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Peter Falk, actor immortalized disheveled TV detective Columbo

NEW YORK -- The best way to celebrate Peter Falk's life is to savor how Columbo, his signature character, fortified our lives.

Thanks to Falk's affectionately genuine portrayal, Lt. Columbo established himself for all time as a champion of any viewer who ever felt less than graceful, elegant or well-spoken.

Falk died Thursday at age 83 in his Beverly Hills, Calif., home, according to a statement released Friday by family friend Larry Larson. But Columbo lives on as the shining ideal of anyone with a smudge on his tie, whose car isn't the sportiest, who often seems clueless, who gets dissed by fancy people.

As a police detective, Columbo used an interview technique that was famously disjointed, with his inevitable awkward afterthought -- "Ahhh, there's just one more thing " -- that tried the patience of his suspect as he was halfway out the door.

Columbo -- he never had a first name -- presented a refreshing contrast to other TV detectives. "He looks like a flood victim," Falk once said. "You feel sorry for him. He appears to be seeing nothing, but he's seeing everything. Underneath his dishevelment, a good mind is at work."

With Falk in place, "Columbo" began its run in 1971 as part of the NBC Sunday Mystery Movie series, appearing every third week. The show became by far the most popular of the three mysteries, the others being "McCloud" and "McMillan and Wife."

Falk reportedly was paid $250,000 per movie and could have made much more if he had accepted an offer to convert "Columbo" into a weekly series. He declined, reasoning that carrying a weekly detective series would be too great a burden.

NBC canceled the three series in 1977.

In 1989 ABC offered "Columbo" in a two-hour format usually appearing once or twice a season. The movies continued into the 21st century.

Columbo's trademark: an ancient raincoat Falk had once bought for himself. After 25 years on television, the coat became so tattered it had to be replaced.

Falk was already an experienced Broadway actor and two-time Oscar nominee when he began playing Columbo. And, long before then, he had demonstrated a bit of Columbo-worthy spunk: at 3, he had one eye removed because of cancer.

Then, when he was starting as an actor in New York, an agent told him, "Of course, you won't be able to work in movies or TV because of your eye." And after failing a screen test at Columbia Pictures, he was told by studio boss Harry Cohn that "for the same price I can get an actor with two eyes."

But Falk prevailed, even before "Columbo," picking up back-to-back Oscar nominations as best supporting actor for the 1960 mob drama "Murder, Inc." and Frank Capra's last film, the 1961 comedy-drama "Pocketful of Miracles."

Peter Michael Falk was born in 1927 in New York City and grew up in Ossining, N.Y., where his parents ran a clothing store.

After serving as a cook in the merchant marine and receiving a master's degree in public administration from Syracuse University, Falk worked as an efficiency expert for Connecticut's state budget bureau.

He also acted in amateur theater and was encouraged to become a professional by actress-teacher Eva Le Gallienne.

An appearance in "The Iceman Cometh" off-Broadway led to other parts, among them Josef Stalin in Paddy Chayefsky's 1964 "The Passion of Josef D." In 1971, Falk scored a hit in Neil Simon's "The Prisoner of Second Avenue," Tony-nominated for best play.

Falk made his film debut in 1958 with "Wind Across the Everglades" and established himself as a talented character actor with his performance as the vicious killer Abe Reles in "Murder, Inc."

Among his other movies: "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World," "Robin and the Seven Hoods," "The Great Race," "Luv," "Castle Keep," "The Cheap Detective" and "The Brinks Job."

Falk is survived by his second wife, Shera, and two daughters from his first marriage.

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