Peter Falk earns his angel wings at 83

Peter Falk was a giant.

Not in stature, of course.  One of the things that made him interesting on film was his perpetually rumpled appearance, the way he looked like life had put its thumb on him at some point and pressed down hard.  But in terms of the mark he left on television and film, he was a giant, and one clear sign of that is the way different age groups will mourn him for different films, and the way his career managed to change and mutate over the years, always for the best.

I am absolutely a fan of “Columbo,” his best-known role.  I own every single episode on DVD, and I watched them all again as Universal was putting them out.  It’s a formula show, no doubt, but I love the way the series would play with that formula, and I loved Falk.  Watching him verbally spar with the smug bad guy each week, watching him lay out his nice, neat little verbal traps, that’s one of the textbook definitions of comfort viewing.  Sure, I knew where the show was going every week.  Every single viewer did.  But the pleasure came from watching Falk get there.  It was about the details, the way he sketched in his home life through descriptions of Mrs. Columbo and the way he would always seem a little more scattered and frazzled than he really was.  It was a charming show, and Falk was the reason it worked.

Nominated twice for Academy Awards, Falk had a fascinating film career.  If “Columbo” is the ultimate example of comfort food on TV, you can’t say the same for the movies he was drawn to over the years.  In particular, when he and John Cassavetes worked together, the results are incredibly difficult films, amazing films that cut deep even now, filled with uncompromising work by everyone.  I love that Falk and Cassavetes were both actors together in many studios films and TV shows over the years, using the money they earned in those projects to make these small, personal movies that really stand the test of time.  If you’re not familiar with “Husbands” or “A Woman Under The Influence,” you should be.

The list of movies that benefit from Falk’s presence is huge.  Watching my Twitter feed go by right now, it’s apparent that people love many of his films.  There are those who swear by “Murder By Death,” those who worship at the altar of “The In-Laws,” and I’m not remotely surprised by how many people are quoting his role from “The Princess Bride.”  I have always had a soft spot for the Elaine May film “Mikey and Nicky,” and I find him absolutely riveting in “Wings Of Desire.”  It’s funny… in that film, he plays a former angel who renounced his divine nature to live as a human, and he also plays Peter Falk.  Wim Wenders knew he wanted to cast someone famous as an ex-angel in the movie, but he almost changed his mind because he couldn’t figure out who to use.  He was already deep into production when he finally had the idea to cast Falk, and he had to track the actor down to discuss the role with him.  He managed to get him on the phone, and he immediately pitched the idea that Falk would play a former angel.  Falk’s response to him was simply, “How did you know?”  

Man, I love that.

Evidently, he struggled with Alzheimer’s over the last decade or so, and that’s awful to hear.  Falk was always such a warm presence on film, and so grounded.  He could make you care about what he was saying or doing even in bad films, though, and like most working actors, he made plenty of those.  He just had a gravity that would draw you in.  It’s impossible for me to sum up the warmth and the humanity that Peter Falk brought to his work over the years in something as basic as a single article, and I’d be a fool to try.  Instead, let me encourage you to see something of his this weekend that you haven’t seen before.  If you only know him from his comedy work, then I implore you to give “Husbands” a try.  And if you haven’t seen his performance in “Pocketful of Miracles,” it’s worth hunting down.  He gave us decades of pleasure, and he managed to make us laugh, like in “The Great Race,” or cry, like in the TV version of “A Hatful of Rain,” or he did both, like in “The Princess Bride.”  No matter what directors asked of him, he was able to do it, and I’m sure he would meet all of those requests with the same simple response:

“As you wish.”

Or maybe he’d just yell “Serpentine!” and head for the door.  Whatever the case, Falk will be missed deeply by legions of fans around the world.

Peter Falk was 83 years old.