Peter Falk: angel that fell to earth

For those of us of a certain age, Peter Falk is forever Columbo, the shambling, seemingly absent-minded detective in a shabby raincoat.  But hearing of his death yesterday, it was his cameo role in Wim Wenders’  beautiful film, Wings of Desire that I recalled.

There are angels watching over Berlin in Wenders’ film.  They are guardian angels and witnesses, and they have been watching for a long time. Their role is to see, as they move invisibly through the divided city of Berlin, watching, listening, comparing notes.

The scene I recall is where the Falk character encounters one of the angels, played by Bruno Ganz at a coffee stand, and explains to him why life on earth is good.  It’s a crucial moment in the film because the Bruno Ganz angel has been contemplating renouncing his immortality.  He wants to feel. But to do so will mean descending into time, disease, pain and death. All that he desires is crystallised when Peter Falk speaks:

I can’t see you, but I know you’re here. I feel it. You’ve been hanging around since I got here. I wish I could see your face. Just look into your eyes and tell you how good it is to be here. Just to touch something. See… that’s cold.

Here: to smoke, have coffee. And if you do it together it’s fantastic. Or to draw: you know, you take a pencil and you make a dark line, then you make a light line and together it’s a good line. Or when your hands are cold, you rub them together, you see, that’s good, that feels good! There’s so many good things! But you’re not here – I’m here. I wish you were here. I wish you could talk to me. ‘Cause I’m a friend.

He’s a friend because he is himself a former angel.

Richard Raskin has written this assessment of the significance of Peter Falk’s role in the film, and of how much the actor brought to his part:

Peter Falk’s ‘former angel’ role is so central to the story and so essential for the balance of Wings of Desire, that it would be difficult to imagine the film without that part. Yet the role was not even conceived until quite late in the pre-production phase, when Wim Wenders met with Peter Handke at Salzburg in September 1986, only weeks before shooting was to begin.

And even at that point, when Wenders knew he needed someone who would be instantly recognized by anyone seeing the picture, the director thought at first that the part might be played by a musician, a painter, a writer, or a politician. He wanted in fact to interest Willy Brandt in playing the role, but gave up on that idea when it proved difficult even to get in touch with the busy statesman.

Eventually, Wenders thought of using an actor, who would have to be American to be sufficiently world-famous for the part. He contacted one actor he thought would be right for the role, but who eventually declined because he felt he couldn’t do the part, and Wenders was so appreciative of his honesty that he has preferred not to disclose the actor’s identity.

When shooting began on October 20th, Wenders still had no idea as to who would be cast in the role of former angel. He told me that during those first weeks of shooting, he and his assistant, Claire Denis, returned repeatedly to the same question during their nightly planning sessions: did they or did they not need that character? He said that Claire Denis especially insisted that they needed it, and Wenders agreed but had run out of ideas. Finally, Claire Denis brought up Peter Falk’s name one night and Wenders knew immediately that Falk was exactly the actor they needed for the role, since he was not only universally known through his televised Columbo series, but also radiated gentleness and generosity to such a degree that there would be an element of credibility in his playing the part of a former angel.

Wenders had admired Peter Falk in Cassavetes’ films in the 1970’s, and it was probably from Cassavetes that he obtained Falk’s telephone number. He phoned one evening, introduced himself, told a little about the film and explained that he needed a former angel, to which Peter Falk replied after a pause: “How did you know?” When Falk asked whether a script could be sent, Wenders said that he had nothing at all in writing about this ex-angel, not even a single page. If anything, that apparently made the part even more interesting to Falk, who answered: “Ah, I’ve worked like that before with Cassavetes, and honestly I prefer working without a script.”

Falk arrived in Berlin one Friday in November and he and Wenders spent the weekend together, developing the role on the basis of taped improvisations. All of Falk’s scenes were shot the following week, and Falk returned to Los Angeles.


Another unexpected addition to the film resulted from Wenders’ noticing that Falk frequently made sketches of extras between takes. Wenders asked him if it was all right to use that in the film, to which the actor replied: “Yeah, why not.”

Here’s the scene where Wenders has some kids recognise the Falk character as Columbo:

There’s a good appraisal of Falk’s role in Columbo in the Telegraph obituary:

Throughout the seven year long series, Falk came to share many of his alter ego’s traits. Where Columbo would badger suspects unremittingly for a clue to their crimes and would waste their time with seemingly pointless questions, Falk would badger studio bosses for better quality scripts, and became notorious for his time-wasting wrangles with producers in order to win directors more shooting time.

The Columbo scriptwriters William Link and Richard Lewison admitted that in later episodes they based most of the character of Lieutenant Columbo on Falk himself. “Let’s face it,” Link recalled, “Peter was scruffy and forgetful, but at the same time he was charming and had a very good brain.”

Columbo was a success as soon as the first episode was screened. The programme defied all the conventions of television detective drama. The viewer saw the murderer commit the crime, there were no car chases, no sex or violence, and Falk often did not appear during the first 20 minutes of the programme.

The success of the series rested with Falk’s performance in the lead role. He invested the shabby, preoccupied detective with so much credibility that the show became one of the most successful detective series in the United States.

Here is one of many examples of Columbo’s method that can be viewed on YouTube:


8 thoughts on “Peter Falk: angel that fell to earth

    1. The third video clip wasn’t private when I added it to the post – but it is now. That’s not me – it’s the YouTube uploader. So, sadly, I’ve removed the link. But added another example of Colombo’s method.

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