Paul Greenberg

Thomas Friedman was right. The world is flat, or at least it seemed so last week when the news came that Peter Falk, aka Columbo, had died at 83. For 30 of those years, he had regularly delighted television audiences as a not-as-dumb-as-he-looks detective. Every third week, he invariably caught the killer, who of course was depicted as the very soul of sophistication, and at the end of the show wound up as surprised as viewers weren't to find that this cop wid a working-class accent had outwitted him.


We never learned the fictional Columbo's first name, or if he had one -- I think it was Lieutenant -- but I definitely envied him his beat-up old car, a classic Peugeot, which had the appeal of the authentically well worn, almost outworn.


For the same reason, I've always yearned for the kind of crumpled linen suit of indeterminate shape that Charles Laughton wore as the classic very Southern senator, Seb Cooley of South Carolina, in the movie version of "Advise and Consent." Some outfits have a life of their own, speaking at least as convincingly as the actors. When it comes to communicating, they can beat all the dialogue in a predictable script.


Columbo himself sported a nondescript raincoat from maybe the '50s, It might have been hanging in a closet -- the back of a cramped closet -- for the intervening decades gathering wrinkles, absorbing grease spots, becoming eminently forgettable, and generally acquiring character.


I've got a hat like that and love its every well-earned crease and smudge. A friend calls it my "Go to Hell" hat, and it looks as if it's been there and back.


Columbo's trademark phrase was always reserved till the end of some crucial interview with the slick villain, who should always have been played by Louis Calhern at his oiliest. Offered in the manner of just an offhand afterthought, Columbo's phrase prefaces the question that will unravel the killer's well-planned alibi.


"Aaaaah ... Just one more thing," Columbo would say, turning around after he'd already started to leave the suspect's mansion/luxurious hotel suite/hunting lodge. Then he'd throw out the key question like a hunter putting out a bear trap. Or like some congressional investigator making casual conversation. ("I didn't know you had an interest in birding, Mr. Hiss. Did you ever happen to see a prothonotary warbler?" Or, in more contemporary times. "Sir, would you remember if Miss Lewinsky had a blue dress?")


In Columbo's case, the "just one more thing" would come across as but another sign of his disheveled, absent-minded and generally inept persona. And therefore completely disarm the suspect. For how could a slob like that pose any threat to a clever villain?


Columbo was the kind of gumshoe who would reach into a tattered pocket for a telling piece of evidence ... and fish out last week's shopping list. Steady viewers weren't caught off guard, but for some reason the bad guy always was. (Maybe he was too cultured to have watched much television.) The, aaaaah, just one more thing would always prove the thing. And just as inevitably, our shabby hero would emerge triumphant in the last scene.


Peter Falk's disarming manner wouldn't have been half so convincing without the cockeyed look he gave Columbo, which was no act at all. He'd lost an eye at an early age (a case of childhood cancer) and wore one of glass, which in unreal life had a way of popping up in strange places, like in a glass of gin that the great jazz pianist Art Tatum had been drinking.


The prosthesis only added to Peter Falk's unlikely charm. Anybody who's ever had a New Yorker for a brother-in-law will be familiar with the general character, and the whole, gritty milieu of Gotham that Peter Folk could invoke with just one glassy look.


The actor came by his fictional persona honestly, having been a cook in the merchant marine and generally the kind of hard worker who makes his talent seem natural. The result was that, whenever Hollywood needed a character with street smarts and a certain farcical appeal, Peter Falk got the part. And not just in comedies, for he was a craftsman whose work shone in John Cassavete's realistic films "Husbands" and "A Woman Under the Influence." Life without him will be a little flatter till just one more thing occurs: There are always the re-runs.


Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.