As rumpled TV detective Columbo and the grandfather in The Princess Bride, Peter Falk delighted audiences with his quirky charm.
But Falk, who died June 23 at the age of 83, was accomplished in drama, nominated twice for an Oscar in 1960’s Murder, Inc., and 1961’s Pocketful of Miracles.
In 1987, Falk began an association with acclaimed German film director Wim Wenders, appearing in Wings of Desire and its 1993 followup Faraway, So Close. Here, the director pays tribute to Falk in an exclusive essay:
About Peter Falk
“An Ex-Angel does not have a Grandma!”
I remember that night, probably into the third week of shooting Wings of Desire, when my assistant Claire Dennis and myself sat in our Berlin production office and had to come to terms with the fact that our film needed an additional character. What was missing was the character of an “ex-angel”, somebody who had preceded “Damiel”, our angel who had fallen in love, and could therefore tell him, from experience, what it was like to become a human being. …
Claire and I came to the conclusion, by a chain of what we considered logical thoughts and deductions, that there was only one actor in the whole wide world who could play that part: Peter Falk.
Was it futile to even consider it a remote chance that Peter Falk could be won for this idea, for a film that was shooting already and for a part that was not written, just dreamed up on the spur by the director, overnight, so to speak?
It was indeed way after midnight, which meant one could still call Los Angeles. I had the telephone number of John Cassavetes! [We had met a few times and knew each other a bit.] He actually answered the phone himself. I described my situation to him. He laughed. Would he be able to help me contacting Peter Falk? “Sure, I give you his number. You have a pen?” Quite perplexed how smoothly this was going I wrote down that number.
Then the second call! Claire sat there crossing her fingers. Already after the second ring, a voice answered. [I hadn’t even finished thinking about what I was going to say ]
This voice was more familiar than any other one in the world! My heart skipped a beat. This WAS Columbo, with that unmistakable quirky grumble!
So I took a deep breath and introduced myself, said who had given me his number and told my story once more, in a nutshell: I was looking for an actor to play the part of en ex-angel, for a film that was already shooting.
“You’re looking for what?”
The voice on the phone started to giggle, and then the man laughed and it felt like he never was going to stop laughing. “An Ex-angel?! And you’re already shooting?”
My heart was in my mouth. That wasn’t going too well, I figured.
Peter Falk finally stopped laughing and asked, quite soberly all of a sudden: “And you have no script?”
“As a matter of fact, I did some of my best work this way…
[Pause] When do you need me?”
“As soon as possible.”
“I could be there on the weekend. Call my assistant in the morning. Here’s her number.”
Claire looked at me with wide-open eyes when I hang up. “He’s going to do it!” I said.
Rarely a shoot was so much fun as those days with Peter Falk. Everybody recognized him, of course. As soon as you stood in the street with him, people showed up from everywhere. Pizza bakers came running out of their pizzerias, their hands still full of flour! Buses stopped! Old ladies crossed red lights for the first time in their lives!
I never saw anybody deal with his fame so generously and kindly. Peter Falk shook everybody’s hands, smiled at everybody, gave everybody an autograph, had everybody spell their funny German names, had his picture taken with everybody! With no exception! And everybody walked away happily: “I met Columbo!”
We really had found an ex-angel!
Peter loved Berlin. [And he came back for the sequel, several years later, when the Wall had fallen.] The only drawback was his lack of any sense of direction.
In any break he just wanted to go for a walk. “Go spazieren,” an expression he knew from his Grandmother. And he never found his way back to the set! Once we even had to call the police to search for him. [When they finally found him and brought him back, he knew all the officers by their first names.]
Months later, when we recorded his interior monologue in Los Angeles, [that could be overheard in the film by the angels of Berlin] I had written down a line for him, in memory of his runaway walks: “If Grandma was here, she’d say: Spazieren… go spazieren!”
Peter looked at the paper, and then he laughed, just like at our first conversation. “An ex-angel doesn’t have a Grandmother, Wim!”
Of course, I kept the line in the film. For all those who would notice and who would know their way around angels.
Wim Wenders, on a sad day in Berlin