Actor Peter Falk, a four-time Emmy winner as the rumpled TV detective on “Columbo” who also won acclaim as an actor in indie films by John Cassavetes and others, died at his home in Beverly Hills, Calif., on June 23 at 84.
Falk’s portrayal of Lt. Frank Columbo was lauded by film critics both during the series’ heyday in the 1970s (it ran periodically in the form of made-for-TV movies until 2003) and in the wake of his death.
“He invested the shabby, preoccupied detective with so much credibility that the show became one of the most successful detective series in the United States,” one critic wrote.
“Few actors were as linked to one role for so long as Mr. Falk, whose cockeyed glare from a glass right eye and slightly disheveled appearance hid a compelling intelligence he brought to the part,” wrote another.
Falk received the ultimate pop-culture encomium of the day in 1973 when Time magazine put him on its cover. Describing what are now iconic Columbo traits—the rumpled coat, stub of a cigar and slow turn before leaving an interview with a suspect to say “Just one more thing,” Time said, “Such antics have made Columbo conceivably the most influential, probably the best and certainly the most endearing cop on TV.”
Writers who fancy themselves as more sophisticated praised Falk’s work in Cassavetes’ early independent film productions.
“The dryly caustic humor he brings to his roles … is that of a quietly calculating intelligence that keeps that passion under pressure, and it’s the genius of Cassavetes to recognize, to reveal, and to deploy the tension and the heat that Falk—the actor and the man—gives off,” the New Yorker wrote.
Falk’s nearly 50-year career in films, stage and TV pre- and post-dated “Columbo.” He received a Best Supporting Actor nomination in 1960 for his role as Abe “Kid Twist” Reles, the vicious real-life gangster, in the film “Murder, Inc.,” about the largely Jewish New York gang. New York Times film critic of the day, Bosley Crowther, dismissed the movie as “an average gangster film,” but singled out Falk’s “amusingly vicious performance.”
In 1968, Falk played another Jewish ne’er-do-well in the World War II flick “Anzio.” Critics vary on the film itself, but Falk’s performance as Cpl. Jack Rabinoff, based on a real Jewish soldier who ran a brothel in occupied Italy, also stood out. Falk himself apparently had a lot of say in creating the character. Producer Dino De Laurentiis sought to keep Falk in the film and gave him billing above the title, and Falk himself eventually wrote the character’s lines.
In later years, along with the occasional “Columbo” TV film, Falk acted in a number of films as an overtly or covertly Jewish character, including, the “Princess Bride,” a 1996 TV remake of “The Sunshine Boys”; “Checking Out,” as a famed Jewish stage actor who gathers his whole family to say goodbye before he commits suicide; and as the voice of flatulent gangster shark Don Feinberg in the animated “Shark Tale.”
Falk’s road to Hollywood prominence was different from most. He grew up in Ossining, N.Y., in the shadow of Sing Sing prison. His right eye was removed at age 3 because of cancer, and his glass eye provided him with a unique perspective and look. The glass eye kept him out of the military during World War II, but he served in the Merchant Marine.
According to his 2006 autobiography, “Just One More Thing,” Falk was third cook on a ship to France: “My specialty was pork chops … My duties on the return trip (from Marseilles) were to cook each day 400 pork chops for lunch. This was more than enough. It was winter and the seas were very high. The remaining 2,000 soldiers were not interested in food—too busy barfing.”
After the war, Falk apparently sought to volunteer to fight for Israel, presumably in the War of Independence, leading several writers to tout Falk as a big fan of Israel. Falk’s own account in his autobiography not only puts cold water on that but even raises doubts as to his knowledge of the conflict at all.
“I signed up to go to Israel to fight in the war with Egypt. I wasn’t passionate about Israel. I wasn’t passionate about Egypt. I just wanted more excitement,” he wrote. “Joining the Israeli Army was illegal for American citizens, but I found out you could sign up at the Hotel Roosevelt in Manhattan. I did get assigned a ship and a departure date. However, the war was over in the blink of an eye—eight days to be exact. The ship never sailed.”
Falk’s father objected to his interest in acting, and he received a master’s degree in public administration from Syracuse University after the war and worked for the state of Connecticut as an efficiency expert. His first role was as Rocky the bartender in a 1956 production of Eugene O’Neill’s “The Iceman Cometh.” IMDB, the Washington Post and London’s Telegraph all offer extensive summaries of Falk’s acting career.
After publishing his autobiography, Falk underwent serious dental surgery and slipped into dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. He was a ward of his daughter when he died.