DATE November 12, 2004 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Review: Boxed DVD set of John Cassavetes films
DAVID BIANCULLI host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, TV critic for the New York Daily
News, in for Terry Gross.
John Cassavetes died 15 years ago but his reputation keeps growing. He's
known to many people as an actor, especially for movies like "Rosemary's
Baby." But his most important work was as a groundbreaking filmmaker. Now
new Criterion DVD boxed set of eight discs, including five of his movies,
just been released. On today's show, we'll hear from Peter Falk, who worked
extensively with Cassavetes, and Gena Rowlands, who starred in several of
films and in real life played the role of his wife.
But first, our critic at large, John Powers, explores what made Cassavetes
JOHN POWERS reporting:
I was maybe 15 when I saw my first film by John Cassavetes. It was a story
about troubled marriage called "Faces," and it scared me. It scared me
because I wasn't ready to handle such intense emotion. But it also scared
because I didn't get it. In its flailing characters and drawn-out scenes,
wasn't remotely like the movies I'd seen. I was hardly the only one to find
Cassavetes a challenge, maybe even a threat. Decades later most Americans
still haven't seen his work or discovered that once you leave our native
shores John Cassavetes is regarded as a world-class filmmaker, a name to be
put alongside Godard, Bergman or Hitchcock.
All that may change with Criterion's new box of five Cassavetes films, which
is less a DVD compilation than a cultural event, complete with discs
documenting his career and a booklet of critical essays. The package covers
the stages of Cassavetes' work, from his 1959 debut "Shadows," which tackled
race and romance in ways today's filmmakers would still find too daring, to
"Opening Night," his masterful 1977 study of an actress confronting age and
alcohol. In between we get "Faces," the schizophrenic love story "A Woman
Under the Influence," and the wonderfully titled "The Killing of a Chinese
Bookie," starring Ben Gazzara as a strip club owner with illusions of
elegance. Whether pockmarked or crazy or just downright annoying, not a
single character in any of these films would feel at home in a Hollywood
In fact, from the beginning, Cassavetes' career was a rebuke to the
dream factory with its glossy production values and glossed-over humanity.
wasn't interested in technique or neatly crafted story lines. He was
interested in confused, often unenlightened people, especially those who've
somehow been knocked off their bearings and are madly struggling to regain
some sort of equilibrium. In trying to capture the emotional truth of such
characters, Cassavetes put his ultimate faith in actors. He believed that
they, more than anyone else, take us close to human feeling, which he saw as
an absolute value. You get a hint of this in the following scene from
"Opening Night," in which an actress, played by Cassavetes' wife, Gena
Rowlands, discusses her latest stage role with the playwright.
(Soundbite from "Opening Night")
Ms. GENA ROWLANDS: Listen, Sarah. Every playwright writes a play about
herself. You've written a play about aging. I'm not your age.
Unidentified Woman: What is your age?
Ms. ROWLANDS: I'm aware that playing an older woman is part of my problem.
I have no illusions about being a teen-ager, but, you know, on stage you
Virginia having hot flashes. I don't have hot flashes. I'm not going
menopause. I'm not ready to play grandmothers yet. You know, you're very
clever. If I'm good at this part my career is severely limited.
Unidentified Woman: Limited to what?
Ms. ROWLANDS: Once you're convincing in a part, the audience accepts you as
Unidentified Woman: As what?
Ms. ROWLANDS: As old, that's what. Old.
Unidentified Woman: Are you going to quit?
Ms. ROWLANDS: No. I'm looking for a way to play this part where age
make any difference. Age isn't interesting. Age is depressing. age is
Age doesn't have anything to do with anything. Listen, Sarah, I don't have
husband. I don't have a family. This is it for me. I mean, I get my kicks
out of acting. If I can reach a woman sitting in the audience who thinks
nobody understands anything, and my character goes through everything that
she's going through, well, I feel like I've done a good job.
POWERS: Cassavetes' work is all about capturing the truth of emotion. But
his movies aren't realistic in any conventional sense. They often feel
feverish, over the top, concerned with the feelings behind the feelings we
ourselves express. As critic Michael Ventura once observed, regular movies
have their actors occupy the center of their character's emotions in the way
that, say, Julie Andrews sings a song like "My Favorite Things." In
Cassavetes' actors are always ferociously exploring the farthest reaches of
emotion, the way that, say, John Coltrane takes the melody of "My Favorite
Things" and then stretches it to the breaking point. Cassavetes pushes
intensity not as an end in itself but to reveal something deeper than mere
emotion, the soul in all its wounded dignity.
