Sunday, June 26, 2011

Peter Falk: Leading Man/ Everyman

I interviewed the late Peter Falk many years ago, backstage after an L.A. production of David Mamet’s outrageous Glengarry Glen Ross. What I most remember is the rest of the cast ragging Falk about plans for the closing night festivities. To them it was obvious: “The guy with the big house should throw the party.” But Falk, the owner of that big house, gave as good as he got. When I left, the venue for the cast party was still an open question.

Reading Falk’s obits, I learned a good deal about him. I hadn’t known that he got his first glass eye at age three, following the removal of a malignant tumor. I hadn’t known that he worked as a certified public accountant (we had several of those in my family too) before the acting bug bit. I certainly didn’t know that early in his career he roomed with Dustin Hoffman and Gene Hackman. Since at one point Hoffman and Hackman also shared quarters with a very young Robert Duvall, I’d say there was a lot of acting talent packed into some tiny New York flats.

When these unknowns hit Hollywood, all four moved into leading roles without being conventionally handsome. Their ascendancy reveals how much the movie industry had changed in the late Sixties. The key film in this regard was The Graduate, a romantic comedy whose young leading man might have been played in another era by a tall, blond Robert Redford type. In fact, when Mike Nichols began casting The Graduate, Redford himself came very close to landing the role of Benjamin Braddock. Problem was: Redford seemed much too attractive to be believable as the hapless, clueless Ben that Nichols had in mind. So the part was won by Off-Broadway actor Dustin Hoffman, who approached his audition in a state of panic, firmly convinced that he was all wrong for a romantic lead.

And a star was born, though not immediately. Lawrence Turman, producer of The Graduate, remembers being told at an early screening that his movie would have been a huge hit, if not for the miscasting of the male lead. A photo spread in Life magazine just prior to the film’s release describes the new star in terms that verge on the anti-semitic. It starts with an introductory teaser--“A homely non-hero, Dustin Hoffman, gets an unlikely role in Mike Nichols’ The Graduate” –and goes from there. According to Life, Hoffman is short, scrawny, has “skittish black-beady eyes,” and “a schnoz that looks like a directional signal.” The article bears the off-putting title “A Swarthy Pinocchio Makes a Wooden Role Real.” Somehow, though, the youth of America quickly took Hoffman’s Ben Braddock to their hearts, paving the way for such later unlikely Romeos as Ben Stiller and Seth Rogen.

Ironically, Hoffman’s buddy Gene Hackman once had a role in The Graduate too. He was cast as Mr. Robinson, oblivious spouse of the predatory Anne Bancroft character, but lost the part during the film’s rehearsal period. Not to worry: he was Oscar-nominated for playing Buck Barrow in another 1967 film, Bonnie and Clyde., Three years later he brought his Everyman quality to the Oscar-winning role of Popeye Doyle in The French Connection.

Peter Falk was an Everyman too. As TV’s Columbo, he was a blue-collar fellow, rumpled, down to earth, but remarkably shrewd. A guy, in other words, who reflected the way Americans like to see themselves. He will be missed.


  1. ...Only to think that two of my favourites merged into what I'd imagine a creative tour de force enchants me...Peter "Just one more thing" Falk in Mamet's testosterone fuelled play of sublime one-upmanship, Glengarry Glen Ross.

    What part did he take? Shelly Devine? Richard Roma?

  2. Thanks for asking, Keith. I too love this play (and also the film version). It's been a long time, but I recall that he was Shelley Levene, with Joe Mantegna as Ricky Roma, and some other great characters in the cast.

  3. My parents loved COLUMBO and I watched it, too, mainly because of their interest in the show, but I will always remember Falk as the lady wrestler trainer from ALL THE MARBLES with Laurene Landon.

  4. I didn't see All the Marbles, but that sounds like quite a role for Peter Falk. He actually appeared in a wide range of projects. Perhaps the most unusual was his role as a somewhat disheveled angel who wants to become human in Wim Wenders' Wings of Desire.

  5. I've enjoyed Peter Falk in so many things - The Twilight Zone; the heist comedy Happy New Year; Murder by Death; and of course, Columbo. What a smart idea - rotate four series so each can do 1/4 as many episodes per show and make them really good. Pitting the disheveled Lt. Columbo against a parade of great guest murderers only made it all the more fun. And can you imagine hanging out with those four incredible actors one weekend back during those days? Wow.