Spinning truth out of tall tales

Anyone who's ever watched Lieutenant Columbo in action knows that Peter Falk is a natural storyteller. Audiences know the actor as the unassuming detective who spun tales about catching criminals on TV's "Columbo." In his newest outing, the film "Wilder Days" debuting on TNT Sunday, Falk plays a consummate raconteur, a grandfather dubbed "Pop-up" because of the hand-illustrated pop-up story books he created when he was younger.

This family movie revolves around Pop-up's elaborate yarns about an earlier life in the circus that have come to haunt him, his estranged son, and his grandson.

The son, played by Timothy Daly, has listened to his dad's stories his entire life and believes they are just fantasies. Now the grandson, played by newcomer Josh Hutcherson, wants to prove they are true.

Falk says Pop-up appealed to him because the character is full of joy. "But ... with all my character's thirst for spice and humor and excitement, deep within me I'm aware I wasn't that good a father, so he has that dichotomy," says the actor. "He's driven by trying to make up for what he didn't do."

The story is unusual in that it focuses entirely on conflicts between three generations of men, Falk says. "All these people are half right and half wrong, and we're doing the best we can," he says."The great mystery of life is how to be spontaneous, bigger than life, and at the same time, be responsible. That's the core of being an adult, and I've been aware of that for a long time."

The TNT film is the third Spotlight Presentation sponsored by Johnson & Johnson. The film that kicked off this new showcase, "Door to Door," took home a raft of Emmys last month. Falk says the series is trying to create a viewing experience the whole family can share.

"It speaks to all ages," he says. "There are no cheap jokes or blowing up buildings or car chases or all that noise all over TV and movies today."

What really satisfies audiences are good stories, he says. "Anything that adds to the richness of life, anything that makes us appreciate the variety or stimulates our imagination."

Falk just finished writing a book about his life that he refuses to call an autobiography. "I'm not selling my life short," he says with a laugh, "it's just that when I think of the kinds of people who should have real autobiographies, I think of Alexander the Great and his teacher Sophocles. Now, there's a guy whose life deserves an autobiography."

As for Columbo, Falk says the intrepid sleuth will return in a TV movie just as soon as he and the network can agree on a script. "They had a great idea," he says, "put Columbo in a reality show, where there are cameras everywhere, and he has to solve a murder." The problem is coming up with a good ending. Endings "are hard to come by. You can cheat them, but we try to make them genuinely clever."

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