Now to be honest, you have to be in the mood to see a Cassavetes picture.
didn't make crowd pleasers; he even said he hated entertainment. And
his movies were built around acting, they have weird rhythms and sometimes
feel redundant, even when they contain an epochal performance like Rowlands'
work in "A Woman Under the Influence." And that's not all. Out of sheer
cussedness he was known to re-edit his movies to make them less likeable and
more challenging. `The audience is going to hate this,' he once cackled
shooting, `but screw 'em if they can't take a joke.' In the end,
greatness is inseparable from the fact that his films were always so nakedly
and proudly personal.
We hear countless words these days about independent filmmakers, but
Cassavetes was and remains the gold standard of independence. He launched
indie movement with "Shadows," used his acting to finance his filmmaking
of outside interference, and he even shot in his own house. Unlike so many
indie filmmakers, who can't wait to sign on with the studios, he stayed the
distance. Until his death in 1989, he tirelessly pursued his own vision, a
vision rooted in his compassionate feeling for the lost human soul.
Cassavetes knew that all human beings share one thing in common: We're
and frightened and looking for love.
BIANCULLI: John Powers is film critic for Vogue and media columnist for LA
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Gena Rowlands talks about her acting career and late
husband John Cassavetes
DAVID BIANCULLI, host:
Gena Rowlands was John Cassavetes' favorite actress, and they were married
had four children together. Rowlands starred in several of his films,
including, "A Woman Under the Influence," "A Child is Waiting," "Faces,"
"Minnie and Moskowitz" and "Gloria." In 1997 she starred in "Unhook the
Stars," directed by her son, Nick Cassavetes. Most recently she appeared in
"Taking Lives" and "The Notebook." Terry spoke with Rowlands in 1996.
we hear that interview, let's listen to a scene from "A Woman Under the
Influence," made in 1974.
Rowlands plays a suburban housewife with two kids who's having an emotional
breakdown. Her husband loves her but is worried sick about what's happening
to her. He's played by Peter Falk.
(Soundbite from "A Woman Under the Influence")
Mr. PETER FALK: You're going to be committed. You're going to the hospital
until you get better.
Ms. GENA ROWLANDS (Actress): I'm not sore at you. I mean, you hit me. You
never did that before. I didn't even feel that, if that's what you feel bad
about. Are you? I always understood you and you always understood me and
that was always just how it was and that's it. Till death do us part, Nick.
You said it, remember? `Do you, Mabel Mortenson, take this man?' `I do. I
do, Nick. I do.' Remember, I said, `It's going to work because I'm already
Mr. FALK: Don't let that mind run away on you now.
Ms. ROWLANDS: Do you remember how you laughed?
Mr. FALK: Don't mention that to me...
Ms. ROWLANDS: You laughed...
Mr. FALK: Don't...
Ms. ROWLANDS: ...don't you remember? And he as was mad as a big toad.
Mr. FALK: Don't do that.
Ms. ROWLANDS: Hey, don't be sad. I know you love me.
TERRY GROSS, host:
"A Woman Under the Influence," directed by your late husband, John
You played a woman married to a character played by Peter Falk. And you're
having, like, a nervous breakdown and you just, like, unravel more and more
the movie goes on. Had you seen somebody going through that before taking
the role, somebody who you could think about while doing the movie?
Ms. ROWLANDS: Not one person. You know, I wasn't thinking of one person,
I have seen people who so loved another person that it became an obligation
the other person. It wasn't a wonderful thing. And the person who loved
much developed nothing else in her life, so that when that love was
from her she had nothing to fall back on. I have seen that several times.
GROSS: And how did you use that in the movie?
Ms. ROWLANDS: Well, just you think--you study your part, I mean, just the
way you would think that you do. A part is like reading a detective story.
You're presented with--you don't write it. You don't start it in the
You interpret it, and very often you find things that they're doing, the
character that you're doing, that puzzles you, and you wonder how and why,
so you take as much of--because I believe that all of us have every quality,
all of us. It's a matter of degree. And acting is a matter of increasing
degree or decreasing. But it's always there, and you can always find it
inside of you; it's just a matter, very often, of just sitting for quite a
long time and thinking about things and, when you've come to something that
extremely puzzling, to figure it out and think about things that you've seen
and heard and people you've known. And all you need is just a little
can be like a little piece of rice, but once you have the feeling then you
enlarge it and take it where you wish to.
GROSS: You and your late husband, John Cassavetes, were making independent
films before, I think, there was even a name for it. I mean, you were...
Ms. ROWLANDS: Yes. Yes, that's right.
