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Peter Falk: The Real Story of Nick & Mabel and Why the Bars Stay Open for Mr. Columbo

And the real story of Nick and Mabel

Actor, Peter Falk, Golden Globe Awards

Actor Peter Falk and his wife, attending the 31st Annual Golden Globe Awards in Los Angeles, California on January 26th, 1974.

Frank Edwards/Archive Photos/Getty

He is a blemish on Beverly Hills, a liverwort on a putting green: Through the mullioned windows of his Tudor manor on Foothill Drive (where even catatonic L.A. motorists proceed vigilantly, aware that they transgress the runic duchy where the despots of optical illusion reside), Peter Falk may be observed by passersby in his correct paneled living room, sprawled on an oatmeal speedboat sofa in disintegrated old cords and dirty socks, gracelessly snoring, his ass to the street, Lear’s fool in repose on the set of Our Betters.

It is hard to ring his doorbell: In A Woman under the Influence, he’s always being cruelly roused from sleep literal and figurative, and as you’ve seen it only an hour before, you have carried its astounding tenacity to his door.

Before this afternoon, when one sat in the Fox Wilshire, enabled by the film to ignore crepitant matrons worrying May Company bags, Peter Falk had seemed a competent entertainer in movies laboriously remembered, and, via Columbo, a slick caricaturist skilled at coy use of costumes, props, eccentric demeanors, Lear-fool gaits and self-conscious widenings of his notorious glass eye; and John Cassavetes, writer/director of Woman, had seemed, via Husbands, Shadows, Faces, a Merlin manqué who’d somehow pushed his talented but uninvolving backyard cinema vérité into hard–ticket release.

But by Woman‘s final credits, it was clear that, unpredictably, the orgasmic reviews had been justified; that, predictably, a rare film had been praised for the wrong reasons(John Simon, usually America’s only cogent movie critic, misunderstood it. Pauline Kael missed its point as steadfastly as she missed Clockwork Orange‘s, and all the genitally and psychically female reviewers had read it as a feminist polemic.)

When faced with a work as reticular as Woman, a script as good as lots of Chekhov’s, multiple misinterpretations are excusable. It is the best shrewd canvass of the contemporary dilemma since Five Easy Pieces. With it, Cassavetes unexpectedly becomes our most eloquent movie writer/director; that critics were self-seduced into overpraising Gena Rowland’s interesting title character and overlooking Peter Falk’s singular achievement in the vastly more complex role of her husband. In one picture, Falk emerges as the least stylized, most credible and potentially most powerful film actor available right now anywhere.

So it is possible, for once, to ring an actor’s doorbell in awe. He answers it as the subservient jester, grinning, the glass eye protrudent; in the Columbo mode he wonders, loping to the kitchen, “Where you wanta sit, what the hell there’s t’drink in here I DON’T know.” He will do that, erratic emphases. “Wife’s out, she mighta…” He is into the refrigerator, almost wholly. “Nothin’, BUT, lemme see…Jesus, Perrier water!”

This is profoundly amusing to him, as are many minute irrelevancies. Back in the living room he unfolds across the same sofa, then quickly rights himself, as if languor during an interview might seem discourteous. He has rarely been interviewed, it strikes you; telling him how you feel about Woman, he is quiet, frowning.

For many actors, a paean cues an often played scene of dismissive diffidence; concerned silence is one method of playing this sequence–except that in Peter’s case, he is clearly not playing anything at all.

“He is 2000 years old,” Cassavetes says of him later, “about three years older than I am.”

What Peter says, after the praise, is, “Thanks, I see you’re gonna use a tape, well, the fuckin’ thing’s inhibiting but LATER I forget it’s there and LOOK, two guys talking together, it’s impossible for either of ’em to remember it right later, right? Oh fuck: Interviews are tough on me, and they gotta be on you too, am I right?”

The soft sardonic frog’s laugh becomes a continuum. “Listen, I knew John’s movie was good but I honestly had no fuckin’ idea it’d create this furor, I thought it was a love story for Chrissake. Liberated women grabbin’ onto it, and people against havin’ more kids, an’ these vasectomy guys–that sure ain’t what it’s about. All I knew, I read the script and loved this little guy Nick, I loved that here is this Italian hard hat working his ass off, he lives just where such a guy’d live, over by Echo Park by the dyin’ palms, married ten years and his WIFE’S on his mind every SECOND! He is fuckin’ crazy about Mabel and she is nuts about HIM, if they could only be alone together; because he enjoys her, she’s exciting, they have fun. Mabel’s not crazy, or a Blanche DuBois, like the critics wrote–Jesus!

“A little loony, unstable, but she is a fucking original: creative, witty, innocent, very unique, Nick digs that in her. Other people is their problem: She’s under their influence, they hate that she’s different from the herd! And when they start on Nick, he’s not ready; his mother starts, ‘Your wife’s crazy,’ and the family doctor says it and Nick gives in, he’s just not prepared to holler at ’em, Fuck You, My Wife Is Wonderful Like She Is! Those straight conformists bug him into committing her to an institution; and Jesus, when she’s coming home and I ask over everybody she knows to welcome her, from a nut house, I throw a surprise party like she just won Miss America–this fuckin’ horse’s ass Nick is hilarious but you weep, he cares so much. I’m so gentle–manly to Mabel when they bring her in: ‘Uh, what was it like, Mabel, up there in the hospital?’ when I fuckin’s Know I betrayed her! And when I finally grab her and shout Be Yourself, This Is Your Home, Fuck ‘Em All, well, to me, that guy, in spite of himself, has fucking tremendous class!

“I mean, I don’t see that it’s such a women’s picture, I think it’s a man’s movie just as much: It’s that guy’s incredible primitive commitment to Mabel that’s gonna save them both, he’s crude, unknowing, but he would put his head through concrete for her…”

The next sentence he starts, quickly aborts; obviously he doubts he’s supposed to speak at that length without interruptions. As he’s talked of Nick, he’s become him.


One has seen this in certain gifted actors–Malcolm McDowell, Karen Black–characters they’ve played, or may yet play, passing through their manners and voices like hurried guests. Apparently it’s unintentional, and they’re not really conscious of it. Peter has answered the door like Columbo, whom he may have dreamed of, napping; as Nick his speech is sandpaper, his demeanor coarsens; now he is simply himself.

When this occurs with actors, one becomes a participant, a supporting player; it can be disquieting. “…Uh, look, maybe I’m not makin’ something clear here, this Nick, I didn’t make him up. His gaffs, his grace, John wrote them, Nick’s all explained there in the script.”

But some details aren’t: Early on, Mabel, left alone when Nick works nights, picks up a stranger in a bar and brings him home to bed. She’s not caught at this. Much later, her mother-in-law accuses her of it in front of Nick–who doesn’t comment and never refers to it. This doesn’t flaw the story, in fact it’s a nice small inexplicability; is that how Cassavetes meant it?

“Ummm…yeah. No. It puzzles me, too. I figure maybe he knows; the next day, their anniversary, why does he bring all the guys he works with home for dinner, except as a defense, as allies? And when she comes on friendly with ’em, like she is with everybody, movin’ ’round the table askin’ each guy his name, why does Nick shout Sit Your Ass Down!? And when she has the kids’ birthday party, and I call her on the phone and she says one kid’s father came along and was very stiff but she loosened him up, my reaction is Why the Fuck Should He Loosen Up in My House! Yeah, I realize now I tell it, Nick definitely suspects…”

Meaning Peter never really knew? That he never even asked Cassavetes?

“See, John is not a talker, we been friends for years and once he thanked me for never making him sit through dinner here at the house. He’s like that. Not garrulous. Directing a movie, he leaves the figuring to the actors. I do figure every angle of a guy I’m acting–but not consciously ’til afterward. I don’t wanta discuss it before, or during, because too much intellectualizing can knock you off, you lose all that spontaneity John wants. He wanted the relationship between Gena and me to grow–but within the written context. I don’t mean we improvised any of it. Every fuckin’ word was written, and if it looks improvised, that’s fuckin’ terrific!

“There are elements of me that John writes into a script, elements of Gena, she’s his wife for Chrissake, but I happen t’know he doesn’t discuss the writing even with her. The guy has a phenomenal memory, little details from years ago you’ve fuckin’ forgot the moment they happen, he writes that shit in, hands us scripts, we do it. I don’t have t’tell you this town is fulla guys who think of NO fuckin’ thing but money, and John, he has got something else on his mind. He is after getting something human onto the screen.

