Veteran actor won five Emmys, four for popular detective role

Cynthia Littleton: The day Lt. Columbo paid me a visit

Peter Falk became synonymous with one of TV’s most enduring franchises with his signature role as the disheveled and disarming Lt. Columbo.

But his long thesping career also encompassed John Cassavetes’ intense indie dramas, the Broadway stage and Hollywood hits including “The Great Race,” “The In-Laws” and “The Princess Bride.”

Falk, who had suffered from Alzheimer’s disease and dementia in recent years, died Thursday evening at his home in Beverly Hills. He was 83.

Falk earned four Emmys for his role as the rumpled, cigar-smoking Los Angeles police detective who famously never disclosed his first name.

In the “Columbo” telepics that Universal Television produced for NBC and ABC from the early 1970s on and off through 2003, Lt. Columbo was always assigned high-profile homicide cases involving rich and powerful victims and perpetrators. He was always underestimated by conniving murderers, allowing the detective to piece together the evidence and make his move in the last act. The telepics, which ranged over the years from 90 minutes to two hours, became a worldwide phenomenon for U.

The series was known for its notable casting of guest stars, which included Ray Milland, Myrna Loy, Don Ameche, Janet Leigh, Anne Francis, Roddy McDowall, Jackie Cooper, Ida Lupino, Faye Dunaway and Lee Grant. “Columbo” segs also were a key training ground for up-and-coming writers and directors on the Universal lot, including Steven Spielberg, Stephen J. Cannell and Steven Bochco.

During “Columbo’s” peak in the mid-1970s, Falk wielded major clout on the U lot. He assembled a company of supporting players and crew members, many of whom wound up working on the show for decades. Falk directed several segs of the series and often recruited his friends, including Cassavetes, Ben Gazzara, Patrick McGoohan and Nicholas Colasanto, to star in and helm episodes.

Cassavetes referred to Falk as theman “everybody falls in love with.” Falk had starring roles in several pics directed by Cassavetes, including “Husbands” (1970) and “A Woman Under the Influence” (1974). Falk also found success onstage, particularly in Neil Simon’s Tony-winning “The Prisoner of Second Avenue,” and drew two Oscar nominations early in his career.

By the mid-1970s, Falk was earning $500,000 for each of the two-hour telepics. He fought for years with Universal to let him out of his “Columbo” contract, only to return time and again to the character.

Falk did not decide on an acting career until he was almost 30. Born in Manhattan, he was raised in Ossining, N.Y. After serving in the Merchant Marines for 18 months as a cook following WWII, he studied at Hamilton College, finished his B.A. in political science at the New School for Social Research in 1951 and received his M.A. in public administration at Syracuse U.

After being rejected by the CIA, he worked for the state of Connecticut and began acting in community theater. Encouraged by his acting teacher, he quit his job and moved to New York to study under Jack Landau and Sanford Meisner, making his Off Broadway debut in 1956 in Moliere’s “Don Juan” and hitting Broadway in “St. Joan” when it transferred from Off Broadway in 1957.

Next came the role of the bartender in the hit revival of Eugene O’Neill’s “The Iceman Cometh” and roles in “Diary of a Scoundrel,” “The Lady’s Not for Burning,” “Purple Dust,” “Bonds of Interest” and “Comic Strip.”

He was discouraged from seeking employment in the movies due to his glass eye, the result of the removal of his real eye at the age of 3 due to a malignant tumor. Columbia’s Harry Cohn, after expressing interest in the young actor, turned him away when he heard of the artificial eye, which caused Falk to squint somewhat — a disadvantage that was to become an envied acting trademark.

He landed work in “Wind Across the Everglades,” “The Bloody Brood,” “Pretty Boy Floyd” and “Secret of the Purple Reef.” Though the film “Murder, Inc.” was not particularly well received in 1960, Falk’s vicious gangster portrayal earned him kudos and his first Oscar nomination. The following year he was paired with Bette Davis in Frank Capra’s “Pocketful of Miracles,” showing a flair for comedy that brought a second Oscar nom.

While he worked steadily in movies over the next decade (“Pressure Point,” “The Balcony,” “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World,” “Robin and the Seven Hoods”), he was usually better than the vehicle.

Falk shone brightest on dramatic television — such programs as “Studio One,” “Robert Montgomery Presents” and “Omnibus” as well as “The Untouchables,” “Alfred Hitchcock Presents,” “Twilight Zone” and “Naked City.”

Emmy noms came his way for the “Cold Turkey” episode of “The Law and Mr. Jones,” and he copped the award for “The Dick Powell Theatre” presentation “The Price of Tomatoes” in 1962. He also appeared in special presentations such as “Brigadoon” (1966) and “A Hatful of Rain” (1971).

Falk returned to Broadway as Stalin in Paddy Chayefsky’s ill-fated “The Passion of Josef D.” And then he agreed to star in his first TV series, playing a New York lawyer in the well-reviewed but short-lived “The Trials of O’Brien” for CBS during the 1965-66 season.

He first took on the role of Lt. Columbo in 1968 in the NBC TV movie “Prescription Murder,” which featured Gene Barry as a murderous psychiatrist. The Columbo character, created by Richard Levinson and William Link, was such a hit that by the early 1970s, “Columbo” was part of NBC’s Mystery Movie rotation of 90-minute crime programs.

Falk’s long collaboration with Cassavetes began when the two co-starred, along with Cassavetes’ wife Gena Rowlands in a routine gangster film, 1969′s “Machine Gun McCain.”

Falk, Cassavetes and Gazzara were known for their on- and offscreen adventures. During the filming of “Husbands” in 1969, Variety’s Army Archerd reported that “during a drunk scene, Cassavetes and Gazzara goaded Falk into taking off all his clothes.”

On the heels of his success with “Columbo,” Falk helped co-finance “A Woman Under the Influence,” which also featured Rowlands and Gazzara. Falk had a cameo in Cassavetes’ 1977 pic “Opening Night” and appeared in the helmer’s last film, “Big Trouble” (1986). The two co-starred in Elaine May’s 1976 feature “Mickey and Nicky.” Cassavetes, in turn, starred as an egotistical orchestra conductor in the 1972 “Columbo” seg “Etude in Black.”

After bickering with Universal over the constraints of “Columbo,” Falk abandoned the series in 1978 and moved back to movies. There were Simon crime comedies like “Murder by Death” (1976) and “The Cheap Detective” (1978), and a successful pairing with Alan Arkin in the comedy “The In-Laws” (1979), helmed by Arthur Hiller.

Falk’s other feature credits included “The Brink’s Job” (1978), “All the Marbles” (1981), “Wings of Desire” (1987), “Vibes” (1988), “Cookie” (1989), “Tune in Tomorrow” (1990), “In the Spirit” (1990), “Roommates” (1995), “Made” (2001) and “Next” (2007).

He returned to “Columbo” when ABC revived the series in 1989. The net aired multiple installments per year through 1993 and then sporadically until the 2003 final episode, “Columbo Likes the Night Life.”

More than any other pastime, Falk loved his vocation.

“He could spend hours rehearsing and rehearsing and rehearsing,” said Carole Smith, who worked as Falk’s personal assistant from 1968-81. At heart, Falk was “very sweet, very funny, very down to earth,” she added.

He is survived by his wife of 34 years, actress Shera Danese, and two daughters from a previous marriage.

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