Peter Michael Falk (September 16, 1927 – June 23, 2011) was an American actor, best known for his role as Lt. Columbo in the television series Columbo. He appeared in numerous films such as The Princess Bride, The Great Race and Next, and television guest roles. He was nominated for an Academy Award twice (for 1960's Murder, Inc. and 1961's Pocketful of Miracles), and won the Emmy Award on five occasions (four for Columbo) and the Golden Globe award once. Director William Friedkin, when discussing Falk's role in his 1978 film The Brink's Job, said that "Peter has a great range from comedy to drama. He could break your heart or he could make you laugh."
In 1968, he starred with Gene Barry in a ninety-minute television pilot about a highly-skilled, laid-back detective. Columbo eventually became part of an anthology series titled The NBC Mystery Movie, along with McCloud and McMillan & Wife. The detective series stayed on NBC from 1971 to 1978, took a respite, and returned occasionally on ABC from 1989 to 2003. Falk was "everyone's favorite rumpled television detective", wrote historian David Fantle.
In 1996 TV Guide ranked him number 21 on its 50 Greatest TV Stars of All Time list.
Born in New York City, Falk was the son of Michael Peter Falk, owner of a clothing and dry goods store, and his wife, Madeline (née Hochhauser), an accountant and buyer. Both of his parents were Jewish. His father was of Polish and Russian ancestry, and his mother was of Hungarian and Czech descent.
Falk's right eye was surgically removed when he was three because of a retinoblastoma; he wore a glass eye for most of his life. Despite this, Falk participated in team sports, mainly baseball and basketball, as a boy. In a 1997 interview in Cigar Aficionado magazine with Arthur Marx, 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's first stage appearance was at the age of 12 in The Pirates of Penzance at Camp High Point in upstate New York, where one of his camp counselors was Ross Martin (they would later act together in The Great Race and the Columbo episode "Suitable For Framing"). Falk attended Ossining High School in Westchester County, New York, where he was a star athlete and president of his senior class. After graduating from high school in 1945, Falk briefly attended Hamilton College in Clinton, New York, and then tried to join the armed services as World War II was drawing to a close. Rejected because of his glass eye, he joined the United States Merchant Marine, and served as a cook and mess boy. "There they don't care if you're blind or not", Falk said in 1997. "The only one on a ship who has to see is the captain. And in the case of the Titanic, he couldn't see very well, either." Falk recalls this period in his autobiography:
"A year on the water was enough for me, so I returned to college. I didn't stay long. Too itchy. What to do next? I signed up to go to Israel to fight in the war with Egypt. ... I just wanted more excitement ... However, the war, to everyone's amazement, was over in the blink of an eye."
After a year and a half in the Merchant Marine, Falk returned to Hamilton College and also attended the University of Wisconsin. He transferred to the New School for Social Research in New York City, which awarded him a bachelor's degree in literature and political science in 1951. He then traveled in Europe and worked on a railroad in Yugoslavia for six months. He returned to New York, enrolling at Syracuse University, but he recalled in his 2006 memoir, Just One More Thing, that he was unsure what he wanted to do with his life for years after leaving high school.
Falk obtained a Master of Public Administration degree at the Maxwell School of Syracuse University in 1953. The program was designed to train civil servants for the federal government, a career that Falk said in his memoir that he had "no interest in and no aptitude for." He applied for a job with the CIA, but was rejected because of his membership in the Marine Cooks and Stewards Union while serving in the Merchant Marine, even though he was required to join and was not active in the union. He then became a management analyst with the Connecticut State Budget Bureau in Hartford. Falk characterized his Hartford job as "efficiency expert". "I was such an efficiency expert that the first morning on the job, I couldn't find the building where I was to report for work", he said in 1997. "Naturally, I was late, which I always was in those days, but ironically it was my tendency never to be on time that got me started as a professional actor."
While working in Hartford, Falk joined a community theater group called the Mark Twain Masquers, where he performed in plays that included The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial, The Crucible, and The Country Girl by Clifford Odets. Falk also studied with Eva Le Gallienne, who was giving an acting class at the White Barn Theatre in Westport, Connecticut. Falk later recalled that he had "lied his way" into the class, which was for professional actors. He drove down to Westport from Hartford every Wednesday, when the classes were held, and was usually late.
In his 1997 interview with Arthur Marx in Cigar Aficionado magazine, Falk said "One evening when I arrived late, she looked at me and asked, 'Young man, why are you always late?' and I said, 'I have to drive down from Hartford.'" She looked down her nose and said, "What do you do in Hartford? There's no theater there. How do you make a living acting?" Falk confessed he wasn't a professional actor. According to Falk, she looked at him sternly and said, "Well, you should be." He drove back to Hartford and quit his job.
