“I’ve seen the film five times already in previews,” says the man with one of the most familiar rasps in show business, “and not 20 minutes into the movie some lady will turn to the guy next to her and say, ‘Hey Marvin - I thought you said Peter Falk was in this picture.”’
Peter Falk chuckles with delight at the story - apocryphal or not - about what he perceives as the audience reaction to one of the most daring roles he’s ever attempted.
In “Roommates” Falk plays Rocky Holeczek, a stubborn immigrant from Poland and the oldest employed baker in Pittsburgh. He lives with his grandson Michael (D.B.Sweeney), a thirtysomething surgeon to whom he has been mother and father since the boy was orphaned as a child.
As the dogmatic Rocky ages from 75 to an ancient but still feisty 107, he teaches his grandson the kind of invaluable life lessons you don’t learn in those New Age self-improvement books.
Beneath the bald pate, age spots and several tons of latex plays the barely recognizable grin of the irascible Falk - television’s lovable sleuth, “Lootenant” Columbo.
In person, of course, Falk is a youthful senior citizen - a mere 67. The man we know as the never-saydie detective lopes into Beverly Hills’ posh Regent Hotel clutching a battered briefcase and looking like Willy Loman in search of a motel room.
He’s wearing something even Columbo might discard: a creased and faded open-neck blue shirt under a charcoal wool jacket that looks not so much lived in as slept in. The only thing missing is Colombo’s rumpled raincoat.
He lights up his umpteenth cigarette and in those inimitable tones of impeccable Brooklynese notes, “It was the best makeup I’ve ever seen - I spent 80 hours in the chair before they even began shooting. To paraphrase what Rocky might say, ‘It was a pain in the ass.”’
“Roommates,” released by Disney’s Hollywood Pictures, opened Friday, and in the current market climate, it may be one heck of a hard sell.
There’s no nudity, slam-bang action or special effects antics to keep the MTV crowd alert. There is instead a warm, family-oriented story inspired by the true tale of Houstonbased writer Max Apple, whose own grandfather helped him rear his children.
Apple’s grandfather was an Orthodox Jew, but Hollywood converted him to Catholicism and turned the grandson from a writer into a doctor.
The movie is based on “Roommates” (Warner Books, 1989), Apple’s best-selling memoir.
“It’s a story that has what I always look for in a script - wonderful characters and relationships,” notes “Roommates” director Peter Yates, whose credits include “Bullitt” (1968), “Breaking Away” (1979) and “Year of the Comet” (1992).
“It’s a topic you know won’t have six clones released the same week,” he adds.
And Yates, with perhaps more heart than business acumen, feels the film will find its own audience - those hungry for good stories with something fundamental to say about the human condition.
“Hollywood seems to be going in two separate directions. There are the $70 million movies, and the smaller, intelligent, quality films like ours, which are made for not such a large audience.”
Before Falk tried on his old-man makeup (“The more makeup he put on, the grumpier he became,” Yates recalls), George C. Scott, Art Carney and even Robert Mitchum were eyed for the Rocky role.
“Who would think of casting Columbo to play a 107-year-old man?” Yates asks. “But he’s been given too few chances to branch out and show what a great actor he is.”
Falk lights up again when asked if he thinks he’s limited his acting chances by being so closely identified with the perennially popular TV cop for almost a quarter of a century.
“Being Columbo is not like having cancer,” he says, in that voice that sounds like sandpaper over concrete. “Maybe I would have been a better actor and would have stretched more in movies without playing him. It’s probably true. But so what!”
Falk says he immediately fell in love with Apple’s story. “I’ve never been in a picture where I’ve been so emotionally affected. You laugh out loud in one scene - then cry out loud in the next. It’s a real roller coaster.
“Rocky’s like the Babe Ruth of grandfathers. Unforgettable, opinionated and impulsive, sure, but at the same time to be that wise makes him an original. He knew exactly who he was and how he felt - and so it came straight out of his mouth.”
There were parts of Rocky, he recalls, that reminded him of his own father: “I was 25 years old when I told my Dad I was planning to be an actor. He turned to me and said: ‘Actor! You’re gonna paint your face and make an ass of yourself for the rest of your life.’ “And that’s exactly what Rocky would have said.”
At one point the studio planned to release the film in December, in time for Oscar contention. Instead they decided to hold it until March.
“They worried about losing it among the flood of other Christmas movies,” explains Falk, who admits he was disappointed not to be in the running for the golden statuettes this time around. “You only get one shot with a picture - and they think this is the time.”
When he wasn’t busy aging 40 years, Falk squeezed in another “Columbo” TV movie, which will air on ABC later this year.
From Bosnia to Brisbane, from Machu Pichu to Kyoto, the guy in the grubby raincoat has become a legend - despite the fact that for almost a decade Columbo was on the TV missing list.
It’s not difficult to get Falk talking enthusiastically about the cop he loves to play, and the fame that came with him.
“It amazes me,” he says of the widespread popularity of the longrunning series. “There’s not an Eskimo who doesn’t love Columbo.
“I was in Peru once making a movie - 18,000 feet up in the Andes with these descendants of Aztecs, living in hovels. And suddenly they’re all running out of their houses yelling, ‘Columbo, Columbo.’
“And then there was this kid who told me his math teacher made the class watch Columbo. The lesson: A study of logic and deduction.”
Although he hopes to gain recognition for his challenging new role in “Roommates,” Falk will never resent the fans who know him only as Columbo.
“Listen, the whole world knows the show, loves it and respects it and I’m supposed to be annoyed by that? What are you, nuts?”
ILLUSTRATION: Two Color Photos
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