One of the most accomplished television, movie, and stage actors to ever create a pop culture icon, Peter Falk was Columbo, and he was also a helluva a lot more than that, too. His work in movies such as The Princess Bride, Wings of Desire, and The In-Laws, and especially in the proto-indie films made by his pal John Cassavetes, such as Husbands (1970), was superb. His stage career included marvelous performances in plays ranging from Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh to Neil Simon’s The Prisoner of Second Avenue, for which he won a Tony.
But Falk, who died Thursday at age 83, will remain best known as Lt. Columbo, one of the greatest of all TV characters. With his rumpled trench coat and wet stub of a cigar, Falk entered a scene as though he was a bum who’d wandered onto the set. He played Columbo as a wily bumbler, the sort of guy who seemed not to be paying attention, only to spring a precise, devastating question on a suspect and solve a case with startling ease. The ritualistic just-one-more-thing pattern to Columbo’s interrogations became a pop culture cliché itself (and the title for his 2006 memoir). But coming from Falk, the words were never clichéd: He delivered them every time as though they’d just occurred to the distracted police lieutenant.
Falk was a highly unlikely TV star. He had a glass eye and a face that was as rumpled as Columbo’s raincoat. He’d achieved success in the theater and had carved out quite a film career in the early 1960s, nominated for an Oscar for his hoodlum role in Murder, Inc. (1960), and starring in Frank Capra’s last film, Pocket Full of Miracles (1961). At the time, moving from the stage and film to TV was viewed as a step down in a career. Morever, the Columbo character was by no means a guaranteed success; Lt. Columbo had his first life in a play, Prescription: Murder, that folded out of town before it made it to Broadway. Thomas Mitchell portrayed Columbo there, and Bert Freed played Columbo in a 1961 TV episode of The Sunday Mystery Hour.
But then Prescription: Murder became a 1967 TV movie — and Falk wasn’t even the producers’ first choice: They wanted Bing Crosby to play the role, but Crosby passed, and Falk signed on. Columbo was the finest creation of producer-writers Richard Levinson and William Link, who also brought us Mannix and Murder, She Wrote, among many other shows. Levinson and Link manufactured a marvelous hybrid: Columbo took elements from literary detective fiction such as the locked-room mystery and the eccentric detective (think Ellery Queen or Miss Marple), and grafted it onto the police procedural and, sometimes, the hard-boiled pulp genre. Levinson and Link claimed Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, with its detective Petrovich, as one inspiration; Sherlock Holmes was another.
Out of this mongrel parentage came a purebred original. In 1971, Columbo became a regular production that rotated with other shows in the NBC Mystery Movie series; there were 90-minute and two-hour episodes of it. It became its own series soon after. By the time Falk and Columbo had become household names in the mid-1970s, Columbo was as much Falk’s creation as Levinson and Link’s. The actor helped produce the show, and invited friends such as Cassavetes and Ben Gazzara to work on episodes. The series was also a showcase for a succession of classic TV performances. It became a mark of honor to play a murderer who was doomed trying to outwit Columbo, and some of the most beloved of these were Jack Cassidy, Robert Culp, William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, and Patrick McGoohan.
Steven Spielberg directed 1971’s episode “Murder by the Book.” Other Columbo directors included Leo Penn (Sean’s father) and Nicholas Colasanto (Cheers’ Coach). Steven Bochco and the excellent hard-boiled novelist Jonathan Latimer wrote some Columbo scripts.
Columbo had a classic episode construction. In the first act, we saw the murder being committed, invariably a seemingly perfect crime. We knew who did it; the suspense resided in how Columbo would arrive at the knowledge the viewers had. In the second act, Columbo arrived on the scene in a cloud of cigar smoke to quiz witnesses, poke around, and ask questions that seemed both pertinent and utterly out of the blue, to be explained only later. This brought us to the third act, in which Columbo would not merely finger the culprit, but take us through his thought process, explaining how he’d figured out who the killer was. At their frequent best, watching Columbo episodes were like reading entire mystery novels in one sitting.
There was also a deeply satisfying class element to to Columbo. As an investigator for the Los Angeles Police Department, Columbo was found frequently among the rich and the super rich, the coddled and the spoiled — the upper-crust nouveau riche who frequently looked down their noses at this working-class interloper. How much money you made or the size of your swimming pool mattered not at all to Columbo; he was just there to do his job. He was humble — he never gloated about bagging a condescending killer — but he took pride in his labor.
Levinson and Link said that Falk wore the same suit, tie, and shoes for the entire run of the series. Falk himself picked out the battered Peugeot car that Columbo rattled around L.A. in; its tan color matched his character’s coat. When the weekly run ended in 1978, the character was later revived in a number of TV movies. There was also a short-lived Mrs. Columbo spin-off.
In movies, Falk initially specialized in tough guys; in his later years, his image softened by Columbo, he tended to be more kindly, as in The Princess Bride. Some of his best work was in the idiosyncratic, chatty, but vehement movies overseen by Cassavetes. Falk as a carousing buddy in Husbands, and an agonzied husband in A Woman Under the Influence (1974) are stand-outs, as was his costarring role in Elaine May’s Mickey and Nicky (1976). I once interviewed Warren Beatty, who commented that someone had suggested to him that he remake 1979’s The In-Laws, and Beatty told me that notion was “ridiculous” in part because Falk’s performance was “perfect,” never to be improved upon.
It was said that film director Frederico Fellini would leave dinner parties to go watch the latest episode of Columbo. Great artists respect other great artists.
For more: Peter Falk, TV’s Columbo, dies