Tuesday, July 23

Peter Falk brings emotion and experience to ‘Roommates’


Peter Falk brings emotion and experience to ‘Roommates’

Former ‘Columbo’ star portrays an irascible old curmudgeon in
lastest film

By Lael Loewenstein

Daily Bruin Staff

For more than two decades, Peter Falk has been as closely
identified with Lieutenant Columbo as that disheveled TV detective
was with his trench coat. Now Falk has created another memorable
character, Rocky Holeczek, the irrepressible grandfather in
Roommates.

Under layers of make-up, Falk, 67, plays Polish immigrant
Holeczek from age 75 to 107. The crusty, stubborn Rocky, based on
the grandfather of writer Max Apple, made an indelible impression
on Falk.

"Rocky is such a vivid guy, he’s so memorable, I mean, he’s an
original," Falk says in his celebrated, often-imitated New York
dialect. "He was an original in the sense that he was opinionated,
narrow-minded and sometimes you wanted to strangle him, but in
moments of crisis he would reveal a wisdom that was worthy of
Buddha. And it was the combination of being that narrow-minded and
that wise at the same time that I found unique."

When he read the script, Falk was struck by its range of tragic
and comic scenes.

In the film, a sudden accident forces Rocky to keep the family
together. The real Rocky’s strength in times of tragedy was
remarkable, Falk says.

"When a family has a crisis ­ disease, death, divorce,
unemployment, no money ­ and one person is able to hold the
family together so it doesn’t splinter, that’s unusual. But when
that person is 103 years old!! He’s indestructable, he’s so tough,
this little guy.

"He had a great way with words. When he was around 30 he had to
have a gall bladder operation and he said (to the doctor), ‘Take it
out, and while you’re in there, if you see anything else that might
be a problem you can take that out too.’" Rocky lived for 78 years
after that operation, working as a baker well into his 90s.

Although Rocky is one of his favorite roles, the veteran actor
has played a number of career-making parts. A dozen years before
"Columbo," when he first came to Hollywood, Falk garnered national
recognition for his work.

"I think it’s kinda funny," Falk says, reflecting on his
surprising early success. "I came out here in ’60, I’d made one
picture (Murder, Inc.) and I got nominated for an Academy Award. In
’61, I did another picture (Pocketful of Miracles) and got
nominated for another Academy Award. Then I did ‘The Price of
Tomatoes’ and got nominated (for an Emmy, and won). I said to my
friends, ‘How long has this been goin’ on?’ I mean, it all seemed
so easy. And then, the reality hits," he says, laughing about the
fact that there were no more nominations for another decade.

That drought ended in the ’70s, when Falk earned a Tony Award
for his work in Neil Simon’s "Prisoner of Second Avenue" and
several Emmys for "Columbo." That NBC series earned Falk a
permanent spot in American popular culture for a part that still
brings him work. He recently completed a "Columbo" TV-movie which
will air in May.

With all the awards he has won it is surprising that Falk, a
bona fide star, is so unpretentious.

He found that same quality in John Cassavetes, the independent
director who defined himself by working outside of mainstream
cinema. Falk made Husbands, his first of three films with
Cassavetes, in 1970.

"John was like Rocky ­ a true original. I’ve met a lot of
extremely talented people. But John was more than talented. They
say that the description of a genius is an African that dreams of
snow. That was John. He saw the dawn about two hours before anybody
else."

A case in point, Cassavetes’ first film, Shadows (1961),
depicted an interracial love relationship well before the civil
rights movement. And Husbands was a picture about three middle
class married men. "He made that film at a time when we had
promiscuity and the (sexual) revolution and flower children. John
was talking about family at a time when no one else was," Falk
says.

As much as he admired Cassavetes, Falk found it occasionally
frustrating to work with the director, who was a man of few
words.

"You never knew what the hell the picture was about when you
were making it with John. He used to make me crazy. I never could
understand what he said. I think he was afraid to be too explicit
for fear that his words would be retranslated into a
cliché."

Unlike many directors who carefully instruct their actors,
Cassavetes gave his actors few guidelines because he didn’t want
them to reduce their performances to a formula.

"I think he didn’t want to give you the chance to say something
like, ‘How do I play embarrassment?’" Falk says. "John was dealing
with ambiguity, so that any emotion at any given time had a mixture
of meanings."

"He was uncomfortable with pretentiousness, even in the way he
talked. I remember he once said, ‘I’d rather work in a sewer than
make a picture I didn’t like.’"

It is no surprise that Falk and Cassavetes were so close: The
same no-nonsense philosophy could apply to the actor, as well as to
his latest role. Like Rocky Holeczek, Peter Falk is a true
original.

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterEmail this to someoneShare on Google+Share on Reddit

Comments are supposed to create a forum for thoughtful, respectful community discussion. Please be nice. View our full comments policy here.