Born on 16 September 1927, in The Bronx, New York City, Peter Falk was an iconic actor whose distinctive voice, dishevelled appearance, and incredible talent made him a beloved figure in the entertainment industry. Although best known as Lieutenant Columbo in the long-running NBC series, for which he won four Prime Time Emmy Awards, Falk's remarkable career spanned over six decades, demonstrating his versatility through a myriad of other memorable performances whilst working alongside esteemed directors and actors and leaving an indelible mark on both the big and small screens.
Falk's road to success was not traditional by any means. He was born into a relatively modest family and his early life was marred by personal challenges. At the age of three, he lost his right eye due to a retinoblastoma, a rare form of cancer that rapidly develops in the retina. As a result, he wore an artificial eye for most of his life which was the cause of his trademark squint.
Despite this limitation, as a boy, he participated in team sports, mainly baseball and basketball, not letting his disability hamper him and even using it as the subject of humour. In a 1997 interview he remembered, "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 completing his education, Falk 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. After 18 months, he returned to education and attained a bachelor's degree in literature and political science before applying for a job with the CIA, for which he was turned down as he had previously been a member of a union, and at that time in the USA any affiliation with such a body was regarded as being sympathetic towards communist beliefs.
Falk finally found a job as an "efficiency expert," joined a community theatre group and began taking acting classes with Eva Le Gallienne, a British-born American stage actress, producer, director, translator, and author. However, Le Gallienne's classes were for professional actors and so Falk lied about his work. He was found out one day by Le Gallienne herself. When he admitted that he was not a professional actor Le Gallienne looked at him sternly and said: "Well, you should be." Giving him a letter of introduction to an agent in New York, Le Gallienne set Peter Falk off on his future career path.
In 1956, Falk made his Broadway debut appearing in Alexander Ostrovsky's Diary of a Scoundrel. Towards the end of the year, he appeared as an English soldier in Shaw's Saint Joan. Despite his stage success, a theatrical agent advised Falk not to expect much film acting work because of his artificial eye. A screen test at Columbia Pictures proved to be unsuccessful for that very reason. However, he began to pick up small roles here and there on television in 1957 and 1958 before making his big screen debut in Wind Across the Everglades which starred Burl Ives, Christopher Plummer and Gypsy Rose Lee.
Within three years, Peter Falk would find himself elevated into the headlines when his role of Abe Reles in the movie Murder, Inc. saw him nominated for both an Academy Award and a Golden Globe. That same year (1961) he was nominated for an Emmy Award for his performance in an episode of a short-lived TV series called The Law and Mr. Jones. It was the first time that an actor had been nominated for the top film and TV awards in the same year and, incredibly, he repeated that feat the following year for his supporting role in the movie Pocketful of Miracles and an episode of The Dick Powell Show.
By the early 1960s television roles were becoming more frequent too, with Falk turning up in such shows as Alfred Hitchcock Presents, The Untouchables, The Twilight Zone, Naked City, Wagon Train and Ben Casey. His face was becoming more familiar with viewers, not just in the USA but internationally. He appeared in the star-studded comedy movie It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, as a cab driver who joins a race to discover where a fortune in stolen money has been hidden. Falk displayed a natural talent for comedy and a few years later he brought that side of his ability to another race, The Great Race, which starred Tony Curtis and Jack Lemon.
Falk's first lead in a television series came with CBS's The Trials of O'Brien. The show ran from 1965 to 1966, its 22 episodes featuring Falk as a Shakespeare-quoting lawyer who defends clients while solving mysteries. However, it was Falk's role as the iconic detective Lieutenant Columbo that solidified his place in television history. From 1968 to 2003, Falk portrayed the scruffy and cigar-smoking detective in the hit series Columbo. The character's trademark trench coat, rumpled look, and idiosyncratic mannerisms showcased Falk's exceptional acting skills and made the show an instant classic.
Falk's portrayal of Columbo earned him widespread recognition and acclaim. Columbo’s unconventional methods and sharp intellect, coupled with Falk's natural talent to portray the deceptively absent-minded police detective lieutenant created one of television’s most unforgettable roles.
Later, Falk appeared in The Great Muppet Caper, The Princess Bride, Murder by Death, The Cheap Detective, Vibes, Made, and in Wim Wenders' 1987 German language film Wings of Desire and its 1993 sequel, Faraway, So Close!
Falk's impact extended beyond the silver screen. He was committed to giving back to society, actively involving himself in charitable activities. He supported various causes throughout his life, particularly those related to healthcare and humanitarian aid. Falk's philanthropic efforts mirrored his genuine concern for others, embodying the qualities of kindness and compassion.
Sadly, Peter Falk’s illustrious career came to an end when, in December 2008, it was reported that he had been diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease. He passed away on 23 June 2011. However, his memory lives on, etched in the hearts of fans and fellow actors alike. Falk's unique contribution to the detective genre paved the way for future crime-solving narratives, influencing generations to come. His captivating performances continue to inspire aspiring actors around the world. His authenticity and natural talent set him apart. His unwavering commitment to his craft, combined with his distinct persona, made him a beloved figure both on and off the screen. Falk's legacy as one of the most iconic actors of his time remains unparalleled, ensuring his place in the annals of entertainment history.
Published on October 22nd, 2023. Written by Laurence Marcus for Television Heaven.