I adored this man. I’ll miss him a great deal. There will never be anyone like him again.
The inimitable KEN TUCKER of EW has a wonderful tribute right here.
PETER FALK, who marshaled actorly tics, prop room appurtenances and his own physical idiosyncrasies to personify COLUMBO, one of the most famous and beloved fictional detectives in television history, died on Thursday night at his home in Beverly Hills.
He was 83.
His family announced his passing in a statement, THE ASSOCIATED PRESS reported. He had been treated for Alzheimer’s in recent years.
Mr. Falk had a wide ranging career in comedy and drama, in the movies and
on stage, before and during the three and a half decades in which he
portrayed the slovenly but canny lead on COLUMBO. He was nominated for two OSCARS; appeared in original stage productions of works by PADDY CHAYEFSKY, NEIL SIMON and ARTHUR MILLER, worked with directors FRANK CAPRA, JOHN CASSAVETES, BLAKE EDWARDS and MIKE NICHOLS and costarred with the likes of FRANK SINATRA, JACK LEMMON, BETTE DAVIS and JASON ROBARDS.
But Mr. Falk’s prime time popularity was founded on a single role.
A lieutenant in the Los Angeles Police Department, COLUMBO was a comic variation on the traditional fictional detective. With the keen mind of SHERLOCK HOLMES and PHILIP MARLOWE, he was cast in the mold of neither. He wasn’t a gentleman scholar or a tough guy. He was instead a mass of quirks and peculiarities, a seemingly distracted figure in a rumpled raincoat.
He drove a battered Peugeot, was unfailingly polite, was sometimes
accompanied by a basset hound named DOG and was constantly referring to the wisdom of his wife (who was never seen on screen) and a variety of relatives and acquaintances who were identified in Homeric epithet like shorthand – an uncle who played the bagpipes with the Shriners, say, or a nephew majoring in dermatology at UCLA – and who were called to mind by the circumstances of the crime at hand.
It was a low rent effect that was especially irksome to the high society
murderers he outwitted in episode after episode.
Mr. Falk had a glass eye, resulting from an operation to remove a cancerous
tumour when he was 3 years old. The prosthesis gave all his characters a
peculiar, almost quizzical squint. And he had a mild speech impediment that
gave his L’s a breathy quality, a sound that emanated from the back of his
throat and that seemed especially emphatic whenever, in character, he
introduced himself as LIEUTENANT COLUMBO.
Such a deep well of eccentricity made COLUMBO amusing as well as incisive, not to mention a progenitor of later characters like TONY SHALHOUB’S MONK. And it made him an especially suitable central figure for the detective story niche in which he lived, where whodunit was irrelevant and how it was done was paramount.
From 1968 to 2003, Mr. Falk played the character dozens of times, mostly in
the format of a 90 minute or two hour television movie.
“What are you hanging around for?” Mr. Falk wrote, describing the appeal of the show in JUST ONE MORE THING, an anecdotal memoir (2006), whose title was a trademark line of COLUMBO’S – usually indicating the jig was up.
“Just one more thing. You want to know how he gets caught.”
When COLUMBO, the ordinary man as hero, brought low the greedy and murderous privileged of Beverly Hills, Malibu and Brentwood, they were implicit victories for the many over the few.
“This is, perhaps, the most thoroughgoing satisfaction Columbo offers us,” JEFF GREENFIELD wrote in THE NEW YORK TIMES in 1973, “the assurance that those who dwell in marble and satin, those whose clothes, food, cars and mates are the very best, do not deserve it.”
PETER MICHAEL FALK was born on SEPTEMBER 16, 1927 in New York City and grew up in Ossining, N.Y., where his father owned a clothing store and where, in spite of his missing eye, he was a high school athlete. In one story he liked to tell, after being called out at third base during a baseball game, he removed his fake eye and handed it to the umpire.
“You’ll do better with this,” he said.
After high school, Mr. Falk went briefly to Hamilton College in upstate New York before dropping out and joining the Merchant Marines as a cook. He later returned to New York City, where he earned a degree in political
science from the New School For Social Research before attending Syracuse
University, where he received a master’s degree in public administration.
He took a job in Hartford as an efficiency expert for the Connecticut budget bureau. It was in Connecticut that he began acting, joining an amateur troupe called THE MARK TWAIN MASKERS in Hartford and taking classes from EVA LE GALLIENNE at the WHITE BARN THEATER in Westport. He was 29 when he decided to move to New York again, this time to be an actor.
He made his professional debut in an Off Broadway production of MOLIERE’S
DON JUAN in 1956. In 1957 he was cast as the bartender in the famous
CIRCLE IN THE SQUARE revival of THE ICEMAN COMETH, directed by JOSE QUINTERO and starring JASON ROBARDS; he made his first splash on screen, as ABE (KID TWIST) RELES, a violent mob thug, in the 1960 film MURDER INC. That performance earned him an OSCAR nomination for BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR and a moment of high embarrassment at the awards ceremony. When the winner was announced – it was PETER USTINOV for SPARTACUS – Mr. Falk heard the first name and stood, only to have to sit back down again a moment later.
“When I hit the seat I turned to the press agent and said, ‘You’re fired!”’ Mr. Falk wrote in his memoir.
“I didn’t want him charging me for another day.”
