The actor who personified the legendary shuffling, raincoat-wearing detective named Frank Columbo has died. Peter Falk passed away yesterday in Beverly Hills after suffering from dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.
Born in New York City, his parents were Madeline and Michael Peter Falk, an accountant/buyer and the owner of a clothing and dry goods store. He used a glass eye after his right eye was removed because a tumor at age three. In a 1997 interview in Cigar Aficionado magazine, Falk said, “I remember once in high school the umpire called me out at third base when I was sure I was safe. I got so mad I took out my glass eye, handed it to him and said, ‘Try this.’ I got such a laugh you wouldn’t believe.”
Falk first acted at a camp in upstate New York — where Ross Martin (later of Wild Wild West fame) was a counselor — but didn’t become a professional actor until much later, when he was 30 years old. In high school, he was a star athlete and senior class president. After briefly attending college, he tried to enter the armed forces but was rejected because of his eye. He ended up joining the Merchant Marine as a cook and mess boy instead. After that stint, he attended several colleges and obtained a master’s in public administration at Syracuse University.
While working in Hartford, he joined a community theatre group and then moved to the Big Apple to pursue it professionally. He worked in Off-Broadway productions, including a revival of The Iceman Cometh with Jason Robards. In 1956, he appeared on Broadway in Diary of a Scoundrel.
He was having success in theatre but film work eluded him for awhile and a screen test for Columbia Pictures was unsuccessful. Studio head Harry Cohn supposedly told him that, “for the same price I can get an actor with two eyes.” He eventually ended up getting small film roles.
In 1960, Falk got his big break in the feature film called Murder Inc. He was nominated for an Academy Award and Falk believed the picture essentially made his career. He earned a second nomination a year later for Pocketful of Miracles. He soonafter appeared in movies like It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World and Robin and the 7 Hoods.
Falk appeared in various TV shows in the 1950s, 60s and 70s but became best known when he began playing unassuming Lt. Columbo in a TV movie called Prescription: Murder (based on a stage play of the same name). NBC made Columbo movies a part of the NBC Mystery Movie rotation and they continued to air through most of the 1970s, lasting nearly 50 installments. In 1989, ABC revived the character and produced another 24 installments. The last aired in 2003. Falk won four of his five Emmys for the role.
There was talk of doing one more Columbo project but it never happened, supposedly because it was believed that the movie wouldn’t attract a young demographic. In addition to his later acting roles, Falk was an accomplished artist and a chess aficionado.
Falk developed dementia several years ago and was placed in a conservator ship by a judge in 2009, setting up a dispute over his affairs between the actor’s daughter Catherine (a private investigator) and his wife, Shera.
Peter Falk is survived by his wife of 34 years, actress Shera Falk, and two daughters from a previous marriage.
What do you think? How will you best remember Peter Falk and Columbo?