Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Goodbye, Columbo! Peter Falk's Death

Peter was the same kind of digger as an actor as his character Columbo was in finding the truth in that great TV series.  He was a blast to work with and I learned more about acting from him at that early stage of my career than I had from anyone else.
- Stephen Spielberg, who directed Falk in the first episode of Columbo in the NBC Sunday Mystery Movie series in 1971

Peter Falk will always be remembered for his portrayal of one of the most memorable detectives in the history of American television.  He died last Thursday, June 23 at his home in Beverly Hills, California at the age of 83.  The actor had been suffering from dementia and Alzheimer’s Disease.  Unfortunately, the final years of Peter's life were tarnished by a nasty legal battle betwen his wife, Shera, and his daughter, Catherine, over control of his legal affairs.  In 2009, a judge decided that Shera would retain control.

A veteran actor with a 50 year career in theatre, film and television, Peter Falk rose to fame in his role as Lieutenant Columbo, the rumpled detective in the wrinkled old raincoat.  He was born Peter Michael Falk in New York City on September 16, 1927.  His father, Michael Peter Falk, was the proprietor of a clothing and dry goods store.
At the age of three, Peter’s right eye was surgically removed due to cancer.  He wore a glass eye for most of his life.  Near the end of World War II, when he was 17, Peter tried to enlist in the armed forces.  He was rejected due to his eyesight and served as a cook in the Merchant Marines instead.

In 1953, Falk graduated with a Master of Public Administration degree from the Maxwell School of Syracuse University where he was trained as a civil servant.  He then began working as a management analyst with the Connecticut State Bureau in Hartford.  It was during his time in Harford that Peter became involved with a local theatre group called the Mark Twain Masquers.   By I956, Peter had left Hartford to pursue an acting career in New York.

In the Big Apple, Falk found steady work in various Broadway and off-Broadway theatres.  Most notably, he performed  in The Circle in the Square's highly regarded production of The Iceman Cometh with Jason Robards.  After achieving success on the stage, Peter left New York and moved to Hollywood to begin a film career.

Falk's breakout film was 1960's Murder Inc., the true story of a gang that had terrorized New York in the 1930s.  He was cast in the supporting role of a ruthless hitman named Abe Reles and was nominated for an Oscar.  That same year, he was also received his first Emmy nomination for his performance as a drug addict in The Law and Mr. Jones. 

In 1961, Peter appeared in Frank Capra's A Pocketful of Miracles, with Bette Davis and Glenn Ford.  For his work in that film, he picked up his second Oscar nomination.  Then, to top it off, he won an Emmy for his role in The Dick Powell Playhouse television presentation of "The Price of Tomatoes."

In 1965, after turning down several television series offers, Peter took on a starring role in a one-hour comedy whodunit called The Trials of O'Brien.  He played New York attorney Daniel J. O'Brien in the short-lived series.  Plagued by low ratings and complaints from the American Bar Association, the show was cancelled after just 22 episodes.
Peter Falk first played Columbo in a 1968 television movie titled Prescription: Murder.  A second TV movie, Ransom for a Dead Man, followed in 1971.  On September 15, 1971, Columbo began airing as part of the NBC Mystery Movie that consisted of three rotating 90-minute shows. The other two shows were McMillan and Wife and McCloud.  That September 15 debut episode was directed by a 25-year-old Stephen Spielberg in one of his earliest directorial works.  It was called "Murder by the Book" and its gueat stars were Jack Cassidy and Rosemary Forsyth.

The NBC mystery movie series ended in 1977.  Columbo, however, returned to the screen in February of 1989, this time in a 2-hour televison movie format on the ABC network.  Peter Falk continued to appear in these TV movies for many years.  His final performance as Columbo aired on January 30, 2003 and was titled "Columbo Likes the Night Life." 

Columbo's shabby attire, including his trademark trench coat, was taken from Falk's own wardrobe.  Although he drove a dilapidated old car and appeared to be an inoffensive bumbler, Columbo was actually one of the shrewdest homicide detectives on the Los Angeles police force.  His modus operandi was to trick murder suspects into the false sense that he was not clever enough to identify them.  With his dishevelled appearance and squinty gaze, the seemingly absent-minded, cigar-chomping Columbo was constantly underestimated by the criminals.  Somehow, he caught them off guard and he always managed to dredge up one last detail in order to trap them.

Peter Falk married twice.  On April 17, 1960, he wed Alyce Mayo, a dress designer and pianist, whom he had met when they were fellow students at Syracuse University.  The couple adopted two daughters, Catherine and Jackie.  Ironically, Catherine became a private detective.

In 1976, Peter and Alyce divorced.  On December 7, 1977, Falk married for a second time to actress Shera Danese who made several guest appearances on the Columbo series.  Peter and Shera remained together until his death. 


* Did you know that Peter Falk was not the producers' first choice to play Columbo?  Their first choice was Bing Crosby.  According to The Complete Directory To Prime Time Network TV Shows 1946-Present, Crosby was the first actor approached for the role.  Bing was 67 years old at the time and a multimillionaire.  His passion was golf and her turned down the role of Columbo because it would interfere with his game.  As it turned out, Crosby died on a golf course in Madrid, Spain in 1977 at the age of 74.   Lee J. Cobb was also offered the part, but he too declined. 

* Columbo's mantra was "Just one more thing."  He would say that before bringing up one last detail that would always trip up the murderer.  Peter Falk used that catchphrase as the title of his 2006 autobiography Just One More Thing, published by Caroll and Graff. 

* What was Lt. Columbo's first name?  Although Columbo's first name was never spoken, it was clearly seen on his credentials and his badge.  His full name was Frank Columbo. 

* Columbo never received a promotion from the Los Angeles Police Department.  He remained a lieutenant for over 35 years. 

* Peter Falk won four Emmy awards for his portrayal of Columbo.

To listen to Columbo's theme music and watch a video tribute to Peter Falk, click on the link below.


- Joanne

No comments:

Post a Comment