He was the glass-eyed comedic genius who turned a nebbishy Los Angeles detective with an Italian last name into a cult hero. Part of that heroism began at the casting of a strange, box-like French car. Starsky and Hutch had their Torino, Columbo had his Peugeot 403.
Portraying the title character of the 1970s show Columbo, Peter Falk created one of the most recognizable anti-heroes in TV history. Columbo's raincoat fit awkwardly over his rumpled two-piece suit and polyester tie. His New York-accented speech was halting. He smoked cheap cigars and often breakfasted on hard-boiled eggs, which he ate during interrogations to subjects' frequent disgust.
He had an insatiable appetite for small details, and would drive suspects nearly insane with his puttering around, breaking things and ending every questioning by turning on his heels and saying, apologetically, "Sorry to bother you, just one more thing." He was quite a spectacle of failure, and yet it was a ruse, as he regularly turned perps' underestimation of his talents into a weapon he'd wield to bring them down.
His car was a strange, shoebox-like convertible that would smoke and cough, causing a nuisance that mirrored his own. It was a convertible, but the top was always up, even though the show was set in sunny LA. But it was that dopey, French-built car that connected Columbo the detective to Columbo the human being — the family man who adored his wife but never thought to mention her name, who played pool and was afraid of heights and couldn't shoot a gun.
The car was battered, rumpled as he was, and powered by a four-cylinder hemi with a weird electromagnetic clutch that used metal powder for friction, and a worm-drive differential.
By way of the show's emphasis on character development — of which the Peugeot was no small portion — Columbo helped pioneer the character-driven "police procedural," breaking comedic-dramatic ground that would later be taken up by Jim Rockford and NYPD Blue's Sipowitz.
RIP Peter Falk, you magnificent bastard. Thanks for making trench coats, french cars, absent-mindedness and eye-tropia cool. Or at least, anti-cool.
Photo Credit: AP