Not too long ago an old clip surfaced of Peter Falk on David Letterman, in which he told an intriguing tale about recording a special Cold War message for Romanian state television. The clip went viral and got our attention — but was it actually true? Did a fictional American detective really help quell a communist revolt?
We donned the proverbial raincoat and started sleuthing—at which point Falk’s late night anecdote cracked open into an intricate geopolitical saga that stretches from DC to Bucharest; from a Los Angeles hotel room to the palatial estate of a despot. It’s a story that involves dueling ideologies, dozens of diplomats, and millions of viewers. It’s an honest-to-goodness cold war caper about American soft power behind the iron curtain, and it’s so involved it’s going to take two episodes to solve.
This podcast was written by Willa Paskin, who produces Decoder Ring with Katie Shepherd. This episode was edited by Joel Meyer. Derek John is Slate’s executive producer of narrative podcasts. Merritt Jacob is senior technical director.
A special thank you to Andrada Lautaru who translated and worked with me from Romania. Thank you to Carol and Joel Levy, Jonathan Rickert, Alan and Aury Fernandez, Katie Koob, Felix Rentschler, Richard Viets, Jock Shirley, Gabriel Roth, Cameron Gorman, Torie Bosch, Delia Marinescu, David Koenig, Don Giller, Forest Bachner, Corina Popa, David Langbart, William Burr, Asgeir Sigfusson, John Frankensteiner, Tom Hoban, and everyone else who helped with this episode. Thank you to Evan Chung.
For research into Romanian T.V., Willa relied heavily on the scholarly work of Dana Mustata, Alexandru Matei, Annemarie Sorescu‐Marinković, and the screening socialism project from the University of Loughborough. She also relied on the work of Dennis Deletant and Timothy W Ryback’s Rock Around the Bloc, a history of rock music in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union
You also heard a song in this episode from the Romanian band Phoenix.
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