Recently, the entertainment world lost a man whom many television viewers considered to be a living institution, especially for those old enough to vividly remember the 1970s. He was depicted as a detective in a rumpled-up raincoat and who often appeared somewhat shabby in appearance. From the looks of him, some might have mistaken him for a derelict; he didn’t appear to be too bright, at least by the estimate of his criminal suspects and from even some of his fellow policemen. But that was all part of his foil; this seemingly naive, shabby-looking detective always caught his man-or woman, often unawares.
Yes, Peter Falk brought alive his Columbo character in many Americans’ living room, he demonstrated that one doesn’t have to follow social conventions to be accepted and that looks can be deceiving; the man was a lieutenant, after all, that should have told people something about his keen detective intelligence and wit.
Peter Falk, was a New Yorker, having been born on the Lower East Side on September 16, 1927, to Peter Michael Falk, who was the owner of a clothing and dry goods business and Madeline Hochauser Falk, who was an accountant and buyer. Peter was of various extractions, being of Czech, Hungarian, Russian and Polish roots. He and his family eventually moved to Upstate New York during his early childhood. This is where he would spend his formative years.
When Peter was three years old, he had an eye operation that resulted in its removal, being replaced with a glass eye. This didn’t stop Peter from enjoying the normal activities of youth; in fact he played on his school baseball and basketball. When Peter was 12 years old, he had his first taste of acting when he appeared in a production of “The Pirates of Penzance”, One of his camp counselors was Ross Martin, who himself would become an acclaimed actor, perhaps being best-remembered for his role of Artemus Gordon to Robert Conrad’s Jim West character in the 1960s western classic, “The Wild, Wild West.” He would rejoin with Falk years later in the 1971 Columbo classic, “Suitable for Framing” in which Martin played a greedy, murderous artist intent on getting his aunt’s money by making it appear that she murdered her husband when in fact he was the murderer.
Falk graduated from high school in 1945, after which he tried to enlist in the U.S. Army, but was rejected for his glass eye. Instead, he joined the Merchant Marines, in which he served with distinction for several years. In the late-1940s-early 1950s after his stint with the Merchant Marines, Falk attended several colleges and Universities; in fact he earned a bachelors degree for political science when he graduated from the New School for Social Research in 1951.
Not long afterward, he attended Syracuse University, in Upstate New York, but he was in sort of a career crisis: He wasn’t sure of what he wanted to do for the rest of his life. Even though he attained a Master in Public Administration degree in 1953, a degree that had a program that was designed to trained civil servants for a job with the Federal Government, it was a job that he was not interested in and had no particular aptitude for. At one point, he tried to apply for a job with The CIA, but was rejected because of his service in the Merchant Marine. He eventually settled on being an management analyst in Hartford, Connecticut in the mid-1950s. But Falk had this itching sensation that told him this wasn’t the field for him: He wanted to be an actor.
By 1955-56, Peter Falk finally decide that being an actor would be his life’s work, and so he left his analyst job around this time and pursued the acting profession full-fledged. He had resumed the love for acting he had as a child while he was still working as an analyst in Hartford when he appeared in several plays, such well-known plays of the day such as the Caine Muntiny, which was became a major Humphrey Bogart film in 1954, as well as The Crucible and the Country Girl, by Clifford Odets, which was also a major film of the era.
He had rekindled such a renewed love for acting that by 1956 he quit his job as an analyst and pursued his chosen career as an actor. He made his first debut as an adult stage actor when he appeared in the in the Off-Broadway play “Dom Juan” in January 1956 at the Fourth Street Theater, which closed after only one performance. But Falk did not easily give up, he continued to hone his craft.
He became a character actor, playing various roles on different television shows of the day, such as “The Untouchables”, for instance, when he played a gangster in one episode. Hollywood didn’t seem to pay much attention to him at first, that is not until 1960, when he first came to public attention and acclaim when he portrayed the 1930s gangster Abe “Kid Twist” Reles, who was a real-life informer of Murder, Inc, which was in effect a hit squad organization, which is believed to have killed Reles when he either fell or was pushed out of a Brooklyn hotel window in 1941, when he appeared in the film “Murder, Inc” (1960).
Falk began to appear in several films afterward, such memorable films, as “Pressure Point” (1962), with acclaimed actor Sidney Poitier; “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World” (1963), which had an all-star cast, and most notably, his gangster role in the 1964 classic film “Robin and the Seven Hoods”, which featured the Rat Pack, Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr., Peter Lawford and Joey Bishop.
Falk continued to play many roles on television throughout the sixties, even appearing in his first featured show, “The Trials of O’Brian”, which was on the air for one season, 1965-1966; he played a lawyer. In the late 1960’s Falk’s career was about to reach another turning point; there were plans for an up-coming show about a unconventional detective who just went by the title “Lieutenant Columbo” (Interestingly, on most of the Columbo episodes his first name was never mentioned; there is one episode in which when Columbo was displaying his police badge to a woman, it read “Frank Columbo”, so apparently this was his character’s name. Some sources even claim that his name was Philip).
But the producers had a problem: Who would be the best actor to play the detective? Actually, the Columbo character was created in a single 1960 TV episode and was also a play, and plans was being made to convert the character into a regular TV series. The original actors to play the role was Bert Freed, who created the role and later played by Thomas Mitchell.
One actor who was considered for the part was believe it or not, famous crooner Bing Crosby, but he promptly turned it down. The second choice was Falk, and as the saying goes, the rest is history.
Peter Falk made what would be the first of many Columbo episodes when he appeared in “Prescription Murder” (1968), with fellow actor and later game show host Gene Barry, in which Barry played a doctor who murdered his wife in lieu with his relationship with a younger woman. It was such a success that the Columbo craze rapidly caught on; he would make numerous Columbo episodes, some of which follows:
-Ransom For a Dead Man (1971)
-Suitable for Framing (1971)
-Murder by the Book (1972)
-Short Fuse (1972)
-Lady in Waiting (1972)
-The Most Dangerous Man (1973)
-Any Port in a Storm (1974)
-By Dawn’s Early Light (1975)
-Try and Catch Me (1976)
In fact, Falk would continue to make Columbo episodes until 2003, when he appeared in his last one. He continued to make films during his years as Columbo as well, most notably films such as “The Cheap Detective (1977) and “The Brink’s Job” (1978)
Despite his busy and demanding schedule as an actor, Falk also had time for a personal life; he married his college sweetheart, Alice Mayo in 1960, a union that lasted for 16 years, during which they adopted two daughters; they divorced in 1976. In 1977, he married actress Shera Danese, a marriage that would last until his death.
In later years, Peter Falk eventually began to fade into obscurity. His health began to deteriorate in his later years as well, and he died on June 23, 2011, at the age of 83.
No matter what roles Peter Falk played, memorable or not, he will always be remembered as the shabby-looking detective with the frumpled-up raincoat who in the end always caught his man-or woman.