Ask Peter Falk a question and you get a whole routine.

E.g.: How was Wilmington? (He has just completed a two-week tryout there of the play he opened in last night at the Kennedy Center, "Make and Break."

"It was terrific for me--I lived above the shop. Very convenient. I didn't see much of Wilmington . . . the only time I went out was one night at 2 a.m. I was hungry, so I got in a taxi and spent about $90 driving all over Delaware, New Jersey, eastern Pennsylvania--I don't now where we were--looking for this Howard Johnson's . . . I spent $4 on a sandwich and $90 on the cab ride. . . .

"I did see the inside of one guy's house, because he had a TV you could get the Knicks games on from New York. That's all."

Falk is here breaking in the play, which is the first he has done since "The Prisoner of Second Avenue" on Broadway in 1971. In between, of course, he was "Columbo" for seven years and made a number of movies, notably "Husbands," "A Woman Under the Influence," and "Mikey and Nicky" for his friend John Cassavetes.

Falk is a character actor, particularly in the sense that his own characteristics become part of any role he plays. You get the feeling you've met him before: the hoarse voice and clipped delivery, the one-eyed squint (he lost his right eye to cancer at age 3), the head tilted back as he ponders an answer, inhaling a True and gazing--perhaps a shade nervously--around the room.

He seems to identify more with the proletariat than with the ruling class. If you ask him whether he's ever played a senator, he says no, "but I've played a taxi driver." You can picture him in a neighborhood bar, hoisting beers and talking football. He never thought he'd be a movie star; they were "gods and goddesses."

"I no more thought I'd be in television or movies than I thought of walking around naked with a feather up my a--," he says. "When I was a kid I thought an artist was a European."

And is he, who has been nominated for two Academy Awards and won four Emmys, an artist? "No. Maybe some days. It depends how lenient you are with your definition of artist. If you're going to include those who tap dance at the high school recital, then maybe I am.

"If you were brought up in the '40s, a kid in Ossining, New York, hanging out at the poolroom and stealing, how can you think: Here I am in Ossining, I too can be a movie star!"

He turns to a middle-aged bus-boy who has just removed a dish. "Hey, how are ya?" The man nods. He doesn't speak English.

"Everybody wants to be a movie star. I bet if you ask that guy would he like to be a movie star, he'd say 'sure.' Why? Most people think glamor is happiness."

And is it?

"It's absolutely true."

The part he plays in "Make and Break" is that of a high-powered executive, a workaholic who is "so busy he doesn't have time to use pronouns," as Falk puts it. It is not a comedy, he says, but a comedy-drama. "You laugh and then you gasp."

He decided to do the play after seeing it in London two years ago, he says, a coincidence he regards as a "miracle."

"If I hadn't happened to be in London for two days making "The Muppet Movie" . . . I ran into this director I knew in a bar. I asked him to have dinner and he couldn't, so I said, 'What shall I do?' He said, 'Go see "Make and Break." I said, 'Is it good?' and he said his girlfriend was in it. But is it good? I said. And he said, 'Everybody's talking about it.' Anyway, I went to see it and the next day I was negotiating with the author on the set of "The Muppet Movie."

He is attracted to the character because "I like a guy who only talks in questions."


"It's different." He thinks, squinting into the distance. "I like his obsessive concern with everything, the major as well as the minor details. I thought of Harry Cohn as an example; he would put the same intensity into a deal with Montgomery Clift as he would over a guy you never heard of. Or George Allen--I met him once too. He's just as concerned about the starting fullback as what's going to be dessert on Tuesday . . . He's the character a little wacky. And he's not Mr. Warmth."

Going back to the stage after such a long absence is a little disconcerting, Falk says. The camera can capture subtlety, while everything onstage has to be big enough for the last row. "You feel like you're making a lot of faces, like I'm screaming like a banshee and taut in my face. And the director says he wants it bigger!"

The hours--rehearsing during the day and performing at night--are actually easier than television, he says. "With 'Columbo' we worked 12 and 14 hours a day, seven days a week. There was no night and no day, just 'Columbo.' Once I even fell asleep in the camera chair."

Falk's teen-age delinquency led him to drop out of Hamilton College after six weeks and enlist in the Merchant Marine. But he went back and got a B.A. in political science from the New School for Social Research, and a master's in business administration from Syracuse University. He worked as a management expert for the State of Connecticut (not his most shining hour, he once said--the first day on the job he showed up late because he couldn't find his office).

All during those years he had dabbled with acting, and, with the encouragement of Eva Le Gallienne he finally left the straight world for New York and the theater.

The character he is playing may be a workaholic, but Falk certainly isn't. "I can be sometimes if I get involved in something," he says. Otherwise, I can lay on my a-- pretty good."