“I love it, all these directors making these ‘significant statements,’ about the fucking bomb, crime, dope, the fucking family falling apart, everything turning to shit–Jesus Christ, who doesn’t already know that? Every guy in the street knows, maybe he can’t articulate it but he fucking feels it. Listen, it’s not the job of the fucking artist to tell the guy in the street what he knows already! Jesus.”

This has been very urgent to him, he has lit a cigarette with another s’til burning, now he regains the laugh. “You gotta be hungry, nothin’ in here, lessee, car keys,” and he’s up fumbling about for them, “yeah, going out awhile, that’d please me VERY much, though I’ll tell ya I enjoy this interview, you listen a lot, like John, keys, keys, son of a…come in here in the hall, these little framed things on the wall, watercolors, my oldest daughter did these, she’s 11 and has a real sense a’style, am I right?”

He is. “When she was little she’d come down every morning ‘fore school and design a lunch bag, paint it, every day, she’d never show it to us. But JOHN, y’see, watch that front step, John doesn’t know from the obvious, clichés, his interest is in one thing, creating human people, it’s good t’have one guy like that around, where d’you eat? I never go the hell out. Lessee, good steak…there’s Pips, private club, I don’t belong, but I know the manager. But I can’t remember…where the fuck is it?”

Lee Grant costarred with him on Broadway in The Prisoner of Second Avenue and the television movie which became the Columbo pilot and is one of the human people.

“Peter’s great strength is his sense of truth. Anything that bends it or registers negative on his truth barometer he rejects instantly; it’s his only acting method. When he doubts, he doesn’t close up, he’ll turn and say, ‘Lee, am, I right or wrong here?’ He is always looking for growth. When we started the play in New York, he doodled stick figures; one day he just went to the Art Students League, went every afternoon, and in six months he was really drawing, I watched this daily growth. John’s got a truth barometer too, it’s why Peter’s so secure with him. And Cassavetes, my God, every time he makes a movie he puts not only himself on the line but his house, his mortgage…”

True, though actually Cassavetes has tried to finance each of his films through the major studios without success. Peter asserts, “They’ll give ya money for something about sex or fuckin’ earthquakes, but human people, forget it.”

The $800,000 for Woman was half Cassavetes’s mortgage, half Peter’s money.

After the New York Film Festival reviews, studios would have been delighted to release and distribute it, for a 40 percent profit cut, but Cassavetes kept total control, right down to the theater bookings.

This is not a move of unparalleled heroism–all the harvest stays home this way–but it’s a lot of boring paper work, hence his new business quarters, several cluttered rooms above the Fox Wilshire. In the outer office, a cheerful man at a switchboard points. “John’s in there, first door on the left, and could you ask him for me what time is today’s Aw–Shit game?”

This query conveyed, John shouts from his piled desk, “FOR CHRISSAKE DON’T SEND MESSAGES WITH GUESTS AND WE’RE NOT GONNA PLAY TODAY ANYWAY!” Laughter from without. “It’s a card game we made up here, a great tension reliever.”

The timidity, the adolescence in his smile is unnerving, as he is 45. “I dunno what I’ve got to say,” he adds, then talks, minimally questioned, for an hour. “Peter: With him I have an expectancy thing, I expect that once he’s turned on to a part he’ll delve very deeply into it on his own, exert his own discipline, interpret the guy as he would, not as I would, and I’m like that with all actors. The writing’s just a…blueprint, by which he applies what’s inside him, even when he’s not fully cognizant of what’s inside.

“I keep our relationship very shallow during shooting, no actor should ever feel he’s gotta get a director’s permission to interpret the role his way. Ever. Directing–what can you do but create an atmosphere in which we’re all trying to make life out of alotta words assembled on paper? And be patient through actors’ suffering and yell when they need it? Verbally, my directing amounts to, ‘What the hell’s the matter today? Come on, Pete, let’s run around the block for a while, who gives a shit?’ He asks what I think, I say, ‘I dunno, what do you think?’

“For me, there’s no such thing as setting up a shot, I just tell ’em to start and I start shooting, all around them, from every angle, shoot everything in long takes, ten minutes or more, no stopping for closeups because that breaks their concentration. I do end up with alotta film, 700,000 feet for this one, then I spend two years in an editing room getting it down to 14,000 feet. Look, my method drives alotta people bananas.” He sits back, making a church with his fingers, considering, as Peter does, whether he’s sounded self–cherishing.

