LOS ANGELES – Just one more thing.
Peter Falk, who family members said died Thursday at the age of 83, was an actor of great and invisible skill who played many parts over a five-decade career.
He had suffered in recent years with dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, his adopted daughter Catherine Falk told Los Angeles radio station KNX-AM.
Falk was a late bloomer but quickly embraced the stage and screens big and little – by 1962, he had been Oscar-nominated twice, for gangsters respectively chilling and comical in “Murder, Inc.” and “Pocketful of Miracles,” and won an Obie playing Eugene O’Neill opposite Jason Robards. Later, he acted troublesome characters for director John Cassevetes in “Husbands” and “A Woman Under the Influence,” was brilliantly funny as a reckless CIA agent in “The In-Laws,” and narrated, grandfather-to-grandson, “The Princess Bride.”
But of all his roles, the one he played the longest will be the one longest remembered: Lt. Columbo, of “Columbo” – of all American television detectives certainly the greatest, and the greatest in a time of great television detectives including James Garner’s Jim Rockford and Telly Savalas’ Theo Kojak.
“Columbo,” which became a series in 1971 after a Falk-starring 1968 TV movie, was of course a team effort – it was a particularly well-written series, whose feature-length running time allowed for extraordinarily long scenes between the detective and the week’s guest killer – but television is in the end predominantly an art of personality, and episode after episode Falk was the product the show sold and the artist who sold the show. (He had in fact been preceded in the role, in one-off dramas and a stage play, by other actors.)
Columbo’s rumpled, broken-down aspect did not betoken world-weariness; the show, indeed, was a comedy – a comedy of human frailty in which the murderers were almost always people of means, substance and power.
Falk was on the face of it an unlikely hero: Old World ethnic (his people were Eastern European Jews), short of stature, with a glass eye and an impudently thick head of dark hair that finally went to gray – Falk’s last “Columbo” appeared in 2003, when the actor was 76, and he continued to act up until he began to suffer symptoms of dementia in 2007. But all these things worked ultimately to his advantage, making Falk seem not so much “relatable” as familial: a sort of beloved, room-brightening uncle.
It also accounts in part for the universality of his appeal – through “Columbo,” he was famous everywhere.