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WHY WOULD PETER FALK STEAL HIS OWN MOVIE FROM A LAB?

He never said that he did. But he certainly was accused of doing just that. Here's the saga of his "Mikey and Nicky," a cult film that opened shortly after my 1976 interview with Falk appeared in The New York Times. Even though "Mikey and Nicky" did a fast fade, I'd advise you to go out of your way to track down the DVD. --GUY FLATLEY

"Excuse me, but are you Mr. Columbo?" whispered the frail, saucer-eyed child as he approached the unshaved, impeccably rumpled man moodily gazing into his scrambled eggs in the Oak Room of the Plaza.

"Yes, I am," he smiled, accepting a trembly compliment from his admirer. But Peter Falk wasn’t in town to talk about "Columbo," his thriving television series; he was here to discuss a trouble-plagued movie that, like a sickly child, has come to mean more to him than any other he has made. Three years after shooting began, and a long while after lawsuits and counter-lawsuits had been filed and dropped by writer-director Elaine May and Paramount Pictures, and many months after Mr. Falk had been accused of conspiring with Miss May to conceal numerous cans of film that were allegedly taken from a photo lab, "Mikey and Nicky" is finally set to surface this Tuesday at Manhattan's Little Carnegie Theater.

The nightmare, however, is not yet at an end. Mr. Falk now fears that "Mikey and Nicky" – a harsh drama with pockets of dusky humor – will be misrepresented as a madcap comedy from Elaine May, the zany cut-up who tickled us with "A New Leaf" and "The Heartbreak Kid." "There is nothing satirical about ‘Mikey and Nicky,’" Mr. Falk said in a benign growl. "This is no romp in the park."

It is, instead, an unsparing study of an ambiguous relationship between two eternal adolescents, one of whom has been marked for a "hit" by their gangster boss. "I don’t know if you can like these guys," said Mr. Falk, who plays the Jewish Mikey to John Cassavetes’s Italian Nicky. "In a way, Mikey is just a worthless punk; yet, there is a residue of humanity there. I’m trying to make a connection, and Nicky is the one friend I have. An evening with Nicky is more fun than an evening with my wife. Nicky can make me laugh."

Nicky can also make Mikey cry. "He humiliates me, and my proper response to that is rage," Mr. Falk explained. "In real life, I can identify with being made a joke of. Not so much now, since I’ve become a big actor and all that, but I haven’t lost the memory of what it’s like when somebody tries to make me feel like I’m nothing. Nobody wants to be made a joke of, especially when that joke is made by a friend. Every friendship, every closeness, contains the potential for great rivalry."

Still, old friendships die hard. "What Nicky and I share is a past. We’ve grown up on the street together, knocked off grocery stores together, made deals together. We share the triumph of survival. After a certain age, you can’t make friendships like that; there is no past to share. It’s like an actor who keeps some fondness for a guy he met in the Army, someone he later knocked on doors with, was down and out with, stole food from a supermarket with, got bad reviews with."

Earlier this year, Mr. Falk received good reviews for his tough-lisping performance as the Bogart-like Sam Diamond in Neil Simon’s adroitly camp "Murder by Death," and he’ll repeat the role next April in Mr. Simon’s "The Cheap Detective." Marsha Mason will also star as a woman of intrigue, and Robert Moore, the director of "Murder by Death," will return, as will Eileen Brennan as the battered, all-purpose secretary Tess Skeffington.

"All five of those women who were in Bogart’s movie life will be in the film," Mr. Falk said. "We got to get a spiritual Frenchwoman full of fervor, one whose love of country is equaled only by her love of this man. There’ll be a Mary Astor character and a Lauren Bacall character, and one woman who uses a lot of names. Between the appetizer and the main course, she goes from being Mrs. Montenegro to Lilly Clark."

Mr. Falk also plans to play the eccentric owner of a used-car lot in Robert Altman’s film of Kurt Vonnegut’s "Breakfast of Champions," which will co-star Lily Tomlin, Henry Gibson and Sterling Hayden. And, of course, he is eager to collaborate again with Elaine May.

"The toughest thing in the making of a movie," he said, "is to find the right word to say to an actor. It’s easy enough for a director to say ‘Faster’ or ‘Slower’ or ‘I don’t believe you’re doing it right,’ but to hit that precise phrase that an actor will respond to…that’s tough. The thing about Elaine is that if she can’t find the phrase, she won’t say anything. For that, I love her."

Might he follow in the footsteps of Elaine May and become a director? "Maybe. When I find out what to say to actors."