They both dread that. “I’m, uh, disappointed with the picture. In many areas. As I’m sure Peter and Gena were, with the material. We–I?–was trying desperately to speak for a whole generation, for our, uh…fragmentation, and I look at Woman now and it’s, ‘Christ, why was I so awkward about it?’ I was too hung up in the procedures of living, when what it’s about is a man and woman loving. Everything we do is affected by the influence of one sex on the other, which is a helluva lot more interesting to me than, say, politics. But the translation of a, um, philosophical idea into practical living measures is difficult.”

That puzzles even him but he continues. “Uh, the pretentiousness of trying a movie that’s artistic enough to, um, survive as a serious work and s’til manifests itself strongly enough that people can grasp its abstracts is…”

Fortunately he loses the thread.

Question: Didn’t the critics, awed by Mrs. Cassavetes’s acting, fail to see that Nick is the story’s catalyst, the navigator of their future?  

“Hmm, I see your point but I don’t know their future, I think they prescribe a good future together, and Jesus, my gratitude to Peter and Gena for providing the grace of that moment is unbounded! You can’t direct that; and the script, any script, by itself is nothing. Assembled meaningless words, externals!”

Then a director’s just a traffic cop? A film has a specific tone without him? There’s no point in printing or reading, say, The Seagull or A Woman Under the Influence? For some minutes he wriggles, the frown mutating; when he laughs the sound is enormous and callow again.

“Aw, shit. No question about it, I am a bona fide genius.”


Peter, who’s come in and lurked outside, joins the rest of the office staff in guffaws and rude noises, in support of this joke, and enters laughing, to begin a boyish verbal sparring with Cassavetes. You gather it’s their habit to prove to one another that neither will take himself seriously. When Cassavetes takes a call, Peter offers, “Pips is right near here, an’ I’m starvin’, come on.”

The first night he had driven aimlessly around Beverly Hills muttering, “NEVER go out, NO fuckin’ bars to go to in this town and just talk, times like this I MISS New York.”

He had finally chosen at random an ersatz London pub on Rodeo Drive, devoid of customers and ready to close.

For Columbo, of course, they remained open, the waiter dozing until Peter finally yawned and left. Clearly, going to Pips, a club thought modish by Hefner’s backgammon crowd, is as aberrant to him as drinking on Rodeo Drive, but he has gotten the idea that some sort of glamour should be provided.

The Pips parking valet is awed to stupefaction, as is the management, and diners suspend their meals. “Listen, uh, could we have a quiet table ’cause we gotta talk some business, very important…VERY good, thanks, what I’ll HAVE would be…I dunno…any good steak, an’ lessee, bourbon.”

Though he smokes sporadically, tonight he smokes a lot. “I got a regret,” he begins abruptly, after a mutating frown like Cassavetes’s. “That I started acting so late, I was 27, and guys who start at 18 or so, there’s this kinda continuity of friendships they form in the profession by startin’ young, I’ve never had that. When I was a kid the idea of gettin’ paid to paint your face…listen, I grew up in Ossining, New York, a nice little town by the Hudson, and nothin’ ever interested me except being your usual high–school big shot, which I was, an’ loved it, played all the sports and goofed around, always out on the street with the guys, everything was funny t’me. Even this fuckin’ eye,” and he points unnecessarily to it, sad and stationary in a face twisted around it ironically.

“They took the real one out when I was three ’cause there was a tumor, in school I’d pop this glass thing out t’get the guys laughing. Sometimes I was in school plays, but only when the kid they’d originally picked got sick and they asked me to substitute. See, I was fascinated, secretly, but I’d wait ’til they came to me. I’d NEVER try out for a part–I’m no psychiatrist, you figure it out.

“My mother, she’d be my only connection with acting at all, she loved opera–yeah, yeah, like Gena in the movie–she acted in community theater, I thought she was terrific, what’d I know from plays? A complicated woman, a businesswoman before the day of ’em, she and my dad had a dry–goods store, JESUS, Dad went in there every morning at five to open by seven, he breathed that little business. Dad never even saw a movie; I didn’t give a shit for movies, never went except with the guys Saturday afternoon to fuck around. I do remember…a foreign picture. Forbidden Games?

