Peter Falk has died at the age of 83. It was hard not to like Peter Falk on screen. As the "rumpled detective" Lieutenant Columbo, he was understated, humble and sly. This was a conscious decision by Falk, who suggested that when he'd arrive at a crime scene, rather than all the other cops making way for the great detective, they'd basically ignore this nondescript guy. Similarly, Columbo managed to slowly worm out information from his suspects by making them underestimate him. PBS did a nice little remembrance of Falk, and it's striking and amusing to see the contrast between Falk's style and Shatner hamming it up:
As my dad used to say, if the villains had just shut up, they'd be fine, but Columbo always got them talking.
Falk was a good serious actor (check him out in John Cassavetes' film Husbands), but he really excelled in roles where he could exercise his deanpan sense of humor and sly sense of fun ("Just one more thing..."). Columbo was perfect for this, with the character taking subtle delight every time he was underestimated. Falk was also great in the uneven but occasionally hilarious comedies Murder By Death and The Cheap Detective. Meanwhile, there's his small but key role in Wings of Desire, and his perfectly cast, iconic performance in that wonderful movie, The Princess Bride:
(The clip inexplicably cuts out Falk's next line.)
The Grandson: A book?
Grandpa: That's right. When I was your age, television was called books. And this is a special book. It was the book my father used to read to me when I was sick, and I used to read it to your father. And today I'm gonna read it to you.
The Grandson: Has it got any sports in it?
Grandpa: Are you kidding? Fencing, fighting, torture, revenge, giants, monsters, chases, escapes, true love, miracles...
The Grandson: Doesn't sound too bad. I'll try to stay awake.
Grandpa: Oh, well, thank you very much, very nice of you. Your vote of confidence is overwhelming.
Here's the obituaries from The New York Times, The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times and The Guardian.
While there are many great Falk performances, this brief, self-mocking cameo is one of my favorites. As a kid seeing the movie in the theater, I didn't know who the hell he was or why the adults were laughing; the scene seemed pretty pointless to me. When I got older and got to know Falk's work, I thought this bit was slyly hilarious. Unfortunately, the scene is cut across two clips. Start at 7:00 in the first one:
Rest in peace, Peter Falk.