GROSS: ...really pioneers of that in the movie industry. Why did you
Why did you start finding your own little niche away from the larger
Ms. ROWLANDS: Well, of course, as you say, you don't think of yourself as a
pioneer or you don't think of yourself in any particular way. It's just
you want to express a different kind of story, a different kind of--we felt
that there's so much more that could be said on film and the films could be
much more personal to the audience, that you could do pictures that were
actually something that people would relate to because it was in their own
lives. Because all of them really, essentially, are about love and the loss
of love or how to survive love or how to find love or how to keep love or,
know, what you do with it, which is really the eternal problem for all of
And we thought it could be shown in a more natural setting, a more
way, rather than just, say, an action film or, you know, some...
GROSS: A glamorous romance, escape...
Ms. ROWLANDS: Escape--yeah, escape film. But it's not that we wanted them
stop doing that kind of film; we just felt that there was a lot of room for
lot of kinds of film.
BIANCULLI: Gena Rowlands speaking with Terry Gross in 1996. More after a
break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
BIANCULLI: Let's get back to Terry's 1996 interview with actress Gena
GROSS: Could you describe a little bit about what the guidelines for
improvisation were within the films you made with John Cassavetes? How much
improvisation was there? What were the parameters for that?
Ms. ROWLANDS: The first film that he made, "Shadows," was entirely
improvised. I wasn't in that. And so then he did develop a reputation from
that as doing everything improvisationally. But actually, after that, he
always had a script and, you know, not just a thrown-together script, a real
script. But then if you'd have a problem with a scene or--John's theory was
that if he got a bunch of good actors together and there was a problem, it
was the writer's problem. So then we would stop and we'd talk about it,
rehearse, improvise and, you know, work about it as much as we needed to.
then when we thought we had it, he'd go in and sit down and write the scene
from the improvisation the way he wanted it. And that's how we did most of
them, not all of them; there were lots of improvisations all the way through
to the last films that we made. But mainly they were very scripted.
GROSS: And so even the parts that were improvised by the time you did the
final take, it had been scripted based on the improvisation?
Ms. ROWLANDS: Mostly. I was thinking of one that was just the opposite of
that. In our last picture, "Love Streams," I played a woman who loved too
much. She loved her husband too much, she loved her children too--I did
everything too much. I carried too much luggage and I believed love was a
stream that could never, ever stop. And this I believed in spite of the
that my husband just couldn't stand me and my child was just right along his
side because she just drove everybody crazy with her excessiveness.
It says in the script that she calls the husband home from a business
and the child home from school because she knows that they are not getting
enough fun out of life and that they are wasting their time with this sort
thing. So they come home, thinking something important is happening, and
there's just this one little sentence, really, and it said she--`They come
home and sit down and she makes them laugh.' And I said, `What does that
mean, John? And how does she make them laugh?' He said, `Don't worry about
it.' He said, `I've got something great planned. You're going to love it.'
I said, `Well, but do you have any hints or anything?' e said, `No.' He
said, `I don't want to ruin it for you.' He said, `Just wait.' And I said,
`This is making me hysterical.' He said, `No. I'm telling you,' he said,
don't want to even give it away.'
So we got to the day that we were going to shoot and he says, `Stay in a
dressing room. I don't want you to see the preparations.' And now I really
was truly hysterical. And finally he came and he said, `OK,' he said, `now
come on out.' And we were shooting in the backyard of this beautiful home
there were Seymour Cassel and Teresa Bluett(ph), who were playing my husband
and child, and they were both sitting there, and they had a long picnic
and on top of the picnic table there were about a hundred of those, you
crazy little games that you see--you know, those chattering false teeth and
eyes that pop out on springs and ketchup bottles that look like they're
getting stuff all over you--all that terrible--those joke-store games.
And John said, `There, what do you think?' I said, `What do you mean, what
I think? What am I supposed to do here?' He said, `Make them laugh.' I
said, `With these?' I said, `Which ones?' He said, `All of them.' He
`You've got a minute to shoot it,' he said, `and use every one, make them
laugh, and then go jump off of the diving board into the pool.' So I said,
`Well, shall we rehearse?' And he said, `No, no, no. No,' he said, `I
want to ruin the spontaneity of it.' He said, `OK. Roll 'em.'
And so I just wildly started with the eyes, and the ketchup and the thing,
and, of course, he had already told them not to laugh, because in their
characters they were not amused that they'd been brought home, you know?
so now I got wilder and wilder and trying, you know, just anything to--and
finally, the minute had gone by and I went and jumped off the diving board.
Then, of course, I realized while I was jumping off the diving board,
he had it planned that they weren't going to laugh.
Now that kind of improvisation was quite rare, because there was no
there was no talking, there was nothing; it was just--you just went for it.
And, you know, he was right. It was more fun to do that scene. It's
look back on it with a lot of happiness.
GROSS: Your father, I believe, was a state senator when you were growing
Do I have that right?