“That impressed me but the notion that an ordinary guy could do such a thing as screen acting, that never remotely entered my head! But…I had bad teeth, had to keep going to this dentist down in Manhattan, and one afternoon, by myself, without thinking, I went and bought a balcony ticket to a Broadway play, Life with Father. And I never told nobody I did that. You think that’s important? Listen, you think any of this shit is interesting?” Encouraged, reassured, he adds, “Only other unusual thing was…well, I’m Jewish, the folks went to temple maybe four times a year, at home it was no big deal. But when I was about 13, all by myself I panicked. Found this old guy who lived over a store downtown to teach me enough Hebrew to make the bar mitzvah responses, had the fucking bar mitzvah and never gave religion another thought to this day.”

Now a blonde girl approaches the table, giggling. “I-just-love-you-Lieutenant–Columbo.” Her initial foray galvanizes a large man who brings his wife, followed by an-autograph-for-my-little-boy-but-it’s-really-for-me matron, followed by a Columbo’s-just-so-sexy female duet.

Peter bears this with practiced graciousness, but with the assault of the big-fan-who-wants-Columbo-to-join-our-crowd-for-a-highball, he snaps, “Look, fella, we got business to do here.”

A waiter comes to stand guard unobtrusively. “Jesuschrist, I tell ya, I never thought this’d happen here, it’s supposed t’be private, I guess they let everybody in now. What it is, it’s TV. They don’t even do that to movie people who come here, but when you’re on TV in their fuckin’ living rooms all the time, you become their property, like the fuckin’ set itself.”

Disgruntled, he continues in staccato: After high school the merchant marine looked romantic; it wasn’t. Neither were four universities, including Syracuse, from which he extracted an M.A. in public administration and from that the title efficiency expert for the State of Connecticut Budget Bureau.

“Ky–rist, what a farce! I’m the most disorganized guy in the world when it comes to money. But I’m workin’ there in Hartford, and I discover that somebody I knew from Ossining’s running a repertory theater in New Haven. This knocks me out: that somebody from home was actually involved with these weird beings called actors! So I arrange to go visit him. Understand, when I thought of actors at all, I thought of ’em as something exalted, beyond human, totally romantic and special, I never dreamed of breathin’ such rarefied air!

“So I go in this New Haven bar to meet the guy from home. I’m early, and sittin’ there together are Roddy McDowall! Walter Abel! Estelle Winwood! Maria Riva! Son of a bitch! I go an’ sit right in back of ’em. ALL I WANTA DO IS HEAR HOW THEY TALK! And it turns out to be just ordinary talk. This is a revelation to me, that actors are human people, that’s how fucking naive I was! Went right back to Hartford, quit the idiot job, moved to Greenwich Village, enrolled in acting class, and s’til it’s unreal to me. PAINT YOUR FACE FOR MONEY, MAKE AN ASS OF YOURSELF? That’s how I’d talk, WHAT AM I DOIN’ HERE, STUDYING TO STARVE IN A GARRET? Of course I knew by then it’d always been there, this very deep actor’s need that says, ‘Look at ME, listen to ME.’

“Except I’m listening to the bullshit they hand you in acting schools, a teacher standing up there talking about art when he’s really thinking about getting laid. Every fucking year I’d audition for the Actors Studio, with the same girl, we always did this scene that involved a bed, a cot, and every fucking year we’d drag the goddamn cot back up to the studio and they’d nod very sagely and say, ‘Come back again sometime.’ AW SHIT!”

The expletive is not so much a further indictment of Lee Strasberg as it is of another approaching fan club; its leader, a girl clearly speeding, has chosen for openers, Peter-I-wanta-ask-a-personal-question-can-you-dig-true-honesty?

A hundred frames a second he pays the check and we’re back in his white Grand Prix (“This is a rental while they fix my old Jag, which I bought from my dad after he drove it 10 years”), and back to Beverly Hills (“NO fuckin’ good bars”) to another deserted, anonymous pub, another somnambulant waiter dumbfounded by his entrance.

“A REALLY QUIET table if y’please, that’d please me very much. Umm? No, I actually don’t wear a raincoat much, ‘cept when it rains.”


