To Falk, the character issue is what sets his roles apart

March 03, 1995|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

Peter Falk's voice grinds out of a telephone and is at once familiar and astonishing. It growls, it scrapes, it buckles, it quivers. It sounds like tectonic plates shifting far under the surface of the earth. You look about to see if the horizon is shaking.

The horizon is fine. Just old Peter Falk on the horn, Columbo himself, advancing the cause of his new film "Roommates," in which, under several pounds of latex, he plays the fiery Rocky Holeczek, a retired Pittsburgh baker who raises his grandson from a 10-year-old child until he's a 40-year-old man.

"I love Rocky," says Falk, as energetically as Columbo might say, "But the parking stub proves you were at the opera the night of the murder." "He's 92 years old and he's still working. You live to work. He wouldn't be caught dead without a job, and neither would I."

Falk is certainly speaking the truth about himself -- after 27 years as TV's favorite detective, two Academy Award nominations, a raft of Emmys, a connection with both American and European avant-garde and, starting Monday, rehearsals for a TV version of "The Sunshine Boys" in which he'll co-star with Woody Allen.

He says he wishes he had some magic tale about how the "Roommates" project came to him, but it was completely unexceptional and professional: "What can I say? The agent called me up. He says he's sending me a script. I sat down to read it. I had two scenes right away where I laugh out loud. My wife calls down, 'What's going on down there?' Two scenes later, I was crying. It caught me completely off guard. I've seen five screenings now, and, let me tell you, the ushers come in afterward with mops."

That's pure Falk: Shrewdness, salesmanship and offbeat line readings as drawn through a sieve that, in its rhythms and pronunciations, appears to recapitulate the social history of Brooklyn. It's a quality that still puts 'em in the seats. He's Mr. Charm.

Still, in "Roommates," Falk is playing something new. Not an older man but a much older man -- Rocky ages to 107 -- helped enormously by knockout makeup that makes the illusion complete.

"The best thing about the makeup," he says of the tub of glop that transfigures his well-known thick head of hair into a wrinkled dome, "was that I didn't have to worry how I looked. It was the best makeup I ever saw."

But he had to sit in a chair for four hours every day while various technicians applied it. "Four hours. You can't watch TV, you can't do anything. I just did a lot of smoking. It was my diversion to irritate the makeup artists."

He did no real research, visited no homes for the elderly, consulted with no gerontologists.

"Actors never know how to do it. Someone said, 'Every time is the first time,' and that's the truth. You don't know how to start. I went straight from a 'Columbo' to Rocky Holeczek with nothing in between. And somehow that may have helped. He was the kind of guy who operated out of impulse, not thought. His feelings run on a pipeline to his mouth."

In one sense, says Falk, that was a pleasure in that it was so different from the part he's played for all these years.

"Columbo's a cagey guy. He never says what he thinks. He's always figuring things out, always playing the game. He holds things back. On the other hand, both Rocky and Columbo have moral streaks: They believe passionately in a right and a wrong, and they believe in taking responsibility and paying the price.

"That's another thing about the guy I liked. I happen to agree with him that young people today are as responsible as sea gulls!"

He said that he and director Peter Yates agreed on the conception of the character. "We're never going to ask the audience to like him. We're going to avoid cheap sentiment. He has to be who he is."

And Falk has to be who he is: Columbo.

"I did the first one in 1968. Then I took two years off, and then we did the series from 1970 to 1975. Then I took 13 years off, but then in 1988 we started making 'em again and we're still making 'em! It's always the same. We have the same problems today. You always worry if there's too much talk and too much explanation. You're always asking, 'How do we keep it afloat? What's going to keep it interesting?' "

But he has no problem with the typecasting.

"You pay a penalty, of course, but how can you complain after making all that dough? Nobody wants to hear some actor complain about something like that. Arguably, I would be a better actor today if I hadn't done 'Columbo,' but who the hell cares?"

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