Obituary: Peter Falk
- 24 June 2011
- From the section Entertainment & Arts
With his rumpled raincoat, battered car and never-seen wife, Columbo was one of television's most popular detectives. As the un-ironed but appealing lieutenant, Peter Falk was on our screens for more than 30 years and one of the world's most recognised actors.
The star was brought up in New York, the son of a Polish shop-keeper and his Russian wife. He worked as a cook in the merchant marine and earned a degree in political science.
He even worked as a public accountant, but his mind had been set on becoming an actor since standing in for the lead in a high school play.
Falk's theatrical agent told him to forget his chances of appearing on screen, particularly as his client had lost his right eye to a tumour at the age of three. Despite his agent's prediction, Falk soon found work both on stage and on television.
Further confounding his agent, the actor eventually made his mark in movies and was even Oscar-nominated twice, once for Murder Confidential in 1960 and again for A Pocketful of Miracles a year later.
He turned up to the Academy Awards the first time in a battered old Volkswagen and a rented tuxedo. His dishevelled appearance would later serve him well.
In 1968, Falk got his biggest break when Bing Crosby turned down the role of Columbo, a detective created for television some years before.
Instead, Falk stepped into the part, bringing with him his own patched-up raincoat and battered shoes that would become internationally familiar accessories.
The series differed from other police dramas in that viewers always knew from the outset the villain's identity. Nonetheless, they stayed to enjoy Lieutenant Columbo's quiet ruminations over a cheap cigar, his ability to engage his prime suspect in idle chat, and his final entrapment over a tiny detail that had been "troubling me all along".
The show ran for more than 30 years, earned Falk four Emmy awards in all and also made him a multi-millionaire. The series finished its regular run in 1977, but its repeats enjoyed huge ratings and Falk was still making Columbo specials well into his seventies.
He made his mark on the big screen, too, proving his versatility in a range of character roles. Respected director John Cassavetes cast him in Husbands in 1970 and A Woman Under the Influence in 1974.
'Affection for raincoat'
Even so, films ranging from The Princess Bride in 1987, Wim Wenders' Wings of Desire the same year, The Player in 1992 and Roommates in 1995, did little to dispel his self-inflicted type-casting.
And, although he even returned occasionally to the New York theatre of his youth, Falk reflected himself: "I would probably be a better actor if I hadn't spent so much time playing Columbo."
His role in the BBC's 2001 adaptation of The Lost World, a Sir Arthur Conan Doyle story, took Falk to New Zealand and gave the actor the opportunity to indulge in his favourite hobbies of charcoal-drawing and painting.
Back at home in Beverly Hills, he had a studio in the grounds of his vast estate and his work was later exhibited in galleries.
Sadly, in more recent years Falk succumbed to dementia and withdrew from public life.
But, to his wide audiences across the world, he will always be the rumpled, crumpled Columbo, the policeman with no first name.
Bemused by the success of his enduring character, Peter Falk was even grateful to his worn-out wardrobe. He once said: "I have a great affection for the original raincoat and put out a saucer of milk for it every night."