I learned of Peter Falk’s death while vacationing in Oregon and northern California last week. Over the years I’ve seen the passing of many AirTalk guests, but Falk’s hit me harder than most. He was as enthusiastic a supporter of our program as anyone I’ve met (excepting my parents).
I’ll never forget the first time I interviewed him. He came to the Museum of Television and Radio (now Paley Center for Media) in Beverly Hills for a live broadcast of AirTalk. Tony Shalhoub was also a guest that morning. Having the actors who portrayed the detectives “Columbo” and “Monk” together in the same place was a treat.
When Falk arrived at the museum’s studios he seemed so befuddled that our producers worried whether he’d be coherent for the on-air conversation. To the contrary, he was a terrific interview – warm, funny, and full of great stories about his long-running television series and his films with John Cassavetes.
Falk also showed an impressive knowledge of AirTalk. He expressed amazement at how I talked about the variety of subjects the show covers. Falk also had impressive recall of previous shows we’d done, asking questions about what I thought about a particular guest or topic. He was clearly a serious regular listener.
About a year later, at Falk’s request, I agreed to interview him for a Vromans bookstore event at the Pasadena Public Library auditorium. Given the heavy study load for each day’s AirTalk, I do very few evening events. However, given that Falk asked me to do it, I agreed.
Unfortunately, the event’s 7:00 p.m. start time came and Falk hadn’t arrived. No one from the Vromans staff could locate him, and we had a full house. Rather than keeping everyone waiting, I agreed to get up and talk until our star arrived.
I have several topics I’m prepared to speak on at a moment’s notice, but they work best with an audience that knows who I am. At this event, I had no idea if many of the attendees were familiar with me at all. They had come to see one of their favorite actors, not a local NPR station talk show host.
I launched into a casual talk about the evolving nature of news media and how digital technology was affecting it. The audience was polite, if not immediately enthralled, but its interest seemed to grow as I went.
Forty minutes later I was still going, assisted by audience questions. Just as I was in the middle of making an impassioned point, the audience burst into applause. I knew what that meant, and I couldn’t have been happier. Peter Falk was standing right behind me on stage.
Falk explained that he’d gotten lost after going to dinner in Pasadena. He profusely apologized and started to go into detail about his dinner. I gently cut him off and directed him to a chair onstage for our interview. As before, he was terrific. However, I was stressed-out, having wondered whether he’d ever show up.
The final time I saw Peter was a few months after his memoir was published. He called me at KPCC and asked if he could come over to Pasadena to have lunch with me. Falk said he needed some advice. I had no idea what he wanted, but was glad to help any way I could. We met the next day.
It turned out that the man who had appeared on countless TV talk shows over the years was having a tough time getting any national programs to book him as a guest. That surprised me, given how many times I’d seen Falk on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. I offered him my suggestions for how to get the shows to reconsider. I don’t know whether it was helpful.
For millions, Peter Falk was a terrific actor, who brought to life one of the great characters in TV history. For me, I’m left with very warm memories of a devoted AirTalk listener.