Peter Falk had a fine career on the stage and in feature films. His crazed comic performance in "The In-Laws" alone would guarantee a major appreciation from film critics and scholars.
But it is his network television work in the 1970s as a modest, sly, stub-of-a-cigar-smoking detective in a well-worn wreck of a trench coat for which he will be fondly remembered and celebrated for years to come. Falk, who died at his Beverly Hills home Thursday at age 83, gave life to a fictional detective named Lt. Columbo who was and is one of the only American crime solving characters who can rival the best in British detective fiction.
Falk reprised the role in the late 1980's and 1990's, but it wasn't quite the same as during the heyday of "Columbo" from 1971 to '77, when his character was one of the few Hollywood creations that network TV could rightly be proud of as both an entertaining and intelligent crime drama.
Unlike "Charlie's Angels," this police drama was made for thinking grown-ups. Thanks to the fine writing of creators Richard Levinson and William Link, you could try to puzzle out the murder mystery as you might in an Agatha Christie work, even as you chuckled at the tics and felt vindicated in the ultimate crime-solving success of the schlumpy little detective who always seemed to be looking at the ground and annoying self-important people with "just one more thing" questions.
One of the greatest joys was watching the irritation of the high and mighty mount with each "one more thing" query from Columbo long after they thought they had outwitted and dismissed him as an inconsequential little loser in an unpressed suit and that ratty trench coat.
Fans came to know and love every modest element of Columbo's life from his sorrowful-looking Basset Hound dog, to the never-seen "Mrs. Columbo," whom he was always referencing as he worked his investigations among the rich and powerful of southern California.
"Geez, wait until I tell the Missus about who i talked to today," he would tell a suspect who also happened to be a famous movie star. "Ooooh, is she going to be excited. Oooooh, she's a big fan or yours -- a very, very big fan. Me, too. I am one of your fans as well."
And the 90-minute episode would end with the star in hand cuffs snarling at Columbo as he was led off to jail.
"Columbo" was one of those anti-zeitgeist hits of American popular culture. In an era of disco, he was all things opposite.
There was nothing glitzy, sleek, superficial or sexy about him. He was a beloved television character for all those who didn't want to surrender their brains to "Charlie's Angels" or "Love Boat." And, as splendid as the writing of Levinson and Link was, it was Falk's performance that made the character so memorable and endearing.
From slapping himself in the head at his own feigned stupidity, to almost bowing in deference as he questioned some of the "very important" people under investigation, Falk's Columbo was impossible to resist. In a culture that was getting more and more in-your-face outrageous with its hot pants and disco flash, this was the most modest and cerebral of characters anywhere on American television. Columbo was the lunchbox detective, the steady, hardworking, solidly middle-class public servant trying to do his job honorably.
Just one more thing ...
I know what me and missus are doing tonight. We're sitting down with Bugsy, the dog, and we're going to watch an old VHS cassette of the lieutenant at work -- and remember what America was like before we became a nation of empty TV bling.
Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun