The fellow on the other side of the phone line was saying "I agree with you" -- and it took me a minute to realize that the raspy yet warm and amiable voice belonged to Peter Falk.
A couple of weeks before, in The San Francisco Examiner, I had started a review of "Tune in Tomorrow...," which starred Barbara Hershey and Keanu Reeves, with the sentence "Peter Falk should make more and better movies." Falk had liked what I'd written.
We chatted for a few minutes, and then, as I thanked him for the call, my fondness for "Columbo" kicked in. No, I didn't say "Just one more thing." But remembering how Columbo always played off his never-seen spouse, I said, "Peter, you know I admire your work. But my wife -- she's just crazy about it." And that's how I got a laugh from Peter Falk.
Falk has been lauded over the last few days for his TV work, his celebrated art house collaborations with John Cassavetes ("Husbands," et al) and Wim Wenders ("Wings of Desire") and his beloved comic turn in "The In-Laws" (written by Andrew Bergman).
But Falk was also terrific in a bunch of movies that are hardly ever mentioned any more. "Murder, Inc." (1960) was a klunker, but Peter Falk's casually scary Abe Reles, the real-life linchpin of the national crime syndicate's murder arm in the '30s, deserves a place in movie-land's Murderer's Row next to Cagney's Public Enemy.
Falk delivers hilarious deadpan-sadist shtick in that raggedly engaging Rat Pack musical comedy, "Robin and the Seven Hoods" (1964).
In William Friedkin's "The Brink's Job" (1978) he is low-key and winning as a criminal David who knocks off the Goliath of armored-car companies.
And Falk is a powerhouse in Walter Hill's "Undisputed" (2002) as a prison fixer -- a Lansky-style mob boss who exudes a funny kind of dignity by dispensing hard-earned, no-bull wisdom with vaudevillian delight.
I don't think he ever gave a more inventive performance than he did in "Tune in Tomorrow...," Jon Amiel's loose (and, aside from Falk's performance, flimsy) adaptation of Mario Vargas Llosa's novel, "Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter." I feel lucky to have been reviewing movies in 1990, when it came out. Here are the paragraphs Falk liked from my piece:
"Peter Falk should make more and better movies. He's a character actor on a heroic scale: The kind of performer Preston Sturges would have loved. He's earthy, unpredictable and wily -- he can be an overscaled eccentric or a nuanced nudzh. He specializes in personalities like Pedro Carmichael in 'Tune in Tomorrow...' -- men who are slovenly, quirky, obsessive and have a core that transcends all their flaws and contradictions.
"Falk has said that the stubbornness and messiness of his most famous character, TV's Lt. Columbo, come from him. But that doesn't account for the artistry Falk brings to the part -- the arsenal of dissembling delaying tactics that makes the detective stick in his antagonists' minds, and those of the viewers, too. As Columbo, Falk is the master of double-takes and afterthoughts.
"As the radio-writer extraordinaire in the 1951 New Orleans of 'Tune in Tomorrow...,' Falk is the king of single takes and snap decisions. His percolating Pedro is a great comic performance. "Of course, you never forget it's Falk beneath the weirdo costumes Pedro assumes in order to get under the skin of his characters --- whether a maid, a surgeon, or a Chasidic Jew. Part of the fun comes from seeing this salt pull off outrageous bits of business, like alternately drinking and sniffing a concoction brewed from uncured tobacco and eucalyptus leaves.
"Falk is too shrewd an actor to give up trademarks that have worked for him before. Even as Pedro, who's more of a live-wire than Columbo ever was, Falk gets to use the quizzical grins and deceptive silences that make his LAPD detective such an effective and beloved sleuth.
"Still, in almost every way, Pedro is an entirely different creation - a fleet-fingered thief of life.
"Falk breathes pure oxygen into a vacuum. In his hands, Pedro is a glorious contradiction: a down-to-earth literary guy who lives in the literary vapors. Even his mask of concentration is funny. When Pedro types away relentlessly, Falk gives him a peculiar smile that bares four of his lower teeth. Falk's Pedro doesn't contrast art and life: he fuses them. For a writer, Pedro is unusually theatrical: He takes over the direction of his radio plays. He coaxes his actors by whispering off-mike, sprinkling water on their brows, and even advising an older man to masturbate before air time. Falk delivers bizarre counsel from the pit of his stomach.
"In the movie's most daring and berserk comic ploy, Padro pillories the Albanian people on and off the air. There's no sane reason. He simply needs a focus for his darker emotions, like bellicosity and hatred, and he delights in stirring up real live controversies. Falk comes through -- he makes you believe that this crackpot artist needs to savor all his feelings, even malice. (The running gag stays funny because you know, from the beginning, that Pedro's racism will backfire.) Pedro keeps talking about 'the impact of reality.' Falk carries his own reality with him."