Even if you couldn't see him in the crowded interview room at the Registry Hotel here Sunday afternoon, there was no mistaking the man once you heard the voice.
"Hi-how-are-ya?" is all it took for that familiar raspy, gravely baritone to register recognition. You didn't even need to look up to see if he was wearing the trademark trenchcoat or chomping on the ever-present cigar.Peter Falk isn't quite in a league with Lucille Ball and Uncle Miltie among television's living legends. But he's close, thanks to a brilliant, rumpled detective named Lt. Columbo, a characterization that won for Falk three Emmy Awards and established him as a household name. And voice.
And we're not just talking about national recognition here, either. "Columbo" reruns are seen in almost every country in the world (they're number one in France, and they've forced baseball coverage to a new time period in baseball-crazy Japan).
"I was in the Andes working on a picture," Falk recalls, "and we were climbing this mountain. We get up there and there are these Indians - descendants of the Aztecs or Incas or one of those groups of people - and they're standing there in front of their hovels. They see me and it's like - `Columbo'! "We're talking about the Andes Mountains here," Falk says, shaking his head incredulously. "It's incredible. Absolutely incredible."
Why, one wonders, does this particular character elicit that kind of response around the world even years after it was canceled? "I wish I knew the answer to that," Falk said. "I think people just like the man. He doesn't appear to be too bright, but he is bright. Maybe the regular people out there figure he's just like one of them. Maybe they like his clothes. I don't know."
ABC officials may not know for sure either. But they're counting on this magical marriage of character and actor to liven up the network's Saturday night ratings this fall (or winter, depending on how much longer the writers' strike goes on) when "Columbo" returns with all-new episodes that will share the Saturday 8 p.m. time slot with a series of two-hour movies featuring characters created by Louis Gossett Jr. and Burt Reynolds.
And Falk makes it clear that he's glad to be back.
"I've been wanting to do Columbo again ever since the series went off the air," he said. "I love this character. He's a part of me. Some people say he is me."
Falk isn't the only one who is anxious to get back to work on "Columbo." Years ago a young director named Steven Spielberg did a little work on the series ("When he showed up on the set the first time someone said to me, `There's young Spielberg,"' Falk said. "I said, `Where's his father? He's directing this week's episode."'). When the acclaimed director heard that "Columbo" is making a comeback he called to say he would love to direct the first episode - if he can break away from his production schedule long enough to do it.
Producer William Link said the networks were all just as anxious to have Falk and Columbo back. "All three networks wanted to have `Columbo,"' Link said during the interview session. "But none of the others were able to work out a program wheel like ABC's, where we're joined with two other strong shows and only have to produce a show every three weeks."
So ABC will present "Columbo" as part of the "Saturday Mystery Movie" - as soon as the writers' strike is wrapped up and a staff can be hired.
"That's not going to be an easy thing to do," Link observed. "`Columbo' isn't just another whodunit. It's more like a `will he catch 'em?'. The audience knows who committed the crime. The joy here is in watching Peter unravel the mystery. So you have to write extremely clever criminals as well as the traditional Columbo style and mannerisms. It's a real challenge for a writer - and a real privilege."
It's also a real pain in the neck, if you believe what writers who worked on NBC's first "Columbo" incarnation say. The rigors of writing a two-hour movie every three weeks are demanding, and Falk is reputed to have been the Bruce Willis of his generation - in other words, not always easy to work with and prone to flights of improvisation on camera.
But as far as Falk is concerned now, the only problem with the first "Columbo" was the length of each episode. "They wanted every episode to be two hours long," he said. "I prefer an hour and a half."
So why is he willing to do two-hour episodes now? "`Cause I'm a dope, that's why," he said.
And you didn't even need eyes to be able to tell it was him saying it.
* A YEAR AGO Benjamin Bratt was playing Richmond in the Utah Shakespearean Festival's production of "Richard III." Today he's a television veteran, with a controversial series cancellation (ABC's "Juarez") behind him and a promising new series (ABC's "Knightwatch") in his future.
Still, there's a lot of USF left in him. "I loved that summer at the festival," he said during a "Knightwatch" press conference Saturday. "And I especially loved working with Patrick (Page, a featured actor at the festival for the past several years). He's like God to me. In fact, he may very well be the best actor I ever work with. Anywhere."
Told that Page is once again sensational as Iago in this year's USF production of "Othello," Bratt sighed. "Gosh, I'd love to see it," he said. Then he added with a smile: "But not enough to give up this gig."