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Goodbye, Columbo

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The idea of Peter (Columbo) Falk actually hanging up his raincoat seemed as unlikely to Universal as the Fern-wood Flasher’s surrendering his. “It happens every year,” notes a studio executive airily. “Peter says he is leaving, and we offer him half of California, and he comes back.” Falk himself concedes that the detective’s ratty coat that’s been his trademark for five seasons on NBC is beginning to chafe like a straitjacket. It’s also become his security blanket (he’s euchred Universal up to $300,000 per episode). “I’m not a daredevil,” he’s the first to admit. “I don’t jump in. I inch.” Or as his wife, Alyce, once put it, mindful that he took nine years to marry her and 10 to commit himself to an acting career, “Peter’s a man of long indecisions.”

Yet this summer, his 48th, in a flurry of mid-life decisiveness, Falk seems to be changing all that. He’s cutting his Columbo show, which had run six to eight times a year, back to a token one. And his marriage is over after 16 years. “In a not terribly reckless way,” he says, “I’m trying to be myself.” Peter is hardly as callous as that sounds. “Something you love you miss,” he says, and he’d happily do “one Columbo a season for the rest of my life.” As for his home situation, Alyce remains his career mentor, and he’s still a paragon pop with their two adopted daughters (he has carte blanche visitation rights).

On his own, Peter’s the sort of a shambling wreck the canny Columbo only purports to be. Falk loses car keys, embarrassedly blows appointments (“I hate to be late—it’s rude”), neglects to zip his fly and forgets the names of important people. About all he can keep straight is the phone number of his secretary, Carole Smith, who saves him from himself in such lapses. Peter and Carole or anybody else are not an item. As the family spokesman in the divorce proceedings, Smith insists, convincingly, “There is no other man or woman.”

Peter’s own explanation is that it’s hard to keep a family and a career both going. “It’s possible,” he admits, “but acting is the most important thing to me right now.” By his own obsessively perfectionist standards, television’s grind-and-bear-it shooting schedules are inimical. He has a plaque on his office wall proclaiming “Give them quality—whether they want it or not.” That attitude gives TV budgeters heartburn, and Falk is now pouring himself back into movies. By way of warm-up, he’s delivering a droll Sam Spade spoof in the hottest comedy of the summer, Neil Simon’s Murder by Death. And shortly Falk starts his most ambitious film yet, The Serpent’s Egg. His co-star is Liv Ullmann, the director Ingmar Bergman, no less.

“Guys like that,” he says, “are the real thing. They don’t get up every morning to find out the latest best-seller. They have their own demons, and they make movies about them.” Which explains why Peter writes off U.S. TV as “a failure, a narcotic. There’s room for more charm, more loveliness, more real humor,” he finds himself preaching. “I’ve worked on shows where the conversation on the set is as banal as things you hear on a commuter train: your weekend, the weather, real estate.” He himself watches only news events and sports.

That snobbishness aside, Falk is no hypocrite. “You can’t be brought up in this culture and not have success and money mean something,” he admits, recognizing how Columbo set him up. “I never deny myself anything,” he says. “I never do anything I don’t want to, like going to the cleaners, mowing the lawn, traveling the subways in summer, standing in line. I’m not proud of that, but I can’t deny it. When you got dough, you got freedom.”

Falk, for all his rough-guy rhetoric, was never exactly deprived. His folks ran a small department store in Ossining, N.Y. But Peter did lose his right eye at age 3 to a tumor. “I hate self-pity,” he’s said, but he once confessed in an unguarded moment, “I’m afraid of going blind. I used to have an image of my older daughter helping me down the stairs.” He compensated for his glass eye by learning “to laugh with it”—and winning several high school athletic letters. As a teenager Falk was also drawn to the theater, but because “I was afraid I’d fail,” he went on to a public administration M.A. from Syracuse (where he met wife Alyce Mayo, then a dress designer and now a piano teacher). Eventually he settled restlessly into a job as a management expert in the Connecticut state bureaucracy. Still, he kept dabbling in drama until in 1954 his coach, Eva Le Gallienne, convinced him to try Off-Broadway. His dad warned: “You’re going to paint your face and make an ass of yourself all your life.” It never happened. Practically right out of the box, he won Oscar nominations for Murder, Inc. and Pocketful of Miracles, then four Emmys plus a Tony for The Prisoner of Second Avenue. He never went Hollywood and credits Alyce, fondly recalling driving their VW Beetle to his first Oscars ceremony in 1961. “Well, babes, what do you think my chances are?” Her reply: “You’ll be lucky if they don’t take the nomination back.”

Today Falk rents a Beverly Hills apartment not far from the $200,000 Tudor manse Alyce and their girls have stayed in. He lives alone, though his Murder by Death sidekick Eileen Brennan describes Peter as “enormously sexy, like a throwback to the total man.” Peter saves his charm for his daughters. With them, a friend reports, his voice (otherwise indistinguishable from Columbo’s) “goes soft and husky, full of respect and love.” But he’s not overindulgent like so many separated dads. He figures, “You must not take away that real glee a kid has looking forward to something.”

Second bachelorhood has not put Falk on the Bel Air or any other circuit. He’s not the roistering guy he was as a scrambling young actor rooming with Wayne (City of Angels) Rogers in New York. Nor on the sort of desperate tear he joined with fast friends Ben Gazzara and John Cassavetes in the latter’s film Husbands. “I used to get a kick out of parties when I was younger and went to find girls. But I don’t see any point in older people having parties,” Peter observes. His releases now, he says, are pick-up basketball and thrice-weekly gym workouts. (He’s gone cold turkey on his lifetime addiction to pool halls.) He doesn’t deny that he feels “apprehension” about working with Bergman. Old buddy Rogers notes that Falk is capable of “passing out from anxiety attacks, absolutely faint.”

“I’d like to be more reckless,” says Falk, “less concerned about consequences. That’s the way we were when we were young.” Then a voice that could only be Columbo admits: “I cry over children in the movies. What touches me is the innocence and aspirations of kids, their unawareness of what the future holds in store for them.”