner's The Princess Bride.  His scenes as the unnamed grandfather to Fred Savage's character act as bookends, and as the narrator, Falk's distinct voice (a product of decades of cigarette and cigar smoking) is a crucial element in the comedic fantasy's perfect tonal dance.

No mere remembrance, even one as formidable as Rogue of the Week, could possible encapsulate the career of this singular performer.  Take the time this week to familiarize yourself with any one of his performances; you won't be disappointed.  The range of characters portrayed by Peter Falk and his inimitable style guarantee that he will both be sorely missed and deeply appreciated for decades to come. 

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