The Notebook: a remembrance of Peter Falk

The girl sat at a table head in hands, tears wetting palms. Glass windows surrounded her, yet somehow the California sun could not penetrate the murk of what had happened inside. A body lay on the floor: a man, a bad man. Blood pooled. It would have to go away. It would all have to go away. It was an accident. It wasn’t her fault. He’d touched her. He’d handled her, hard. A muffled voice was heard from another room, “Cut and Print!” The girl looked up and sniffed (careful to suppress the urge to wipe at her makeup), as Peter Falk’s afternoon cheese plate was “sent over” and offered to me. I had done well, it suggested.

Hollywood is a tough business and you take the “atta girls” where you can get them. It had also been tough on a young man from New York with one glass eye, who once failed a screen test at Columbia Pictures and was told by big boss Harry Cohn “for the same price I can get an actor with two eyes.” It wasn’t until Falk’s casting as killer Abe Reles in Murder, Inc. that the tables turned and he earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor. New York Times film critic Bosley Crowther called Falk’s performance “amusingly vicious.”

The movie clicked into the VCR for probably the tenth or twelfth time. On the screen the house appeared dark, tall and peaky. The fog rolled in heavy, a white thickness that would have made seasoned ship captains see specters of giant squid over bow and stern. A collection of archetypal detectives was purposefully assembled to solve a forthcoming murder. The setting was gargoyles and tapestry, the costumes fur-lined and silk, a moose hung on the wall and watched his guests: the moose had Truman Capote’s eyes. A man wearing pajamas under a long, tan coat, palming a revolver, questioned the once thought to be blind butler, who was really Truman Capote (one of the few times Capote would act on screen), who was really… the deaf-mute maid?! But who did it? Was something even done? Oh the intrigue!

After a morning spent picking wild mulberries or star fruit, so warm they felt oven baked on first bite, my sister and I liked to watch dark, cool, mystery movies in the heat of the Florida summer. We liked this afternoon movie selection a lot. We liked the funny-little-author-guy in the hat and the man in the long, tan coat. My sister and I watched Murder by Death almost as many times as we watched Clue or Haunted Honeymoon (definitely more times than The Gnome-Mobile). We liked crime and mystery, crusted with camp.

Mr. Falk didn’t know what kind of cheese it was that was in his cheese plate. Others took care of such things, even though he was a very discriminating man. I came to know this well during my time spent in that house of glass, above Beverly Hills, where we shot the scene of the crime, where my character was questioned by an L.A. cop, mussy in appearance and holding a small notebook. We took take after take. The director would come to know this too and shoot my coverage first, if possible, before we “turned around” on our star. He liked to be perfect. And perfect meant many, many, many takes. As a very patient actor, I didn’t mind — of course I didn’t mind, this was Peter Falk!

It has come to be told that Mr. Falk’s idea for the Columbo character was inspired by Dostoyevsky’s police inspector, Porfiry Petrovich, in Crime and Punishment. Falk himself even went on to suggest he can have an “a obsessive thoroughness,” a possible parallel between his own personality and Columbo’s. “It’s not enough to get most of the details, it’s necessary to get them all. I’ve been accused of perfectionism.”

I would only see Mr. Falk on set. He would get his makeup and hair done in his own trailer and take his meals there too. This was six years before I would leave Hollywood behind to go to college, the very same school, The New School, where Falk received his own degree in 1951. I was unable to ask him the questions I would have today: about Mr. Capote, about New York in the 50’s, about his favorite moment in Los Angeles — Hollywood Land. He was a kind man and probably would have been interested in my funny, childlike questions.

I believe Mr. Falk spent more time with me than any other actor while shooting our TV movie Columbo Likes the Nightlife. This would be the last time Peter Falk would put on the tan trench coat, small, spiral, notebook in hand, and be Colombo. I was that girl. I did not know what questions to ask then, just as I had no idea as a chubby pre-teen in Florida that I would one day be starring opposite the man I so enjoyed watching.

On June 23, 2011 Peter Falk died. The next day were a few rounds of headlines, a nice write up in The Wall Street Journal by Lee Goldberg, another few, and a day later time had moved on. I hadn’t. I thought of the man I stood across from for a month and a half and recited written word after word, time and again. His kindness. His gift of acting. The first break of a smile at the corner of his eye. I don’t know what makes one person worth weeks of chatter and another only a whisper, yet I’m not sure he would have minded the simple soft applause.

As Falk himself once said about death, “It is just the gateway.”

I do know one thing, though. I know what was in that famed notebook that Mr. Falk’s always had in his Colombo’s trench coat pocket: his lines.

***

– Jennifer Sky is a writer of fiction and non-fiction, a student and believer in magical things. She is the 2012 Editor-in-Chief of 12th Street Journal and lives in New York City. You can find her on twitter at @jennifer_sky or at www.jennifersky.com

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