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Peter Falk Shares the Facts About the Folks

Peter Falk finally gets a question he likes.
by Dan Lybarger and U.J. Lessing

When you’ve been a prominent, multi-award winning actor for over forty years, plugging your current film can be a challenge, especially when each of the reporters at the table has a different pet film they want you to talk about.

Fortunately, Peter Falk was more than ready to meet the challenge during a forty-five minute free-for-all in Kansas City on September 1, 2005. The actor was armed with a couple sheets of paper to help him plug The Thing About My Folks just in case any of the journalists at the table talked a little too much about his thirty-five year stint as Lieutenant Columbo (no, he won’t tell you the detective’s name).

Even though Falk is best known for that role, it’s immediately obvious that he’d have to be a pretty good actor to pull off the disheveled detective. He turns 78 as of the day his new film opens (September 16), but Falk walks with an erect confident posture that his fictional counterpart would envy.

Therefore, it’s not hard to imagine him playing Paul Reiser’s rambunctious father in The Thing About My Folks. Despite the fact that Sam Kleinman (Falk) is dealing with his wife (Olympia Dukakis) leaving him abruptly after over four decades of marriage, Sam can line dance, shoot precision pool and even win bar fights.

Fishing and Farting

While Falk for the most part relied on Reiser’s script for humor and poignancy, there were some moments of unexpected hilarity while filming a scene where the father and son go fishing. Falk explained, “Whenever we screen the picture people just roar at that scene. And what actually happened was before we started to shoot the scene we had the props, and I had never fished in my life!

“Paul didn't look like he did much fishing. And I had nobody else to ask. So I was asking him about the props. I said, ‘This hook, where does that hook go?’ ...I said, ‘There's no worms.’ And the director, you talk about what a director, he was smart. He said, ‘Turn the camera on!’”

Fishing wasn’t the only area where Falk had to prepare. Falk sharpened his pool skills, grappled with stuntmen, wrestled with a fish and drove an antique car. There was one deed where whether Falk used a stand-in is in question, “…I did do my own stunts. This is something, at one of the question and answer periods after the picture, in regards to the passing of gas. The question came up, ‘Did you have a stunt double?’ The answer was no.”

My Father Laughs

Falk was not a random choice for the role. Reiser wrote the semi-autobiographical script with the veteran actor in mind. It was almost as if Reiser’s father had picked the man who would eventually play him.

“I’ve never been hired (before) on the basis that I was hired for this picture,” Falk recalled. “(Reiser) didn’t tell me this until after the picture was all over. But when the picture was over, he told me that this is what happened. He went to visit his father, and his father was watching TV. And his father was watching one of those Neil Simon pictures I was in, Murder by Death or The Cheap Detective.

“But whenever (I) came on the screen, his father started to chuckle. And he said to himself, my father laughs to this actor more than any other actor. And then it occurred to him, that actor that my father was laughing at, he should play my father.”

The diminutive Falk then paused and quipped, “Usually, I get hired because I’m tall.”

Falk praises the script and working with the author. “It was a very quick picture (25 days of shooting). We shot it fast. It worked out. There was no time to rehearse but somehow or other it just clicked. The stuff with me and Paul just fell into place like magic.”

Delightful Dukakis

While Falk found working with Paul Reiser magical, he found working with Olympia Dukakis positively phenomenal. Falk reminisced, “It was like a miracle. I met her the day we shot the final scene. I never spoke to her before, and it was like ten minutes before we shot the scene and there she is.

“That was an amazing thing. It really was. I have never felt so comfortable so fast with anyone I ever met before. I mean in five or six minutes I felt like I knew her my whole life.”

Falk went on to add, “If you have that relationship with your wife, maybe that’s the answer.”

As Falk talked about working with Dukakis, his memories became more vivid, “… we shot the final scene at the world’s fair first. We knew each other ten minutes and we were into it. I don’t know. There was just something about her that put me so at ease. So comfortable. So she’s one of a kind. She was wonderful.”

The One-Week Rule

Falk’s promotion schedule involves the type of traveling that would make any younger actor wince. Falk proclaimed, “We’ve been going pretty good. Oh boy! We’ve been in Boston. We’ve been in Philadelphia. We’ve been in Minneapolis. We’ve been in Chicago. We’re here in Kansas City. We’ll go to LA.

