Who Was The Real Columbo?
The death of Peter Falk at 83, the actor whose most famous role was a rumpled, eccentric Los Angeles police detective named “Lt. Columbo,” brought to mind the real story of who Columbo was.
For many who hung out in newspaper circles back in the early’60s and’70s in Los Angeles, London and Paris, they knew a profoundly eccentric and brilliant rimrat named Gene Vier. Vier worked as a copy editor at the Los Angeles Times for years, the Los Angeles Daily News, as well as the New York Times Paris edition and the Guardian in Great Britain.
His father and grandfather had both taught philosophy at the Sorbonne, and it wouldn’t be hard to imagine him doing so too. He was as comfortable talking about Kierkegaard and Sartre as he was talking about tennis or movies with his friend John Cassavetes.
Vier was invariably rumpled. He was never natty, but still there was an element of this in him. Just like he knew movies and philosophy, he knew his wines. No matter how broke he was, he always had good wine with his meals.
He also had an odd habit of breaking away from a deep conversation about one thing or another, and the next time he met you, even if it was a year later, he’d resume the old conversation in mid-sentence.
One of his side professions was teaching tennis. He had co-authored the book “Tennis: Myth and Method” with former tennis champion Ellsworth Vines. His life crossed paths with people like Jerry Brown, Charles Bukowski and Tom Waits. He seemed to know everyone and was never a phony or self aggrandizing.
Gene Vier used to putt-putt up to the coffeehouses in Hollywood where he hung out in his battered old black Volkswagen. Soon, he was bringing along his fellow Times rim ratsâ€”copy editors–and great political and cultural conversations would ensue.
Make that VW a Peugeot, and of course you have “Lt. Columbo.” The story is that Falk, presumably at the suggestion of Vier’s friend John Cassavetes, took Vier out to eat at the old Tiny Naylors at the corner of Laurel Canyon and Ventura boulevards and they talked for several hours.
Falk got down Gene’s mannerisms precisely. The manner in which he spoke–the kind of machine gun proclamations, the seeming absent-mindedness–the cigar he always had in his mouth, all these things were pure Gene Vier.
Rip Rense, a former Los Angeles Times and Daily News writer, notes that “Lt. Colombo” shared a kind of trademark absent mindedness with Vier, except that he’d call it “more busy minded” than “absent minded.”
Rense offered his opinion that “I like Falk and I like Columbo, but Vier would have been better. He did irksome, irascible and ingratiating without acting.”
Falk himself was a little coy about where Lt. Columbo came from, variously confirming and denying it was based on Gene Vier, according to Rense. But to know Gene Vier was to know who the real Lt. Columbo was.
Lionel Rolfe is the author of “Literary L.A.,” about which a documentary is being made (http://www.facebook.com/pages/Literary-LA/115509071864686?sk=wall). Many of his books, including “Literary L.A.,” “Fat Man on the Left,” “The Menuhins: A Family Odyssey” and “The Uncommon Friendship of Yaltah Menuhin and Willa Cather” are available digitally in Amazon’s Kindlestore.