Falk stayed with the Le Gallienne group for a few months more, and obtained a letter of recommendation from Le Galliene to an agent at the William Morris Agency in New York. In 1956, he left his job with the Budget Bureau and moved to Greenwich Village to pursue an acting career.
His first New York stage role was in an Off-Broadway production of Molière's Dom Juan at the Fourth Street Theatre that closed after its only performance on January 3, 1956. Falk played the second lead, Sganarelle. His next theater role proved far better for his career. In May, he appeared at Circle in the Square in a revival of The Iceman Cometh with Jason Robards playing the bartender.
Falk made his Broadway debut also in 1956, appearing in Alexander Ostrovsky's Diary of a Scoundrel. As the year came to an end, he appeared again on Broadway as an English soldier in Shaw's Saint Joan, with Siobhán McKenna. In 1972, he appeared in Broadway's The Prisoner of Second Avenue. According to film historian Ephraim Katz, "His characters derive added authenticity from his squinty gaze, the result of the loss of an eye ..."
Despite his stage success, a theatrical agent advised Falk not to expect much film acting work because of his glass eye. He failed a screen test at Columbia Pictures and was told by studio boss Harry Cohn that "for the same price I can get an actor with two eyes." He also failed to get a role in the film Marjorie Morningstar, despite a promising interview for the second lead. His first film performances were in small roles in Wind Across the Everglades (1958), The Bloody Brood (1959) and Pretty Boy Floyd (1960).
Falk's performance in Murder, Inc. (1960) was a turning point in his career. He was cast in the supporting role of killer Abe Reles, in a film based on the real-life murder gang of that name, that had terrorized New York in the 1930s. The New York Times film critic Bosley Crowther, while dismissing the movie as "an average gangster film," singled out Falk's "amusingly vicious performance."
"Mr. Falk, moving as if weary, looking at people out of the corners of his eyes and talking as if he had borrowed Marlon Brando's chewing gum, seems a travesty of a killer, until the water suddenly freezes in his eyes and he whips an icepick from his pocket and starts punching holes in someone's ribs. Then viciousness pours out of him and you get a sense of a felon who is hopelessly cracked and corrupt."
The film turned out to be Falk's breakout role. In his autobiography, Just One More Thing (2006), Falk said that his selection for the film from thousands of other Off-Broadway actors was a "miracle" that "made my career" and that without it, he would not have gotten the other significant movie roles that he later played. Falk, who played Reles again in the 1960 TV series The Witness, was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Academy Award for his performance in the film.
In 1961, multiple Academy Award-winning director Frank Capra cast Falk in the comedy Pocketful of Miracles. The film was Capra's last feature, and although it was not the commercial success he hoped it would be, he "gushed about Falk's performance." Falk was nominated for an Oscar for his role. In his autobiography Capra writes about Falk:
"The entire production was agony ... except for Peter Falk. He was my joy, my anchor to reality. Introducing that remarkable talent to the techniques of comedy made me forget pains, tired blood, and maniacal hankerings to murder Glenn Ford (the film's star). Thank you Peter Falk.":480
For his part, Falk says that he "never worked with a director who showed greater enjoyment of actors and the acting craft." Falk says, "There is nothing more important to an actor than to know that the one person who represents the audience to you, the director, is responding well to what you are trying to do." Falk recalled one time that Capra reshot a scene even though he yelled "Cut and Print," indicating the scene was finalized. When Falk asked him why he wanted it reshot, "he laughed and said that he loved the scene so much he just wanted to see us do it again. How's that for support!"
For the remainder of the 1960s, Falk had mainly small movie roles and TV guest-starring appearances. Falk turned in a gem of a performance as one of two cabbies who falls victim to greed in the epic 1963 star-studded comedy It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, even though he appears only in the last fifth of the movie. Other roles included a comical crook in the 1964 Rat Pack film, Robin and the 7 Hoods, and the 1965 spoof The Great Race, with Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis.
Falk first appeared on television in 1957, in the dramatic anthology programs that later became known as the "Golden Age of Television." In 1957, he appeared in one episode of Robert Montgomery Presents. He was also cast in Studio One, Kraft Television Theater, New York Confidential, Naked City, Have Gun–Will Travel, The Islanders, and Decoy, with Beverly Garland cast as the first female police officer in a series lead. On The Twilight Zone he portrayed a Castro-type revolutionary complete with beard who, intoxicated with power, kept seeing his assassins in a newly-acquired mirror.
In 1961, Falk was nominated for an Emmy Award for his performance in the episode "Cold Turkey" of James Whitmore's short-lived series The Law and Mr. Jones on ABC. On September 29, 1961, Falk and Walter Matthau guest-starred in the premiere episode, "The Million Dollar Dump," of ABC's crime drama Target: The Corruptors, with Stephen McNally and Robert Harland. He won an Emmy for The Price of Tomatoes, a drama carried in 1962 on The Dick Powell Show.
