Friday, June 24, 2011

Remembering Peter Falk: My interview with the 'Columbo' star

Peter Falk in 2002 by Ron Frehm/Associated Press.

I only met Peter Falk once, briefly.

But like most Americans, I loved watching the actor, who died today, in the television show "Columbo" as well as in movies such as "The In-Laws," "A Woman Under the Influence," "Wings of Desire" and, yes, "The Princess Bride."

I did a phone interview with Falk and Paul Reiser for the Herald in 2005. It was to advance the screening of their underrated feature "The Thing About My Folks," which played at the 2005 Sarasota Film Festival.


Paul Reiser (left) and Peter Falk in "The Thing About My Folks"/PUBLICITY PHOTO

Falk and Reiser play father and son in 'The Thing About My Folks'
Wade Tatangelo, Herald Staff Writer

Family relationships are often strained.

Most of us want to make amends before it's too late. But it frequently takes a sizeable event to shake things up. These are the issues producer/writer/co-star Paul Reiser addresses in his film "The Thing About My Folks," which makes its East Coast premiere tonight at the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall in Sarasota.

"The story is fiction but a lot of the dialogue is real," said Reiser, 47, during a phone interview, "taken from actual conversations I had with my father."

The dramatic tone of "The Thing About My Folks" might surprise viewers who only know Reiser as a comedian. The film is peppered with humor, but on the whole, it's a serious look at the complex relationships between fathers and sons and husbands and wives.

"It is meant to be real," Reiser asserted.

After appearing in the 1982 coming-of-age favorite "Diner," blockbusters such as "Beverly Hills Cop," and on TV's hit "Comic Relief" specials, Reiser was one of the best known stand-up comics in the country.

In 1992, he co-created and starred alongside Helen Hunt in the sitcom "Mad About You" and the award-winning series ran for most of the decade. After it concluded, Reiser divided his time between acting, producing and authoring two best-selling books, "Couplehood" and "Babyhood."

All the while, the story about his "folks" was sizzling on the back burner. The premise was there from the start, Reiser said, but the personal nature of the script kept him from actually writing it. A national tragedy finally prompted him to put thought to paper.

"I always knew I wanted to do it, ever since I came out to Los Angeles," said Reiser, a New York native. "But I didn't start writing until after 9/11, the realization of life being so short and unpredictable got me going."

Reiser added: "I had it done in about two weeks. I showed it to my wife and then called (Peter Falk) and he agreed to do it the next afternoon."

Reiser, who has been a big fan of Falk's since childhood, said Falk reminds him of his late father.

"I wrote this film for Peter and it was written because of him," Reiser said after nailing a dead-on impression and quoting an entire scene from Falk's comedy classic "The In-Laws" (1979). "We all went out to dinner and afterward my wife says 'Oh my God, he is so your father.' He doesn't look like him but the way he carries himself, he's channelling him."

Falk, a multiple Emmy winner and Oscar nominee, was touched to learn he inspired the film.

"(Reiser) did not tell me that before I read the script," said Falk, 77, during a phone interview. "I can't think of anything that gives me more satisfaction than hearing that story, that's so satisfying for an actor to hear."

A family movie for adults, the inciting force comes early when Falk's Sam Kleinman finds a Dear John letter from his wife Muriel, played splendidly by Olympia Dukakis.

"That character (Sam), he hooked me very early, in the very first scene," Falk said. "When one member of the family puts a note on the refrigerator door that changes everyone's lives I'm interested right away."

Falk paused frequently while speaking just like his characters on screen. Unlike, say, "Columbo," though, Falk sweetly curses when he can't recall something. While he thoughtfully formed each response, it was easy to picture all the hand gestures and facial expressions for which Falk is famous; or a warm smile lighting up his face when he spoke of how much the "The Thing About My Folks" means to him.

"The fact that this character was the recipient of that dramatic announcement and his reaction to it --- his determination to underplay it and me as the reader knowing that he was kidding himself and his attempt (laugh) at normalcy --- that drew me to him," Falk said. "And the other thing that appealed to me was that in a way he sounded like my father, but it was Paul's father. Both of them sounded like world-class pains in the (butt). The type of guys that like to know more than anyone else --- and the thing about it is, half the time they're right!"

The bulk of the film centers on a father-and-son road trip through beautiful upstate New York, just as the leaves are turning. Reiser confirmed that the experience was as wonderful as it appears on screen.

"(Falk) is so disarming, exactly like you think he would be, he is so not about airs," Reiser said. "Doing those scenes, I kept thinking this is so great, just working with Peter Falk. It was so joyful, I have such an affection for him, he made acting so easy, everything came so natural."

The film shifts from moments of understanding to obscenity-laced arguments. The conflict is tempered by the occasional comedic episode. One of the funnier scenes occurs when Falk's character runs the pool table. He gives a young hick his comeuppance but inadvertently whacks his son (Reiser) with the same blow.

"That was a kick in the (butt) to do that scene," Falk chuckled.

At its core, though, "The Thing About My Folks" is a heart-string tugger about family relationships that packs a jolting, bitter-sweet ending.

"I am partial to stories that add unexpected layers and ends up in a place where you never expected," Falk said. "In this case, there's an emotional explosion at the end and I guarantee anybody who see it is going to be affected because you never know where it's going. That's what I liked about it, I never saw it coming."

The movie made its world premiere earlier this month at the Palm Springs International Film Festival in California.

"This one woman, she wanted her husband to see this picture so that it will release him from some of his guilt," Falk said. "That's a guy who is not satisfied with the amount of time he gave to his family (laugh) and she wants him to see this picture to know he's not alone."

Peter Falk (left) and Paul Reiser in "The Thing About My Folks"

The movie also resonated with Falk's wife, actress Shera Danese.

"The line that got to her the most is when Olympia Dukakis said 'Why did I do it? . . . I didn't want to be taken for granted.' I think that rings true for a lot of women."

When asked if he viewed his character Sam as a good or bad guy, Falk struggled to recall a quote by the late John Cassavetes, the man who directed him in several films including the cinema verite classic "A Woman Under the Influence."

"Hollywood has conditioned people to see things in terms of good guys and bad guys but when (Cassavetes) looks around at his life he doesn't see good and bad guys he sees people who have a thirst for love but don't always know how to get it," Falk said.

"Love is hard to find. Relationships are difficult. All marriages have issues. It's not a question of good and bad guys," Falk let out a chuckle. "I wish I had John's quote, it'd be a helluva lot better than what the (expletive) I just said."

The subject matter of the "The Thing About My Folks" has made it "a tough sell," Reiser admitted.

But the film's creator is determined to find an audience for the picture.

"This really is a labor of love and we're nurturing it and pushing it along," Reiser said. "We're taking it to festivals and distributors are taking interest (in releasing it theatrically)."

Galvanized by the reaction the film received at Palm Springs, Reiser is confident filmgoers across the country and Sarasota will be impressed.

"People were leaving the theater going: 'I gotta call my parents, 'hug my kids,' 'be a better dad,' " Reiser enthused.

This story appeared in the Bradenton Herald on Jan. 28, 2005.  

No comments: