Peter Falk: The Man Behind the Raincoat and Cigar

Peter Falk: The Man Behind the Raincoat and Cigar

Sandra Pandora | 
Pandora Writer | 
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With his distinctive gravelly voice, unruly hair, and iconic trench coat, Peter Falk became a beloved and enduring figure in the world of film and television. His remarkable career spanned more than five decades and encompassed a diverse range of roles, but it was his portrayal of the endearing and disheveled detective, Lieutenant Columbo, that turned him into a worldwide icon.

Peter Falk

Peter Falk was born on September 16, 1927, in New York City. He was raised in Ossining, NY. When he was just three years old, he acquired his distinctive squint because of the removal of his right eye due to a malignant tumor, which was then replaced with a glass prosthetic eye.

Despite his desire to serve in the armed forces, he faced rejection due to his prosthetic eye. Subsequently, Falk worked as a cook in the Merchant Marine. Following his service in the Merchant Marine, he returned to New York and earned a bachelor's degree in political science from the New School for Social Research in 1951. In 1953, he earned a master’s degree in public administration at Syracuse University. Ultimately, he found his footing in a position as a management analyst at the Connecticut State Budget Bureau.

In 1956 Falk began acting in Off-Broadway plays, and later that year he appeared on Broadway in "Saint Joan" and "Diary of a Scoundrel." He started appearing on television in 1957.

Peter Falk

In 1960, Falk made the move to Los Angeles, fully immersing himself in the world of entertainment. His hard work paid off as he rapidly landed steady roles in low-budget films and television. His portrayal of the real-life killer and mob informant Abe "Kid Twist" Reles in "Murder, Inc." in 1960 earned him his first Academy Award nomination.

He then earned an Emmy nomination for his role as a drug addict in "The Law and Mr. Jones" in 1961, and received an Oscar nomination for his performance in the comedy "A Pocketful of Miracles" in 1961. He also won an Emmy for "The Price of Tomatoes" in 1962.

Falk took on various genres including drama in "The Balcony" in 1963, comedies like "It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World" in 1963 and "The Great Race" in 1965, and even musicals such as "Robin and the Seven Hoods" in 1964 with the Rat Pack.

Peter Falk

Falk continued to work in film, starring in notable movies like "Machine Gun McCain" in 1969, and "Anzio" in 1968.

While he enjoyed success in the theater, television, and film, it was his role as Lieutenant Columbo in the television series "Columbo" that would become his defining moment. The character of Columbo was a departure from the typical detective archetype seen on television at the time. He was disheveled, unassuming, and seemingly absent-minded, but beneath his seemingly bumbling exterior lay a brilliant mind that could solve the most complex of crimes.

"Columbo" premiered as a television movie, "Prescription: Murder," in 1968. The character's unpretentious and often underestimated demeanor resonated with audiences, and the show's unique format, which revealed the murderer at the beginning of each episode, allowed viewers to play detective alongside Columbo. The series went on to become a massive success, earning Falk critical acclaim and four Emmy Awards.

Peter Falk

Peter Falk's portrayal of Lieutenant Columbo was a masterclass in character acting. He brought depth and nuance to the character, making him not only a brilliant detective but also a relatable and endearing figure. The iconic rumpled raincoat and cigar became synonymous with the character and solidified Falk's status as a pop culture icon.

While "Columbo" was undoubtedly the pinnacle of Peter Falk's career, he continued to demonstrate his versatility as an actor in both film and television. He took on a wide range of roles, often playing characters with a unique and eccentric charm.

One of his most memorable film roles was in "A Woman Under the Influence" in 1974, directed by John Cassavetes. In the film, Falk portrayed Nick Longhetti, a construction worker struggling to cope with his wife's deteriorating mental health. His performance was both heartbreaking and powerful, earning him an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor.

Peter Falk

Falk's ability to seamlessly transition between comedy and drama was evident in films like "The In-Laws" in 1979, where he played a CIA agent alongside Alan Arkin, and "Wings of Desire" in 1987, a German film in which he portrayed an angel.

In addition to his film work, Falk continued to appear on television, taking on guest roles in popular series such as "The Twilight Zone," "The Alfred Hitchcock Hour," and "The Dick Powell Theatre." He also returned to the stage, showcasing his talent in productions like "The Prisoner of Second Avenue."

"Columbo" ran as a television series for 10 seasons, from 1971 to 1978, and was later revived for additional episodes and a string of successful TV movies. To this day, Detective Columbo remains one of the most beloved television characters of all time.

Peter Falk

Peter Falk's personal life was marked by a deep sense of privacy and a genuine love for his craft. He married actress Alyce Mayo in 1960, and the couple had two daughters, before divorcing in 1976. Falk later married Shera Danese in 1977, and they remained together until his passing.

Tragically, Peter Falk's later years were marked by health challenges. In 2007, it was reported that he had been diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease, a cruel twist for an actor whose mind was his greatest asset. 

On June 23, 2011, Peter Falk passed away at the age of 83, leaving behind a legacy that continues to inspire and entertain audiences to this day. His contributions to the world of entertainment are immeasurable, and his portrayal of Lieutenant Columbo remains a benchmark for character-driven television.

He was not just an actor; he was a storyteller who had the remarkable ability to make us laugh, cry, and think—all while wearing a rumpled raincoat and clutching a cigar. Peter Falk will forever be remembered as a true legend who lived a life well-acted.


Did you know?

Despite his later success as an actor, Falk didn't start acting until he was in his late 20s. He worked various jobs before pursuing his passion for acting.

He submitted an application to work for the CIA but was rejected.

Peter Falk

In addition to his acting career, Falk was also an artist. This artistic journey began with pencil sketches he created during breaks between filming. His charcoal sketches and watercolor paintings garnered significant critical acclaim and even led to a gallery exhibition.

The character Columbo became synonymous with his rumpled trench coat. The coat was Falk's own, and he wore it on the show to make the character appear more disheveled and relatable.

In the series, Lieutenant Columbo's first name was kept a secret. When asked about it, he typically responded with "Lieutenant." Keen viewers were able to discern his first name as "Frank" when he briefly displayed his badge in the episode "Dead Weight" in 1971.

Peter Falk

His wife, Shera Danese, appeared in several episodes of "Columbo."

Falk was known for his improvisational skills, which he often used to enhance his performances. Some of the most memorable moments in his career were unscripted.

On Falk Miksa Street in Budapest stands a life-sized bronze statue commemorating Peter Falk's portrayal of the fictional police detective Columbo. At the base of this statue, you can find a depiction of Columbo's loyal dog, aptly named "Dog."

Falk lent his distinctive voice to various animated characters, including the character of Don Feinberg in the animated film "Shark Tale" in 2004.

Peter Falk

On July 25, 2013, he received a Star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame for Television, posthumously. It is located at 6654 Hollywood Boulevard.  

Falk's portrayal of Lieutenant Columbo is considered one of the most iconic characters in detective television history and had a significant influence on the detective genre.

Conversations about resurrecting the character have taken place, but they've never progressed beyond that. Everyone agrees that Peter Falk is Columbo, and his shoes cannot be filled by anyone else.

In 2006, he authored an autobiography titled "Just One More Thing: Stories from My Life."

Peter Falk

Sadly, Peter Falk eventually succumbed to his illness on June 23, 2011, at his Beverly Hills residence. He was 83 years old at the time of his passing. Falk is buried at Westwood Village Memorial Park Cemetery in Los Angeles, California.

"My idea of Heaven is to wake up, have a good breakfast, and spend the rest of the day drawing." – Peter Falk

Peter Falk
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