In 1963, Falk and Tommy Sands appear as brothers who disagree on the route for a railroad in "The Gus Morgan Story" on ABC's Wagon Train. Falk plays the title role of "Gus", and Sands is the younger brother, Ethan Morgan. Ethan accidentally shoots wagonmaster Chris Hale, played by John McIntire, while the brothers are in the mountains looking at possible route options. Gus makes the decision to leave Hale behind, even choking him and believing that Hale is dead. Ethan has been overcome with oxygen deprivation and needs Gus' assistance to reach safety down the mountain. Unknowing to the Morgans, Hale crawls down the mountain through snow determined to obtain revenge against Gus. In time, though, Hale comes to understand the Hobson's choice made by Morgan, and the brothers reconcile their own differences. This episode is remembered for its examination of how far a man will persist amid adversity to preserve his own life and that of his brother.
Falk's first television series was in the title role of the drama The Trials of O'Brien, in which he played a lawyer. The show ran in 1965 and 1966 and was cancelled after 22 episodes.
In 1971, Pierre Cossette produced the first Grammy Awards show on television with some help from Falk. Cossette writes in his autobiography, "What meant the most to me, though, is the fact that Peter Falk saved my ass. I love show business, and I love Peter Falk."
Although Falk appeared in numerous other television roles in the 1960s and 1970s, he is best known as the star of the TV series Columbo, "everyone's favorite rumpled television detective", writes historian David Fantle. His character was a shabby and ostensibly absent-minded police detective lieutenant, who had first appeared in the 1968 film Prescription: Murder. Falk described his role to Fantle:
Columbo has a genuine mistiness about him. It seems to hang in the air ... [and] he's capable of being distracted ... Columbo is an ass-backwards Sherlock Holmes. Holmes had a long neck, Columbo has no neck; Holmes smoked a pipe, Columbo chews up six cigars a day."
Television critic Ben Falk adds that Falk "created an iconic cop ... who always got his man (or woman) after a tortuous cat-and-mouse investigation." He notes also that the idea for the character was "apparently inspired by Dostoyevsky's dogged police inspector, Porfiry Petrovich, in the novel Crime and Punishment.
Falk tries to analyze the character and notes the correlation between his own personality and Columbo's:
I'm a Virgo Jew, and that means I have an obsessive thoroughness. It's not enough to get most of the details, it's necessary to get them all. I've been accused of perfectionism. When Lew Wasserman (head of Universal Studios) said that Falk is a perfectionist, I don't know whether it was out of affection or because he felt I was a monumental pain in the ass."
With "general amazement," Falk notes that "the show is all over the world". He added, "I've been to little villages in Africa with maybe one TV set, and little kids will run up to me shouting, 'Columbo, Columbo!'" Singer Johnny Cash recalled acting in one episode, and although he was not an experienced actor, he writes in his autobiography, "Peter Falk was good to me. I wasn't at all confident about handling a dramatic role, and every day he helped me in all kinds of little ways."
The debut episode in 1971 was directed by 25-year-old Steven Spielberg in one of his earliest directing roles. Falk recalled the episode to Spielberg biographer Joseph McBride:
"Let's face it, we had some good fortune at the beginning. Our debut episode, in 1971, was directed by this young kid named Steven Spielberg. I told the producers, Link and Levinson: 'This guy is too good for Columbo' ... Steven was shooting me with a long lens from across the street. That wasn't common twenty years ago. The comfort level it gave me as an actor, besides its great look artistically — well, it told you that this wasn't any ordinary director."
The character of Columbo had previously been played by Bert Freed in a single television episode and by Thomas Mitchell on Broadway. Falk first played Columbo in Prescription: Murder, a 1968 TV-movie, and from 1971 to 1978 Columbo aired regularly on NBC as part of the umbrella series NBC Mystery Movie. All episodes were of TV-movie length, in a 90 or 120 minutes slot including commercials. The show returned on ABC in the form of a less frequent series of TV-movies, still starring Falk, from 1989 until 2003. Falk won four Emmys for his role in Columbo.
Columbo was so popular that co-creator William Link wrote a series of short stories published as The Columbo Collection (Crippen and Landru, 2010) which includes a drawing by Falk of himself as Columbo, and the cover features a caricature of Falk/Columbo by Al Hirschfeld.
Falk was a close friend of independent film director John Cassavetes and appeared in Cassavetes' films Husbands, A Woman Under the Influence, and, in a cameo, at the end of Opening Night. He also co-starred with Cassavetes in Mikey and Nicky. Cassavetes, in turn, guest-starred in the Columbo episode "Étude in Black" in 1972. Falk describes his experiences working with Cassavetes, and specifically remembers his directing strategies such as "shooting an actor when he might be unaware the camera was running."