Ms. ROWLANDS: Yes. Mm-hmm. In Wisconsin.
GROSS: You know--in Wisconsin. And this was US Senate? Oh, state senator,
right--in the state Senate.
Ms. ROWLANDS: No. No. State Senate.
Ms. ROWLANDS: Progressive Party...
Ms. ROWLANDS: ...which doesn't exist anymore.
Ms. ROWLANDS: It was the La Follette party.
Ms. ROWLANDS: And working within a state, you can really get quite a lot
done for your state. And I think he enjoyed it.
GROSS: Did you ever have to be the model daughter while your father was in
politics? Or is that also too far in the past to remember?
Ms. ROWLANDS: Well, I was not a hard child because I was a sick child. I
was an invalid when I was little. And so, you know, I wasn't much of a
handful. I was lying around, looking pale and reading books and things. My
immune system probably was just not very developed and--because when I got
be a teen-ager I'd never been sick again. I don't know; it was just one
after another, but they were all very kind of serious things--asthma and all
those things. But then they just all kind of magically went away, so I
something just kicked in.
GROSS: Were you very unhappy during the period that you were sick?
Ms. ROWLANDS: No, I wasn't. I would like to have gone to school more, in
that sense, but I always was very happy reading, and everybody--you know,
you have a sickly kid everybody's awfully nice to you. And they probably
would have been anyway. But my mother would--in order to make me eat
anything, she would go to all kind of extremes. I remember one time, I
wouldn't eat carrots. I wouldn't eat anything yellow. So she cut a carrot
into the shape of a goldfish and--with a long tail end. She put it in a
goldfish bowl with water in it, and she came in to where I was sick and she
said, `I have an uncontrollable urge.' She said, `I can't stand it. I've
to eat this goldfish. I've got to do it. I'm going to.' I said, `No, no,
no, no, don't do it.' She said, `I've got to, unless you eat this carrot.'
And so I said, `Oh all right,' you know? But they would go to the most
extraordinarily kind of creative lengths to do these things for me. I
had a pretty happy childhood.
GROSS: Now that sounds wonderful.
Ms. ROWLANDS: It was.
BIANCULLI: Gena Rowlands, speaking with Terry Gross in 1996. She was
to John Cassavetes and starred in many of his films, including "Faces" and
"Gloria." A new boxed set of Cassavetes' films is out now. We'll hear more
from another actor who worked extensively with him, Peter Falk, in the
half of the show.
I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.
BIANCULLI: Coming up, actor Peter Falk on working with John Cassavetes and
his role as Columbo, the rumpled, deceptively casual detective. There's
a new DVD of the first season of "Columbo." And David Edelstein reviews the
new film "Kinsey," about Dr. Alfred Kinsey, who pioneered studies on human
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Peter Falk discusses his film work with John Cassavetes
and his famous television detective character, Columbo
DAVID BIANCULLI, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli.
Peter Falk is famous worldwide for portraying one of television's most
characters, Lieutenant Columbo, the detective with a tattered raincoat, a
sharp mind and a very persistent nature. Falk has been playing Columbo off
and on since 1968. We'll hear Falk discussing her Columbo character later
the show, but right now, we'll hear about his film work with John
Falk co-starred in the director's "Husbands" and "A Woman Under the
Influence," and was well-suited to the wide range of comedy and drama and
various levels of improvisation that those parts demanded. Terry spoke with
Peter Falk in 1995 and asked him about working with Cassavetes.
TERRY GROSS, host:
What struck you as different about his approach to directing...
Mr. PETER FALK (Actor): Everything.
GROSS: ...than what you were used to?
Mr. FALK: Everything. Everything John did was original, everything. Every
bone in his body was original. He was the most fertile man I've ever met.
I'll never meet anyone as fertile as he was. I mean, he's changed the face
filmmaking in every way, not only in form, but in content, everything.
John was something. John saw the dawn about two hours before everybody
John's first picture was called "Faces." I think he made it in '56, maybe
'57. And that was maybe 10 years before anybody ever heard of Martin Luther
King. Here's John. He's 25 years old. He's making his first picture, and
the theme of it has to do with a black and white relationship, male-female,
black-white. That--he was ahead of his time, John.
GROSS: When you improvised with Cassavetes in a movie, what was the process
of improvisation like?
Mr. FALK: There's much less improvisation in his movies than people think.
I could make a lot of money if I would bet somebody, I said, `You point out
the scenes to me that are improvised, and when you're wrong, you pay me, and
when you're right, I'll pay you.' You can't tell the difference between
what's improvised and what isn't improvised in John's scenes. John
a new standard of spontaneity, a new standard of spontaneous behavior in
acting. Nobody did that before. He started that. There were times when
would want you to improvise. There were other times where it was strictly
written and you were expected to follow the script.
