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Love That Raincoat

'I am totally engaged,' says Peter Falk whenever he is wearing Columbo's garb in front of cameras.


When Peter Falk first played the deceptively bumbling, crafty Lt. Columbo in the NBC movie "Prescription: Murder," he was 40 years old. Lyndon Johnson was president. The Vietnam War was raging. "The Andy Griffith Show" was the No. 1 series on TV.

Twenty-nine years later, Falk and Columbo are still going. The actor dons the wily sleuth's trademark raincoat yet again tonight for the new ABC mystery "Columbo: A Trace of Murder."

In this thriller, the Los Angeles detective is hot on the trail of a murderer, but what Columbo doesn't know is that the killer is someone on his own investigative team. David Rasche, Shera Danese (Falk's real-life wife) and Barry Corbin also star.

Falk has won four Emmys as the disheveled, cigar-smoking creation of Richard Levinson and William Link. Curiously, he wasn't the first choice to play Columbo. Lee J. Cobb and Bing Crosby were considered first but weren't unavailable.


Question: You retired Columbo's original raincoat in 1992. Had you really been wearing it since you did "Prescription: Murder" in 1968?


Answer: Yeah. I used to say I had to be careful with that raincoat. It was so old and frail, I had to put a saucer of milk out for it every night.

Q: This is your first "Columbo" movie in a few years. Did you miss playing him? Why do you like playing him?

A: I would answer that this way: I didn't miss playing him. But whenever I go back to him, I am totally engaged.

Q: Did you think "Columbo" would become a series when you signed to do "Prescription: Murder"?

A: After we did the first one and it was very popular, then they immediately wanted to make a series. I said, "No." I couldn't imagine how in the hell we were going to do one of these every week. It's impossible. Then the studio came up with the [idea of rotating several series in a "Mystery" wheel]. We were only supposed to do six a year and that sounded more practical.

Q: It must be difficult after all these years to come up with a unique premise for a "Columbo" mystery.

A: It is very difficult to come up with a really surprising, delightful [premise]. The audience knows who did it and they are sitting around for an hour and a half wanting to know one thing: How am I going to catch him? You've got to have a good curtain. It can't be that old-fashioned explanation scene at the end where everybody falls asleep [from boredom]. You have to have a compelling scene, a scene in which the audience is thinking the same thing as the assailant: "What is he up to?" Those scenes are hard to come by.

And the assailant has to be a truly formidable adversary. If he's not a worthy match, then there is no fun.

Q: Steven Spielberg directed an early episode of "Columbo." Could you sense even back then he was special?

A: I knew very early that we were in the presence of somebody special because, for the first time in any television show that I had ever done, we did a scene and I had no idea where the camera was. I'm not sure, but I think it was across the street in a second-story window.

Q: You're on the other side of the law in the Showtime thriller "Pronto," airing on June 8.

A: That's an Elmore Leonard [story]. I think he's a great writer. His stuff is always funny, but it's always suspenseful. I am a Miami bookie. He's a wonderful character. Glenne Headly [plays] my live-in companion.

Q: Over two years ago, you and Woody Allen made a TV remake of Neil Simon's "The Sunshine Boys," which also starred Whoopi Goldberg and Sarah Jessica Parker. CBS, though, has yet to air it. What happened?

A: Me and my agent keep asking the same question. It was produced by Robert Halmi Sr. It was very funny.

Q: Sunday marks the 100th birthday of film director Frank Capra. You received a best supporting actor Oscar nomination for Capra's last film, 1961's "A Pocketful of Miracles." Can you discuss your experience working with him?

A: Well, that was the first Hollywood movie I had ever made. Frank Capra loved good actors. When the scene went well he would chuckle and he used to say, "Do it again." We would say, "What's the matter?" And he'd say, "I just want to see it again." That is so infectious when you feel the director doesn't have any secret reservations, when he is supportive. He did something in that movie I almost kissed him for.

Q: What did he do?

A: I had a scene with Edward Everett Horton, who was the butler. In this scene I was supposed to be annoyed, very aggravated at this proper English butler. While I was annoyed I was supposed to put on my coat. The comedy in the scene came with the difficulty of having to put on the coat while you were angry. I didn't think it was going good. [Capra] said, "Peter, go have a cigarette."

I came back [after the smoke] and this time I had such difficulty putting on the coat that the scene became very credible to me, because I couldn't get my arm into the sleeve, no matter how I twisted and turned it. It was hilarious.

Capra had tied the sleeve! He had the wardrobe lady go and cut the inner lining and tie it. He was smart enough to know that the reason the scene wasn't working was that I had to make believe--fake--trying to get the coat on. When I found out what he did, I hugged him.

* "Columbo: A Trace of Murder" airs at 9 tonight on ABC (Channel 7). Repeats of "Columbo" can be seen Sundays at 9 p.m. on the Family Channel, and Mondays at 5, 6:30 and 11 a.m. and 12:30 p.m. on A&E. "Pronto" will be shown June 8 at 8 p.m. on Showtime.

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