When a man names his autobiography for one of a character’s recurring lines, you know he’s settled into a popular perception of himself. This is not I Am Not Spock; Peter Falk called his autobiography Just One More Thing. He liked the character of Columbo just as much as the rest of us, it seems. Also, the quotes I’ve seen from him in various places are funny enough so that I’m giving the autobiography a shot; that’s really what I’m looking for in a celebrity autobiography, even if it’s a celebrity I like. Anyone who summed up being chased by Columbo as “like being nibbled to death by a duck” is someone whose book I’ll read.
A lot of his mannerisms stem from a childhood bout with cancer. When he was three, he was diagnosed with retinablastoma, an ocular cancer that affects somewhere between one in 18,000 and one in 30,000 children worldwide. In most cases, including Falk’s, treatment means removing the affected eye. The squint, the covering his eye, everything along those lines comes from attempts to get through the world despite having a glass eye. In fact, it arguably led to his acting career. The sequence of events is shaky, but he was rejected from the Navy and therefore became a member of the Merchant Marines. He later applied to the CIA and was rejected for having been a member of the Marine Cooks and Stewards Union, which was thought to be too Communist; Falk wasn’t an active member, and membership was required, but there we are. If he’d gotten into the CIA, I kind of doubt he would’ve ended up in The Princess Bride.
You see, I have actually seen some of his non-Columbo work. Not all of it, not by any stretch; for one thing, I don’t much like Cassavetes. But he’s just hysterical in The Great Muppet Caper, a movie full of hilarious cameos. His explanation to Kermit about the significance of Piggie’s shoe is weirdly specific and detailed and, as Kermit points out, not one detail is correct. I’d say it’s one of the absolute best celebrity cameos in any Muppet film, and that is not a low bar. And, of course, he’s the grandfather in The Princess Bride, which alone would cause my entire generation, pretty much, to remember him fondly.
Still, you know, Columbo. He played the role sixty-eight times, from “Ransom for a Dead Man” in 1971 (murderer played by Oscar winner Lee Grant) to “Columbo Likes the Night Life” in 2003 (murderer played by Matthew Rhys). And telling you the murderer is of course not a spoiler, because the great conceit of the show was that you knew who the killer was, and not just by picking out the most famous person in the cast, which would usually do it for you. You’d watch the murder take place, and then you’d watch Columbo figure out who did it. Other shows have dabbled in this format, but only Columbo did it every single episode. What’s more, the killer was usually seen as smarter than he—and, crucially, higher class. You could get quite an interesting piece out of the class dynamics of the series.
Okay, I grant you. Most of the great people he worked with, it’s in the context of “they killed someone on Columbo.” (Does anyone else remember Ricardo Montalban as having been on more than one episode?) Still. He did work with all those great people, from Dick Van Dyke to Sal Mineo to Johnny Cash. And he held his own. Partly, that’s because he had the mannerisms down and just had to slip into a character as familiar as a battered rain coat, but I do also believe it’s because of his very real talent.
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