Memories of a Columbo killer: an interview with Ed Begley Jr

Ed and Peter Falk on the set of How to Dial a Murder in 1978

Not many Columbo guest stars were as close to Peter Falk as Ed Begley Jr. As well as sharing screen-time in two Columbo episodes and riotous comedy The In-Laws, the pair also shared a birthday and a friendship that spanned decades.

So close were they that Begley Jr was one of those who gave a formal address at the unveiling of Falk’s posthumous star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2013, and he remains in regular contact with Falk’s long-time wife, Shera Danese.

Now having just turned 70 on 16 September, and with more than 300 acting credits to his name, Begley Jr is as busy as he’s ever been, making it a very pleasant surprise that he’s happy to spare some time to fit me into his schedule to talk Columbo.

And, more than 40 years since he first teamed up with Falk in 1978’s How to Dial a Murder as a police officer known only as Stein (and sporting his own moustache), he still has very fond recollections of his experiences, and of the show itself.

“To get any approval from Peter was a gift beyond any birthday gift I ever got on our many birthdays together.”

“I considered Columbo to be an excellent show long before I ever appeared in it,” Begley Jr recalls, speaking to me from his LA home via Skype. “I was a fan of Peter before the show even, as many people were of my age. I first became aware of Peter in a TV movie called The Price of Tomatoes and he was very good at it. I then saw him in some other movies in which he was wonderful. So I became a Peter Falk fan and when Columbo started up I was a fan on yet another level.”

Being cast in the show as a 29-year-old was, therefore, a big deal for Begley Jr – even though he’d already clocked up nearly 100 acting credits to his name. “I do remember vividly how I came to be on the show Columbo,” said says. “There was a director called James Frawley who directed the first episode I did in 1977 or 1978. James and I knew each other, and he cast me in a small part.

“I had two or three lines and handled some dogs in a dog kennel kind of a situation. There’s a scene when I had to answer the phone and I just went, ‘Uh huh’, kind of like I figured a guy would who’s there and bored with tending to dogs.

“James Frawley said, ‘Is that the way you’re going to do it?’ but Peter loved that somehow and said [imitates Falk’s accent]: ‘Oh that’s very good. That’s wonderful. Make sure he does that. That was very, very good’.”

Check out Ed’s full Columbo debut here!

Winning praise from the show’s star was a confidence-boosting experience for the young actor, who says he was treated very kindly by Falk on set. “I remember Peter, the great Peter Falk, was quite friendly to me right away because he knew my dad [Oscar winner Ed Begley Sr] a bit and had some connection to Hartford, Connecticut, where my dad was from. So he was very kind to Ed Sr’s son.”

Even though he was on screen with Falk for less than 2 minutes, Begley Jr made a sufficient impression on the older man to earn a casting call for a part in hit comedy The In-Laws a few months later. He nailed his audition and landed the role of Barry Lutz, meaning he got to spend several enjoyable weeks with Falk, Alan Arkin, Peter Libertini and others in the Mexican city of Cuernavaca.

Begley Jr did have a minor scare, though, right on the eve of shooting – due to a botched hair dye job on another gig he was working on. “I was working right up till the last minute on a show called Elvis with Kurt Russel, and I played the drummer,” he recounts. “But the drummer had dark hair and I’m quite blond, so they darkened my hair, assuring me that they’d put it back to my color when I’d finished.

“I finished shooting that late at night and had to be on a flight to Mexico the next morning, so the hairdresser put a rinse in my hair to get out all the black and I went home with wet hair and went straight to sleep. When I woke up in the morning I looked in the mirror and screamed,” he laughs. “My hair was red as a baboon’s ass!”

Ed explains the REAL reason why he was a redhead in 1979’s The In-Laws

Worried that the director might not appreciate a redhead turning up when they’d hired a blond, Begley Jr had to bluff his way through a far-fetched explanation to director Arthur Hiller. “I went to Arthur and I lied through my teeth,” he says. “I told him I had a temporary rinse in my hair, but that I really felt Barry Lutz should have red hair. Could I ask the hair people to make it permanent? Arthur took a beat before he said: ‘I love it. Keep it. Make it permanent’.”

Off the hook, Begley Jr thoroughly enjoyed the experience of working with Falk again, and the co-stars started to become firm friends. “Peter was very funny and very inclusive, as was Alan Arkin, and I became friendly with them both,” he explains. “Shera Danese [Peter’s newly wed second wife] was there, too. I hadn’t met or heard of her up till then, but we’ve been friendly ever since.