GROSS: Working with Cassavetes, did that bring out a certain spontaneity in
you, in your performances?
Mr. FALK: Oh, yeah, but it took me a long time to trust him, because
we have our own idea about how we act, and you rely on--well, technique has
long to do with acting. Technique has a lot to do with the craft of acting,
and that's the one thing John didn't want to--I mean, he didn't want you to
technical, even in the best sense. You can get an actor who is an extremely
capable technical actor, and nobody can tell the difference.
GROSS: What strikes me with Cassavetes' movies, one of the many things that
make them different is there's a lot more--everything's slower. There's
space around actions and words. A lot of movies, especially now, are so
tightly edited and so quickly paced, but you know, there's silences and
and just a lot of room, and I was wondering if that made it--made you pace
yourself differently in a performance, knowing that the camera was going to
on you maybe for a longer time, and in moments that to another director
seem like an off moment and not an on moment.
Mr. FALK: Yeah. That's the one thing John never wanted you to think about,
and the way he directed prevented you from thinking about that, whether or
you were going to take more space, whether you were going to take less space
or whether this scene called for whatever this kind of mood or that kind of
mood. He was trying to get you to get rid of all that crap. `Just behave,
behave, let me worry about it later on,' and then he would cut the scene.
while you were doing it, he wouldn't let you do that. He'd put a banana up
his ass and run around in front of you. He'd do anything to make you
GROSS: Did he actually do that?
Mr. FALK: Oh, he did worse.
Mr. FALK: He would do anything. He would do anything to stop you from
thinking. He would do anything to stop you from trying to figure out how am
going to do this? And he would never tell you anything, and the reason he
wouldn't tell you anything was because he was afraid of words. He was
that those words would then be retranslated into some cliche.
GROSS: Well, why wouldn't he tell you? He just--he didn't want you
Mr. FALK: He didn't want you thinking, and if you start talking about what
the character is feeling, you do have that danger of saying, `Oh, I
understand. Now this is how you play embarrassment.' And you play it the
you've seen somebody else play it, or you have some idea of how to play it.
And what usually happens is that the behavior lacks the ambiguity that most
behavior has where it's not just--there are different kinds of anger. There
are different kinds of charm. They're not all the same, and there's
involved at any given moment in time. And I think that's why the behavior
his picture is, to me, at any rate, more interesting. So he wouldn't tell
GROSS: So this threw you off balance, having technique...
Mr. FALK: Yes.
GROSS: ...taken away from you and...
Mr. FALK: Yes. Yes, and I was off balance and I was irritated and I was
angry and I was afraid and I was nervous. I was all those things.
GROSS: Was there a turning point where you started to think, `Oh, I get it
now. I can make this work, or I could work within this kind of...'
Mr. FALK: I didn't really get to that turning point. Actually, we'd
"Husbands" and I was still uncertain. And the reason I did "Woman Under
Influence" is because I looked in the mirror once, and I said to myself,
know, you might be wrong, Peter. He might be right. I'm going to try it
again.' And that's why I made "Woman Under the Influence." I wanted to go
again with him, just to see.
GROSS: And what changed for you in that film?
Mr. FALK: Well, I trusted him even more, and I understood a little bit more
about the way he was trying to do things. That was John's problem. Nobody
could understand how he--why he was trying to do it. He had to break
everybody down, and he did. And it was good that he did, and he was able to
BIANCULLI: Peter Falk, speaking to Terry Gross in 1995. We'll continue the
interview in a moment, and when we do, he'll talk about "Columbo." This is
(Soundbite of music)
BIANCULLI: Let's get back to Terry's interview with actor Peter Falk, who
played Lieutenant Columbo, one of the most famous characters in the history
television, right up there with Ralph Kramden, Lucy Ricardo and Archie
But Peter Falk's character was, and is, different. Those other characters
came from sitcoms. Columbo's equally quirky character was the central
in a mystery drama, and that character has clocked more years on TV than
Ralph, Lucy and Archie combined.
The first season of "Columbo," including the 1968 "Prescription Murder"
telemovie that introduced the character, has just been released on DVD by
Universal. Here's a scene from "Prescription Murder" with some of Columbo's
now-famous mannerisms already in evidence.
(Soundbite of "Prescription Murder")
Mr. FALK: (As Lieutenant Columbo) Oh, listen, there's one more thing. You
don't remember what your wife was wearing that night, do you?
Unidentified Man: Well, Carol had so many dresses. Is it important?
Mr. FALK: (As Columbo) Well, yes, in a way it is.