“Tell us, Peter,” Mike Douglas has begun very somberly during Falk guest–host week, “do you have a whole closet full of dirty raincoats?” “I like the guy.” Peter seems to refer to the waiter who’s gone for bourbon; he means Columbo. “You pause a lot, playing him.” This is read with elaborate irony.

“Pause before a line, and they think what you’re gonna say next is very significant. They love it in Bulgaria. The Bulgarian government called the American ambassador to see if I’d explain to the people that there aren’t enough different shows taped for them to keep seeing night after night. I had to learn Bulgarian words to do this. The raincoat bit, I maintain it was in the original pilot but the guys who wrote it maintain that I came in wearin’ it. OH, JESUS, I DO NOT BELIEVE I AM SITTING HERE SAYING THIS, WHO GIVES A SHIT!!!”

The waiter retreats alarmed; Peter gulps the drink like an antidote. “Tom, lemme tell you something peculiar about the acting business: I got lucky early, got in that big revival in New York of, what-the-hell-is-it, The Iceman Cometh, and right after that got an Oscar nomination for the first movie in which I did do fuckin’ good work, Murder, Inc. All of a sudden I’m in movies like A Pocketful of Miracles and Penelope and alotta television bullshit.

“All right: Startin’ out, you got one thing on your mind, to grow, to act better. Terrific. Except you can act 40, 50 years and s’til be learning it, and instead, before you get anywhere near where you can go, you’re suddenly quasi-famous, a half-ass star. And it is unavoidable not to get fuckin’ caught up in that! You start preserving it, saying yes to lousy scripts, shitty directors, producers with budget and time problems; you’re not growing, you’re concerned now with salvaging a piece of crap you’re the STAR of, pleasing your audience, your agent, your press agent, your business manager, the critics and the bank ’cause you got a Beverly Hills house and kids in private schools.

“Don’t get me wrong on that last, listen, there are actually some good marriages in this business and I got one of ’em, 15 years, and if I had anybody who tried to stop me acting in shit for money, it was Alyce. With a ‘y’. She never let up. Oh, she didn’t mention it every day, but I knew she knew I was far from what I ought t’be doing!

“She’s savvy enough to realize you can’t act on a mountain by yourself, but she knew I wasn’t looking hard enough for good material, or in the right places; that I was busy learning all these little supportive gimmicks, gestures, vocal tricks, emotional rousability–meaning you’re just jazzing yourself up for the camera, the audience creams, but you know you’re phony and you fuckin’ hate yourself…”

But is all this so totally self–inflicted? If you want to work, aren’t you poured into this mold by fat–cat directors to whom even Beverly Hills becomes pedestrian, who can only think constructively, finally, behind the gates of Bel Air? In Woman, he seems the only leading movie actor who s’til achieves, for one thing, direct, non-stylized virility; if that’s now eluding even Al Pacino, if it’s been eluding Redford for several years, is it really their fault?

He considers this rife proposition a long time, his features contorting sardonically again around the eye. “First, I’m not even sure I agree with you about those guys, and if I did, and you think I’m gonna sit here and admit it, you’re fucking stupid. I wouldn’t be so dumb because, Tom, there is one thing I want outta this business now, GOOD PARTS. And there are too few of those to bad–mouth any, uh, colleague.”

The abrupt, enormous laugh. “Look, I haven’t minded Columbo so much, I went in knowing that if a series hits you’re locked by the short hairs for five years, nobody coerced me into signin’ for it, an’ nobody was then offering me great movies I turned down for it. I will say that all TV I personally rate right up there with foul air, shit in the seas, too many babies. The spontaneity, the originality of a whole people’s being sucked out by that tube.” Bullshit–a response he takes well.

What, exactly, was this perplexed republic engaged in that was so spontaneous or original before television? How many movies were ever really worth leaving the house for, and did Des Moines ever champion the few that were? Is Mary Tyler Moore really why Keokuk is not reading Mann? Or, as Ringling or someone said, you can’t sell a sucker something he doesn’t want; didn’t this culture beget television because it was precisely what this culture required?

