Saturday, June 25, 2011


'Kay. So I promised not to write a novel again when I blogged. But then somebody extra special died. I learned something new today. I learned the debut episode of Columbo was directed by a 25 year old Steven Spielberg. I'm in my 40s and I never knew this before. Neato.


As a kid, it was clear I wanted to be an actor. I was the nerdy cousin who inflicted my grandiose ideas of entertainment upon my twin and other extended family members and friends to put on some form of cabaret or play during family get-togethers and I was quite the bossy little director. I'm sure I had a vision each time I made them learn lines I'd made up and waltzed them around the concrete basement so they'd learn their blocking correctly.

Falk called Columbo an "assbackwards Sherlock Holmes"

Growing up, I watched Columbo. I was a little obsessed with character acting and I remember being impressed that "that guy could do that with his one eye". I thought it was part of his character schtick. I didn't realize he really had a glass eye. Because of his stature, I remember thinking he was Irish when I was a little girl. He had that glint in his eye. Both eyes. (And not because one was glass.) He'd lost his eye due to cancer at the age of three.

Peter Falk.

What was not to love? He was that sweet mixture of self-deprecating humour and humility married with a distinct aura of wisdom wafting off the shoulders of his shabby trenchcoat. He was Columbo. But he was also an incredibly versatile and talented actor.

When I was growing up videos were unheard of. The only way you'd hope to see some of your favourite films was to try to catch them on television. Every year, my siblings and I would scour the new seasonal copy of the TV Guide for when our favourite movies were going to run. At Christmastime, we knew what to expect and mark 'em down on our calendars: It's a Wonderful Life, the original A Christmas Carol in black and white with Alistair Sims; we'd highlight in the guide when White Christmas was on and The Year Without a Santa Claus.

But the rest of the year, we had to pour over that guide with a fine tooth comb for stuff that would run maybe once and on some obscure date. Classics like: Twelve Angry Men, To Kill A Mockingbird, Duck Soup (really anything Marx Brothers), The Quiet Man, Mrs. Miniver, How Green Was My Valley, What's Up, Doc?, Murder on the Orient Express and It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.

Falk played the taxi driver in that last one - this was pre-Columbo days. What an ensemble cast with the great comedic brilliance of: Spencer Tracy, Milton Berle, Buddy Hackett, Edie Adams, Ethel Merman, Phil Silvers and my personal fav from the film, Jonathon Winters. But no matter how brief the appearance, even in an ensemble production, Falk would shine. That aura, again. I read that, as an actor, he was always late. This makes me love him more somehow. HA!

When interviewed on the role of Columbo, Falk said, "I'm a Virgo Jew, and that means I have an obsessive thoroughness. It's not enough to get most of the details, it's necessary to get them all. I've been accused of perfectionism. When Lew Wasserman (head of Universal Studios) said that Falk is a perfectionist, I don't know whether it was out of affection or because he felt I was a monumental pain in the ass." A Virgo. No wonder I loved him. A fellow Earth sign. And he was about as down-to-Earth as you get.

I think of him in another role I loved of his: the grandfather in The Princess Bride. One of his lines was so Falkian, I'd wonder if he adlibbed it except that William Goldman wrote the damn thing. I love that Goldman, who wrote screenplays for films like The Marathon Man, All the Presidents Men, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and A Bridge Too Far also wrote The Princess Bride. He authored the book first, then penned the screenplay. In that film, the grandfather (Falk) tells his grandson, "when I was your age, TV was called books". Amen.

Falk's character also explains that everytime Westley tells Buttercup, "as you wish", what he's really saying is, "I love you."

The film that made me want to join the circus
and become a Trapeze Swinger

When I was 22, I fell in love with a film directed by Wim Wenders called Wings of Desire. I remember seeing it during its first run at the local indie cinema - the only places those days you could catch foreign films. I remember being so stunned by that film, I sat in silence while all the final credits rose slowly upwards on the screen until the projector actually turned off before I was able to move and leave the theatre.

