It’s tough to find a T.V. personality more beloved than Peter Falk. The smart-yet-scruffy, rough around the edges appeal that defines Columbo is a national treasure, up there with Fonzie’s leather jacket and the messages on Jim Rockford’s answering machine. Cynics might call Falk’s cranky-lovable, salt-of-the-earth persona a “shtick.” Could be. But like Robin Williams’ manic vulnerability, or Jim Carrey’s rubber-faced physical transformations, it’s a shtick that no one else can duplicate. Consider Williams’ sad career fate when critics insisted that he stretch his wings as a “serious” thespian. Did any but the most suicidal, anhedonia-plagued cinema fans actually dig “Jakob the Liar” and “The Final Cut”? For that matter, does anyone really want to view Falk going for salivating, bug-eyed, Al Pacino mode?
Meanwhile, Reiser insists that despite the tried-and-true qualities that have made Falk a star, the Columbo icon can convey a starling range of emotions. “Peter is full of surprises. He’s funny and can be cantankerous, and then he can be an absolute pussycat. He’s so alive and vibrant. The big thrill in this was getting to watch him work every day, and get to hang with him.”
Playing television’s Lt. Columbo, Falk’s priceless comic chemistry has earned him four Emmy Awards. With “The Thing About My Folks,” Reiser hopes that Falk’s unique onscreen humanity will be recognized come Academy Awards season. “I’m hoping this is his Oscar,” proclaims Reiser. “He was nominated for Oscars for his first two movies (1961’s “Murder, Inc.”, and “Pocketful of Miracles,” released the following year) in the sixties. He hasn’t been since.” Cinema elitists who despise television should find other reasons to adore Falk. After all, he’s also worked on movies with legendary directors John Cassavettes (“A Woman Under the Influence,” “Husbands,” and “Mikey and Nicky”) and Wim Wenders (“Wings of Desire”).
The catalyst for “The Thing About My Folks” occurred over twenty years ago. Ever the observer of human behavior, Reiser noticed his father laughing at Falk’s antics in “The Cheap Detective,” which blared from a television set. Then the idea hit him: wouldn’t it be inspired to have Falk play the senior Reiser in a film? And while “The Thing About my Folks” is a work of fiction, many of its details are inspired by real life. And yes, there are similarities between Reiser’s old man and Falk. “He’s like my dad, sure,” Reiser admits. “Everybody has parents where sometimes you love them, but you also roll your eyes a little bit, and say, ‘Oh my God, why is he being so difficult today?’”
Reiser dabbled with a script for years. The initial draft, scribed in 1984, was re-tooled and chipped away at for the next two decades. Two years prior to writing that initial rough version of “The Things About My Folks,” Resier’s film career was at a pivotal launch point. He nabbed a spot on the brilliant ensemble cast populating “Diner,” director Barry Levinson’s bittersweet Baltimore comedy classic from 1982. Cast as the finicky, fault finding Modell, Reiser defined everyone’s favorite café s**t-shooter. Here’s the scene: A table of fresh-faced actors including Kevin Bacon, Mickey Rourke, Steve Guttenburg, Timothy Daly, and Daniel Stern inhale both fries and ciggie smoke at a hoppin’ Baltimore greasy spoon. They’re twenty-something buddies, trapped in that post-college limbo of new careers, marriages, and other threats to their longtime alliance. Sitting amidst this scared, insecure clique is Reiser, spinning a web of bullshit like a master hypnotist. Let’s listen in…
“You know what word I’m not comfortable with? Nuance. It’s not a real word. Like “gesture.” Gesture’s a real word. With gesture you know where you stand. But nuance? I don’t know. Maybe I’m wrong.”
Earning a place alongside “American Graffiti,” “Dazed and Confused,” “Breaking Away,” and “Say Anything” on the Coming of Age mantel, “Diner” packs a sad, resonant sting. It stays with you. None of this is lost on Reiser, who considers the film a blessing. “That was my very first job,” he recalls with a grin. “My first movie. I stumbled into it by accident. I didn’t know what a movie looked like or what a script looked like, but the next thing I know, I’m talking with Barry Levinson and I’m in Baltimore.