You never knew when the camera might be going. And it was never: 'Stop. Cut. Start again.' John would walk in the middle of a scene and talk, and though you didn't realize it, the camera kept going. So I never knew what the hell he was doing. [Laughs] But he ultimately made me, and I think every actor, less self-conscious, less aware of the camera than anybody I've ever worked with."
In 1978, he appeared on the comedy TV show The Dean Martin Celebrity Roast, with Frank Sinatra the evening's victim.
Falk continued to work in films, including his performance as a questionable ex-CIA agent of dubious sanity in the comedy The In-Laws. Director Arthur Hiller said during an interview that the "film started out because Alan Arkin and Peter Falk wanted to work together. They went to Warner's and said, 'We'd like to do a picture,' and Warner's said fine ... and out came The In-laws ... of all the films I've done, The In-laws is the one I get the most comments on.":290 Movie critic Roger Ebert compared the film with a later remake:
Peter Falk and Alan Arkin in the earlier film, versus Michael Douglas and Albert Brooks this time ... yet the chemistry is better in the earlier film. Falk goes into his deadpan lecturer mode, slowly and patiently explaining things that sound like utter nonsense. Arkin develops good reasons for suspecting he is in the hands of a madman."
He also appeared in The Great Muppet Caper, The Princess Bride, Murder By Death, The Cheap Detective, Vibes, Made, and (as himself) in Wim Wenders' 1987 film Wings of Desire and its 1993 sequel, Faraway, So Close!. In 1998, Falk returned to the New York stage to star in an Off-Broadway production of Arthur Miller's Mr. Peters' Connections. His previous stage work included shady real estate salesman Shelley "the Machine" Levine in a Boston/Los Angeles production of David Mamet's prizewinning Glengarry Glen Ross.
Falk also starred in a trilogy of holiday television movies – A Town Without Christmas (2001), Finding John Christmas (2003), and When Angels Come to Town (2004) – in which he portrayed Max, a quirky guardian angel who uses disguises and subterfuge to steer his charges onto the right path.. In 2005, he starred in The Thing About My Folks. Although movie critic Roger Ebert was not impressed with most of the other actors, he writes in his review, " ... we discover once again what a warm and engaging actor Peter Falk is. I can't recommend the movie, but I can be grateful that I saw it, for Falk." In 2007, Falk appeared with Nicolas Cage in the thriller Next.
Falk married Alyce Mayo, whom he had met when they were both students at Syracuse University, on April 17, 1960. They adopted two daughters, Catherine (who is a private investigator) and Jackie. They divorced in 1976. On December 7, 1977, Falk married actress Shera Danese, who guest-starred on the Columbo series on numerous occasions.
Falk was an accomplished artist, and in October 2006 he had an exhibition of his artwork at the Butler Institute of American Art. He took classes at the Art Students League of New York for many years. Examples of his sketches can be seen on his official website.
Falk was also a chess aficionado and was a spectator at the American Open in Santa Monica, California, in November 1972, and at the U.S. Open in Pasadena, California, in August 1983.
His memoir, Just One More Thing (ISBN 978-0786717958) was published by Carroll and Graf on August 23, 2006.
Of death, he once said, "It is just the gateway."
Rumors of Falk's dementia plagued the actor in the final years of his life and exacerbated when, in late April 2008, Falk was photographed by paparazzi looking disheveled and acting animated in the streets of Beverly Hills. Although the actor said his behavior resulted from his frustration over being unable to remember where he had parked his car, the images of his erratic appearance and behavior were published by the media, and Falk was seldom seen in public after the incident.
At a two-day conservatorship trial in Los Angeles in June 2009, one of Falk's personal physicians, Dr. Stephen Read, reported that Falk had rapidly slipped into dementia after a series of dental operations in 2007. Dr. Read said it was unclear whether Falk's condition had worsened as a result of anesthesia or some other reaction to the operations. He went on to add that Falk's condition was so bad he could no longer remember the character of Columbo. Shera Danese Falk was appointed as her husband's conservator.
The 83-year-old Falk died at his longtime Roxbury Drive Beverly Hills home on the evening of June 23, 2011. The cause of death was later revealed as cardiorespiratory arrest, with pneumonia and Alzheimer's disease as underlying causes. Falk was survived by his wife and two daughters. His daughters said they would remember his "wisdom and humor". Falk is buried at Westwood Village Memorial Park Cemetery in Los Angeles, California.
Falk's death was greeted with tributes from many film celebrities. Steven Spielberg said, "I learned more about acting from him at that early stage of my career than I had from anyone else." Stephen Fry tweeted that Columbo was "TV’s greatest ever detective." Rob Reiner said, "He was a completely unique actor," and went on to say that Falk's work with Alan Arkin in The In-Laws was "one of the most brilliant comedy pairings we've seen on screen."
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