In Memory of Peter Falk
The Late Peter Falk as Lt. Columbo
A Tribute to my Favorite TV Detective
Peter Falk passed away June 23, 2011. He was 83. Born in 1927, he'd been in many films and TV shows but he is best remembered for his role as the quirky detective Columbo. I am personally of the belief that "Columbo" is the greatest of the TV sleuths. Several years ago, when TV guide made their list of the 50 Best TV characters of all-time, Lt. Columbo was in the top five. The character's popularity was due in no small part to the amazing performance by Falk. He won four Emmy Awards for his portrayal of the detective in the rumpled raincoat. But there was more to Peter Falk than just that one role. He was a very talented man who'd had a very long and versatile career.
Falk didn't have the easiest life, losing his eye at the age of three due to a tumor. He used a glass eye ever since. Falk had to overcome that handicap all through his life, trying to play sports and later to be an actor. He wanted to join the Marines but was turned down because of his eye. Falk was turned down for an early acting role by Harry Cohn (of Columbia pictures) who said, "For the same money, I can get an actor with two eyes!" (That guy needed some sensitivity training.) Ironically, Falk's first acting role was as a detective in a high school play.
After trying different careers, he returned to acting years later. Despite his missing eye and the fact that he was not classically handsome, he was persistent. He managed to get some fairly steady TV work in the late 1950s. His big break-out year was in 1960, when he became the first actor to ever get an Oscar and an Emmy nomination in the same year. He was nominated for Best Supporting actor in the film Murder Incorporated, and an Emmy nomination for his appearance on the TV show The Law & Mrs. Jones. He didn't win the Oscar but he did win the Emmy. It was the first of many.
After that, Falk became a popular character actor on many TV shows, and soon got steady film work. His gift for humor allowed him to give some wonderfully hilarious performances in several comedy films. Some of his more popular films were It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963), Robin and the Seven Hoods (1964), and The Great Race (1965). And then in 1968 came the role that would define his career and change his life.
Prescription Murder started out as a play, starring Thomas Mitchell as an unorthodox detective named Columbo. The writers of the play, Levinson and Link, sold the rights to NBC to make a made-for-TV film out of the stage show. When Mitchell wasn't available for the shooting, NBC tried hard to get the legendary Bing Crosby for the role, but Crosby wanted to play in a golf tournament and the shooting schedule conflicted with that, so he passed. It was Levinson and Link who suggested Peter Falk for the role. Falk auditioned and everyone was so impressed by his unusual and unexpected interpretation of the character that he was hired on the spot. Falk's erratic portrayal of the character won over everyone and soon the two writers were refining the script to give the Columbo character a bigger part. The original script--like the play--focused more on the killer, but after seeing what Falk did with the character of Columbo, everyone knew they had a winner on their hands and so the script was re-written to focus on Columbo instead of the murderer.
The trademark raincoat was actually one of Peter Falk's old raincoats, but Levinson and Link loved the look of it. Falk was a heavy cigarette smoker, so smoking was added to the Columbo character. The writer's decided that he should smoke cigars instead. (Which led to Falk becoming a cigar smoker for the rest of his life.) The trademark phrase, "Oh, there's just one more thing" was never intended to be a catchphrase but somehow ended up being the detective's most often used line. (Later gimmicks were added to the series, such as Columbo's dog and his beaten-up old Peugeot.) Strangely,the character was never given a first name. He's never referred to by anything other than Lt. Columbo.
Prescription Murder got good ratings and was a critical hit. Falk's performance received universal acclaim. NBC knew a good thing when it saw one, so they immediately made a second Columbo TV film, which was equally successful. The very happy executives at NBC signed Peter Falk to a long-term contract as the star of the Columbo TV series. The show, which debuted in 1971, was part of the Sunday Night Mystery Movie anthology, which had rotating detective shows each week. Columbo was by far the most popular of the regular anthologies, and consistently got the highest ratings. The show would become internationally popular, and Falk would go on to win four Emmy's for his work.
Falk was so popular with the fans and the critics that he decided to use his new clout to play hardball with the NBC brass. He demanded a huge raise and when he didn't get it, he refused to film any further Columbo episodes. The game of chicken lasted for two weeks until NBC folded. They didn't want to lose their cash-cow and so Falk became the highest paid actor on television, ($500,000 per episode) despite only making six or seven episodes per-year.
Falk decided to quit the show in 1978, despite the ratings still being strong. He would continue to work steadily in films. He won a new generation of young fans by playing the story-telling grandfather in The Princess Bride (1987). In 1989, Falk was lured back to TV, reprising his most famous role as Lt. Columbo, as part of an ABC version of the Mystery Movie anthology. The new episodes aired sporadically. There were several per-year at first but then they became less and less frequent. The last one aired in 2003. There was never a conscious decision made to halt the Columbo series but the aging Falk was working less-and-less and kept putting off his return to the role, until health problems caused him to retire. His last role was in American Cowslip in 2009.
Falk's health took a major downturn after a car accident in 2009. He was later diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease and was placed under the conservator-ship of his long-time wife Shera Danese. He died at home.
Falk never complained about being so closely linked to the Columbo character. He was always willing to discuss the character in interviews and never ruled out another appearance in the raincoat. Because of Columbo, Falk will be remembered through the generations as the eccentric homicide detective with the cigar, the dog and the raincoat.
RIP Peter Falk.
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