Peter Falk, who marshaled actorly tics, prop room appurtenances and his own physical idiosyncrasies to personify Columbo, one of the most famous and beloved fictional detectives in television history, died on Thursday night at his home in Beverly Hills, Calif. He was 83.His death was announced in a statement from Larry Larson, a longtime friend and the lawyer for Mr. Falk’s wife, Shera. He had been treated for Alzheimer’s disease in recent years.
Mr. Falk had a wide-ranging career in comedy and drama, in the movies and onstage, before and during the three-and-a-half decades in which he portrayed the slovenly but canny lead on “Columbo.” He was nominated for two Oscars; appeared in original stage productions of works by Paddy Chayefsky, Neil Simon and Arthur Miller, worked with the directors Frank Capra, John Cassavetes, Blake Edwards and Mike Nichols, and co-starred with the likes of Frank Sinatra, Bette Davis and Jason Robards.
But like that of his contemporary Telly Savalas of “Kojak” fame, Mr. Falk’s prime-time popularity was founded on a single role.
A lieutenant in the Los Angeles Police Department, Columbo was a comic variation on the traditional fictional detective. With the keen mind of Sherlock Holmes and Philip Marlowe, he was cast in the mold of neither — not a gentleman scholar, and not a tough guy. He was instead a mass of quirks and peculiarities, a seemingly distracted figure in a rumpled raincoat, perpetually patting his pockets for a light for his signature stogie.
He drove a battered Peugeot, was unfailingly polite, was sometimes accompanied by a basset hound named Dog, and was constantly referring to the wisdom of his wife (who was never seen on screen) and a variety of relatives and acquaintances who were identified in Homeric-epithet-like shorthand — an uncle who played the bagpipes with the Shriners, say, or a nephew majoring in dermatology at U.C.L.A. — and who were called to mind by the circumstances of the crime at hand.
It was a low-rent effect that was especially irksome to the high-society murderers he outwitted in episode after episode. In the detective-story niche where Columbo lived, whodunit was hardly the point; the murder was committed and the murderer revealed in the show’s opening minutes. How-it-was-done was paramount. Typically, Columbo would string his suspects along, flattering them, apologizing profusely for continuing to trouble them with questions, appearing to have bought their alibis and, just before making an exit, nailing them with a final, damning query that he unfailingly introduced with the innocent-sounding phrase “Just one more thing. ... ” It was the signal to viewers that the jig was up.
Mr. Falk had a glass eye, resulting from an operation to remove a cancerous tumor when he was 3 years old. The prosthesis gave all his characters a peculiar, almost quizzical squint. And he had a mild speech impediment that gave his L’s a breathy quality, a sound that emanated from the back of his throat and that seemed especially emphatic whenever, in character, he introduced himself as Lieutenant Columbo.
Such a deep well of eccentricity made Columbo amusing as well as incisive, not to mention a progenitor of later characters like Tony Shalhoub’s Monk.
From 1968 to 2003, Mr. Falk played the character dozens of times, often in the format of a 90-minute or two-hour television movie. “What are you hanging around for?” Mr. Falk wrote in 2006, describing the appeal of the show in his anecdotal memoir “Just One More Thing.” “Just one thing. You want to know how he gets caught.”
When Columbo, the ordinary man as hero, brought low the greedy and murderous privileged of Beverly Hills, Malibu and Brentwood, they were implicit victories for the many over the few.
“This is, perhaps, the most thoroughgoing satisfaction ‘Columbo’ offers us,” Jeff Greenfield wrote in The New York Times in 1973, “the assurance that those who dwell in marble and satin, those whose clothes, food, cars and mates are the very best, do not deserve it.”
Peter Michael Falk was born in Manhattan on Sept. 16, 1927, and lived for a time in the Bronx, near Yankee Stadium, but grew up mostly in Ossining, N.Y, where his father owned a clothing store and where, in spite of his missing eye, he was a high school athlete. In one story he liked to tell, after being called out at third base during a baseball game, he removed his eye and handed it to the umpire.
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