Dec 16, 2013

Peter Falk: When Columbo Played Gay

  Boomers remember Peter Falk as Columbo, the rumpled, disorganized detective who feigns cluelessness to catch the culprits off-guard; my friend Aaron in high school called him Clod-Dumbo.  After introducing the character in Columbo: Prescription Murder (1968), he appeared on the NBC Mystery Movie (1971-78), then on the ABC Mystery Movie (1989-90), and occasionally in specials through 2003.  Only one gay character, in a 1994 episode.              After seeing him as the same rumpled, shabbily-dressed, middle-aged character for 35 years, it is difficult to imagine Peter Falk as anyone else.  But he broke into acting at the age of 30 with serious dramatic roles in the Golden Age of Television: Studio One in Hollywood, Armstrong Circle Theater, Kraft Theatre.  During the 1950s and 1960s, he played a lot of gangsters and thugs, notably a Beatnik psycho in Bloody Brood (1959) and  Guy Gisborne in the Rat Pack showcase Robin and the Seven Hoods (1964).  Some buddy-bonding roles, such as Machine Gun McCain (1969), about two mobsters (Falk, John Cassavetes) competing over a young gun (Pierluigi Apra); and Husbands (1970), about two suburban husbands (Falk and Cassavetes again) who bring their mourning buddy to London.      He played gay-vague in Jean Genet's The Balcony (1963), and somewhat more gay-obvious in the spoof Murder by Death (1976).  Sam Diamond, aka Sam Spade (Falk) and some other literary detectives solve a murder hosted by twee Lionel Twain (gay writer Truman Capote).  He throws a few gay slurs around, perhaps to hide his own same-sex desire:  Tess: Why do you keep all those naked muscle men magazines in your office? Sam: Suspects.  Always looking for suspects.  Tess: Why were you in a gay bar? Sam:  I was working on a case! Tess:  Every night for six months?  In his autobiography, Just One More Thing (2006), Falk states that what he remembers most from the movie are his "little chats with Truman Capote."  Falk worked steadily through the 2000s, playing a series of irascible grandfatherly types, often in movies with gay characters, such as Corky Romano (2001) and 3 Days to Vegas (2007).  He died in 2011.