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'Dream Part,' Sans Trench Coat : Movies: Peter Falk, best known as TV's Columbo, welcomes his 'Roommates' role in which, over the course of the film, he ages to 107.


Peter Falk answers the door to his gigantic Spanish-style Beverly Hills mansion looking more like a sophisticated French artisan than the tattered-trench-coat persona of Lt. Columbo that Americans have known for two decades.

"Let's go around back to the garage," he intones in his gravelly mumble. He points to a pair of black iron gates that open onto the driveway that then disappears.

The "garage," it turns out, is actually a sprawling set of two plush offices so large that he could rent them out as separate residences. "Well, it used to be the garage," he cracks.

He opens a back door to reveal a large art studio with hardwood floors and a high-beamed ceiling. Two easels display charcoal etchings of women in repose, done by Falk. A long line of bookcases are filled with art books by Degas, Matisse and Egon Schiele. On the ground are four of the actor's six Emmys.

If you were expecting discombobulated Columbo, you'll be disappointed. The 67-year-old actor is erudite, focused and happy to talk about his starring role in the current Disney film "Roommates," a comedy-drama centering on the combative relationship between an octogenarian grandfather and his grandson. Based on a newspaper story and subsequent book by Max Apple, Falk shines as Rocky, a hard-working curmudgeonly Polish baker as crusty as the bread he bakes. During the course of the film, the actor ages more than 30 years, ending up, with the help of extensive prosthetic makeup, at age 107.

"I realized right away that it was a dream part," Falk says. "I thought, 'If you can't score with this one, hang it up! Retire.' "

Falk says he was particularly intrigued by Rocky's complete lack of self-doubt, a trait he admits he does not possess in real life. " 'Case closed. Conversation over,' " he snaps. "Those are his favorite expressions. In life, everyone has some notion in their heads that if we say this or wear that or behave this way, it's going to make a good impression. But Rocky is completely devoid of that."

"Roommates" co-star D.B. Sweeney, who plays Rocky's grandson, says that Falk "is somewhat of an archetype in a way because everybody knows him from 'Columbo.' But when I was growing up, two of my favorite films were 'The In-Laws' and 'Mikey and Nicky.' I don't think he has had the movie roles recently that he deserves, maybe because he is so ubiquitous as Columbo."

Like his character in "Roommates," Falk comes from humble beginnings. Born in Manhattan and raised in Ossining, N.Y., the actor still considers himself a New Yorker despite the fact that he has lived in California for 35 years.

"I don't like getting up in the morning, getting in a car, driving on a freeway and stopping at a gate where two guards are standing there, then walk into a studio that looks like a bunch of airplane hangars," he grumbles. "Christ! You gotta pack water if you want to go to the basketball game!" Not that he'd bother with the Lakers, since Falk has installed an enormous satellite dish in his back yard so he can monitor his beloved Knicks.


When Falk was 3, he underwent surgery to remove a malignant tumor and lost his right eye in the process. The ordeal remains his earliest and most vivid memory.

"I remember the day of the operation," he says. "My mother was walking with me down a corridor. When the elevator came, she said: 'Oh, you go ahead, I forgot my pocketbook' or something like that. I can't visualize the operating room, but I remember saying, 'Don't start until my mother comes. She's on her way. She'll be right here. Wait a minute. What are you doing? She's hasn't come yet.' " He looks frightened at the thought more than 60 years later.

Feeling self-conscious as a child and young teen-ager with one eye, he still considers himself to be a loner. He attended Hamilton College in Clinton, N.Y., earning a degree in political science, and then, after graduation, worked for the state of Connecticut as an efficiency expert. Then, even while earning a master's degree in public administration at Syracuse University, he landed a role in an Off Broadway production of "The Iceman Cometh."

Since then, Falk has had a distinguished, varied career, although many of his better screen roles have been obscured by "Columbo." He has starred in such diverse films as "A Woman Under the Influence," "Husbands," "Wings of Desire," "The Princess Bride" and "The Great Race." He was nominated for Oscars in 1960 for "Murder Inc." and in 1961 for "Pocketful of Miracles." Despite the accolades, he insists, "acting is like golf--analysis leads to paralysis."

Making "Roommates" caused him to confront his own mortality. "I don't dwell on it," he says. "But I guess everybody hopes that they go in their sleep and that it won't be long and painful. My father (who died in 1984) had Alzheimer's, so I think about that. . . . I'm in my 60s, but I can see myself going another 25 years."

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