Goodbye Peter

The Arts

And another good one goes…Peter Falk died at 83 yesterday. I never really watched Columbo, but I remember him in a million movies as a great character actor, and often as a support character in films like ‘The Great Race’ and ‘It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World’, a film about which I had a peculiar obsession.

‘It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World’ had sweeping cyanic skies, men in hats, primary-coloured boxy saloon cars, cleavages, shouting and the kind of deafening wanton destruction that propelled me through a feverish adolescent crush on all things loud, bright and American. I fell in love with its sheer bellowing energy. When a hungover Jim Backus reacted to bright sunlight by somersaulting over a billiard table, I also collapsed. I followed the film from one flea-pit to the next, watching it over and over, mesmerized, until I knew all the usherettes.

What I did not know then was that this extremely shrill, rowdy and fairly unfunny Cinerama ‘comedy-to-end-all-comedies’, where even Buster Keaton and Jack Benny were reduced to walk-on roles, had been heavily trimmed by director Stanley Kramer to increase the number of times it could be shown in a week. Much later, Tania Rose, the film’s co-author, put me in touch with a very nice man who had dedicated his entire life to finding the missing pieces of the film. He was deranged, of course, but in the same way as I had been – and one obsession validated the other; if more than one person was affected, it meant I wasn’t mad.

I watched it until every line repeated in my head milliseconds before arriving on-screen. The film became a series of set-pieces to be ticked off one by one. I wrote about it endlessly, and through this process, some input of my own began to emerge. Years after, I found myself driving through California, and accidentally ended up in Plaster City, the town from which a hysterical Ethel Merman calls her son Sylvester. It was a special moment; you had to be there. I left the area trembling and strangely fulfilled.

Later still, the film’s missing plotlines were finally located and restored, with the result that a darker, more cynical film emerged – I was glad they had cut it, at least for the sake of my childhood sanity.

6 comments on “Goodbye Peter”

  1. Mike Cane says:

    A great story, Chris. Falk, one of those actors who really transcended the word “star.”

  2. Red Wolf says:

    Peter Falk was always fun. And now you’ve made me want to see this restored version of It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.

  3. Helen Martin says:

    The fireworks going off in the basement of the hardware store has always stuck with me. The only problem I had with it was that the little scenes went on too long and I felt sorry for Terry Thomas, because I thought he got short changed.

  4. RICK D says:

    damn you — again! Now I can’t get the image of the sobbing Dick Shawn bellowing, “I’m coming, mamma!_ out of my head. That being said, I loved it as a kid – right from Jimmy Durante ‘kicking the bucket’ to Ethel Merman slipping on a banana peel. The first and last time that gag was ever funny – if it was even then. I have a disc of it – I wonder if it’s the ‘restored’ version…

    Falk was of course great in that — in Princess Bride — in everything he did. I loved him in The Great Race, too. Thanks for the memories…

  5. Terenzio says:

    Memories! Seeing something or place in a film and actually visiting the place is a treat. I remember stumbling across The Salisbury Pub on St. Martins Lane. I popped in for a pint (I haven’t met a pub in London I couldn’t resist. Oscar Wilde would be proud of me. In addition to the fact I like to lounge about my boudoir in a purple dressing gown). I was sitting there thinking (not in my purple dressing gown of course) I have been here before, but I was pretty sure I hadn’t been. Then it came to me….the film Victim with Dirk Bogarde…of course this was the pub used in the film. I felt all warm and fuzzy inside. This was what one would call a pleasant memory. However, sometimes thoughts aren’t all that rosy. One time sitting at a cafe on the Place aux Herbes across from the cathedral in Nimes (France) having a glass or two of Rosé (once again another weakness I cannot resist Rosé especially if it comes from Tavel and it’s a beautify warm and sunny afternoon in Languedoc) waiting for some friends and realizing this was the same cafe the murderer in The Vanishing (the original French version…the US remake was complete rubbish…well maybe not totally…I might be just a bit unfair, but definitely not as a good as the French film)was sitting spying on the guy whose girlfriend he had kidnapped and murdered. For the next few minutes I was sitting there looking at the people around me, thinking how normal they all looked, but what if one of these “normal” looking people harbored pathological thoughts like the guy who had a wife and kids in the film. When my friends came, these thoughts left my mind, but to this day I remember that odd feeling I experienced that I had never experienced before.

    What a great film…Ethel Merman was so over the top…what a voice and what an actress…at the end when she slipped on the banana peel – pure poetic justice. As far as Peter Falk goes I think he was suffering from Alzheimer’s which I am sure wasn’t pleasant for him or his family and he did have a pretty good run 82 or 83 years. I once saw that jalopy he drove on the show when I took a tour of Universal Studios. I wasn’t sure what was worse – the car or the coat.

    I shall finish my Kir, retire to bed and be thankful for good friends and great times (past and future)….with a special thanks to those like Peter Falk who through films and shows like Columbo brought us a little joy and escapism for a short while…

  6. Ness says:

    After a recent trip to the cinema museum in Berlin I had to re-watch Wings of Desire. I’m not sure what Peter Falk made of the film but he was wonderful in it.

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