Peter Falk's long acting career has been driven by his split impulses as an artist and an entertainer. In the latter guise, Falk thrust himself into the pop consciousness with iconic turns in cult comedies like The In-Laws and The Princess Bride. But Falk has made his mark as a serious actor, as well, first on stage in New York in the '50s, and later as part of the acting cadre of director John Cassavetes, who focused intensely on the fractured relationships of American dreamers. Falk fused his two sides for his most famous role: Los Angeles police detective Columbo, who first appeared in a 1968 TV movie and has been a television staple ever since, anchoring smart mystery plays with as much emphasis on human behavior as hidden clues.
Two substantial pieces of the Falk legacy will hit DVD in September: the first season of Columbo, and Criterion's "John Cassavetes: Five Films" box set, which features Shadows, Faces, A Woman Under The Influence, Opening Night, and The Killing Of A Chinese Bookie, as well as Charles Kiselyak's exhaustive documentary A Constant Forge. In connection with the release of the Criterion set (he said he wasn't aware of the Columbo collection prior to this interview), Falk spoke with The Onion A.V. Club. Before the conversation began, he warned, "I've written a book [as yet unpublished], and there's a lot of stuff about Cassavetes in the book. Juicy stuff. I'll have to censor myself." Nevertheless, he spoke freely about his early days in New York, making the transition to Hollywood, becoming a TV star, and how he relaxes by sketching female nudes. (He sells his original artwork at peterfalk.com.)
The Onion: When did you first meet John Cassavetes?
Peter Falk: The first time I ever spoke to John Cassavetes was at a Lakers game. I got up to go for a hot dog, and he was coming in the opposite direction. I don't know who said hello first, but we started talking, and it turned out that he went to high school with my first wife, Alice. So we talked about his high-school days. That was the whole conversation. The second half was about to start, and I still hadn't gotten my hot dog.
O: What year was this?
PF: I'm going to guess late '60s.
O: So you were both firmly established as actors by that time.
PF: Yeah, I came out here in '59 or '60 or '61, something like that.
O: Before that, you were in New York?
PF: Right. I didn't become an actor until I was an old man of 28 or 29. I declared to the world that I was an actor. Nobody heard me, but I did declare it. I left Hartford, Connecticut, where I was posing as an efficiency expert, working for the governor. I went to Greenwich Village. That was the heroic phase of Off-Broadway. It was bursting with life and energy.
O: This was the heyday of The Actors Studio?
PF: Yes. Those were the days when you became an actor and your goal in life was to become a member of The Actors Studio. It had nothing to do with ever being in anything, or even being paid for anything. Just being admitted. And I auditioned with Bronia Stefan, doing a scene from The Girl On The Via Flaminia, which was a Broadway play starring Leo Penn, who later fathered Sean and Chris, and who also directed a couple of Columbos. At any rate, this scene from The Girl On The Via Flaminia took place on a bed, and I schlepped this fucking portable bed all over the island of Manhattan. We presented the scene to The Actors Studio, and their response was oh so very, very, very, very positive. "Why don't you bring it back next year?" [Laughs.] For three straight years, they kept asking us to bring it back, and each time, I asked if we should change it. "Noooo! Don't change a thing." So we kept bringing The Girl On The Via Flaminia, and I kept carrying that goddamn bed. We never got admitted, but we never got rejected, either. [Laughs.]
O: What was the attraction of that whole Method-acting scene?
PF: I'm not sure. It just had an aura about it. I suppose it had a lot to do with [Marlon] Brando. I don't know when On The Waterfront came out. When did that come out?
PF: In '54. And I didn't become an actor until '55. You had [On The Waterfront director Elia] Kazan, who was connected to The Actors Studio. Then there was this Russian teacher, [Konstantin] Stanislavski. These were godlike names. I was drawn to it. But there was another part of me that was more naïve. I had two ambitions: One was to be in The Actors Studio, and the other was to walk into a bar where actors hung out, and everyone would know that I was a professional actor and I would be accepted. It had nothing to do with ever being on TV. It had nothing to do with ever being in Hollywood. As a matter of fact, I remember being amazed that actors had a union. I thought only coal miners had unions, or guys that worked in automobile plants. That's an indication of how naïve I was. But Off-Broadway, yes, it was humming. I was very lucky.
I have to be careful now, because the funny stuff about this is in the book. I won't talk about the first play that I did, because that'll be in the book. But the second play I did—this is an indication of how huge a factor luck is in the course of an actor's career—was a huge hit. The Iceman Cometh at the Circle In The Square, directed by Jose Quintero. The lead was Jason Robards, who at that time was living in a one-room loft, barely able to pay the rent. He'd been acting for a long time, and he was just as good an actor five years prior to the opening of The Iceman Cometh, but no one knew who he was, because he'd never been in a hit. I was in New York for 10 minutes, and I got in that play. It ran for four hours, The Iceman Cometh. I was the bartender. I opened the play, and I stood there in front of the audience for four hours. It was hard to miss me. Therefore, every casting director in New York knew who I was. I had just arrived in New York! [Laughs.] Jason, in the meantime, had been there for 10 years, and they were just discovering him. So that has a lot to do with your career, when you get into a hit, if ever.
I might also add, in that connection, I did a thing called The Sacco-Vanzetti Story, which was a successful television show based on the Sacco and Vanzetti case, and there was an actor in that named George Scott. He had been to New York twice prior to this. I can't give you the years in terms of the intervals, but he left both times because he couldn't make a living. He went back to wherever the hell he came from. He was just as good! [Laughs.] It wasn't that his acting suddenly improved! He did a play at Circle In The Square with Colleen Dewhurst that was another big hit, and that brought him to the attention of casting directors.
O: How did you end up moving from New York to Los Angeles? Was that a natural progression for actors at the time?
PF: There was a huge migration, caused by the fact that television shows had been in New York, live and on tape, and then the industry decided to move to film. When it went to film, everyone had to move to Hollywood. All the buses and trains and planes were filled with New York guys. Even after I'd been living out here in La-La Land for five years, I'd pull up to a stoplight, and if another New York actor pulled up next to me, he'd yell, "What hotel are you staying at?" [Laughs.] But that's what happened when the television industry abandoned New York. It made a huge difference in the lifestyle of actors. In New York, I was living on 10th Street off Hudson, and you would walk to the theater and the rehearsal hall, as opposed to getting into a car and driving on a freeway and coming to a studio, which was surrounded by a wall, and you had to have a pass to be admitted. It was so different.
I certainly preferred the New York way. You'd rehearse on the Lower East Side, and there was always a delicatessen around the corner, and the weather was variable. Out here, it's always the same. It was a totally different lifestyle. There was something not-welcoming about going through a main gate with a guard and going into a studio and shooting. And it was a transition going from acting on a stage to acting in a studio. We were doing a television show once, and you always knew what camera was shooting, because there was a red light on. The other two actors in the scene and I almost simultaneously realized that the camera pointing at us didn't have its red light on. We knew we were either facing the wrong camera, or that the camera had suddenly gone off. So the camera in back of us, which was now on, photographed three actors turning in panic. [Laughs.] As a matter of fact, I think Leo Penn might've been in that show.
At any rate, I guess what I was getting at was the difference in acting on a stage and even acting in taped shows in New York. The emphasis on hitting your marks was not nearly as pronounced. In the theater, you didn't have any marks. Your instincts in rehearsal told you what the blocking was. On film, they reversed it. They decided ahead of time what your instincts were, before you even arrived. They would put down marks before you even knew the lines. There was always somebody putting something at your feet, and that's where you were supposed to go. That angered me and irritated me and threw me, and I'm sure that was the case with a lot of actors from New York. We weren't used to that. There's something wrong with it. At any rate, when it became my ball and bat on Columbo, that was the end of those marks. They were forbidden.
O: Was working with Cassavetes more like working in the theater?
PF: Yes. John's sets were unique. I'd never experienced anything like them before, and I haven't experienced anything like them since. He managed to generate a general chaos, which was liberating, because there was none of that "Quiet! Silence!" All the things that make you tense, that prevent you from feeling free and loose and having fun. On John's sets, you never knew when the fucking camera was going! Sometimes he would say "Action," sometimes he wouldn't. Sometimes he would look up and say, "We've been shooting for two minutes." [Laughs.] You wouldn't even know it! It was a wonderful way to work.
I think what John wanted to do was keep you from thinking. I don't think he trusted thought. He was drawn to spontaneous emotional reactions. Actually, they didn't have to be emotional. They could be subtle feelings. What do I mean by that? In acting school—and I didn't go to many, because I started so late—frequently the emotions that you'd see would be anger or tears. But the more subtle forms of the various ways that you can feel embarrassment, or the various ways that you can feel a mixture of being drawn to somebody but at the same time having a reservation… Those subtle kinds of feelings cannot or should not be planned in advance. They should happen during a take when you get lucky.
