LOS ANGELES, Jan. 29 (UPI) -- Veteran character actors sometimes develop a halo of almost supernatural cool. This happened (almost literally) to Peter Falk in the late '80s, when German director Wim Wenders cast him as an ex-angel named Peter Falk in "Wings of Desire."
At around the same time, after a 12-year hiatus, Falk began reviving his old Columbo character in a series of TV movies for ABC. The original show had ended in 1977, although of course the little rumpled detective was around for many years after that through the everlasting life of TV reruns.
Now Columbo returns (yet again) in his latest adventure, "Columbo Likes the Nightlife," which airs Thursday. If Columbo's advancing age -- Falk's now in his mid-70s -- conjures up a weird, parallel Los Angeles with a completely bankrupt police pension fund, the character still has charm.
As Falk so satisfyingly plays him, Columbo is a mythically rumpled, deceptively bumbling Everyman whose "I-don't-get-it" and "One-more-question" and "See-that's-the-thing-that-has-me-stumped" technique always bring down his more elegant adversaries. "God's chosen, with long, thin necks," as the actor once described them to me.
The long-thin-necked characters here are a callow British rave impresario (Matthew Rhys) and his groovy blonde girlfriend (Jennifer Sky), and that's all you need to know about them. Oh, except that the rave in question -- described on the show as "a fascinatingly unique club" -- is called Bait. Make a little mental note of that.
Unlike "C.S.I." and its spin-offs, "Columbo" steadfastly eschews any snap-of-the-rubber-glove attention to reality. (This is a universe, after all, in which ancient Peugots run forever and mafia guys hand over business cards that actually read "Capo di tutti Capi.") Columbo, in any case, can't be bothered with the conventions of the anal swab set.
When he reaches down into a toilet for evidence, he doesn't even don rubber gloves. Falk just squinted up his face and waved a hand dismissively at the notion that this might not be realistic police procedure.
"He's not real any more than Sherlock Holmes is real," Falk said about Columbo. "There's something bigger than life about him."
Anyway, the rave setting in "Columbo Likes the Nightlife" serves to ramp up the contrast between Columbo and the connivers. And as Falk sees it, the passing years only help the conceit.
"The older he gets, the funnier he can be," the actor said at the ABC news conference. "You know, he's always apologizing for being so slow -- 'I'll be right with you, sir' -- and now he can hardly get up the stairs."
"I've said this so often, I'm bored saying it, but I'll say it once more," Falk added. "This is the only show in the history of television that only has one main character, and then you got no car chases, you got no sex jokes, and you have a mystery in which you know who did it. So it's difficult."
"I have never been a big fan of the networks," he continued. "But it was ABC that had what I think was a terrific idea here, and that is, have Columbo enter the world of the rave. And I get a good reaction just on the title. People ask me about it, and I say, 'Columbo Likes the Nightlife,' everybody chuckles."
Falk is just as rumpled in real life as Columbo is on TV. No surprise when you remember that the detective's famous raincoat came from the actor's own wardrobe.
"I set up this place for Peter to have guests, and NOW look at this JUNK!" wailed Falk's wife, actress and dancer Shera Danese, when I visited them once for an interview. Falk's studio behind his main house was decorated with the actor's drawings (he's a dedicated artist) a sleeping cot with sheets still messily on display, and assorted art books scattered across the floor -- one of which supported the leg of a wobbly table.
The walls of the studio were papered with Falk's sketches. "My wife says, 'You're not gonna bring that crap in the house,'" Falk noted equably, taking a drag on his cigarette. It's hard to imagine anything bothering him.
Well, he does have one pet peeve: clichéd acting techniques. Falk said he never bothered trying to imagine an actual woman when Columbo talks about his famously never-seen wife.
"If it's fun to pretend there's no wife and I'm making it all up -- if I want to make believe the wife is John Cassavetes -- I'll do that," he told me. "I just do whatever's necessary to have fun playing the scene. The things that give you some joy playing these parts, they don't have too much to do with reality."
Although his smoker's voice is raspier than ever, Falk no longer smokes. This has led to what the actor calls "the argument between Columbo and myself."
"I gave up smoking," he said. "He didn't want to give up his cigar. But we've compromised to the point where I don't smoke the cigar nearly as much as I did before. It was a very handy and effective prop, but so is the notebook and so is the pencil and so is taking things out of your pocket. It's in this show, but you don't see it too often."
When Columbo first shows up at the crime scene in "Columbo Likes the Nightlife," in fact, the cigar is entirely replaced with a long bit of business involving a cold cup of coffee. (Which is close, but no cigar.)
He's still got that raincoat, though. The original was retired in 1991 after many years of faithful service. People often ask Falk if the famous coat is now in the Smithsonian.
"And I always say the same thing," he responded. "If the closet in the second story of my house is the Smithsonian, then it's in the Smithsonian."