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Peter Falk: A Tribute to a Star

By Mike Plunkett

My recollections of actor Peter Falk go back to about 1972 when his show Columbo was at the height of its popularity. My father watched the show religiously and I remember even at that young age being struck by Falk’s interpretation of the investigator; frumpled, painfully inquisitive, continuously apologetic and supernaturally determined to solve the mystery before him. The tone and pace of the show was different than your regular cop show, it was pure mystery with Falk expertly taking the viewer’s hand through each story to the point you could not change the channel or walk away. The final scene of each episode was grand; Columbo would gently corner the guest star of the week not unlike a master chess player, delivering a subtle checkmate while the game and arrogance of his opposition would literally vanish before your eyes. Falk was brilliant and believable as Columbo as if he were made for the role.

Born in New York City in 1927, Falk suffered trauma at age three having had his right eye removed because of a malignant tumor; for the rest of his life he would wear a glass eye which became one of his most noticeable traits. Rejected by the army because of his limited eyesight, he spent World War II enlisted in the Merchant Marines. After the war he returned home to finish his college education, obtained his master’s degree in public administration which landed him a job as an efficiency expert in Hartford Connecticut in the early 50’s. Not long into that career he began dabbling in acting, studying with acclaimed actress and teacher Eva Le Gallienne. After moving to New York to pursue acting full time, Falk found success when he co-starred with Jason Robards in the 1956 remake of The Iceman Cometh on top of stage work on Broadway and various television appearances in supporting roles. Towards the end of that decade Falk began accepting a number of small film roles which culminated in an Oscar nomination for his work in the popular theatrical release Murder Inc., a role that would ultimately serve to be the big breakthrough of his career. A year after that career milestone, Falk received a second Oscar nomination for his part in Frank Capra’s Pocketful of Miracles. Falk had arrived and Hollywood as well as viewers had taken notice.

Falk worked steadily through the 60’s in both television and motion pictures after receiving back to back Academy Award nominations and his first Emmy Award win for his guest starring role in an episode of The Dick Powell Theater. His small but humorous role in a personal favorite of mine, It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World gave me particular insight into Falk’s range as an actor after first cutting my teeth with his work on Columbo. I remember being surprised to see a younger more playful Falk add to the laugh quotient of this fine film, marveling at the fact he was able to come off as anything other than the overcoat-clad detective bent on justice. After that appearance he had another supporting role in the movie Robin and the 7 Hoods before starring on the short-lived television series The Trials of O’Brien.

In 1968 Falk accepted the part that would turn into the role of a lifetime for the television mystery movie Prescription: Murder, entertaining viewers for the first time as the sometimes forgetful but doggedly determine Lieutenant Columbo. The movie garnered exceptional ratings and positive critical feedback. It had originally been conceived as a Broadway play and it was a formula that worked; the killer, known to viewers, would engage in a veritable game of cat and mouse, dancing around the bumbling detective’s investigation, a role Falk played with notably swift precision.

Columbo became a TV series in 1971, the very first episode having been helmed by an up-and-coming 25 year-old Steven Spielberg. A huge hit for NBC, Columbo ran through 1977 in 90 and 120 minute segments presented every third week as part of the network’s popular Sunday Mystery Movie series. During this busy period in Falk’s career he continued to appear steadily in films such as the Oscar-nominated A Woman Under the Influence (1971), Murder By Death (1978), The Cheap Detective (also 1978) and The In-Laws (1979). Later in the 80’s, Falk appeared in Rob Reiner’s charming and popular The Princess Bride as a story book-reading grandfather and later in Wim Wender’s Wings of Desire.

In 1989 Falk returned to the role viewers most identified him with, as the seemingly inept Lieutenant Columbo when ABC decided to revive and showcase the character periodically in TV movies that proved highly successful. Running fourteen years and 24 episodes, the final curtain call for Columbo came in 2003. Semi-retired after saying goodbye to the character that would guarantee television immortality, Falk’s last role was in the 2009 Indie film American Cowslip, a small role that gave viewers once last glimpse of the unmistakable talent and charisma that became hallmarks of his long and successful career as a character actor.

Last Thursday, June 23rd, after suffering for years from the debilitating effects of Alzheimer’s disease, Peter Falk passed away peacefully at his home in Beverly Hills, California; he was 83. RSR wishes to pass along its heartfelt condolences to his family, saddened at the passing of this much loved and talented Oscar-nominated and Emmy Award-winning actor.

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