It’s a very difficult thing to put your finger on. What separates the actor from the star? Which actors are better suited for the small screen – television – and which actors are capable of achieving almost larger than life personas on the big screen?
This much I can put my finger on and say with certainty: Peter Falk was a star on both television and the big screen and we will never see another like him.
Falk died last week at his home in Beverly Hills. He had suffered in his final years from dementia and Alzheimer’s. He was 83.
Some stars defy logic. I often wonder if Humphrey Bogart would have made it in today’s Hollywood. If he would have ever even been given a chance to carry the load. Get the girl. Would Spencer Tracy be a star today? Charles Laughton?
Growing up watching Columbo, the disheveled and seemingly absent-minded detective Falk made famous, I took the actor for granted as just another part of the television landscape. Easy to do, in a way, because the hit show ran for 11 seasons (7 on NBC, 4 on ABC) and won the actor five Emmys. Chomping on his cigar in his rumpled raincoat and working with only one good eye, ‘Frank Columbo’ became a television icon. “One more thing,” was the line we all waited for when we knew he was closing in on the culprit.
It wasn’t until I saw Falk in John Cassavetes’ disturbingly brilliant A Woman Under the Influence (1974) that I realized Falk was much more than just another tv actor. Just another “pretty face.” Falk was a force of nature on-screen. So real and raw and thoughtful and humane.
Gena Rowlands plays ‘Mabel,’ a woman battling severe mental illness. Her erratic behavior keeps the audience on edge from the beginning of the film to its end. Rowlands’ performance is brilliant. One of the best I’ve ever seen. She was nominated for an Oscar and won the Golden Globe for her effort. But not to be overlooked is Falk as the desperate husband, ‘Nick.’ Struggling against medical odds to keep her grounded. Struggling to justify why he should stay by her side rather than take the easy way out and bolt. Falk’s tenderness, his ability to listen with such intensity (much like Columbo used to when it seemed he was distracted), is what keeps the audience engaged in the bittersweet story.
He and Cassavetes were pals. Collaborators of the highest order. Along with Cassavetes’ wife, Rowlands, and Ben Gazzara, the clique made a series of influential and dynamic films (Mikey and Nicky, Opening Night, Husbands, A Woman Under the Influence).
Cassavetes holds an impressive posthumous perch, an inspiration for many filmmakers as one of the godfathers of what is known as “cinema verite” – a kind of voyeuristic shooting style that seems more like documentary than traditional movie making. The director’s name comes up frequently in conversations about storytelling style and the importance of the “master shot” – a wide frame holding both the set and all of its characters.
But in all my years in Hollywood I have yet to meet an actor who said he was inspired by Peter Falk. Or that he wanted to be “the next Peter Falk.” I think that might be because actors like Falk are impossible to duplicate or mimic. What Falk gave us was utterly unique to him. He was a complete original.
Take a look at The In–Laws (1979) and ask yourself who else could have played the manic ‘Vince’ off of Alan Arkin’s uptight dentist. Who else could have done what Falk did so gracefully to set up Rob Reiner’s The Princess Bride (1987)? A sweet old Grandpa who we immediately trust and adore – telling us a bedside story. Reassuring us that we’re in good hands. Perfect.
One more thing.
There was a rumor floating around years ago that ‘Columbo’s’ famous raincoat had been snatched up by the Smithsonian Institute. Falk shot the rumor down and assured his fans that the coat hung in his “upstairs closet.”
I liked it in his closet then. I like it in the Smithsonian now.