“We’re moving round pretty good. And we’re doing it because that first week is so crucial. That’s why I’m on my hands and knees, begging people, that if they’re interested in this picture, to go to…

Falk has plenty of reason to worry. He recognizes that studios will often ax a film after a week of dismal returns instead of giving it a chance to gain momentum. “It can’t slowly build and attract,” Falk complained, “You’ve got to do it in one week.

“Suppose that was with a book? The book comes out, and you’ve got five days to read it …suppose it was a painting, and you’ve got six days, and then it goes away. You can’t see it any more. …that’s the only thing that drove me crazy."

Falk does have faith in the intelligence of his audience. “in terms of barnstorming and in terms of this picture, it lives or dies after the first week. What I want to do is I want people to help us out. That’s why we’re going from city to city, and I think the average person out there can help us."

“Not a Lot of Maulings and Killings in this Picture”

There’s a lot of pride in Peter Falk’s voice when he compares The Thing About My Folks to the trash Hollywood has produced. Falk said, “First of all, people should know this film doesn’t have one explosion in it. Not one, so that’s one big contrast. And there’s not a lot of maulings and killings in this picture.…”

Peter Falk is obviously not the biggest fan of modern Hollywood films, and shared a moment of glee relating a story about the remake of one of his classics, “As far as the remake of The In-Laws, I was working on something; I don’t remember. And I got a call from Alan Arkin, and he congratulated me on the reviews. I didn’t even know what he was talking about.

“I said, ‘Alan, I don’t even have anything coming out.’

“He said, ‘You didn’t see the reviews?’

“I said, ‘What the hell are you talking about?’

“He finally told me they were the reviews for the remake of The In-Laws. He said we got better reviews for the remake than when the first one came out.”

“I never understood a word he said.”

Despite being adamant about staying on the topic of his latest film, we were able to gently steer Falk toward the subject of his most famous collaboration: with his long-time friend, John Cassavetes. “John was totally original. Totally original,” Falk explained, “The main difference is there was an unpredictability. There was an informality. There was a spontaneity. There was what I would occasionally call a wackiness. Somewhere he knew what he was doing.

“What I always say, and it’s true. I never understood a word he said. And I think he did that deliberately.

“Deliberate in the sense that he said if you really understand something then your mind is at work, and if your mind is at work, we’re in danger of reproducing another cliché. And if we can keep our minds out of it and our thoughts out of it, maybe we’ll come up with something original. And if we just rely on our instincts, take a chance and don’t worry about it because I’m not going to print it. That’s probably what he was doing.”

“I’m just looking to get through the Day”

Filming The Thing About My Folks had a special appeal for Falk. It was shot a few miles from where he grew up in Ossining, N.Y. “I never realized that right across the river was so beautiful,” he said.

Peter Falk, ultimately, is a private man and a humble actor. He intentionally does not connect his work with his life experiences, and refuses to get caught up in attempts to sound profound. When asked how he saw himself as a performer, Falk replied, “I tell ya, I've had questions not exactly like that but similar. I always answer the same thing. I'm just looking to get through the day. I don't have any grand things. I never ask myself that question.”

As for future ambitions, Peter Falk’s wishes are pretty simple, “The only mountain that I would still like to climb: I’d like to break 85.”

Uri’s Peter Falk Pick

Mikey & Nicky: Elaine May directed this performance-driven masterpiece. Peter Falk and John Cassavetes are mesmerizing as two childhood friends who are both in the mafia. Nicky (Cassevetes) has embezzled from his bosses and is
hiding. Is Mikey (Falk) trying to help his old friend escape or play him straight into the hands of his bosses? The current DVD is an excellently restored print.

Dan’s Peter Falk Pick

The In-Laws: Don’t let the remake (Albert Brooks was more fun as the voice of a fish in Finding Nemo) scare you away from this cleverly imaginative comedy about a dentist (Alan Arkin) who finds himself tormented by his new brother-in-law (Falk). The mystery man might be a CIA agent, a criminal mastermind or a complete lunatic. I’m voting for all three. Check out some great supporting performances by Richard Libertini as a dictator gone horribly wrong and David Paymer as a cab drvier who makes Travis Bickle seem like a master of caution.

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originally posted: 09/15/05 12:50:56
last updated: 11/05/07 11:09:28
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