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Falk, Columbo still ready for prime time

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HOLLYWOOD — At the age of 75, Peter Falk isn't ready to retire. And he isn't ready to see his most famous character retire, either.

Which is why he was more than happy to return in "Columbo Likes the Nightlife" (7 p.m., Ch. 4), the latest entry in the rumpled detective's long resume of murder mysteries.

"I think the older he gets, the funnier he can be," Falk said. "You know, he's always apologizing for being so slow."

That has become part of his shtick, along with his raincoat and his Peugot, his disarming nature and his keenly analytical mind. A mind that once again catches a killer in "Nightlife," which takes Columbo where he's never gone before — the rave scene.

Actually, it's not just one murder, but two, that detective Columbo sets out to solve. Not to give anything away, but it involves a tabloid reporter, a mobster, a has-been actress and a rave promoter. As always, we know whodunit, and the fun is in watching Columbo figure it out. Just as he's been doing since Falk first played the character almost 35 years ago.

Columbo first appeared in a 1968 TV movie, then reappeared (along with "McMillan and Wife" and "McCloud") as one of the spokes in the rotating "NBC Sunday Mystery Movie" in 1971, and continued to film installments through 1977. A dozen years later, the character reappeared as part of the "ABC Mystery Movie" and has been popping up ever since in the occasional TV movie. Although "Columbo Likes the Nightlife" is the first in two years.

As has always been the case with Falk and Columbo, the hangup was "with getting a proper script."

"These scripts are really hard. They're really tough," Falk said. "And I've said this so often I'm bored saying it, but I'll say it once more — this is the only show in the history of television that only has one character and there's nobody else. And then you can't have any action so you got no car chases, you got no sex jokes."

All "Columbo" has is the mystery itself — "a mystery in which you know who did it. That's a tough writing assignment for somebody."

But he's more than pleased with the script for the latest installment.

"I think the first investigation scene and the final scene in this current 'Columbo,' I would rate those very, very high. I would rate them up in the top 10 — make it the top six of all the 'Columbos.' I mean it. I'm serious when I say that," Falk said. "I gauged those things by how much enjoyment I have in playing them. And, in this case, the final scene here was just a chuckle for me to play."

Unlike so many actors who become so identified with a single role, Falk said he's never resented being Columbo. And that even when he didn't make any between 1977 and 1989, he was always ready to go back.

"I think during all those 12 years, every year or every other year there was always talk about getting 'Columbo' back," Falk said. "I mean, you never got the feeling that there weren't going to be more 'Columbos.' I never said I didn't want to come back, but I always said you can't write one of these once a week. And if you get another wheel, we'll do it again."

And it looks like he will be doing it again. ABC is developing a script that would have Columbo investigating murder on a "Big Brother"-esque reality show with the victim, the suspects and Columbo locked in a house with cameras in every room.

"We might do another one like that if we get the script," Falk said.

E-mail: pierce@desnews.com