This article is about the actor. For the American art historian, see Peter H. Falk
. For the Swiss politician and diplomat, see Peter Falck
He first starred as Columbo in two 90-minute TV pilots; the first with Gene Barry
in 1968 and the second with Lee Grant
in 1971. The show then aired as part of The NBC Mystery Movie
series from 1971 to 1978, and again on ABC
from 1989 to 2003.
Falk was twice nominated for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor
, for Murder, Inc.
(1960) and Pocketful of Miracles
(1961), and won his first Emmy Award
in 1962 for The Dick Powell Theatre
. He was the first actor to be nominated for an Academy Award
and an Emmy Award
in the same year, achieving the feat twice (1961 and 1962). He went on to appear in such films as It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World
(1963), The Great Race
(1968), Murder by Death
(1976), The Cheap Detective
(1978), The In-Laws
(1979), The Princess Bride
(1987), Wings of Desire
(1987), The Player
(1992), and Next
(2007), as well as many television guest roles.
Falk as a senior in high school, 1945
Born in The Bronx
, Falk was the son of Michael Peter Falk (1898–1981), owner of a clothing and dry goods
store, and his wife, Madeline (née Hochhauser; 1904–2001),
an accountant and buyer
Both his parents were Jewish,
coming from Poland
and Russia on his father's side
and from Hungary
and Łabowa, Nowy Sącz County
, Poland, on his mother's side. Falk grew up in Ossining, New York
Falk's right eye was surgically removed when he was three because of a retinoblastoma
; he wore an artificial eye
for most of his life.
The artificial eye was the cause of his trademark squint.
Despite this limitation, as a boy he participated in team sports, mainly baseball and basketball. 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."
After graduating from high school in 1945, Falk briefly attended Hamilton College
in Clinton, New York. He then tried to join the armed services as World War II
was drawing to a close. Rejected because of his missing eye, he joined the United States Merchant Marine
and served as a cook and mess boy. Falk said of the experience in 1997: "There they don't care if you're blind or not. 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 on its attack on Egypt. I wasn't passionate about Israel, I wasn't passionate about Egypt—I just wanted more excitement… I got assigned a ship and departure date but the war was over before the ship ever sailed."
Falk 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 he had "no interest in and no aptitude for".
He applied for a job with the CIA
, but he 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 (which had been under fire for communist leanings).
He then became a management analyst with the Connecticut State Budget Bureau in Hartford
In 1997, 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. 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
, Connecticut. Falk later recalled how he "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 of Le Gallienne: "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 was not a professional actor. According to him Le Gallienne 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.
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 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 received 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 ActorAcademy 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 the role. In his autobiography, Capra wrote 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 he "never worked with a director who showed greater enjoyment of actors and the acting craft. 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 once recalled how 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 supporting 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
, although he only appears in the last fifth of the movie. His other roles included the character of Guy Gisborne in the Rat Pack
musical comedy Robin and the 7 Hoods
(1964), in which he sings one of the film's numbers, and the spoof The Great Race
(1965) with Jack Lemmon
and Tony Curtis
Early television roles
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, The Untouchables
, Have Gun–Will Travel, The Islanders,
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 would-be assassins in a newly acquired magic mirror. He starred in two of Alfred Hitchcock
's television series, as a gangster terrified of death in a 1961 episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents
and as a homicidal evangelist in 1962's The Alfred Hitchcock Hour
In 1963, Falk and Tommy Sands
appeared as brothers who disagreed on the route for a railroad in "The Gus Morgan Story" on ABC's Wagon Train
. Falk played the title role of "Gus", and Sands was his 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, believing he is dead. Ethan has been overcome with oxygen deprivation and needs Gus' assistance to reach safety down the mountain. Unknown to the Morgans, Hale crawls down the mountain through snow, determined to obtain revenge against Gus. In time, though, Hale comes to understand the difficult choice Morgan had to make, 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 1966, he also co-starred in a television production of "Brigadoon" with Robert Goulet
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."
