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Peter Falk, TV's rumpled Columbo, has died

Friday, June 24, 2011 | 4:37 p.m. CDT; updated 3:35 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 19, 2011
In this Sept. 16, 1990 file photo, actor Peter Falk accepts his the Emmy Award for Best Actor in a Drama for his role in the "Columbo" series at the 42nd annual Emmy Awards in Pasadena, Calif. Falk, the stage and movie actor who became identified as the squinty, rumpled detective in "Columbo," died Thursday at his Beverly Hills, Calif., home. He was 83.

NEW YORK — The best way to celebrate Peter Falk's life is to savor how Columbo, his signature character, fortified our lives.

Thanks to Falk's affectionately genuine portrayal, Lt. Columbo established himself for all time as a champion of any viewer who ever felt less than graceful, elegant or well-spoken.

Falk died Thursday at age 83 in his Beverly Hills, Calif., home, according to a statement released Friday by family friend Larry Larson. In a court document filed in December 2008, Falk's daughter Catherine Falk said her father was suffering from Alzheimer's disease.

But Columbo lives on as the ideal of anyone with a smudge on his tie, whose car isn't the sportiest, who typically seems clueless and who gets dissed by fancy people.

As a police detective, Columbo's interview technique was famously disjointed, with his inevitable awkward after-thought ("Ahhh, there's just one more thing...") trying the patience of his suspect when that person was already halfway out the door.

Columbo was underestimated, patronized or simply overlooked by nearly everyone he met — especially the culprit. Columbo always prevailed, however, drawing on inner pluck for only he (and an actor as skilled as Falk) could have accounted. Contrary to all evidence — that is, until he nailed the bad guy — Columbo always knew what he was doing.

Even more inspiring for viewers, he was also unconcerned with how other people saw him. He seemed to be perfectly happy with himself, his life, his pet bassett named Dog, his wheezing Peugeot and his never-seen wife. A squat man chewing cigars in a rumpled trench coat, Columbo stands tall among TV's most self-assured heroes.

Columbo — he never had a first name — presented a refreshing contrast to other TV detectives.

"He looks like a flood victim," Falk once said. "You feel sorry for him. He appears to be seeing nothing, but he's seeing everything. Underneath his dishevelment, a good mind is at work."

On another occasion, Falk described Columbo as "an ass-backwards Sherlock Holmes."

Somehow fittingly, Falk — the perfect choice — failed to be the first choice. Instead, it was easygoing crooner Bing Crosby, who, fortunately, passed on the project.

With Falk in place, "Columbo" began its run in 1971 as part of the NBC Sunday Mystery Movie series, appearing every third week. The show became by far the most popular of the three mysteries, the others being "McCloud" and "McMillan & Wife."

Falk was reportedly paid $250,000 per movie and could have made much more if he had accepted an offer to convert "Columbo" into a weekly series. He declined, reasoning that carrying a weekly detective series would be too great a burden.

NBC canceled the three shows in 1977. In 1989, ABC offered "Columbo" in a two-hour format usually appearing once or twice a season. The movies continued into the 21st century. "Columbo" appeared in 26 foreign countries and was a particular favorite in France and Iran.

Columbo's trademark was an ancient raincoat Falk had once bought for himself. After 25 years on television, the coat became so tattered it had to be replaced.

Falk was already an experienced Broadway actor and two-time Oscar nominee when he began playing Columbo. Long before then, he had demonstrated a bit of Columbo-worthy spunk: At age 3, he had one eye removed because of cancer.

Then, when he 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." After failing a screen test at Columbia Pictures, he was told by studio boss Harry Cohn that "for the same price, I can get an actor with two eyes."

Falk proved otherwise even before "Columbo," picking up back-to-back Oscar nominations for best supporting actor in the 1960 mob drama "Murder, Inc." and Frank Capra's last film, the 1961 comedy-drama "Pocketful of Miracles."

Peter Michael Falk was born in 1927 in New York City and grew up in Ossining, N.Y., where his parents ran a clothing store.

After serving as a cook in the merchant marine and receiving a master's degree in public administration from Syracuse University, Falk worked as an efficiency expert for Connecticut's budget bureau.

He also acted in amateur theater and was encouraged to become a professional by actress-teacher Eva Le Gallienne.

An off-Broadway appearance in "The Iceman Cometh" led to other parts, among them the role of Josef Stalin in Paddy Chayefsky's 1964 "The Passion of Josef D." In 1971, Falk scored a hit in Neil Simon's "The Prisoner of Second Avenue," Tony-nominated for best play.

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."

Falk's other movies include "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," and "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 wondering if the director approves of his work.

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 married pianist Alyce Mayo in 1960, and they had two daughters, Jackie and Catherine. They divorced in 1976. The following year, Falk  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 Prisoner of Second Avenue," and one day happened into the Art Students League of New York.

He recalled: "I opened a door, and there she was, a nude model, shoulders back, a light from above, buck-ass naked. The female body is awesome. Believe me, I signed up right away."

Falk is survived by his wife Shera and his two daughters.


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