Since it is very difficult for people with disabilities to make successful inroads in the film industry, where disabled characters tend to be represented by non-disabled actors, Falk’s example can hopefully inspire members of the disability community today to pursue their aspirations of career success and not let their particular disabilities prevent them from making that pursuit.
By Nils Skudra
Sometimes you need to have a good laugh as a relief from times of stress, and I’ve found that this has been especially true in the context of the ongoing pandemic, which has significantly affected my stress and anxiety level due to the loss of many activities that I really enjoyed in pre-COVID times.
Therefore, I took the opportunity this week to watch the 1979 comedy film The In-Laws, starring Peter Falk and Alan Arkin. While not a disability-themed film, per se, this hilarious production is relevant to the disability community since Peter Falk had a significant disability – during childhood, his right eye was removed due to retinoblastoma – but did let this prevent him from enjoying a successful career in acting. In light of this, I believe that disability audiences can take inspiration from his example in pursuing their career goals.
The film opens with a robbery of a U.S. Treasury Department truck, which carries engraving plates for U.S. currency. These are delivered to Vince Ricardo (Peter Falk), a mysterious individual who claims that he needs the plates in order to pay off $1.5 million in debt before his son’s wedding on the weekend. We are then introduced to Dr. Sheldon Kornpett (Alan Arkin), a dentist working in New York City who deals with a variety of difficult clients, including one who continuously obstructs his efforts to extract a rotten tooth but then pulls it out himself when the doctor goes to take a phone call.
It is revealed that Dr. Kornpett’s daughter Barbara is engaged to Vince’s son Tommy, but Sheldon has reservations about the upcoming marriage since he knows nothing about Vince’s career, except that he works for a consulting firm and is frequently out of the country on business ventures.
That night, Sheldon and his family receive Tommy and his parents for dinner at their house, but while he is cordial towards Tommy and Mrs. Ricardo, he is deeply disturbed by Vince’s bizarre stories of encountering gigantic baby-eating creatures and the “Guacamole Act” during a nine-month “consulting” trip to Guatemala in 1954. Vince then excuses himself to make a phone call, going to the Kornpetts’ basement and hiding one of the stolen engraving plates in their broken pipe.
When Vince returns from the basement, Tommy remarks on the mysterious nature of his father’s phone calls, “You’re always just making these weird calls in back rooms and pay booths,” to which Vince angrily retorts, “You little snot-nose! These phone calls put you through college!” This exchange proves to be very unsettling for Sheldon, who is convinced that Vince is mentally unstable, and insists that he will not let his daughter marry into a dysfunctional family, but Barbara convinces him to be more patient and accepting of her future in-laws.
The next morning, Vince is taking a taxi ride through downtown New York when he sees two armed mobsters outside his office building. Terrified, he heads to Sheldon’s office to ask him for a favor, although Sheldon is in the middle of performing an operation. He emphatically pleads with Sheldon to enter the office building and break into Vince’s safe to retrieve a mysterious black bag, hidden behind a portrait of President Kennedy.
Although unsure of the reasons for Vince’s desperation, Sheldon grudgingly agrees but displays clear signs of anxiety as he makes his way past the mobsters, who quickly deduce what Vince is up to and pursue Sheldon down the fire escape and through the streets of New York while firing shots at him. A frightened Sheldon utters a series of hilarious pleas while fleeing, including “There’s no reason to shoot at me, I’m a dentist!” and “Please God, don’t let me die on West 31st Street!”, before Vince finally comes to his rescue and takes him on a reckless cab ride, nearly hitting passerby on Sixth Avenue before stopping at a restaurant.
During the subsequent restaurant conversation, Vince reveals that he is a CIA agent who orchestrated the U.S. Mint robbery in order to crack an international hyperinflation scheme in Central America, acting on his own initiative after his superiors turned down his proposal. Although he tries to assure Sheldon that he need not fear criminal prosecution, Vince states that he will personally serve a 20-year sentence in federal prison if caught. Already distraught by the mad pursuit, Sheldon is incredulous at having been implicated in Vince’s activities, especially after learning that one of the engraving plates is hidden in his basement, and he angrily raises his voice to Vince, drawing the attention of the entire restaurant.
Meanwhile, Sheldon’s wife Carol discovers the engraving plate in the basement pipe and takes it to the bank, where she learns that it was stolen, and members of the U.S. Treasury Department subsequently come to the Kornpett house and interrogate her about Sheldon’s financial practices. When he arrives home, he is shocked to discover the Treasury Department cars in his driveway and speeds out, prompting them to pursue Sheldon across suburban New Jersey until he avoids them by driving into an auto-paint shop, where his car emerges with a new paint job that gives it the appearance of a professional race car.
