Just One More Thing
As a film major in college, I developed a celebrity crush on Joseph Cotten—or more precisely, Joseph Cotten as Jed Leland, Orson Welles’ world-weary and ever loyal best friend in “Citizen Kane.” At my work-study job as a shelver in the library’s reference department, I’d scan the volumes of “Who’s Who” and Hollywood directories to see where I might send him a note of appreciation. (To work in a reference library in the pre-Internet age was a magical experience.) Of course, I never went through with it, and I always regretted passing up my chance to express my fannish admiration to Mr. Cotten before he went to his reward. So I’d like to take this opportunity to pay tribute to four words on a television screen that have brought a thrill for so many years to so many the world over: “Peter Falk as COLUMBO.”
Falk doesn’t escape inclusion on social critic Paul Fussell’s rap sheet of performers who “have a nice line in mugging” in his discussion of our nation’s beloved actors in 1991’s “BAD or, the Dumbing of America.” Shrug—I won’t argue the point. But there’s room for all kinds in our hearts, is there not? And for an artist, a role like Columbo is like a hit Christmas record or a winning lottery ticket. It’s the Harper Lee principle: You only need one.
I’ve tried him in the ponderous Cassavetes relationship drama. I’ve enjoyed his lighthearted turn as Alan Arkin’s foil in “The In-Laws” and his quirky-sexy May-December repartee with fellow American institution Cyndi Lauper in “Vibes,” 1988’s “Romancing the Stone” knockoff. But for me, Peter Falk comes wrapped in a rumpled raincoat, gnashing a cheap cigar and driving that beater gray Peugeot, his name splashed across the screen in bold yellow “NBC Mystery Movie” font. I still have to watch closely sometimes to remember which of his squinty eyes is the glass one.
Organizationally challenged folks like me, who operate in our own private clouds of mild chaos, love the contradiction of Columbo’s outward presentation and his unassailable expertise and instinct. Underestimated by perps and colleagues alike, the lieutenant is more than a match for his highly intelligent suspects. Without breaking a sweat, he takes down classic ’70s effetes like Roddy McDowall and Donald Pleasence and a parade of Banlon-clad man’s men with wide ties and black hearts (RIP, Robert Culp).
Many are the nights I’ve awoken at three in the grip of freelancer’s financial anxiety, from which only one thing can save me. Never mind warm bubble baths and sports radio call-in shows; there’s no sweeter Ambien than a DVD date with the man in tan. While it’s the show’s writing that hooks you—you see whodunit and how in the first ten minutes, so the story had better be good to make you stay—it’s the dependable formula that allows you to drift in and out without feeling like you’ve missed the big payoff. Like the best Bond movies, “Columbo” is largely about the ambiance.
Columbo worship extends to the highest echelons of the creative world. Look no further than Wim Wenders’ 1987 fantasy “Wings of Desire,” in which Peter Falk plays himself—and also happens to be a former angel who traded his immortality to experience life as a human. It’s a curious bit of casting at first blush; but really, it’s not hard to go along with the notion of Falk’s purpose on earth being to bring joy to generations of TV viewers everywhere, from Iran to Venezuela. “I’m a friend,” he assures an invisible otherworldly counterpart, extending a hand. “Compañero.” He could be speaking to all of us.
Just one more thing, Mr. Falk: Thanks.