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You Think You Know Them

Jason Alexander and Peter Falk are best known for their characters on TV, but there's a whole other side to them on stage.

May 21, 2000|SUSAN FREUDENHEIM | Susan Freudenheim is a Times staff writer

Jason Alexander rushes into the Founders Room at the Geffen Playhouse, apologizing profusely for being late after getting caught in traffic en route to the theater where he and Peter Falk will be performing in "Defiled," opening May 31. In Lee Kalcheim's play, a young librarian and a cop nearing retirement meet after the former wires his beloved library with bombs and threatens to blow it up in an attempt to stave off the advance of the technological world.

Alexander greets Falk warmly, and the two settle in for a conversation about art, life, the theater, film and television. These two icons of American TV--George Costanza and Lt. Columbo--initially seem both a bit like their famous characters, and yet very different. After rehearsing for two weeks, they also seem compatible, despite obvious differences--most notably, Falk is 72, Alexander 40.

Like his character, Falk appears the rumpled gentleman and bemused veteran, while Alexander is neatly groomed and focused in an almost businesslike manner.

In addition to television, Falk has had a long career on stage since 1956, when he played in "The Iceman Cometh" opposite Jason Robards. He's also done many films, and after closing at the Geffen he will begin work in the Artisan mobster drama "Made."

Alexander also began his career on the stage, where he played in the original cast of Neil Simon's "Broadway Bound" and won a Tony for "Jerome Robbins' Broadway." Alexander's production company, AngelArk Inc., has signed on with 20th Century Fox Television and is developing a television series in which he will star. He will also be seen next month playing Boris Badenov in Universal's live-action/special-effects film version of "Rocky and Bullwinkle."

For the moment, however, they are just two guys talking about their craft.

Question: Had you met before coming to work on "Defiled"?

Jason Alexander: He won't remember, but I met him on the lot.

Peter Falk: It was outside the commissary.

Alexander: He's right! Steel-trap mind. I was very intimidated, so he came over to me first. And I said, "You are my father's favorite actor," and then it was a mutual stroke fest.

Falk: I'd never met anyone from the "Seinfeld" show; Jason was the first.

Q: Did you watch the show?

Falk: Along with 10 million other people on this planet. It was probably one of the best shows in the history of the business. So I was impressed.

Alexander: But would you like me to quote every episode of "Columbo"?

Q: Each of you has created such indelible characters. How does that work for--or against--what you want to do otherwise in your lives?

Falk: I think if I complain about being typecast I sound crazy to the average person on the street. Because what he sees is the guy that's making a lot of dough. Who gets good seats at the basketball game. And what's he complaining about? It ain't cancer being typecast. You've got to count your blessings.

I'm not saying that I wouldn't be a better actor if I had been able to play different kinds of parts. Actually, I have played them--just nobody saw them! [both laugh]

Alexander: I have a love-hate relationship with it. I sit down and say: "The 180 little plays ['Seinfeld' episodes] we made are still so vital to people, and this character has made such an impression in peoples' lives." I could work on the stage and in film for years and years and never make that impression again.

The only downside is that, being 40 years old, I have to realistically do other things in my career. . . . It's not that I can't do them, or that people don't ask me to do them. Still, it closes a lot of doors. When I walk onto a screen, the first impression the audience has is "Hey, it's George!" And that's a hurdle they've got to get over.

They will get over it, there's no question. But if you're a producer and you're having a serious piece done, you don't necessarily want to walk into that moment, if you can avoid it. And since there's 30 other guys for every job I'm up for, it does close doors.

So what else does it do? It makes me work harder. That's why I have a company. So the producer who has to confront that moment is me. But it also gave me an outstanding career and a very comfortable life for my family. So you can't piss and moan about it.

Falk: I did a Mamet play in San Francisco. And when the ladies come to a matinee, and I open the show, and on the third line I hit them with a [expletive]--I want to tell you, there is a gasp. They are disappointed. They don't want to hear that. They love this guy--why is he saying that? And before they recover, I hit them with another one! A pall goes over that theater!

Q: We talked about how busy you keep yourself. How much work does it take to stay busy?

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