Good Evening
Good Evening

Peter Falk, 1927-2011

Peter Falk, the star of the TV show

Peter Falk, the star of the TV show 'Columbo.' Credit: Handout

Peter Falk, one of the most beloved, and honored, actors in TV history, has died.

He was 83 and died Thursday in his Beverly Hills home, according to a statement released yesterday by Larry Larson, a friend of the family.

Falk had been suffering from Alzheimer’s disease for a number of years. In a career that spanned more than 60 years -- and which began 54 years ago on TV -- Falk was an esteemed actor of the stage, worked with film directors as diverse as John Cassavetes, Frank Capra and Wim Wenders, and earned two Oscars nominations. But it was the old raincoat and character with no first name that made him arguably the world's single most famous TV character.

"Columbo" began on NBC in 1968, and by the time it wrapped for good in 2001 as a long-running TV movie series on ABC, the show had been exported to dozens of countries and Lt. Colombo had become nearly as renowned, and certainly as ubiquitous, as Sherlock Holmes.

At the anniversary, Falk said: "Who would believe that all these people have something in common, whether the Japanese, Parisians, Berliners, Russians, Brazilians, or even Eskimos -- young and old alike, the entire globe embraces this character Columbo. And, amazingly, with as much enthusiasm as 30 years ago. I'm a very lucky guy."

But Columbo and "Columbo" -- for which he won four Emmys -- tended to overshadow a fine movie and stage career, even though Falk would continue to make big films during the series' run, like "The Sunshine Boys" and "The In-Laws." His stage work was almost as diverse as his screen work, appearing in the Gilbert and Sullivan comic opera, "The Pirates of Penzance" as early as 1940, and later in a revival of "The Iceman Cometh" with Jason Robards (Falk played the bartender). He made his Broadway debut in Alexander Ostrovsky's "Diary of a Scoundrel."

Falk would later star in a handful of movies directed by his close friend and mentor, Cassavetes, such as 1974's "A Woman Under the Influence." He later explained to a newspaper reporter, "John had a way of making a picture the world had never seen before, and in some respects, they haven't seen it since. [He] believed that it is only in the movies that people know what they're doing. In life, we don't know what we're doing. We think we do, we try to, but essentially we don't know where we're going. John essentially said, I don't know, and I don't think movies should be made by people who think they know." (Cassavetes, who died in 1989, returned the compliment: In an interview he once said of Falk, "He's deep. He's gentle. He's two thousand years old. He's somebody everybody falls in love with.")

Falk seemed to embrace Cassavetes' theory in his most famous creation. Bumbling, shuffling, and -- yes -- rumpled, Lt. Columbo entered a crime scene as the seemingly hapless know-nothing. He'd fumble in the pockets of his raincoat for something he'd forgotten, and invariably withdraw an old shopping list.

The perpetrator -- devious, clever and invariably snookered by the closing minutes -- almost always seemed to stumble right after Columbo mumbled one of the most unforgettable lines in all of TV history: "One more thing ..." Columbo was the master of the understated.

The role had been created for (of all people) Bing Crosby, who turned it down; Falk quickly made it his own. In an interview with Newsday's Linda Winer in 1989, he recalled buying his raincoat on 57th Street in 1967, and "our years later, I was doing Columbo and said I wanted to wear this coat - brown. Have him wear everything brown. Dye the suit brown. Just a little color, a dab of green in the tie. Got the shoes. My shoes. Brown shoes." By the late '80s, it still had not been retired:"It's threadbare. I have to put a saucer of milk out for it every night. I don't wear it everyday because it'll fall apart, but I wear it once or twice every show." Peter Michael Falk was born Sept. 16, 1927, in New York City and grew up in Ossining, N.Y., where his parents ran a clothing store. At 3 he had one eye removed because of cancer.

“When something like that happens early,” he said in a 1963 Associated Press interview, “you learn to live with it. It became the joke of the neighborhood. If the umpire ruled me out on a bad call, I’d take the fake eye out and hand it to him.” When Falk 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.”

Falk would later win two Oscar nominations (”Murder, Inc.,” 1960;“Pocketful of Miracles,” 1961) and collect five Emmys. After serving as a cook in the merchant marine and receiving a master’s degree in public administration from Syracuse University, he worked as an efficiency expert for the budget bureau of the state of Connecticut. He also acted in amateur theater and was encouraged to become a professional by actress-teacher Eva La Gallienne.

An appearance in “The Iceman Cometh” off-Broadway led to other classical parts, notably as Joseph Stalin in “The Passion of Joseph D.” In 1971 Falk scored a hit in Neil Simon’s “The Prisoner of Second Avenue.” 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,” “The Brinks Job,” “The In-Laws,” “The Princess Bride.”

Falk also appeared in a number of art house favorites, including the semi-improvisational films “Husbands” and “A Woman Under the Influence,” directed by his friend John Cassavetes, and Wim Wenders’ “Wings of Desire,” in which he played himself. Falk became prominent in television movies, beginning with his first Emmy for “The Price of Tomatoes” in 1961. His four other Emmys were for “Columbo.” He was married to pianist Alyce Mayo in 1960; they had two daughters, Jackie and Catherine, and divorced in 1976.

The following year he married actress Shera Danese. They filed for divorce twice and reconciled each time. When not working, Falk spent time in the garage of his Beverly Hills home. He had converted it into a studio where he created charcoal drawings. He took up art in New York when he was in the Simon play and one day happened into the Art Students League. Falk is survived by his wife Shera and his two daughters. - The Associated Press contributed to this story.

More Entertainment