“Peter and I quickly learned that we had the same birthday, 16 September, and we started celebrating our birthdays together. We had a common friendship with an actor by the name of Dabney Coleman, who had also done a Columbo [two actually – Double Shock in 1972 and Columbo and the Murder of a Rock Star in 1991], so we all became good friends and spent a lot of dinners and birthdays together.”

Ed Begley Jr Peter Falk
Ed and Peter on a night out with Shera to mark their birthdays in 1997

Fast-forward a few years and Columbo is back on screens again, with Falk an Executive Producer as well as the star. Falk had developed a reputation over many years as someone who loved to work with people he respected and trusted. It was perhaps no surprise, then, that his old pal Begley Jr was given a starring role as killer Irving Krutch in 1994’s Undercover.

“This was a straight job offer, there was no audition for that role,” Begley Jr says. “Peter wanted me to play that part and he called me about it even before the casting people did – and I was delighted to play a part that sweet, a tasty role like that, and to be cast alongside Kristin Bauer, who’s a wonderful actress who went on to great things in True Blood and lots of other things.

“It was wonderful to work with Peter and Kristin, and Shera had a small part in that episode as well. Also Tyne Daly was in that one, and so was Burt Young, who was a very good friend of Peter’s. It was a great experience and a lot of fun.”

Ed starred as icy serial killer Irving Krutch in 1994’s Undercover

Despite being many years older and having a further raft of small and big-screen roles to his name, Begley Jr never lost the thrill of working with Falk – and earning praise from him. “During our first take together on Undercover, I had my lines cold, frontwards, backwards, I had them down very good and Peter was really pleased.

“He was very complimentary and just to please Peter was such a gift. To get a laugh out of him, to get a nod, a finger point, any approval from Peter was a gift beyond any birthday gift I ever got on our many birthdays together.”

The real Peter Falk

After many years of friendship, Ed Begley Jr can honestly say he knew Peter Falk as well as just about anybody. And, reassuringly for fans who so closely associate him with the well-mannered and likeable Lieutenant Columbo, Begley Jr says Falk was a great guy on and off screen.

“Peter was a very good guy off screen, and a loving husband,” he says. “He and Shera had a very funny relationship – they were kind of like the Bickersons, with a long-running joke that they couldn’t stand each other when they actually cared for each other very much. And he was very nice to fans despite his level of stardom.”

This made seeing Falk’s mental collapse in his later years all the more heart-breaking for Begley Jr to witness. “It was very hard to see,” he admits. “At first I just heard about it, I saw a bit of evidence of it early on with memory issues, and then finally Dabney Coleman and I went to see him after Shera made it clear he had Alzheimer’s.

“’Don’t be shocked’, Shera told us, ‘but he’s not going to know you’. So we went into the room and he clearly didn’t seem to know us. He knew Shera when she walked in, but after a bit of time he didn’t seem to know her anymore, either. He preferred to watch a nature show on TV than be engage with us because he didn’t quite recognize us. But as Dabney and I were talking, Peter finally recognized us and it was quite delightful. We were very happy he at some point remembered us.”

Ed Begley Jr Columbo
Ed with Paul Reiser and Joe Mantegna at the unveiling of Falk’s Hollywood Walk of Fame Star in 2013

Two years after Falk’s death, Begley Jr and Coleman were amongst a gaggle of stars who were called on to attend the unveiling of Falk’s Hollywood Walk of Fame Star in 2013, with others including Joe Mantegna, Paul Reiser and fellow Columbo alum Dick Van Dyke. It proved to be an emotional experience.

“It was very well attended and I think he would have liked it,” says Begley Jr. “He might have pretended that it was just a bit of fluff, but it’s a wonderful honor to have a star on the Walk of Fame and I think he would have liked it a lot. I certainly liked it, and all the people that loved him that were there liked it, and I think his fans are thrilled that Peter Falk is on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, so that’s great.”

If that Star is a tangible reminder of Falk’s excellence and popularity, the quality of his body of work is an even more enduring legacy – particularly Columbo, which continues to delight audiences across the globe. But why does Begley Jr think Columbo remains so popular today, and had the longevity to run for 35 years?