What he says then is surprisingly felt: “Maybe you’re too young to have kids. I got kids. I always had this thing for kids, even when I was one. I don’t care if it sounds assholish. I care about walking in a house and seeing kids glued to that box like addicts. Their submission, their lethargy, it gives me the fuckin’ CHILLS. Lemme go back, though, to actors: When you say you aren’t seeing any real virility, what you really mean is you’re seein’ too much heavily stylized acting; and Pacino, Nicholson, young Bob DeNiro, who was so good in Mean Streets I would kiss his ass in Macy’s window, those guys are fantastic at playing a human person when they got one to play! Movies like Chinatown, the new Godfather, these are not exactly about human people, so you gotta fall back on style, which I got nothin’ serious against: You couldn’t play Columbo at all without a certain affection for it!”

The empty room echos with his affection: Like the pub on Rodeo, this bar will stay open, by tacit agreement, until Columbo chooses to leave.

“Tired? Me? No way. Jesus, you know–I love actors! The public, it doesn’t know this: that actors will sit down together, just with each other, and acknowledge that the fucking movie they gotta play is total horseshit; and they suffer together, not for themselves, but because they know the fucking cynical cliché they are participating in and perpetrating on audiences! The directors know too, the crew, but the only ones who really fucking CARE are actors! Knocks me out about ’em: egomaniacs who care!

“Yeah, yeah, a few of us get paid a lot, but that doesn’t affect that you s’til wanta do good work, strive for it, and most of the time your job is to save what’s written for you instead of vice versa, like it should be. Jesus, countless fine actors becoming resigned, expecting no more than having to go out every job and put all their training and skill into being only supportive! There’s somethin’ fucking noble in that.

“An audience knows right away when they’re gonna see a good story, they need to feel right away that the story isn’t going to let ’em down–so your job is to work your ass off acting, giving ’em that illusion. Selling that lie, faking it for ’em! Get one good fucking story and you can go with the stuff you’re missing in so much that you see, which boils down to reality. But this is a TV age and where are the culture’s fuckin’ writers?”

One is right over the Fox Wilshire now. “Ummm. I was just thinkin’ in my mind…speaking of TV, you notice that in John’s picture, he never ONCE feeds us ONE cliché which all these writers and directors always use to indict this culture–for instance, seein’ the kids plastered to the TV, or the wife glued to it, or her on dope, or them fightin’ over too little money or too much. John never places any blame for them on stuff outside them, except people, stuff we know about. Nick and Mabel’s story coulda took place anywhere any time! Problems of human people, this is John’s only real interest.”

Meaning that Oscars for Woman, Cassavetes’s first high grosses and nets, couldn’t tempt him toward all those compromises? The question in no way amuses Peter.

“I thought about that. All of us around John have. John has. I gotta be accurate here, about this. John and me, we aren’t kids. We been through all the changes of getting successful. We both already earned alotta money in this business, we had years with plenty to spend, spent it, enjoyed it and found out it didn’t mean a lot.

“That making millions of bucks was convenient but making pictures in order to make a million bucks was a huge boring pain in the ass. I know John well enough to say another million bucks would mean to him an easier way of doing the kinda movies he feels satisfied making. And that if he’s broke, he’ll act for money again and use it to pay for more of his pictures. Which I would rather be in than anything else, for the same reasons. That clear? Every time I make a statement it occurs to me, could I also be wrong? Misleading myself? This time, though, that don’t occur to me.”

All this time he has done what he did in the other bar and in Pips: sketched, without attending his pencil, vague graceful human shapes on the paper drink napkins.

When this is mentioned he explains, quietly, “As a kid I always could draw whatever I looked at; but I couldn’t make up things to draw outta my head. And I firmly believed that just drawin’ something you look at, drawing a model or a real object, was cheating. Tom, I’m not a dope, just a slow learner. I went along for years like that. Then we were in Yugoslavia making Castle Keep, there’s nothin’ to do but play poker. Or draw. I had this old leather suitcase and I drew it and somebody said, ‘That is good. You really caught the softness of the old leather.’ So it took me all those years to understand that it was okay to use a model. It was not cheating, so it was okay. It was art. You see a point in that story?”

Definitely. But the waiter has dared now to hover, with a purposeful yawn, which is contagious. Greatly amused, Peter shouts, like Columbo, “JESUS CHRIST, TOM, YOU’RE FUCKIN’ YAWNING, YOU’RE BORED, AND I JUST STARTED TALKING! YOU PRICK! Listen, back in 1951…”

In This Article: Coverwall, television


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