Exasperated, Sheldon calls Vince, yelling “I have flames on my car. I HAVE FLAMES ON MY CAR!” Vince tells Sheldon to fly with him to Scranton, Pennsylvania, promising that the entire scenario will be cleared up by the time they return. However, upon boarding Vince’s jet, piloted by two Chinese airmen who don’t speak any English (although, paradoxically, one of them has a fondness for Ebony Magazine), Sheldon discovers that they are in fact flying to Tijata, an island south of Honduras, where Vince plans to give the stolen engravings to the hyperinflation mastermind in order to entrap him.
Upon their arrival, Vince and Sheldon are immediately fired upon by snipers, who kill the corrupt general that Vince was supposed to meet, but manage to escape in his car, although one of the tires is shot flat. At a local hotel, Sheldon makes a phone call to the U.S. Embassy, affirming that he is a patriotic American citizen being held by a deranged CIA agent and that he is tired of being shot at, but he is told that Vince was mentally discharged from the agency and therefore is no longer under their jurisdiction. Vince insists that the Embassy was following standard procedure in disavowing knowledge of his activities, but Sheldon refuses any further involvement in Vince’s plans, after which Vince promptly leaves to deliver the stolen engravings.
However, when Sheldon realizes that the snipers have tied up the taxi driver and are pursuing Vince, he leaps onto the roof of the car, yelling for Vince to get out. This results in one of the film’s most comical scenes, with Vince and Sheldon crashing into a fruit market and then driving in circles several times on the highway to evade the snipers until Vince shoots at a truck carrying cartons of bananas which spill onto the road and halt their pursuers.
Throughout the car chase, Sheldon has a shell-shocked expression that provides a lot of comic relief, clearly conveying that he is being driven crazy by Vince’s antics. All the while, Vince maintains a casual and collected manner, remarking on his work for the CIA, “Are you interested in joining? The benefits are terrific. The trick is not to get killed. That’s really the key to the benefit program.” This statement adds to the hilarity of the scene, as working for the CIA is a career that Sheldon would definitely not choose; he would much rather continue his dental practice in New York and enjoy his comfortable suburban lifestyle.
Over the course of their journey, however, a bond develops between Sheldon and Vince as they narrowly escape death and criminal prosecution, ultimately taking $5 million apiece from the proceeds of Vince’s entrapment plan and giving their children $1 million each as a wedding gift at the conclusion of the film.
Both Falk and Arkin deliver superb comedic performances, capturing various elements of satire and dark comedy combined with sensitive drama.
With respect to the disability community, Falk’s backstory is particularly noteworthy since he contracted retinoblastoma, a rare form of retina-related cancer, at a young age and consequently had his right eye surgically removed, after which he wore an artificial glass eye for most of his life.
Although many people would consider this disability an inhibiting factor, in fact it proved to be a significant asset for Falk’s acting career since it gave him a trademark squint which received favorable mention from film critics and historians, such as Ephraim Katz who observed: “His characters derive added authenticity from his squinty gaze, the result of the loss of an eye…”
Since it is very difficult for people with disabilities to make successful inroads in the film industry, where disabled characters tend to be represented by non-disabled actors, Falk’s example can hopefully inspire members of the disability community today to pursue their aspirations of career success and not let their particular disabilities prevent them from making that pursuit. As he demonstrates so brilliantly in The In-Laws, it can sometimes be a valuable asset for an actor, which is something that they should take advantage of.
I am an artist on the autism spectrum. I received an MA specializing in Civil War/Reconstruction history at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro, and I have been drawing hundreds of Civil War-themed pictures since the age of five and a half. I recently completed a secondary Master’s in Library and Information Sciences. As a person with Asperger’s Syndrome, I have a very focused set of interests, and the Civil War is my favorite historical event within that range of interests. It is therefore my fervent desire to become a Civil War historian and have my Civil War artwork published in an art book for children. I am also very involved in the autism community and currently serve as the President/Head Officer of Spectrum at UNCG, an organization I founded for students on the autism spectrum. The goal of the organization is to promote autism awareness and foster an inclusive community for autistic students on the UNCG campus. The group has attracted some local publicity and is steadily gaining new members, and we shall be hosting autism panels for classes on campus in the near future.