Dad and Peter Falk, cut from the same cloth

[6 July 2011]

By Chris Erskine

Los Angeles Times (MCT)

LOS ANGELES — The things my father laughed at, I laugh at. I was reminded of this recently when I read of Peter Falk’s passing.

Like to think they’re up there somewhere, chewing on life and cigars, both of them in their rumpled overcoats. I still have my father’s old overcoat, which I wear once, maybe twice a winter in L.A., weather willing. You know, when it plunges into the low-70s.

Falk was hilarious in “The In-Laws,” but his most real and human work was done in that Columbo overcoat. Never had a gun. The most threatening thing he carried was his basset hound, draped in his arms, half asleep.

Or, how about that sputtering old car? Like him, the car had lost its shine. Surrounded by everyman props, Falk’s Columbo was an unlikely antihero, going after the rich guy who thought he was too shrewd for any run-of-the-mill detective. James Bond was slicker than the bad guys he caught; Columbo was simply more wily.

There was an understated morality to “Columbo,” an appreciation of truth and steady hard work. Remember how the egotistical villain would dismiss Columbo at first, underestimating his skills. When that didn’t work, the killer would turn charming and try to befriend him.

Of the great guest stars — Robert Culp, John Cassavetes, Jack Cassidy — Cassidy might’ve been the most memorable, a yacht of a human being, in an ascot and goatee. One of his episodes, “Murder by the Book,” was directed by Steven Spielberg from a script by Steven Bochco.

Always, at that “gotcha moment,” there would be my father’s laughter, the sly appreciation for Falk’s sneaky-smart character and the kind of guy who won’t be snowed.

I was shaped by that laughter, in the living room, in front of the big Zenith. Hearing my father laugh at the right things defined right things — Alan Alda’s one-liners on “MASH” (“Without love, what are we worth? 89 cents — 89 cents worth of chemicals walking around lonely”), or Betty White’s sensational ribbing of gruff Lou Grant on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.”

Steal a scene with that cast, and you’ve got game, baby. With that many gifts, it’s no surprise White’s still working. It’s like Satchel Paige pitching till he was 60.

Oh, those were shows. “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour,” “Laugh-In,” “Ed Sullivan.”

And thinking to that era’s detectives, the distinctive personalities and quirks: Jack Lord, Telly Savalas, James Garner. Since then, our cities have been gentrified and so have our TV detectives.

I’m not sure there isn’t a cause and effect at work here. When you try to think of actors — film or television — with a distinct point of view, true originals, it’s a preciously short list: Jeff Bridges, John Malkovich, Steve Buscemi, who am I leaving out? No one?

Of that trio, Bridges is the only one you’d like to be, and his edge comes direct from Malibu, not from America’s urban core. Actors with the city running through their veins seem to be an endangered species.

Anyway, it was the sitcoms where the laughter really came roaring out. On “The Bob Newhart Show,” or “MASH.” You’d hear those first thuddy trombone grunts of the Mary Tyler Moore theme and just knew you were about to enjoy 20 minutes with characters who felt like friends, in good conversation, doing human things, being clever one minute and dopey the next.

Now, with the exception of “Modern Family,” pretty much all you get is the dopey.

As a father now, I thought it was interesting to observe how our parents shape our values even when they’re not trying so hard to do that. It’s in their reaction to life’s rights and wrongs where we see it, whether it’s to the evening news or a wickedly rich punch line.

Funny the way we find the funny in life.

In the meantime, so long, Mr. Falk. Take care of that magic coat.

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