Unidentified Man: Let's see, now. Oh, yes. She was wearing a blue wool
dress with brass buttons, if I'm not mistaken.
Mr. FALK: (As Columbo) Uh-huh, uh-huh. Yeah. That's what the stewardess
said. She's back in town, by the way, and I spoke to her. And she told me
your wife was wearing a blue wool dress with blue kid gloves.
Unidentified Man: Well, then that's probably it.
Mr. FALK: (As Columbo) Uh-huh. That's funny, though. If she came home
the airport, what did she do with the dress and gloves? When we went over
your apartment last week couldn't find them.
Unidentified Man: Well, they may have been stolen.
Mr. FALK: (As Columbo) Yeah, maybe, maybe. Did you put those on the list
Unidentified Man: Really, Lieutenant, how could you expect me to notice
Mr. FALK: (As Columbo) Still, it's puzzling when you think about it. I
mean, why would a guy steal a dress and a pair of gloves? What are they
Unidentified Man: People don't always to the rational thing.
Mr. FALK: (As Columbo) Oh, they sure don't. You learn a lot about that in
my line. Well, I guess you do in yours, too.
GROSS: What was the part of Columbo like when you first read it?
Mr. FALK: It was very good. It was somebody that I immediately wanted to
play. The basic thrust of a guy appearing less than he actually is, that
always there. And that disarming quality of not ever appearing formidable
always there. I think that when we started to make the series, they would
often write scenes that were supposed to be humorous, and those are the ones
that made me very, very nervous.
Mr. FALK: Because I didn't think they were funny. They were kind of cute,
and so I would tamper with those all the time to make sure that they were
funny--that they were humorous, not funny, and that they were more subtle
more believable. And the other thing that I guess I insisted upon was that
think that he is by birth a polite man, but he's also canny, so he's not
using his politeness. But the fact that he is polite makes it easier for
to play polite.
And the other thing that used to bother me about the early scripts--not the
early scripts, any of the scripts, was in the final scene if you had what
actors used to refer to as `moishe, moishe, do you explain the scenes?' and
that's when the detective, he takes two pages--he talks for two pages and he
explains everything that happened, and as the actor, you can hear the people
snoring. You know the audience is tuned out. They're not interested. So
trick is to have that final scene remain a scene, and have the cat and mouse
going back and forth. And the audience, plus the villain, they don't know
what in the hell this guy's driving at, but they're interested. You show
just enough to keep them interested, keep them guessing, `What is he going
do?' And when you finally nail the guy, that should be the end of the show.
There should be about three lines after that, and that's it. It was things
like that that used to--and clues. Clues can't be transparent, and if
obvious to the audience, then he's not Sherlock Holmes.
GROSS: And of course, I should ask you about the raincoat, Columbo's
raincoat, which I believe you bought?
Mr. FALK: Mm. Well, there was a dispute over that because I...
GROSS: What, over who really bought it?
Mr. FALK: No. The dispute--I always said that I read that in the script,
but Link and Levinson said no, it wasn't in the script. But I seem to
remember seeing it in the script, so whatever it is--I did buy it, but I
didn't buy it at the time. I had already had it, but I said `This is what I
want to wear,' and I knew what I wanted to wear underneath it, too. I
everything to be tan and brown all together, a little dash of dull green in
the tie, and that's about as flashy as he got. And the suit that fitted me
the least was a seersucker--kind of seersucker blue and white, so I said,
that,' and they dyed it and got out all that white, whatever the hell it
I don't remember. But it had to be dyed, and that became tan. And the
were mine, too. They were a pair of shoes I picked up in Italy, I don't
a long time ago. They happened to be fairly expensive shoes, handmade
but they were very comfortable and they were clunky. And...
GROSS: And that was important, clunky?
Mr. FALK: Clunky was important, yeah. Yeah.
GROSS: For that sense of being slightly uncoordinated?
Mr. FALK: I think you always wanted that contrast, because the people that
he was going after, they were always...
Mr. FALK: They were always--yes, God's chosen. I mean, you know, they all
had long necks and they all could buy suits off the rack and that fitted
and they looked good and their teeth were white, and they had dough and they
spoke well. And so clunky shoes were a good contrast.
GROSS: I have one more Columbo question for you.
Mr. FALK: Yeah.
GROSS: Do you think that your long association with that character has
for you, against you, both, in the other part of your career, the part
Mr. FALK: Well, I always say the same thing, Terry.
GROSS: Say it again.
Mr. FALK: I'll say it again. Being known as Columbo, and--it ain't cancer,
so the--I mean, I make a lot of dough and the listeners, you know--I think
it's difficult for the average person--say, `What's he complaining about,
that he's type-cast? Who the hell cares? I mean, he does make a lot of
and he gets good seats in restaurants,' and so I don't feel that that's
something that people are really interested in. But to answer your
I think arguably I probably would be a better actor if I hadn't spent so
time playing that one role. I think that kind of diversity and that kind of
challenge--I might be a better actor. I don't know. I'm not sure. I think
probably I would be. But so what?
