Monday, June 27, 2011

Peter Falk

My first substantial memory of Peter Falk – aside from TV guest spots or secondary movie roles – is from a series he did in the 1960s, “Trials of O’Brien,” in which he played a lawyer who got involved in criminal cases and was always behind on his alimony payments.

(At least that’s how I remember it – I was too young and unsophisticated to “get” the series, though I somehow knew it was good. I also suspect the show marked the first time I’d ever heard the word “alimony.”)

The only specific episode I recall was called “Dead End on Flugel Street” and featured Milton Berle.

According to the Internet Movie Database, only 22 episodes were shot. I don’t know who owns the rights, but I do know that if the show ever comes out on DVD, I’ll snap it up.

A few years after “O’Brien,” I became one of the millions of fans of “Columbo.” It was hands-down the best of the rotating “NBC Mystery Movie” series, though “McMillan and Wife” had its moments. (And remember that neat “Mystery Movie” opening, with the Henry Mancini music?)

I think all the “Columbo” episodes are available on DVD, including the later ones that aired on ABC, but the only ones I own are those from the first season. This isn’t to say that the other seasons’ episodes are bad, but the first season was produced by the series’ creators, Richard Levinson and William Link (somehow I feel whenever I type those two names, I should genuflect), Steven Bochco was one of the writers, and one of the directors was an up-and-comer by the name of Spielberg.

Levinson (now deceased) and Link were, for my money, the best TV writing team ever. Some of the occasional TV movies they wrote – “My Sweet Charlie,” “A Certain Summer” and “The Execution of Private Slovak” – tackled social issues with scripts that were dramatic and literate but never ponderous.

But even as kids, Levinson and Link had always loved the mystery genre, and their mystery scripts were as literate and intelligent as their more serious efforts. It was almost physically impossible for them to write down to an audience.

In addition to “Columbo,” I recommend their stand-alone TV mystery movies, including “Rehearsal for Murder” and “Murder by Natural Causes.” (Another “Mystery Movie” series they came up with, “Tenafly,” starring James McEachin as a detective who balanced his work with his duties as a family man, should have caught on but didn’t.)

Their Emmy-winning first-season “Columbo” script, “Death Lends a Hand,” is required viewing for any student of fiction writing. And like the other first-season shows, it’s 90 minutes long.

After the first season, some of the “Columbo” episodes (with Levinson and Link staying on as executive producers) were two hours long. Eventually, I think, almost all of them were. I think I read that this was at the network’s request, but most of the time the extended length hurt the show because the padding – no matter how well written – was evident.

But even when an episode was too long and sometimes tedious to the point where I, as the viewer, was almost tempted to confess just to get it over with, Falk was still interesting to watch. Even given the talents of Levinson and Link, I doubt the series and the character would have lasted as long if it hadn’t been for Falk.

(And I also think it’s about time that I bought the DVD of the original version of “The In-Laws,” starring Falk and Alan Arkin. Can anyone who saw it ever forget Falk yelling “Serpentine! Serpentine!” as he and Arkin flee gunfire?)

I remember being saddened a few years ago by the news that Falk had Alzheimer’s disease – a particularly tragic twist, I thought, for someone whose most famous character was known for being (apparently) forgetful.

Although he is gone, I’m happy to say his character lives on in book form. “The Columbo Collection,” a collection of 12 stories by William Link, is available. If you’re a Columbo fan, you’ll want to get it – but don’t read it too quickly; these stories are to be savored. Me, I have three more to go. I hope that by the time I finish them Mr. Link will have come out with a second collection.

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