Peter Falk and the Art of the Interview

Some people are notoriously difficult interview subjects. They are known for being rude to journalists, and their public relations team covers for them, explaining, in not so many words, that Joe or Sally is an extremely busy person and you’re lucky to get them on the phone at all.

And sometimes the journalist isn’t forewarned—he or she walks into an interview with a rude person blindly, and gets off the phone feeling just plain bad.

This happened to me recently. Without going into details, my interview subject could barely feign interest in the conversation, expressed impatience, gave brief answers and had the energy level of Perry Como in a tryptophan daze. Perhaps he was having a bad day—we all have those. But as any media trainer might say, it’s on your bad days that it’s most important to be on guard for rude behavior during interviews.

Which leads me to Peter Falk, who recently passed away. About 10 years ago I interviewed him by phone for an article I was writing. I was amazed then—and was amazed the other day as I reread my transcript—at how open and friendly he was. This was Columbo, for God’s sake, and he was more than happy to discuss, at length, his raincoat, his secret to happiness, Patrick McGoohan, John Cassavetes, whatever I threw at him. It didn’t matter that I was calling from a trade publication and not the New York Times. He was present and engaged, and I never forgot it.

After rereading the Falk transcript, I thought of some of the rude interview subjects I’ve spoken with. I can tell you one thing—they didn’t serve their interests well. The bad vibe comes through no matter how fair the journalist tries to be. Rudeness in interviews lingers for a long time—as does kindness.

—Steve Goldstein

  • Cheryl Walters

    I am glad to read that the personality and talent behind one of my favorite TV characters was such a kind person. Thank you for sharing this in Mr. Falk’s memory.

  • Brad Coons

    I have a lot respect for Peter Falk. He was a great actor and I loved him as Columbo. I recently saw him in an old Twilight Zone episode and was amazed by the level of performance he could bring to the screen.

    I always thought he would be a great guy in person. It is nice to know he was.

  • Elliot Grossman

    That’s a great anecdote about Peter Falk.

    In his role as Columbo, Falk offers another lesson about interviewing: play dumb. You’ll get better answers that way.

    It’s not always an appropriate approach. But when it’s used right, it can be highly effective.