GROSS: I want to ask you, you have a glass eye, and I think that happened
when you were three. You had a tumor removed?
Mr. FALK: Yeah.
GROSS: And I guess they removed your eye, too?
Mr. FALK: Yeah. It was a malignant tumor.
GROSS: Do you think that that's--that you've made that work for you as an
actor, to effect your image, to use it as something that looked menacing, or
that made you look more vulnerable?
Mr. FALK: Well, none of that was consciously--I mean, the only thing that I
would be aware of when I was acting was to try to avoid looking a hundred
percent wall-eyed, I mean, so that if you were to look in one direction and
one eye went all the way to the left and the other one was still in the
middle, I'd try to avoid that. But I have never consciously felt that `Oh,
I'll use it in some way.'
GROSS: Gee, could you not get shot from certain angles because your eye
wouldn't move and that would be the only eye on camera?
Mr. FALK: I'm better off on the left side because I think that that
minimizes the wall-eyed thing.
GROSS: Did kids pay you to look, you know, bizarre?
Mr. FALK: That wasn't good. No, they never did that. No, when you were a
kid, you know, I used to dread that moment when somebody would say, `What's
the matter with your eye?' or something like that, and there was a turning
point, I don't know, when I was 12 or 13 years old, I think it had to do
with playing ball with the guys, because once you started knocking around
those guys, they were so open about it and they would say it so freely and
was usually a gag or a joke or a knocking you, whatever the hell it is, that
by then it didn't mean anything to me anymore. I was very comfortable with
GROSS: Did it interfere with...
Mr. FALK: Because I realized--the other thing is then I realized I could
a laugh with it.
GROSS: No, did it interfere with anything that you wanted to do?
Mr. FALK: No. No, not at all. No. Well, I think one of the main problems
with the eye was the fact that my mother would--if I would go play football
whatever sport, she was always nervous about it, and I always thought that
ridiculous, nothing to be nervous about. You know, when you're that age,
nothing can happen to you. And then you could always get people's attention
if you took a spoon and tapped it.
GROSS: Oh, gosh!
Mr. FALK: I remember the first night I was in the merchant marine. There
was this black guy from San Francisco, or maybe--no, I think he was from
Oakland. He didn't know me, I didn't know him. We'd just shared this
fo'c'sle together for the first night, and he was sitting up in the top bunk
opposite me, and I came in and I sat down. It was already very, very late,
and he had his pajamas on. So I started getting undressed. At that time, I
had--my front teeth were knocked out, and I had a removable bridge, so I
out that bridge and put it on the table. It had a nice sound effect, a
clunk, when that went down. And I then I popped the eye out, and then the
glass hit the table top; that had a nice sound effect. And he's up there
watching me, and then I bent over and I started unscrewing my knee. It was
gesture, you know, where I started turning it, and it looked like I was
to remove my leg. And I always remember him saying, `Excuse me. I'll be
BIANCULLI: Peter Falk, speaking with Terry Gross in 1995. The first season
of "Columbo" has recently been released on DVD by Universal Home Video.
Coming up, film critic David Edelstein on "Kinsey." This is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Review: New film "Kinsey"
DAVID BIANCULLI, host:
In the new movie "Kinsey," director Bill Condon, best known for the indie
"Gods and Monsters," tackles the subject of Alfred Kinsey. In the '40s and
'50s, Kinsey brought a scientist's zeal for pure research to the subject of
human sexuality, both liberating and inflaming a culture that had defined
normal sexuality very narrowly. Liam Neeson stars as Kinsey. Film critic
David Edelstein has this review.
Morality disguised as fact. That's what Alfred Kinsey, played by Liam
called sex education in the late 1930s. The phrase is incendiary even
and it's the central motif of Bill Condon's "Kinsey." Most biographical
movies are spread-out and superficial. They have no dramatic spine. But
Condon's film is shaped by these four words: `Morality disguised as fact'
warps the young Kinsey as it warped his puritanical father. It galvanizes
work of the scientist and the pioneer sex researcher, and it ultimately
consumes the man.
