TV's Columbo, Peter Falk, dead at 83

Peter Falk, whose portrayal of the disheveled, raincoat-wearing homicide detective Columbo made him a household name and earned him several Emmy awards, has died aged 83, his family said Friday. Falk died on Thursday at his home.

tv Updated: Jun 25, 2011 12:16 IST

"Peter Falk, 83 year-old Academy Award nominee and star of television series Columbo, died peacefully at his Beverly Hills home in the evening of June 23, 2011," said a statement issued by a family lawyer. The cause of death was not given, but the actor had suffered from Alzheimer's in recent years, and his wife Shera was appointed to look after his affairs in 2009.

Falk had an impressive movie career including 1974's A Woman Under the Influence, Wim Wenders's classic Wings of Desire in 1987 and The Princess Bride in the same year. But it was as Columbo that he will be most remembered.

Columbo started as a TV movie in 1968 and was later made into a weekly series, in 1971. It quickly rose in the ratings to become one of the most popular shows on television, and won four Emmy awards over the years.

He played Lieutenant Columbo, a seemingly slow-witted Los Angeles detective who invariably succeeded in nabbing the criminal just minutes before the closing credits. "Just one more thing," Columbo would say, resuming his questioning of the prime suspect who had been certain until that moment that he had failed to arouse the investigator's suspicion. Part of Falk's loveable schtick as Columbo was the ever-present cigar that dangled from his fingers and his wrinkled raincoat, worn regardless of the weather, plucked from Falk's own bedroom closet.

Born in New York City on September 16, 1927, Falk was diagnosed at the age of three with cancer of the eye, he wrote in his 2006 book Just One More Thing -- named after his Columbo catchphrase. After surgeons removed his right eye, Falk was fitted with a glass eye, which did not stop him from becoming a star athlete and being elected class president at school. He even learned early in life to play his disability for laughs -- during a high school baseball game, Falk wrote, the umpire called him out at third base when he was certain he was safe. "In front of everyone, I whipped out my eye and handed it to the umpire, (saying) 'You'll do better with this one.' Talk about getting a laugh. I got a roar. Even the guys on the other team were rolling in the grass," he wrote.

After high school, Falk joined the merchant marines and went to sea as a cook, but then went to college to study public administration. He tried to get a job working for the CIA, but his membership in a labor union while a seaman -- seen as having the taint of possible communist affiliation -- torpedoed Falk's chances of getting work as a government spy. Falk later found employment at the post office, and then as a bureaucrat with the Connecticut state government, doing a bit of regional theater and taking acting classes on the side.

Then in 1956, at the age of 29, he abruptly quit his day job and decided to to move back to New York, declaring himself an actor. The gamble paid off. Falk found quick on-stage success in a 1956 off-Broadway production of The Iceman Cometh, playing opposite legendary actor Jason Robards. But Hollywood was not so hospitable at first. A movie talent scout reportedly had wanted to recruit Falk, but the actor was rejected by the head of a major movie studio.

Undaunted, Falk moved in 1960 to Hollywood, where he received an Oscar nomination for his first role, in "Murder, Inc." He garnered another nomination for his second big screen role, in the 1961 film Pocketful of Miracles." Falk is survived by his wife of 34 years Shera and two daughters from a previous marriage.

First Published: Jun 25, 2011 11:20 IST