The day Lt. Columbo paid me a visit

Peterfalk R.I. P. Peter Falk, a man who was every bit as unusual and talented as his on-screen alter ego, Lt. Columbo.

I learned this first-hand one day in January 2003 when I did a phone interview with Falk in connection with what proved to be the final episode of the “Columbo” series (sadly, it didn’t go out on a high note). The conversation drifted to his passion for sketching and painting. He got so charged up that right after the interview he drove from his home in Beverly Hills to my Wilshire Boulevard office to show me photographs of some of the artworks he’d been describing.

You can imagine my surprise when the receptionist called to tell me that “Mr. Falk” was waiting for me in the lobby. And you can imagine the double-takes my co-workers did as they walked by my office and saw Falk sitting across from me, gesticulating wildly with enthusiasm about art, “Columbo” and pretty much anything else that crossed his mind. I’ve loved Falk in everything I’ve ever seen him in — from his early TV roles (those that I’ve been able to see) to the joy of “The In-Laws” to his signature role in the ratty raincoat, so needless to say I was entranced. (I even stuck it out through the unsettling “A Woman Under the Influence” once out of respect for Falk, John Cassavetes and Gena Rowlands.)

In all my years of interviews, I’ve never had anyone near Falk’s stature do something that impulsive, that unrestrained and unscripted by handlers. I realized that day that, no kidding, Falk really was Lt. Columbo — sui generis. (“What’s the name of that guy? The one who did the soup cans? It’s kind of like that,” Falk explained to me of his art style as he showed me a favorite self-portrait.)

Falk and I also bonded over our mutual admiration for Patrick McGoohan, of “Prisoner” and “Danger Man” fame. Of course, Falk was very close friends with McGoohan, the iconoclastic British hyphenate, while I only knew McGoohan’s work, including his fab turns as an actor in and director of “Columbo” segs. Falk later gave me a great quote for a column I wrote on McGoohan, and he even helped me try to persuade McGoohan to do an “Evening with” Q&A sesh at the Paley Center. McGoohan would have none of it, but I was grateful that Falk was willing to pick up the phone and try.

(Falk told me a funny story about having to cajole the stubborn McGoohan to sign the paperwork necessary to submit himself for an Emmy Award for his acting work in “Columbo.” Whatever Falk did, it worked, because McGoohan won two Emmys for the show.)

I was heartbroken when McGoohan died in 2009, and I’m heartbroken tonight after working most of the day on the obit for Falk, who died Thursday night at 83. My husband and I pulled a random “Columbo” episode off the shelf this evening after dinner — turned out to be the one where Jackie Cooper plays an amoral politician who kills his campaign manager — and marveled once again at the greatness of Falk.

Just one more thing, Lieutenant — we will surely miss you. 

— Cynthia Littleton

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