Very possibly the best detective novel ever written is Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. Porfiry Petrovich, the eccentric investigator, is a relatively minor character, absent from most of the book, but he is instantly unforgettable: funny, off-topic, slightly distracted, until suddenly he launches into a white-hot monologue of ferocious eagerness, explaining to Raskolnikov exactly how he knows the latter is a murderer. Petrovich has all the savage playfulness of a genius toying with his opponent.
It’s natural to read Crime and Punishment and wish for more of its brilliantly weird detective and his riveting speeches. In the late 1960s a television writer named William Link read his Dostoevsky and had the same wish–so he drafted a TV movie featuring a police detective who dressed shabbily, spoke shabbily, and acted like a dunce, as part of an elaborate psychological game in which the murderer was mouse and the sleuth a sleek, silent, hungry cat.
After a test run episode with Bert Freed as the detective, executives decided to make the premise a full-blown show. They contacted Lee J. Cobb, a juror from 12 Angry Men; he was busy. They contacted Bing Crosby, of all people, but he turned the job down. So they contacted Peter Falk.
Peter Falk made Lieutenant Columbo. He invented Columbo’s mannerisms. He ad-libbed lines to surprise fellow actors. He ad-libbed elaborate physical comedy so that the murderers’ irritation at Columbo’s presence would look more real. And he pulled all of Columbo’s clothes out of his own closet. That battered old coat? Peter Falk’s. That funny look about his face? Falk had a glass eye; his eyes never looked in the same direction.
Falk had help, of course. The writers of the show decided to pursue an innovative sub-genre of the typical murder mystery: the inverted detective story. At the beginning of the show, we watch the murder happen. We watch the killer lay his/her plans, create an alibi, rearrange the crime scene, plant false clues, and clean up the mess.
Then Columbo shows up.
Falk called Columbo an “ass-backwards Sherlock Holmes.” The character was like that, because he acted more and more clueless as his brain worked harder and harder. The clues were like that, because Columbo didn’t point out clues; he asked questions. When he did reveal big leads, he did so directly to the murderer, and politely asked, “Can you help me figure out what this means?” The scenes were like that, because Columbo inserted the verbal/proverbial knife as he left, turning in the doorway and saying, “Oh, just one more thing…” The story was like that, because we knew the solution from the start. The fun was in watching the solution get found. The fun was in watching our brilliant detective circle his prey, slowly growing closer, playing the fool when he most smelt blood. The best episodes of Columbo–like “A Stitch in Crime” (with murderer Leonard Nimoy), “Try and Catch Me,” and most of all “A Friend in Deed” and the stunningly emotional “Forgotten Lady” with Janet Leigh–stand among the best detective stories we have.
Peter Falk was Columbo the way that Humphrey Bogart was Sam Spade, or the way James Stewart was Scottie in Vertigo. They’re the only detectives who compare, in television or film. Lieutenant Columbo is a detective as compelling and brilliant as Poirot, Marple, Spade, Dalgliesh, or (yes) Holmes, his only conceivable fault a lack of emotional depth compared to, say, Marlowe. But he wasn’t meant to be Marlowe; he was meant to be entertainment, more realistic than Sherlock, more modest than Hercule, more excitingly clever than anyone since, well, Porfiry Petrovich.
Peter Falk was a great deal else, too. He was a terrifying hit man in Murder, Inc., all the more fearsome because he would laugh right up to the moment he kills you. He tried to hold a family together as his wife descended into madness in the drama A Woman Under the Influence. He was a wickedly funny parody of Hammett and Chandler twice, in The Cheap Detective and Neil Simon’s Murder by Death (in which his character was “Sam Diamond”). And–the way most people my age remember Falk–he was the charming narrator of The Princess Bride.
All this came after a Hollywood executive told Falk, trying for roles at the very beginning of his career, that “for the same money I can get an actor with two eyes.” That must have hurt: he had also been rejected by the CIA on a similar excuse. Ultimately, it was a single breakthrough role–acquired after Falk had become a certified public accountant and worked for five years in a state budget office–that made him one of the great character actors of his time.
It’s often hard for actors to thrive when they’re typecast. Daniel Radcliffe may always be waffling, irritable Harry Potter; Joe Pesci will always sound like he’s some kind of mafia clown; Betty White has spent several years being the grandma with the foul mouth. Peter Falk became the rumpled, confused-seeming detective and inhabited the persona for decades, but somehow that was no burden on his artistry. Instead it seemed to help him rise to still-greater heights of creativity.
Nobody had done or been a Columbo before. Peter Falk roles were roles nobody else could play. Falk was given freedom to create his own best character, and he perfected it the way a band might perfect its style or a painter might work on technique. Columbo didn’t stagnate until the one-off TV movie specials in the 1990s; its star was too inventive, too excited by his role.
I guess what I’m saying is this: Lt. Columbo was a true original. Peter Falk was a true original. And when somebody on your television set invents a totally new archetype (riffing on Dostoevsky, but that was just the seed), invents a new sort of hero, set in a new mode of storytelling, that is an achievement worth talking about.
Beginning in 2007, Peter Falk suffered from severe dementia; by 2009, he could no longer remember what “Columbo” was. For the clever, improvisatory actor who created one of the most brilliantly quick-witted detectives in mystery literature, it was a cruelly inappropriate end. As its hero’s mind faded, the script to an episode titled “Columbo’s Last Case” was shelved. Alas: all Falk had wanted was just one more thing.