Peter Falk was Columbo and a whole lot more: a career-spanning appreciation

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.

Twitter: @kentucker

For more: Peter Falk, TV’s Columbo, dies

Comments (94 total) Add your comment
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  • ks

    He was in a great movie with Jack Lemon-The great race! showed a fun side of him. Will miss his movies-great underapprreciated actor.

    • Carla

      PUSH THE BUTTON MAX!!!!!!!!!!! :) Great movie!

  • Barry

    “Warren Beatty, commented that someone had suggested to him that he re-make 1979′s The In-Laws, and Beatty told him that notion was “ridiculous” in part because Falk’s performance was “perfect,” never to be improved upon”. But the idiots in Hollywood still remade it & turned out a piece of crap!

    • Cathy

      And they are still remaking every great (and not-so-great) movie into pieces of crap!!!

      • Ajau

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    • Jesssica

      Amen to that! Serpentine!

      • John

        You should have posted the “Serpentine! Serpentine!” clip from that tv show.. Hilarious!

  • Chris Doherty

    “The Great Race”! Yes! It was a funny movie!

    • Gidget

      The Great Race is my favorite. Falk commits grand theft in every scene, even against an over the top Jack Lemmon.

  • MiaS

    Wanted to be Columbo when I was growing up. The In-Laws still one of my favorite films. Great in Princess Bride. Terrific actor-he will be missed.

    • Dan

      ‘Serpentine! Serpentine!’

      • emmie

        Classic!

    • Joad

      Cathy First: Great site you have here Didn’t mind resigning up one bit! Glad to have the prlveiige of continuing lurking along the way with you. Second: I love this post about Unlikely Heroes. I’m so glad to have found one of those in my 15 yr old grand daughter lately. She wrote an essay about the horror of abortion and it was for her PUBLIC SCHOOL ENGLISH CLASS she WON an award and yet she was out side her comfort zone. Her teacher was willing to also step outside a comfort zone for submitting her essay to the board of judges.These people are real heroes to me and I appreciated your post shedding light on the ones rarely honored for their beliefs and their actions of courage!

  • MWeyer

    People ask how exciting can a mystery show be when you know who did it? Well, the answer is that it was never about who did it but how Columbo figured it out. The best ones are the episodes where he knows the truth early on but just drags it out to make the suspect slowly sweat, maybe give him breathing room, then close the trap. And every single time, you just sat in amazement at how natural Falk managed it all.

  • David Wishengrad

    Thank you to Ken Tucker. Nice words.

  • Flash Back

    A great actor who made ‘Columbo’ must-see-tv for me and so many others. R.I.P. old friend.

  • Mary

    Another of the fine character actors gone. Peter Falk was letter perfect whether in comedy or drama, and he was a true professional in his work. Never threw temper tantrums for more attention or money, like Lt. Colombo, he came in, did his job, and took pride in his work. And it always showed. He will be missed.

  • Jody

    I loved Peter Falk, all of his characters, but especially Columbo.

    • Marcos

      Jenboo Thank you so much for what you wrote here. I’ve always felt like haivng a Badass Mom is like being in a secret, hideous club that no one really wants to say they’re in and that is the main reason I write about my own hairspray addict mom. If ONE person can read one of my Badass Mom stories and think wow and I thought MY mom was freak and then feel less alone then that makes me feel like I am doing something good. I am SO corny in that way because of my lifelong experience of feeling alone around my mom issue. People are supposed to Love Thy Mother so if you have a Badass mom who doesn’t so much raise you as make life a scary obstacle course where does that leave you? For me, it left me feeling DIFFERENT and MAD and SCARED. Such a lovely combination. But it was my combination and I’ve spent my whole life trying to unravel the puzzle pieces that make up that combination in order to figure it all out. As I’ve made peace with who I am – I’ve made peace with my mom. I don’t know that the part of me that endured her harsh reign over me will ever really forgive her but it’s more like I can see it and her now AS IS without any crazed longing for it to be different or better or nicer. I still struggle at times but the struggle is no longer my focus or way of being around her. And the struggle is no longer the source of such great shame. Your questions here are so thoughtful and have such depth that it feels hard to know if I am responding in the right way. In the way that will show you that I’m grateful that you asked me those questions and that I nodded my head in recognition when I read those questions. I only know that from an EARLY age I knew deep down that if I was going to survive I needed to try to NOT be a sleepwalker and so most of my life has been spent piecing myself together and literally being like a detective in how I look at things and, often, how I have reframed things. This has been done in STAGES and it has required more kindness than I had for myself or anyone else most of the time and it has required being brave even though I am such a coward about so many things. Stages, kindness, anger, writing, confusion, grief, longing, disillusionment, horror and therapy. Lots and lots of therapy and diving in to the deepest parts of where I didn’t want to go in order to wake up and eventually heal because I knew it would be worth it. And lord knows it has been worth it. I hope this is a start to answer your questions. Thank you again for chiming in. It is everything to me!

  • Mickey

    I fell in love with Peter Falk” when he starred in “The Price of Tomatoes” with Inger Stevens. An outstanding performance.

    • Michelle

      YES! I was just thinking about that. I was just a kid but the performance made a big impression on me. RIP Mr Falk and thanks

      • Nesha

        That’s interesting about your Mom, Martha. I agree that there is a dcenerffie when something is functional; we have a different kind of relationship to it. But the painter and the quilter are both using the same design principles, problem-solving skills, etc.I’ve only seen Gee’s Bend works on line, but they certainly are beautiful, aren’t they?I’m so glad you enjoyed the new yellow work!

  • Jody

    I just remembered Murder by Death! He was great in that, as were all the other fabulous actors.

    • kel

      That is a great one! My sisters and I love that movie — Sam Diamond!

    • Theresa

      Absolutely love this movie!

  • Bill Pearson

    I loved Columbo, thank you so much Mr. Falk.. I’m sure you are at peace.God Bless Columbo.

  • Rhonnie F

    A tremendous actor! Columbo will always be one of my favorite shows and Mr. Falk was consistently brilliant in every episode. Even though I love classic movies, I’m embrassed to say that I have yet to see Wings Of Desire, A Pocketful Of Miracles, Murder By Death, The Cheap Detective, or the films that he made with Cassavetes. I’ll definitely be sure to watch all of those soon. He’s hilarious in The In-Laws though and was also very good in “The Mirror”, The Twilight Zone episode where he portrayed a Castro-like leader. A very underrated and brilliant actor. I’m happy to see that he won several awards for playing Lieutenant Columbo, one of the best television characters of all time.

    • bootsycolumbia

      You’ll love Wings of Desire. Don’t watch City of Angels, the American remake with Meg Ryan and Nicholas Cage; it’s really disappointing. The original film is really beautiful.

  • Shera Cohen

    I had the true pleasure of interviewing Peter Falk about 15 years ago. What a fine man, easily accessible, down to earth, and very funny. It was as if we were old friends.

  • Dee Jones

    I saw `A Woman Under the Influence` a few years ago and he was very good in that film. Surprised he wasn`t nominated for an Oscar.

    • Earth Angel

      Peter Falk well acted in
      A woman under the influence
      should of been given a oscar for it
      love andl ight
      Earth Angel

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