Peter Falk: Actor famous for playing scruffy TV detective Columbo, a role for which he won four Emmys

Anthony Hayward
Sunday 23 October 2011 00:00

Sporting his own old raincoat, bought for £15 in 1967 when he was caught in a shower in New York, chomping on a cigar and driving around in a battered 1959 Peugeot 403, Peter Falk turned Columbo, of the Los Angeles Police Department's homicide bureau, into one of television's most enduring detectives – and certainly the shabbiest.

The glass eye was also his own, a result of the actor losing his right eye at the age of three while being operated on for a tumour.

Falk perfected the mannerisms of waving his hands around, scratching his forehead, gazing at his feet, then staring into the sky as he asked Columbo's questions while referring to notes on scraps of paper and acting polite and deferential, giving suspects the impression of a bumbling, Clouseau type. Then came the detective's master stroke, appearing to leave the room, before pausing at the door, turning round and delivering the line: "Ah, just one more thing..."

Each episode of Columbo (1971- 78, 1989-2003) was notable for beginning with a particularly devious murder, often in a beautiful setting, before the down-at-heel detective doggedly sets about unmasking the culprit. Falk first acted the police lieutenant in the television film Prescription: Murder (1968), written by Richard Levinson and William Link, and based on their 1962 stage play of the same title (although they had introduced Columbo, played by Bert Freed, two years earlier in the television drama Enough Rope, an episode of "The Chevy Mystery Show"). The pair modelled the detective on Porfiry Petrovich, the apparently slow-witted police inspector who relentlessly dogs the murderer in Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment.

Falk saw the American sleuth as a mirror image of Arthur Conan Doyle's famous detective, of whom he was a fan. "I've always said that Columbo was an ass-backwards Sherlock Holmes," he explained. "Holmes smoked the pipe. Columbo smokes cheap cigars, a dozen for three dollars. Holmes spoke King's English. Columbo is still working on English. Holmes wore beautiful tweeds. Columbo looks like an unmade bed. Holmes had a long neck. And Columbo has no neck."

The producers of the television series had originally tried to net Bing Crosby for the lead role, but the actor-crooner was committed to playing in a golf tournament. "That's one of the reasons I love golf," said Falk, who won four Best Actor Emmy Awards for his portrayal (1972, 1975, 1976, 1990).

After the pilot episode, Columbo was run in the United States in rotation with other detective dramas, such as McCloud and McMillan and Wife, under the umbrella title "The NBC Sunday Mystery Movie", and it was by far the most popular. Although Falk hung up his raincoat in 1978, he was persuaded to return 11 years later, helped by an offer of £600,000 per episode and an executive producer credit that saw him through a further 24 adventures over the next 15 years.

A descendant of Miksa Falk, the editor of the liberal Hungarian newspaper the Pester Lloyd, Peter Falk was born in 1927 in Manhattan, New York, but raised in Ossining after his parents moved out of the city to Westchester County and ran a clothes shop there. "I'm as scruffy as Columbo – their dress sense never rubbed off on me," he said. At Ossining High School he excelled in baseball, basketball and track events, and was president of his class.

Losing an eye prevented Falk joining the US Marines in 1945. "I memorised the eye test, but I couldn't fool the medics," he reflected. Instead, he took a job as a cook in the Merchant Navy (1945-46), visiting Europe and South America, but left to gain a political science degree from the New School for Social Research, then a masters in public administration from Syracuse University, leading to a job as an efficiency expert for the State of Connecticut's Budget Bureau (1953-55).

Bored of working with figures, Falk recalled a job during his student holidays as business manager for a summer stock theatre company and then spent his evenings acting with the Mark Twain Maskers of Hartford, before taking classes at the White Barn Theater, Westport, Connecticut, with the legendary British stage actress and coach Eva Le Gallienne, who encouraged him to go professional at the age of 28.

Within a month, he had landed the role of the bartender Rocky Pioggi in an off-Broadway revival of Eugene O'Neill's play The Iceman Cometh (Circle in the Square, 1956). A year later, he was appearing on Broadway as the English soldier, opposite Siobhá* McKenna, in a revival of George Bernard Shaw's Saint Joan (Coronet Theatre, 1956-57). Although his first starring role on Broadway was as Stalin in Paddy Chayefsky's short-lived The Passion of Josef D (Ethel Barrymore Theatre, 1964), he had greater success as the neurotic advertising salesman Mel Edison in Neil Simon's The Prisoner of Second Avenue (Eugene O'Neill Theatre, 1971-73).

Falk made his television début in the drama Return Visit (a 1957 episode in the "Robert Montgomery Presents" series) and followed it with many other small-screen plays. His first film role was as an owlish writer in Wind Across the Everglades (1958), about a game-warden taking on illegal bird-hunters, but the actor's breakthrough came in the picture Murder, Inc. (1960), with a chilling performance as Abe Reles, the brutal, real-life mobster hitman who turned "canary" in an attempt to avoid the electric chair, earning Falk an Oscar nomination as best supporting actor.

The same nomination came a year later after he played Joy Boy, one of the hoods, in Pocketful of Miracles (alongside Bette Davis and Glenn Ford, directed by Frank Capra, 1961) and Falk won his first Emmy Award for his performance as a truck driver on television in The Price of Tomatoes (1962), in "The Dick Powell Show" anthology series.

After many character roles on the small screen, he starred as Daniel J O'Brien, the lawyer who is completely professional and diligent at work but slovenly at home, in The Trials of O'Brien (1965-66). He was also seen in films such as It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World (1963), Robin and the 7 Hoods (the prohibition-era Chicago crime comedy, starring Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr and Bing Crosby, 1964) and The Great Race (alongside Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis, 1965).

In Husbands (1970), the first of four pictures with the actor-director John Cassavetes, he starred with Cassavetes and Ben Gazzara as three buddies who set off for Europe and a round of drinking, gambling and womanising while mourning the sudden death of a friend and contemplating their own lives. Four years later, he played the husband struggling to cope with his wife's mental illness in Cassavetes' A Woman Under the Influence (1974).

Falk spent most of the 1970s committed to Columbo, but he returned to the cinema as a forthcoming father-in-law who claims to be a CIA agent in the comedy The In-Laws (1979) and was charming as the grandfather-cum-narrator in the colourful, live-action fairy tale The Princess Bride (1987). In another fairy tale, the director Wim Wenders' Wings of Desire (1987), about two angels wandering the streets of Berlin and wondering what it is like to be human, he was cast as a "film star", ostensibly himself.

After another spate of Columbo stories in the 1990s, the actor was just as prolific in other big- and small-screen productions. He was particularly keen to star in The Lost World (2001), BBC television's adaptation of the Arthur Conan Doyle story, playing the Reverend Theo Kerr, who tries to discourage a group of explorers from visiting a plateau where dinosaurs are rumoured to live. "I hadn't read The Lost World," said Falk. "But, if you mention Conan Doyle to me, I am immediately interested. The man who created Sherlock Holmes is a man who commands attention – and that's all I had to hear."

In 2007, Falk had a small part in Next, loosely based on a Philip K Dick story and starring Nicolas Cage. His last role was a small part as a priest in the independent feature American Cowslip.

The actor, who received France's highest arts honour, the Knight of the Order of Arts and Letters, in 1996, was also recognised by his home town of Ossining in 2005, when a street was named Peter Falk Place after him – and he unveiled the sign by removing his trademark raincoat from it.

Peter Michael Falk, actor: born New York 16 September 1927; married 1960 Alyce Mayo (divorced 1976; two daughters), 1977 Shera Danese; died Beverley Hills 23 June 2011.

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