John would do anything to get you there, including dropping his pants and putting a banana up his ass to loosen you up. If I were to ask him about the scene or the character, he would respond such that the first two or three sentences would get my attention. I'd be alert and listening. And then as he continued on to the fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth sentence, it became more and more confusing. I think he did that deliberately, for fear that if he articulated precisely, you'd translate that into a cliché. All of us have in our minds how certain emotions are portrayed, and they're mostly based upon having seen it in a movie or on the stage somewhere before, as opposed to allowing it to spontaneously happen. I think that's why behavior in Cassavetes' films is so varied, so unpredictable, so unique.
O: Some people describe it as realism, but it's more than real.
PF: It's more than real! I agree with you. I think on the one hand, people talk about how naturalistic his scenes are, but I think emotionally, they are bigger than life. There's not a lot of naturalistic "pass the coffee" kind of dialogue, you know what I mean? There's not a lot of real talk in his pictures. There's a lot of heightened emotion, but it's not screaming. It has to do with behavior more than anything else. John would very rarely block a scene. He would much prefer you just start, and if he couldn't cover it with his camera, he would get it the next time. But there were no marks. He hated marks! He hated them when he was an actor, so he didn't use them as a director. As a matter of fact, John didn't particularly like directors, including himself. But he responded so genuinely to whatever an actor might do which delighted him. And that was contagious. That made you feel good. He was never protecting himself. What I mean by that is, if you don't make your day's schedule, the director usually says to the executives, "Well, that son of a bitch… that fucking actor is crazy, you know." [Laughs.] Whatever it is, it's usually the actor that's the problem.
O: In an interview, [Columbo creators] Richard Levinson and William Link talked about how the first season was kind of a struggle, because you had a lot of ideas about the scripts and your own performance. But they said they could see the results in the way you developed your own style and rhythm for the character. How much of that had to do with you trying to bring that "damn the marks" attitude from working with Cassavetes?
PF: Some of it. You know, when we were in New York, doing these mysteries, all the actors used to call the last scene "Moshe The Explainer." [Laughs.] That's the kind of thing that Neil Simon satirized in Murder By Death. Where the actor was burdened with the responsibility of explaining the plot. And it was a killer thing to act, because you realized it wasn't the actor talking or the character talking; it was the author explaining to the audience. [Laughs.] That's tough to act! So I rebelled against anything like that on Columbo.
What helped was first of all the writing, let's start there. But also it was the old "picture is worth a thousand words." A prop is worth half a page of exposition. If you take out of your raincoat pocket a Mounds bar, and then the next time you take out something equally puzzling, when you take out the next time the gun, you've already captured the audience's interest, because they were surprised by the first two things. That's the kind of thing I would be dealing with, to find some way to always have a prop, as opposed to words.
There was something that Johnnie Cochran did in the O.J. trial. Let me see if I can put this in less than a thousand words. [Laughs.] He showed the jury a tape of O.J.'s house, and he showed the forensic guy walking down the driveway carrying something to the forensic truck. And when Cochran got done, he asked the jury, "What was the difference between the two times that the forensic guy left the house?" The jury didn't know. And then he played it again and he pointed out that the first time there was an empty space for a car, but the second time, that space was occupied by a car they hadn't seen the first time. And who owned that car? [Laughs.] That car was owned by one of the detectives, and the time code indicated that the detective had gotten a pair of sneakers or some fucking thing, and instead of handing them in to where all the evidence went, he went out to O.J.'s house. So the implication was that that's when he planted whatever the fuck it was. [Laughs.] Now, that would've been something we would do on Columbo, where we would show something on a tape and then ask the audience, you know, "What is the difference?" Of course, Columbo would have a genuine clue, as opposed to this thing, which was horseshit. [Laughs.] He was just trying to frame the detective. But he did it with pictures, instead of talking.
I always found that very helpful on Columbo. That's one of the reasons I would sometimes reach into my pocket and pull out a box of Raisinets. Or another time I might have salt and pepper, and in the other pocket I'd have a hard-boiled egg. And then finally I'd pull out something that actually had something to do with the case.
O: It seems that part of the appeal of those old Columbos, aside from the mysteries, is the fact that you shot so much on location, so the show becomes a record of Los Angeles in the early '70s.