Condon's structure is incisive. The movie opens with a mature Kinsey
three of his research assistants in how to pose questions for a survey of
habits, the survey that would involve thousands of subjects and form the
of his revolutionary study, "Sexual Behavior in the Human Male," and its
female-oriented sequel. The point is to make the subject feel comfortable
because, after all, people could easily be shamed when they talk, as they've
never talked before, about how they masturbate, how they fantasize, how they
have sex. The assistants practice by interviewing Kinsey, and one, played
Peter Sarsgaard, asks about his father, which prompts a look of panic and a
flashback. Here is the adolescent Kinsey being bullied and shamed by his
moralistic dad, played by John Lithgow, and then drilled in the danger to
brain if you touch yourself. And then a nice flourish: Condon puts his
writer-director credit over a shot of young Kinsey in his sleeping bag,
endangering his brain.
Kinsey is not a masturbatory movie, though. It's broadly sympathetic, while
maintaining a clinician's detachment. From the beginning, as a researcher
specializing in an insect known as the gall wasp, Kinsey fastens on the idea
that individuals within species could show an infinite number of variations.
In other words, there are no abnormal gall wasps, only millions of diverse
little critters to be individually catalogued. You get a good idea what
McMillen, played by Laura Linney, is up against when she flirts with her
(Soundbite of "Kinsey")
Ms. LAURA LINNEY: (As Clara McMillen) Hello. Mind if I sit here?
Mr. LIAM NEESON: (As Alfred Kinsey) Why?
Ms. LINNEY: (As McMillen) Because you're the only unattached male and I'm
the only unattached female.
Mr. NEESON: (As Kinsey) That's very sensible.
Ms. LINNEY: (As McMillen) A man who cooks; how refreshing.
Mr. NEESON: (As Kinsey) I picked it up when I went out West to collect
galls. I was gone for 11 months, and I don't think I saw more than a dozen
people the whole time.
Ms. LINNEY: (As McMillen) Sounds lonely.
Mr. NEESON: (As Kinsey) Oh, I enjoyed it.
Ms. LINNEY: (As McMillen) I've been reading up on gall wasps. I think I
know why they appeal to you.
Mr. NEESON: (As Kinsey) Aha.
Ms. LINNEY: (As McMillen) They have great big wings, but they can't fly.
They're incapable of getting from this hill to that hill unless it's close
enough to walk, which means it's possible to retrace each generation's
hill by hill by hill by hill, all the way back to the very beginning, the
wasp Garden of Eden.
Mr. NEESON: (As Kinsey) That's very interesting, Miss Millen. You've
managed to bridge the gap between Darwin and the book of Genesis in a single
Ms. LINNEY: (As McMillen) McMillen.
Mr. NEESON: (As Kinsey) Hm?
Ms. LINNEY: (As McMillen) Clara McMillen.
Mr. NEESON: (As Kinsey) Oh. I'm Prok.
Ms. LINNEY: (As McMillen) Sorry?
Mr. NEESON: (As Kinsey) It's a nickname my graduate students have given me.
Pro-fessor, K, Kinsey. Prok. At first I worried that it suggested an
inappropriate level of intimacy between teacher and student that could lead
a loss of respect on the line.
Ms. LINNEY: (As McMillen) I think it just means they like you.
Mr. NEESON: (As Kinsey) Yes. Eventually I realized that.
EDELSTEIN: That's a delightful scene. It makes you laugh, while it shows
how cut off Kinsey is from the human race. Neeson is very deft and very
delicate at using his stature to suggest estrangement. He's Karloff's
Frankenstein's monster with a PhD. This stunted giant resolves that humans
are bigger, more complicated gall wasps.
Jonathan Gathorne-Hardy, whose wonderful chatty biography was a source for
Condon's screenplay, writes that, quote, "Kinsey felt he could only study
by stripping away all but its physiological functions, first removing moral
judgments; second, even harder, emotions and feelings. For both, he was
ideally equipped psychologically, and for both, he was savagely criticized."
What's inspiring about "Kinsey" is that it never streamlines this
Its protagonist is a martyr to American moralism, unfairly denounced for
insecticizing American womanhood by cataloguing its practices, but also a
selfish man whose steely exploration of his own bisexuality in the name of
science takes a toll on his wife and colleagues. But if it's hard to like
Kinsey when he watches, bemused, as a fight breaks out over wife-swapping on
his team, it's impossible not to share his joy as he wanders, near the end,
among California redwoods with his loyal wife, enthralled by the enormity of
the natural world.
"Kinsey" is stupendously moving, with searching performances by Neeson,
Linney, Lithgow and Sarsgaard. Condon has the cheekiness to cast Tim Curry,
Dr. Frankenfurter himself, as the voice of academic repression, the one who
disguises morality as fact. It brings us full circle, for isn't Kinsey, in
way, the father of the man on woman, woman on monster, monster on man,
pansexual utopia of "The Rocky Horror Picture Show"?
BIANCULLI: David Edelstein is film critic for Slate.
BIANCULLI: For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli.
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