As Lt. Columbo, 1973
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".
His character, best known for his catch-phrase Just one more thing
was a shabby and deceptively absent-minded police detective lieutenant driving a Peugeot 403
, who had first appeared in the 1968 film Prescription: Murder
. Rather than a whodunit
, the show typically revealed the murderer from the beginning, then showed how the Los Angeles homicide detective went about solving the crime. Falk would describe 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 (no relation) added that Falk "created an iconic cop… who always got his man (or woman) after a tortuous cat-and-mouse investigation". He also noted the idea for the character was "apparently inspired by Dostoyevsky's dogged police inspector, Porfiry Petrovich, in the novel Crime and Punishment
Peter 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: "The show is all over the world. 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 first episode of Columbo
as a series was directed in 1971 by a 24-year-old Steven Spielberg
in one of his earliest directing jobs. 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."
As Lt. Columbo with Richard Kiley
in episode "A Friend In Deed" aired on May 5, 1974
The character of Columbo had previously been played by Bert Freed
in a single television episode of The Chevy Mystery Show
in 1960, and by Thomas Mitchell
. Falk first played Columbo in Prescription: Murder
, a 1968 TV movie, and the 1970 pilot for the series, Ransom for a Dead Man
. 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-minute slot including commercials. In 1989, the show returned on ABC in the form of a less frequent series of TV movies, still starring Falk, airing until 2003. Falk won four Emmys for his role as Columbo.
was so popular, co-creator William Link
wrote a series of short stories published as The Columbo Collection
(Crippen & Landru, 2010) which includes a drawing by Falk of himself as Columbo, while the cover features a caricature of Falk/Columbo by Al Hirschfeld
As Lt. Columbo with Martin Landau
in episode "Double Shock" where Landau played a dual role as twin brothers, 1973
owns a basset hound named Dog. Originally, it was not going to appear in the show because Peter Falk believed that it ‘already had enough gimmicks’ but once the two met, Falk stated that Dog ‘was exactly the type of dog that Columbo would own,’ so he was added to the show and made his first appearance in 1972's "Étude In Black".
Columbo's wardrobe was personally provided by Peter Falk; they were his own clothes, including the high-topped shoes and the shabby raincoat, which made its first appearance in Prescription: Murder
. Falk would often ad lib
his character's idiosyncrasies (fumbling through his pockets for a piece of evidence and discovering a grocery list, asking to borrow a pencil, becoming distracted by something irrelevant in the room at a dramatic point in a conversation with a suspect, etc.), inserting these into his performance as a way to keep his fellow actors off-balance. He felt it helped to make their confused and impatient reactions to Columbo's antics more genuine.
According to Levinson, the catchphrase "one more thing" was conceived when he and Link were writing the play: "we had a scene that was too short, and we'd already had Columbo make his exit. We were too lazy to retype the scene, so we had him come back and say, 'Oh, just one more thing . . .' It was never planned."
featured an unofficial signature tune, the children's song "This Old Man
". It was introduced in the episode "Any Old Port in a Storm" in 1973 and the detective can be heard humming or whistling it often in subsequent films. Peter Falk admitted that it was a melody he personally enjoyed and one day it became a part of his character.
The tune was also used in various score arrangements throughout the three decades of the series, including opening and closing credits. A version of it, titled "Columbo", was created by one of the show's composers, Patrick Williams
A few years prior to his death, Falk had expressed interest in returning to the role. In 2007, he said he had chosen a script for one last Columbo episode, "Columbo: Hear No Evil". The script was renamed "Columbo's Last Case". ABC declined the project. In response, producers for the series announced that they were attempting to shop the project to foreign production companies.
However, Falk was diagnosed with dementia
in late 2007. Falk died on June 23, 2011, aged 83.