“In a way, that movie spoiled me. But this movie (‘…Folks’) is actually very much of that ilk. It’s small and it’s personal. It was helpful for me to know how Levinson did that. He had to fight for it, and he had to do it small, and do it with unknown actors. It really taught me, ‘Write what you know, and do what you genuinely want to do’. It’s usually always going to come together better than something you don’t care about.”
In 1984, Reiser used his talkative, amiable presence against-type in James Cameron’s “Aliens,” another onscreen classic. “That was one of the best scripts I had ever read,” remembers Reiser, who plays an oily corporate traitor in the film. “When you read it, it felt like you were seeing it. I remember towards the end, I had to put it down and walk around the room, because I was hyperventilating. It was frightening, the pace of it. Just reading it. But I knew that I only had to worry about a tiny part of the film, and the rest is his (Cameron’s) problem. I thought, ‘if I just show up and do my job, I’m gonna be in this huge, big thing. I knew it was gonna be good, and be a hit. I just had to avoid screwing up.
“The director told me he wanted someone young and comical and light, whom you wouldn’t be expecting trouble from, because the temptation is to not trust corporate guys. But I’ve had people tell me, ‘The minute I saw that guy, I knew he was no good.’ It wasn’t a part that I’d normally get to do. The shoot was three months; a longer deal than I had ever done.”
Right now, however, Reiser is focused on the smaller, more intimate scope of “The Thing About my Folks.” Surprisingly, he’s not completely sold on the idea of his latest movie having commercial appeal. Sure – back in the early eighties, a Falk comedy vehicle like “The In-Laws” might be a guaranteed hit. But in an age when Hillary Duff’s teenybopper overexposure and pervasive, effects-laden extravaganzas like the “Star Wars” franchise rule pop culture with a youthful iron fist, films about older adults are anything but a sure thing.
“My feeling about this movie is that there needs to be alternatives out there. It’s great that there’s “Star Wars”, and Hillary Duff, but it can’t be just that. There are a lot of people going, ‘what do we see? Where are the adult, grown-up, fun movies for us?” And there’s no reason they should be left out. You don’t have to go for the huge action film. At the beginning of ‘Mad About You,’ I said, ‘I want a show that I would want to watch, and that my friends would want to watch.’ The same is true of this film.”
It’s clear that Reiser perceives “…Folks” as a “word of mouth” film, and during a recent Seattle International Film Festival screening, he urged viewers to chime in to the Internet Movie Database web site with a kind critique to boost its profile. Meanwhile, he made sure that some new, informed blood was around to direct his pet project. Raymond De Felitta seemed to fit the bill. After all, the filmmaker’s 1991 short film, “Bronx Cheers,” was nominated for an Oscar. “Café Society,” De Felitta’s first full-length feature, premiered at Cannes in 1996. Five years later, he directed “Two Family House,” which took home the Audience Award at 2000’s Sundance Film Festival. Based on these stellar credentials, De Felitta seemed to understand the new zeitgeist of American indie cinema. He appeared capable of injecting hungry, energetic vitality into a movie that could have easily coasted into comedy cruise control.
I save the big question for last. If Peter Falk didn’t exist, I ask Reiser, would “The Thing About my Folks” ever exist? “I don’t know,” he confesses, scratching his head. “I’m a big believer in those ‘moments, where things happen for the right reasons. Would I have come around to this if my father was watching Joey Bishop that night on television, instead of Peter? I don’t know.”
Or what if Falk hadn’t been available? Would Reiser have trudged on with an alternative lead man? “I just wanted Peter,” he declares. This thing was so tailored for him, that there really couldn’t have been anyone else.”
Before ending our conversation, Reiser stands, shakes my hand, and reveals another trace of the friendly sincerity that makes this filmmaker so instantly approachable. “It’s been a pleasure,” he smiles, looking pleased but just a pinch anxious. “Now, if you don’t mind – I gotta go pee.”