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Peter Falk, Television’s Rumpled Detective Columbo, Dies at 83

Peter Falk, Television’s Rumpled Detective Columbo, Dies at 83

Peter Falk, who played television’s rumpled detective Columbo for 30 years in an acting career that included 50 movies and spanned a half century, has died. He was 83.

He died last night at his home in Beverly Hills, California, the Associated Press reported, citing a statement by a family friend, Larry Larson. He had dementia, possibly related to Alzheimer’s disease, since at least 2009.

Falk, a former stage actor, worried he was being typecast as a mobster in movies when in 1968 “along came a police lieutenant named Columbo, and my life would never be the same,” he wrote in his memoir, “Just One More Thing,” a title that came from his “forgetful” detective’s favorite line.

Just as Falk used his own wardrobe to create believable gangsters -- he won Oscar nominations in his first two roles -- the old raincoat he dug out from a closet proved a perfect fit for his detective’s character.

He conceived Columbo as “a regular Joe” who was “the most brilliant detective on the globe,” he wrote. “A guy with a mind like Einstein who sounded like the box boy at Food Giant.”

The New York-born Falk said his West Coast detective’s persona mirrored his own. He also dressed like a slob, spoke like a street kid and was absent-minded, said Falk, though in his case he was pre-occupied with his scripts and roles.

His personality was like his TV detective’s, Falk said.

“I saw a man who had an obsessive streak,” he wrote. “I saw that behind the raincoat was someone who couldn’t sleep until he found the answer.”

Rumpled, Smart

Falk won five Emmy Awards for his television work, including three as Columbo, a detective who drove a Peugeot clunker and concealed a sharp intelligence behind his shambling mannerisms.

Aside from the movie bad guys he played, Falk acted in three heavily improvised films directed by his friend John Cassavetes.

Born Sept. 16, 1927, in New York to Jewish parents of East European descent, Peter Michael Falk was raised upstate in Ossining. At age 3, his right eye had to be removed because of cancer.

Though as a child he dreaded kids asking about his “funny” glass eye, he was no longer self-conscious by high school, where he was class president and played on the baseball team. Called out at third base in a game, Falk said he “whipped out my eye and handed it to the umpire,” telling him, “You’ll do better with this one.”

He studied at the New School for Social Research in New York and later received a master’s degree in public administration from Syracuse University.

Early Break

Falk was working in Connecticut as a state budget analyst when he began acting in community theater. In time, he decided to try for a stage career. After bombing in his New York debut, he was cast in a hit production of Eugene O’Neil’s “The Iceman Cometh.”

He never looked back, even after the legendary Harry Cohn of Columbia Pictures nixed a movie contract with the line, “Young man, for the same price I’ll get an actor with two eyes.”

Falk was undeterred. After years in live television dramas, he played a Jewish gangster in the 1960 movie “Murder, Inc.” and was nominated for an Academy Award. A year later, Falk’s comedic role as a gangster in Frank Capra’s “Pocketful of Miracles” earned him his second -- and last -- Oscar nomination.

The wide-shouldered overcoat he wore in both pictures deserved a lot of credit for establishing the personality of his characters, Falk said, as did Columbo’s ratty raincoat years later.

Successful Roles

Clothes alone didn’t account for his success in various roles: Gentle grandfather in “The Princess Bride” (1987); private eye in Neil Simon’s madcap “The Cheap Detective” (1978) or in Simon’s satiric “Murder by Death” (1976). On Broadway, he starred in Simon’s 1971 Tony Award play, “The Prisoner of Second Avenue.”

Falk acted with Cassavetes in a half-dozen movies and was directed by him in several. His memoir was filled with jokes and glib lines, though he turned serious when discussing Cassavetes, who died in 1989.

“John was very shrewd about money,” wrote Falk. “He knew it was worthless.” Cassavetes was a dedicated filmmaker, he said, for whom money served mainly to finance his independently made movies.

Cassavetes acted in a “Columbo” episode, as did dozens of Falk’s friends, from Patrick McGoohan -- who won two Emmys as a “Columbo” guest star -- to Faye Dunaway. All were cast as much-too-clever murderers nabbed after under-estimating Columbo, who bummed matches for his cigar and always had “just one more” question as he left a room.

No Gun

Violence, guns and police chases weren’t part of the show’s formula. Columbo didn’t carry a gun and never was punched or threatened by a suspect. Viewers saw a murder committed at the start of each show, and the intrigue and suspense lay in watching Columbo trap the killer.

The series proved as popular overseas as in America. He was chased by kids chanting “Columbo” even when shooting a film in the Andes.

During the Cold War era, he once was detained in Russia at an airport. Sent to a bare room for questioning, Falk was nervous about his fate when an official approached and revealed what it was all about. In a hushed voice, he asked for the actor’s autograph.

Only one other television detective lasted as long as Falk’s “Columbo” -- Angela Lansbury’s “Jessica Fletcher.”

Her stage and film career may have lasted longer and been more distinguished than Falk’s, yet he bested her in one respect: She never won an Emmy.

In 1977 Falk married Shera Danese, an actress. With first wife Alyce Mayo, he had two daughters, Jackie, an actress, and Catherine, a private investigator.