Peter Falk won 4 Emmy Awards
for his portrayal of Lieutenant Columbo in 1972, 1975, 1976 and 1990. Falk directed just one episode: the highly acclaimed Blueprint for Murder in 1971. Although it is rumored that he and John Cassavetes
were largely responsible for direction duties on Etude in Black in 1972. Falk's own favorite Columbo episodes were Any Old Port in a Storm, Forgotten Lady, Now You See Him and Identity Crisis. Falk was rumored to be earning $300,000 per episode when he returned for Season 6 of Columbo in 1976. This doubled to $600,000 per episode when the series made its comeback in 1989. In 1997, Murder by the Book was ranked at No. 16 in TV Guide
‘s ‘100 Greatest Episodes of All Time’ list. Two years later, the magazine ranked Lieutenant Columbo No. 7 on its ’50 Greatest TV Characters of All Time’ list.
John Cassavetes and Peter Falk in 1971
Falk was a close friend of independent film director John Cassavetes
and appeared in his films Husbands
, A Woman Under the Influence
, and, in a cameo
, at the end of Opening Night
. Cassavetes guest-starred in the Columbo
episode "Étude in Black" in 1972; Falk, in turn, co-starred with Cassavetes in the 1976 film Mikey and Nicky
. Falk describes his experiences working with Cassavetes, specifically remembering his directing strategies: "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."
Falk continued to work in films, including his performance as an ex-CIA
officer of questionable 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 Brother's and said, 'We'd like to do a picture', and Warner 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."
Falk appeared in The Great Muppet Caper
, The Princess Bride
, Murder by Death
, The Cheap Detective
, and in Wim Wenders
' 1987 German language film Wings of Desire
and its 1993 sequel, Faraway, So Close!.
In Wings of Desire
, Falk played a semi-fictionalized version of himself, a famous American actor who had once been an angel, but who had grown disillusioned with only observing life on Earth and had in turn given up his immortality. Falk described the role as "the craziest thing that I've ever been offered", but he earned critical acclaim for his supporting performance in the film.
Peter Falk in 2007
Falk married Alyce Mayo, whom he met when the two were students at Syracuse University
on April 17, 1960. The couple adopted two daughters, Catherine (who was to become a private investigator
) and Jackie. Falk and his wife divorced in 1976. On December 7, 1977, he married actress Shera Danese
who guest-starred in more episodes of the Columbo
series than any other actress.
Falk was a chess aficionado and 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.
In December 2008 it was reported that Falk had been diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease
In June 2009, at a two-day conservatorship
trial in Los Angeles, one of Falk's personal physicians, Dr. Stephen Read, reported he 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. Shera Danese Falk was appointed as her husband's conservator.
His death was marked by tributes from many film celebrities including Jonah Hill
and Stephen Fry
. Steven Spielberg
said, "I learned more about acting from him at that early stage of my career than I had from anyone else." 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".
His epitaph reads "I'm not here, I'm home with Shera."
In 2015, legislation known as "Peter Falk's Law" was passed in New York State to protect children from being cut off from news of serious medical and end-of-life developments regarding their parents or from contact with them. In introducing the measure, Senator John DeFrancisco
said, "For every wrong there should be a remedy. This bill gives a remedy to children of elderly and infirm parents who have been cut off from receiving information about their parents. It also gives them an avenue through the courts to obtain visitation rights with the parents."
In Falk's case, according to his daughter Catherine, his second wife Shera Danese
(who also was his conservator), allegedly stopped some of his family members from visiting him; did not notify them of major changes in his condition; and did not notify them of his death and funeral arrangements. Catherine later encouraged the passage of legislation called Peter Falk's Law. The law provides guidelines regarding visitation rights and notice of death with which an incapacitated person's guardians or conservators must comply.
As of 2020, more than fifteen states had enacted such laws.
Awards and nominations
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- ^ "Golden Globe winners and nominees". goldenglobes.com. Retrieved March 20, 2020.
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