I tried to order the soundtrack and it took me 3 years to finally find a copy I could purchase. The original score was penned by an amazing musician named Jurgen Knieper. A crush inevitably developed on Nick Cave.

That film gripped my heart in so many ways and I kept returning to see it. I must have seen it maybe 10 more times over the next few years, grabbing any chance I could when it ran again. And every time, there was something new that I had missed before. There just was so much depth to that film. So many layers. And it held more meaning for me once I fell in love for the first time finally myself.

One of my favourite aspcts about the film is that Falk plays himself. He's Falk in Berlin doing Columbo but you get the real sense that this really IS him playing himself. And you totally believe that he can see the angel Damiel, played brilliantly by Bruno Ganz. Maybe it's the glass eye that makes you believe it. For me it was one of the special qualities of that film - how the children can still see the angels. So it's no surprise that an adult like Peter Falk can, too, with his childlike spirit and amazing insight.

When my son was born and, especially the first few months, when I would hold him and nurse him, or lie him down to change his diaper, he would look up at me and then up, further up - he would look past me, he would gaze at the ceiling and sometimes he would giggle and smile. I swear to God, a few times he pointed. Now I'm not religious at all, but I'm a spiritual girl. And when he'd do this, sometimes the hair rose on my neck. I wrote a short piece on my photography blog as a kind of nod to this. When asked about death, Peter apparently once said, "it is just a gateway." I can believe in that. Damiel is mortal now so I hope Cassiel is showing him the same kinda ropes. Welcoming him to that other side with a warm "Compañero!" I like to picture that.

To smoke, drink coffee. And when you do it together, it's fantastic!

Today I read that Peter suffered Alzheimer's when he died. Apparently he had trouble remembering who Columbo was. It sucks to read that. He was so brilliant at playing an absent-minded detective. Of course, that was just acting - not just for the role, but the character himself. Columbo was only pretending to be absent minded while he was solving the crimes and figuring out the criminals he pursued. One thing for sure, whatever he suffered with dementia, we will be slow to forget his legacy.

To this day, Wings of Desire remains my very favourite film.

The scene where Falk describes to Damiel what living a mortal existence is like may have been scripted but you get the sense that Falk is 100% behind the scripted words. That Falk knew Life should be lived just like that. Every little thing appreciated.

"Just one more thing..." We're heading out to the video store right now as I finish typing and I'll cross my fingers Wings of Desire is there. I haven't seen it in years, but tonight, after I put him to bed, I yearn to crawl under the covers and turn the lights out and extend my own hand for a shake. And as I watch, I'm going to whisper, "I can't see you, but I know you're here...I wish you were here. I wish you could talk to me. Cause, I'm a friend." I hope he hears me.

The same day Falk died, New York became the largest state in the United States to legalize gay marriage. Little steps. A small gain after this huge loss. Maybe a gift to the betterment of humankind from the other side.

A wink from a glass eye that could see beyond the gateway.
As you wish, Lieutenant. As you wish.

In a final scene of Wings, a motorcyclis is killed and an angel bends over him to recite this poem as he moves from Life into his next existence.

Appropriately, named The Song of Childhood, here it is. For you, Peter.


Ellen said...

Nancy oh how I loved that movie "Wings of Desire"! It's been years since I have seen it and yet the power of the words in it just blew me away. I think someone else wrote about this movie awhile back and we all were sharing how much of an impact it made on us.

Especially my daughters who discovered this via their cousin. Each of them glued to every word and every scene.

Peter Falk...I use to watch Columbo faithfully too. It was his mannerism and nature of solving the crime that got me every time. His natural, casual, scruffy ways. He shall be missed.

The Princess Bride while he is with his Grandson (from The Wonder Years another TV show that we always watched!) was so tender and funny all rolled into one.

You hit upon so many visions for me with your blog post that I think I must go back and reread again..go to the links.

Missed you and glad to see you writing!

Ciara said...

Bit late getting round to reading and commenting, but I am doing what I promised myself I would, and that is making the most of the summer holidays and catching up on blogs and blogging.

Great post, Nancy! Think I may need to re-watch Wings of Desire. C x