A Wrinkle in Time

updated 12/16/1991 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/16/1991 01:00AM

EVEN IN A TUXEDO HE LOOKS A SORRY mess—his jacket bearing a swipe of dust, his pants smudged with cigarette ashes. Though the trademark ratty raincoat is nowhere in evidence, Lieutenant Columbo is back on the case. The scene is a wedding, and on the set, as the cameras pan about, the bride pulls him onto the dance floor. Peter Falk, momentarily out of camera range, prances and mugs, to the delight of the crew. In the next take, the actor repeats the performance—minus the mugging—for the cameras. "We're behind, but it's still relaxed," Falk says a few minutes later. "Which is strange, because we're way behind."

Being behind is nothing new for Falk, who also serves as executive producer and is notorious for extensive rehearsal and endless filming, but maybe he's learning to take the long view. He can certainly afford to. When Columbo begins a new season with a two-hour ABC movie Dec. 15, Falk, 64, will be marking the 20th anniversary of a series seen in 80 countries and for which he has won four Emmys. Off-camera, he and his second wife, actress Shera Danese, 42, have settled into a comfortable 14-year marriage. And Falk can look back on a career that has jauntily ambled through a slew of movie roles, from the vicious killer of Murder, Inc. to the fallen angel of Wings of Desire. "I coulda done, maybe, who knows? More variety?" says the actor. "Who cares? You know, the rewards—they ain't cancer."

Falk admits, though, that he is pleasantly perplexed by the longevity of Columbo, whom he first portrayed in a 1968 NBC movie. "I think people identify with Columbo because he is an average man," he suggests. "And he's, whaddayou call it when somebody is fixated? Not addicted but...obsessed! Yeah, he's obsessed with finding the answer."

During the early days of Columbo—which ran on NBC from 1971 to 1978 and then was resurrected in 1989 by ABC—Falk shared Columbo's obsessive quality, which manifested itself in interminable shoots—ah, just one more take, ma'am—and semi violent script disagreements with writers and producers. "It was guerrilla warfare," he says. "I'm mellower now."

Over the years, says Falk, "I always tried to put in the script something that tickled me about myself. I lose things. I am preoccupied. I am misty. Eyeglasses? I go through eyeglasses like tissue." Last year he hung up, with great reluctance, his most prized contribution—Colombo's original raincoat, which Falk bought in 1967 in New York City and has now relegated to his closet. "It got so threadbare, so fragile," he says. "The new one doesn't have the patina, those ketchup stains."

Indeed, when Falk himself answers the door of his two-story Beverly Hills home, his olive brushed-silk shirt bears a Columboesque stain. "I never was very neat," he says. There is a '70 Mercedes in the carport and a Range Rover, but no ostentatious signs of the millions Falk has pulled from the frayed pockets of that fabled raincoat. Once the highest paid actor in prime time, in 1977 he signed a four-episode contract for $2 million.

That was the year he married Danese, whom he'd met three years before when he was filming a movie in her hometown, Philadelphia. "I was taken aback at how cute he looked," says Danese. Falk was still married to his first wife, pianist Alyce Mayo, whom he'd wed in 1960 and divorced in 1976. He remains close to his two daughters by Mayo, Catherine, 21, a sociology major at Syracuse, and Jackie, 25, a psychology grad student at the University of Southern California. "I think they think a lot of me," he says.

Early on, Falk and Danese weathered some major marital storms and twice filed for divorce. "Once he moved into a hotel for a couple of seconds," recalls Danese, "but he kept coming back for things like toothbrushes, so I told him he might as well move back." Danese, who has appeared on Columbo, also does stand-up comedy, which explains part of her appeal for Falk. "She makes me laugh," he says. And what does she see in him? Deadpans Danese: "He has a lot of money."

At home, Falk escapes to his studio, where he sketches. On days off, he golfs and follows pro sports, especially the Los Angeles Lakers. At night he prefers his cozy den, where he reads everything from The Wall Street Journal to murder mysteries. Danese attends parties without him. "I'm not an ace at small talk," he says. "He's a major loner," she says.

An only child, Falk was raised in Ossining, N.Y., where his late father, Michael, and his mother, Madeline, owned a small department store. When he was 3, he underwent surgery to remove a malignant tumor that cost him his right eye. He recalls the embarrassment of having a glass replacement: "I used to dread somebody saying, 'Whatsa matter with your eye?' " But at age 10, he says, "the breakthrough came when I realized I could get a laugh with it." Falk swears that while playing a high school baseball game, an umpire unfairly called him out at third. He plucked out the glass eye and handed it to the ump, saying, "You need this more than I do."

By then Falk already had a flair for comedy, which he first demonstrated in a summer-camp musical. "But I could never tell any of the guys I was knockin' around with I wanted to be an actor," he says. "It was too strange." He settled for a Mr. Everything status—senior class president, debater, star athlete and thespian—that made his years at Ossining High School "a glorious time." Hamilton College in Clinton, N.Y., was a different story. "I was introverted and thoughtful and unhappy," he says. Falk left after a month, eventually earning a bachelor's degree in political science from the New School for Social Research in New York City. He continued acting but initially lacked his father's approval and says, "I couldn't even admit to myself that I wanted to be an actor."

After collecting a masters in public-administration from Syracuse, Falk took a job as an efficiency expert for the state of Connecticut and continued to study drama. Soon he won stage and TV roles. A precocious Oscar nominee for 1960's Murder, Inc. and 1961's A Pocketful of Miracles, Falk has made nearly 40 films over the years, including Husbands (1970) and A Woman Under the Influence (1974)—both directed by his late friend John Cassavetes. ("The most fertile mind I've ever run into," says Falk.) Joe Mantegna, who costarred with Falk in a touring production of Glengarry Glen Ross, thinks Falk's career is guided solely by instinct. "He's not dictated by any kind of logic," says Mantegna. "He's just very happy being Peter Falk."

Which means, at some level, being Columbo, an after ego he plans to inhabit in specials for at least two more years. "Scripts," he acknowledges, "are a problem." But the words travel well. In East Germany a couple of years back, Falk was asked for his ID. "They kept screaming, 'Doc-u-ment! Doc-u-ment!' Finally they took me in a back room and had me strip-searched. When it was over," says Falk with a howl, "the guy who searched me asked me for my autograph."

TIM ALLIS
ROBIN MICHELI in Los Angeles

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