Peter Falk died 7 years ago today. It seems like yesterday that I heard the news.
I have been a Columbo fan for as long as I could remember. I loved the formula of knowing who did it in the first part of the show and then the joy is how Columbo interacts with the murderer, who invariably underestimates Columbo, and he figures it all out.
They say never meet your heroes, there are even articles about it. But when Peter Falk was announced for a talk and signing at The Hay Festival on the 30th May 2007, I knew I had to go. The previous year, during our honeymoon, I had seen his dog being walked out of his house by a housekeeper (this was pointed out by the Beverley Hills tour guide, so may or may not been correct). Now was the chance to meet the man himself.
We got our tickets and I spent the months leading up to it trying to come up with the perfect question. My notebook was full of draft questions and lots of crossing outs. Then, out walking one day, it hit me; there was a convergence between Columbo and my favourite director Steven Spielberg. Spielberg had directed the first episode of the first season of Columbo (excluding the 2 pilots, Prescription: Murder and Ransom for a Dead Man), the brilliant Murder by the Book. I pondered on this and hit upon a question.
The day of the talk arrived and we drove to the wonderful town of Hay-on-Wye (which if you like books is the perfect location for a visit). Mr Falk’s talk was hilarious as he regaled us with anecdotes from his career (I can highly recommend his autobiography, Just One More Thing), then the Q&A began. I recited my question over and over in my head and was dismayed when a multitude of hands shot up.
I waited and then by luck, the microphone made it’s way to me. My mouth suddenly dried out and my head went blank. I looked at Mr Falk and Paul Blezard, the moderator of the session, for what seemed like an eternity. Then the question popped into my head and without thinking my mouth began, “I was just wondering if you could tell us what it was like working with a young Steven Spielberg, ummmm, early in his career and did you, sort of, realise he was going to go onto greater things?”
Phew, I got the question out. I sat down and then realisation washed over me; that wasn’t how I wanted to word the question. I meant to stop it after “early in his career”. That was the first panicky moment. Then, I thought about the supplementary part of the question and the last two word, “greater things”. Oh dear, I had just implied that Columbo wasn’t a great thing. I had just insulted my hero and his work on the TV series.
Having anxiety caused me to sweat and not really pay attention to his answer, which I have since as it is online at 46:03 in the interview. It was a wonderful answer talking of how Spielberg didn’t shoot the episode like a usual TV director would. But all the while “greater things” rattled around my anxiety-fraught brain.
That was a large problem of mine and one I am still working on; I would over-analyse every thing I said. In person, on the phone and even in emails. I would take me ages to write, rewrite and then rewrite again emails, carefully choosing my words and trying to anticipate how the recipient would react to it. On the phone, as soon as I said a sentence, my brain would replay it and I would look for the negatives. This in turn caused me to miss some of what else the person was saying, so I may not respond accordingly. A counsellor advised me to listen for the purpose of the call and then it was perfectly acceptable, if needed, to tell the person I would call them back with a response. I could then write bullet-points of the things I needed to tell them.
Back to the story. I was torn whether to go to the book signing which followed as I envisioned Mr Falk would be mad at me. But my wife convinced me that if I didn’t, I would regret it.
I stood in line and as I got closer I tried to formulate some way to appease the ire I imagined. I got to the front of the queue and started with “I’ve been a fan of yours for years.” Now, when I am nervous I talk rather fast and with a more pronounced Welsh accent. What I had said had obviously not been understood as he said, “What was that young man?” I sputtered out, “I love Columbo, it’s a great thing.” He looked up from signing my book with a smile and said, “Thank you young man, have a good day.”
As I happily walked off, I had the urge to turn and say, “Just one more thing….”, but luckily common sense prevailed and I resisted the impulse. I imagine he got that a lot.
……Just one more thing, my favourite Columbo episode is Smoke and Mirrors.