“What always makes those things so compelling is the kind of work that you see people like Joaquin Phoenix or Daniel Day Lewis do. They become real people on the screen before you, and that’s what Peter did on the small screen with Columbo.

“He became this guy that you believed every move as he’s standing there with the cigar looking over the crime scene with his back to us; he was a real person waiting on the curb for his car to be towed away.  He just always immersed in reality with his every fiber. And that’s what draws people to it.

Falk’s authenticity in the role of Columbo has helped it enjoy such longevity, says Begley Jr

“The writing is very important. Peter insisted on good writing and always got the best writers and fine directors, but he always had a truth to him in his performances and wanted and insisted on that from every actor on the show because he was involved in the casting process, too. He knew what was important. That’s why Columbo is still around today. I feel very fortunate to have appeared on the show.”

So does he think Columbo should ever be rebooted – especially given that Hollywood heavy weight Mark Ruffalo has previously been linked as a candidate for the crumpled raincoat? Begley Jr likely echoes the sentiments of many fans.

“Mark is a fine actor. If you get someone of that skillset, someone who’s that good and with that kind of credibility, then you’ve got a chance,” he admits. “But I’m not ready for a reboot now. That’s up to the people that own the rights of course, but I’d like to see Peter in that part for the rest of my days.”

The talented Mr Begley

While Begley Jr has waxed lyrical about past experiences here, as an actor he’s as busy now as he’s ever been. As well as regular appearances in popular shows such as Portlandia, Arrested Development and Modern Family in recent years, he’s also been part of the critically acclaimed Bless This Mess series, which debuted on ABC in America earlier this year.

In Begley Jr’s own words, “it’s a wonderful show full of fine actors, including Pam Grier, Dax Shephard and Lake Bell”, and he’s had a blast filming it. And the good news is that the series has been commissioned for a second series to air in 2020, meaning Begley Jr’s screen career will be extended into a 54th consecutive year. That’s some impressive longevity in his own right. So what’s the secret to his own enduring success? Well, like Peter Falk, he says it’s all about making the right artistic choices.

Ed with Pam Grier in acclaimed comedy series Bless This Mess, which debuted in 2019

“I made some missteps early in my career, and one or two times in the middle, where I took jobs based on financial decisions and that’s not the way to do it,” he explains. “You have to make your decisions based on artistic merit. When you do that, you’ll still be around 50 years later.

“Fortunately I didn’t make too many choices based on commerce, I made most of my choices based on quality of material, quality of director and quality of cast, so I still continue to work on great shows like Bless This Mess. I’m very proud to have a career that’s lasted more than 50 years.”

Some thoughts on interviewing Ed

When I first approached Ed, I thought I might never hear back at all – or at least it might take an eon to make anything happen. I was wrong. He responded to my interview request personally and was only too happy to agree to talk about Columbo – a pleasant surprise given how many credits he has to his name.

During a 40-minute Skype chat, Ed couldn’t have been friendlier or more accommodating with his answers. He interspersed the interview with many references to me as ‘buddy’ or ‘pal’, and the obvious and genuine affection he had for Peter Falk, and still has for Shera Danese, was entirely apparent. In short, it was a delight to speak to him, and I can assure you he does a pretty mean Columbo impression himself!

I recently saw Ed described as a ‘national treasure’ on Twitter. It’s hard to disagree.

Catch up with Ed on Twitter here.

Ed Begley Jr Fact File

Born: September 16, 1949, in Los Angeles
Family: Wife, Rachelle (born 1960); daughter Hayden (born 2000)
Resides: Studio City, Los Angeles
Columbo roles
1978 – Officer Stein, How to Dial a Murder
1994 – Irving Krutch, Undercover
Awards pedigree
7 x Primetime Emmy Award nominations between 1983 – 2019
1 x Golden Globe nomination, 1986

Fast facts

  • Only Ed and Dabney Coleman have played both cops and killers on the Columbo.
  • Ed and wife Rachelle are keen environmentalists. Ed regularly travels to shooting locations and major events (including the Academy Awards) via public transport; and in 2018 he and his family moved into a custom-built eco-home.
  • On the big-screen, Ed has starred in movies as varied as The In-Laws; This is Spinal Tap; Batman Forever; An Officer and a Gentleman; and Ghostbusters (2016 version)
  • Check out more details of Ed’s career here
Ed with daughter Hayden at the 2018 Academy Awards – they travelled on the subway!

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