The next year, newly married to his Syracuse classmate ALYCE MAYO – they would have two daughters and divorce in 1976 – Mr. Falk was again nominated for a SUPPORTING ACTOR OSCAR for playing a mobster, though this time with a more light hearted stripe, in the final film to be directed by FRANK CAPRA, POCKETFUL OF MIRACLES, starring BETTE DAVIS and GLENN FORD.
From then on, Mr. Falk, who was swarthy, squat (he was 5’6″) and
handsome, had to fend off offers to play gangsters. He did take such a part
in ROBIN & THE 7 HOODS, alongside FRANK SINATRA, DEAN MARTIN and SAMMY DAVIS JR., but fearful of typecasting, he also took roles
in epic comedic japes like IT’S A MAD MAD MAD MAD WORLD and THE GREAT RACE.
He returned to the stage as well, in the title role of Stalin, in PADDY CHAYEFSKY’S THE PASSION OF JOSEF D, which earned him solid reviews in spite of the show’s brief run (14 performances). Mr. Falk played Stalin “with brilliant unsmiling ferocity,” HOWARD TAUBMAN wrote in his largely positive review in THE NEW YORK TIMES.
His life was forever changed in 1967 when, reportedly after both BING CROSBY and LEE J. COBB turned down the role, he was cast as COLUMBO in the television film PRESCRIPTION: MURDER.
The film, about a psychiatrist who kills his wife with the help of one of his patients, was written by RICHARD LEVINSON and WILLIAM LINK; they had adapted it from their stage play, which opened in San Francisco and Boston in 1964 and which itself was an adaptation. Mr. Levinson and Mr. Link first wrote the story in 1960 for a series called THE CHEVY MYSTERY SHOW. It was on that program – the episode was titled ENOUGH ROPE – that COLUMBO made his debut as a character, played by BERT FREED.
But it was Mr. Falk who made him a legend.
During the filming it was he who rejected the fashionable attire the costume shop had laid out for him; it was he who chose the raincoat – one of his own – and who matched the rest of the detective’s clothes to its shabbiness. It was he who picked out the Peugeot from the studio motor pool, a convertible with a flat tire and needing a paint job that, he reflected “even matched the raincoat.”
And as the character grew, the line between the actor and the character grew hazier. They shared a general disregard for nattiness, an informal mode of speech, an obsession with detail, an irrepressible absentmindedness. Even COLUMBO’S favourite song THIS OLD MAN, which seemed to run through his mind (and the series) like a broken record was one that Mr. Falk had loved from childhood and that ended up in the show because he was standing around humming it one day, in character, when COLUMBO was waiting for someone to come to the phone.
Three years passed between the first COLUMBO movie and the second, RANSOM FOR A DEAD MAN, which became the pilot that launched the show as a regular network offering. It was part of a revolving wheel of Sunday night mysteries with recurring characters that appeared under the rubric NBC MYSTERY THEATER. The first set included McCLOUD, with DENNIS WEAVER and McMILLAN & WIFE, with ROCK HUDSON and SUSAN ST. JAMES.
In between, Mr. Falk made HUSBANDS, the first of his collaborations with
his friend JOHN CASSAVETES. The others were A WOMAN UNDER THE INFLUENCE in 1974, a brutally realistic portrayal of a marriage undermined by mental illness, directed by Mr. Cassavetes and costarring GENA ROWLANDS and MIKEY & NICKY in 1976, a dark buddy comedy directed by ELAINE MAY in which the two men played the title roles.
In 1971 he once again returned to Broadway, in NEIL SIMON’S angry comedy THE PRISONER OF SECOND AVENUE.
In later years, Mr. Falk starred in several notable films – MURDER BY DEATH (1976), THE IN LAWS (1979), THE PRINCESS BRIDE (1987) and
TUNE IN TOMORROW… (1990) among them – and in 1998 he opened Off Broadway in the title role of ARTHUR MILLER’S play MR. PETER’S CONNECTION, a portrait of an older man trying to make sense out of his life as it comes to an end.
By that time, however, Mr. Falk and COLUMBO had become more or less interchangeable as cultural references. Mr. Peters, BEN BRANTLEY wrote in his review of the play in THE TIMES, “is as genuinely perplexed as Columbo, his aggressively rumpled television detective, only pretends to be.”
Actor/comedian MICHAEL McKEAN said, “Peter Falk’s assault on conventional stardom went like this: You’re not conventionally handsome, you’re missing an eye and you have a speech impediment. Should you become a movie star? Peter’s correct answer: Absolutely.”
“I got to hang with him a few times and later worked a day with him on a forgettable TV movie,” MICHAEL went on, calling PETER “a sweet, sharp and funny man with a great soul. Wim Wenders called it correctly in Wings Of Desire: He was an angel if there ever was one on earth.”
“There is literally nobody you could compare him to. He was a completely unique actor,” commented ROB REINER, who directed PETER in THE PRINCESS BRIDE.
“His personality was really what drew people to him…He had this great sense of humour and this great natural quality nobody could come close to.” PETER’S work with ALAN ARKIN in THE IN LAWS represented “one of the most brilliant comedy pairings we’ve seen on screen.”
“We lost someone who is very special and dear to my heart. Not only a wonderful actor but a very great friend,” stated the legendary GENA ROWLANDS.
Mr. Falk is survived by his second wife, actor SHERA DANESE and his two daughters JACKIE and CATHERINE.