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Peter Falk dies at 83; actor found acclaim as 'Columbo'

In a more than 50-year acting career that spanned movies, stage and TV, Falk's disheveled Lt. Columbo became one of TV's most memorable characters.

June 24, 2011|By Dennis McLellan, Los Angeles Times
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Peter Falk, the gravel-voiced actor who became an enduring television icon portraying Lt. Columbo, the rumpled raincoat-wearing Los Angeles police homicide detective who always had "just one more thing" to ask a suspect, died Thursday. He was 83.

Falk, who reportedly suffered from dementia, died at his home in Beverly Hills, according to a statement from Larry Larson, a friend and an attorney for Falk's wife, Shera.

In a more than 50-year acting career that spanned Broadway, movies and television, Falk appeared in more than 50 feature films, including "A Woman Under the Influence," "Husbands," "Luv," "Mikey and Nicky," "The In-Laws," "Wings of Desire," "The Great Race," "The Cheap Detective," "Cookie" and "The Princess Bride."

PHOTOS: Peter Falk's life and career

"Husbands" (1970) and "A Woman Under the Influence" (1974), both of which were written and directed by Falk's close friend, John Cassavetes, provided Falk with two of his best-known dramatic film credits.

But it was in his role as the blue-collar family man trying to deal with his mentally unstable wife (played by Gena Rowlands) in "A Woman Under the Influence" that he created what former Times film critic Charles Champlin called "one of the most complex and contradictory portraits in his career."

Through a spokesman, Rowlands told The Times on Friday: "Today we lost someone who was very special and dear to my heart. Not only a wonderful actor but a very great friend."

Early in his film career, Falk received two Academy Award nominations for best supporting actor — for playing a vicious mob assassin in "Murder, Inc." (1960) and for his portrayal of a gangster's right-hand man in Frank Capra's comedy-drama "Pocketful of Miracles" (1961).

Falk's on-screen combination of toughness and gentleness prompted Hollywood columnist Hedda Hopper to label the native New Yorker "another James Cagney or John Garfield — a man to replace irreplaceables."

In 1962, Falk won his first of five Emmys by playing a truck driver who befriends a lonely, pregnant girl in "The Price of Tomatoes," a segment of "The Dick Powell Show."

A decade later, he received raves on Broadway as the frazzled New York advertising account executive in Neil Simon's hit comedy "The Prisoner of Second Avenue."

But nothing Falk did came close to matching the acclaim and popularity he found playing the title role in "Columbo," the crime-drama for which he won four of his Emmys.

Launched with two TV-movies starring Falk — "Prescription: Murder" in 1968 and "Ransom for a Dead Man" in 1971 — "Columbo" began in the fall of 1971 as one of three 90-minute shows on the "NBC Sunday Mystery Movie," alternating with "McMillan and Wife," starring Rock Hudson and Susan Saint James, and "McCloud," starring Dennis Weaver.

"Columbo," however, became the stand-out show. "There isn't a detective on television who can touch him, either in style or ratings," one critic wrote of Falk.

The format of the series, created by Richard Levinson and William Link, inverted the classic detective formula: The TV audience already knew whodunit when Columbo arrived on the scene of the crime. The enjoyment for viewers was in seeing how Columbo doggedly pieced the clues together. As he said in one episode, "I have this bug about tying up loose ends."

Columbo, who was never given a first name, became one of the most memorable TV characters in television history — ranked No. 7 in TV Guide's 1999 list of "TV's Fifty Greatest Characters Ever."

With his tousled dark brown hair, a cheap cigar wedged between his fingers and his lived-in tan raincoat, the endearingly likable lieutenant was as unprepossessing as the faded old Peugeot he drove.

Indeed, when Columbo brought up the subject of men's clothing and male vanity in one early episode, guest star Suzanne Pleshette, as the segment title's "Witness to a Murder," pointedly looked at the disheveled detective and remarked: "Some men, Lieutenant, do not want to look like an unmade bed."

The show often made light of Columbo's lack of fashion sense. Taking note of the detective's tatty attire, a suspect once asked him, "Are you undercover?" Replied Columbo, "No, underpaid."

In another episode, a nun at a soup kitchen where Columbo was interviewing a witness took one look at his worn raincoat, mistook him as a vagrant and insisted on finding him a better coat in the shelter's used-clothing collection.

Columbo: "Y'know, I appreciate what you're doin', I really do, but I've had this coat for seven years."

Sister: "Oh, you poor man!"

Admonished by the nun not to feel ashamed of his shabby raincoat, Columbo said: "No, I'm very fond of it."

But beyond his rumpled exterior, disarmingly childlike curiosity and seeming disorganization — he'd frequently lose his pencil and have to borrow a pen to jot down notes — there was no question Columbo was the right man for the job.

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