By now, most of you are probably aware of the death of actor Peter Falk, at age 83. His family reported that he had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease several years back.
Although he had a long and distinguished film career–including consecutive Oscar nominations in 1960-61 for Murder, Inc. and A Pocketful of Miracles, Falk will be best remembered for his oft-reprised role as the rumpled, socially awkward detective Lt. Columbo, whose episodes played out in TV movie installments over 25 years.
In Columbo, and in life, Falk shared some important messages that are particularly relevant to readers of Changing Aging. First of all, he never fit society’s image of a major player. His personal struggles began early, losing an eye to cancer at age 3. Even though he developed and nurtured a talent for acting, he was discouraged from doing so because of his lack of Hollywood good looks. An agent once advised him he would never make it, and studio head Harry Cohn once dismissed him, because “for the same price I can get an actor with two eyes.”
And yet, Falk did prevail, through sheer talent and by using his appearance to enhance his craft. He embraced this very history in his creation of the Columbo character, whose unpolished features and lack of grace earned him scorn from police and suspects alike. His train of thought seemed disjointed, and he was always rattling his subjects by popping back to ask “just one more question.”
But Columbo always got his man (or woman). He had a perception of the world and of human nature that saw through people’s pretenses, and his “invisibility” to those around him enabled him to create traps and diversions that helped him solve the crimes.
Peter Falk and Lt. Columbo both make me think of how elders are marginalized in our society, because they don’t necessarily present a pretty or powerful picture to those who value such things. Their wisdom is often overlooked as useless ramblings, and yet their ability to look beyond pretense to the essence of an issue holds great wisdom.
And those who live with dementia often seem particularly disjointed and unorganized in their thinking; yet they are often processing the world around them in novel and useful ways, and can often cut through the “smokescreens” to read non-verbal cues that most of us may not have noticed.
Peter Falk and Columbo taught us, quite simply, not to judge any book by its cover (or by its tattered raincoat). And every time a new episode aired, we all cheered for the little guy: invisible to most, but invaluable to those who would listen.
If you want to see a particularly memorable performance, check out Falk’s savvy CIA agent playing off of “clueless” Alan Arkin in The In-Laws (the original version, not the re-make). Their mishaps in the unnamed Central American dictatorship are hilarious.