PF: That was not something that I would have ever thought about. I was consumed with making the scene work, and I was never very interested in the background. [Laughs.] Although I directed an episode in the first year, and what you just brought up reminds me of how important it is, the locations. There was a huge block, a city block, over in Century City, and an excavation that was like three football fields in width and in length. There was no building yet, just this huge hole in the ground, and they were actually still working there. The trucks would be bringing dirt down or taking dirt up, and there would be jackhammers going. And we were shooting! That was Link and Levinson's way of getting back at me for wanting to direct. [Laughs.] Those devils.
But in that case, I must say, John [Cassavetes] was helpful, and so was Steven Spielberg. The opening of that show had to do with shooting from sidewalk-level down into this huge hole, and from the huge hole back up, and I wasn't quite certain how to do that. Spielberg had already shot his Columbo. [Spielberg directed the first episode of Columbo's first full season, in 1971.] He was nice enough to come on a Saturday morning and give me a few pointers as to the best place to put the camera. And John did, too. So, to answer your question about making Columbo look like the '70s, the only time I cared about the background was when I had to shoot this hole. [Laughs.]
O: Between the John Cassavetes box set and the first-season Columbo DVDs, you've got some of the headiest years of your career preserved. That's got to feel pretty good.
PF: Well, the entertainment industry is loaded with extraordinarily talented people. But the true, genuine originals, they're rare. Cassavetes was a true original. His contribution to filmmaking was enormous. He introduced a new standard of spontaneity in acting that had never been seen before. And I don't think people are aware of what a wonderful camera operator John was. He could put that thing on his shoulder and move around like a fish in water. And they also don't understand what a wonderful lighting man he was. He could light a scene beautifully. And I don't think they appreciate the fact that he was a non-political, non-ideological, non-issue-oriented director. John was mostly interested in people and behavior. But at the same time, 10 years before anybody ever heard of Martin Luther King, in John's very first picture [Shadows] in the mid-'50s, he did a love story between a black and a white. Not only in form, but in content, he was way, way ahead of his time.
We made Husbands in the '70s, in the period of flower children, sex, rebellion against the middle class, rebellion against materialism, "roll around the fields and fuck." Every other person had a guitar and needed a haircut. And that's when John made a picture about middle-class commuters. That was a picture about family. Now, many years later, everyone's talking about family. So he was ahead of his time. I'm glad his work is being preserved. It should be.
I don't want to repeat myself, and I don't want to compare originals in the movie industry with music, but Fats Waller was an original, because he could write a song as meaningful as "Black And Blue" and as funny as "Your Feets Too Big." It's that combination of substance and humor that I think is characteristic of John. There's always something amusing in John's pictures. Little Richard is funny, too.
O: You like to draw, correct?
PF: Yes. The idea that you can work totally alone, with just you and the model, and it's quiet. The world's gotten very noisy, have you noticed that? I have two moments of intense concentration in my life. One is when the waiter describes the specials, because it's very hard to hear him, and what he's describing is something I didn't grow up with. The mixtures are so complex! And the room is so noisy! But the other time of fierce concentration is trying to capture the attitude and the form of a semi-nude woman, or even a totally nude woman. It is the second form of concentration that is so satisfying, trying to draw that. And I will mention, and this is a line from the book, what Michelangelo said to the Pope. The Pope complimented Michelangelo on the Sistine Chapel, and Michelangelo's answer was, "It's all in the drawing. The rest I get by pissing on it." [Laughs.] What he was referring to was how essential the original drawing is, as opposed to the contemporary world, in which people pick up a paintbrush and they're painting all over the fucking place, and they can't draw worth a shit, you know?
What does this have to do with Cassavetes? Here's the difference between a genuinely original man, Cassavetes, and a mediocrity like Falk. [Laughs.] I have what I consider to be a very, very, very spontaneous and original drawing of Albert Einstein. I went to John's house and he had a drawing on the wall, and I said, "Who is that?" And it was the coach of the Miami Dolphins. [Laughs.] Whose name I can't remember.
O: Probably Don Shula.
PF: It was Don Shula! And, you know, who the fuck would draw Don Shula? But, you know, he managed to make it interesting. Okay, where are we now?
O: Do people often walk up to you in the street and shout "Serpentine!"?
PF: Oh, goodness. Yes. That still goes on to this day. That picture [The In-Laws] was one of the happiest excursions of my life. It was a terrific script, and we had a wonderful time making it. And… oh, I can't tell you the story. It's in the book.