Apr 20, 2021

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.

The series had only one gay character amid the hundreds, 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, and others.  

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.     


  1. Strip poker with matches. That's what Harper Lee came up with. (Now explain what the matches are for, and why it's two boys.)

    I think most people who wanted to found ways to get gay past the radar. By far the easiest way was muscle men. After that you get things like the aforementioned BLAM about strip poker (Big-Lipped Alligator Moment: Something that comes out of nowhere, doesn't make sense even in context, and then is never brought up again. Coined by the Nostalgia Chick in reference to the gay alligator in All Dogs Go to Heaven: "Let's make music together...") and then coded references to gay culture, Holly Ranchers, monocles, and the like. Clones and leathermen are not coded; everyone knows what a clone is.

  2. Peter Falk was also one of the cab drivers (Eddie 'Rochester' Anderson was the other) in the 1963 movie It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World.

  3. Falk was also the grandfather reading to Fred Savage in The Princess Bride.

  4. In the episode 'Columbo Goes To College' the killers are quite apparently implied to be a gay couple of frat buddies, although this was partially (and deliberately) 'couched' in the script (with an early scene that shows the argument between the father of one of them, regarding the son 'getting girls pregnant', and a later scene with the other father making a comment about the same to Columbo). This was on primetime network TV in 1990, so someone in the production 'chain' probably insisted on casting some doubt. Regardless, the actions and mannerisms of the two characters, shouldn't leave much doubt. They seem to have been loosely based on the infamous real-life killers, Leopold and Loeb, from the 1920's. It is strongly suggested to watch Alfred Hitchcock's 'Rope', from 1948, and 'Compulsion' from 1959 -- which are both based on the Leopold and Loeb case. These two movies approached depicting gay characters in the much the same way as 'Columbo Goes To College'


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