Peter Falk (AP Photo)
NEW YORK (AP) - The best way to celebrate Peter Falk's life is to savor how Columbo, his signature character, fortified our lives.
Thanks to Falk's affectionately genuine portrayal, Lt. Columbo established himself for all time as a champion of any viewer who ever felt less than graceful, elegant or well-spoken.
Falk died Thursday at age 83 in his Beverly Hills, Calif., home, according to a statement released Friday by family friend Larry Larson. But Columbo lives on as the shining ideal of anyone with a smudge on his tie, whose car isn't the sportiest, who often seems clueless, who gets dissed by fancy people.
As a police detective, Columbo's interview technique was famously disjointed, with his inevitable awkward afterthought ("Ahhh, there's just one more thing...") that tried the patience of his suspect as he was halfway out the door.
Columbo was underestimated, patronized or simply overlooked by nearly everyone he met - especially the culprit.
And yet Columbo, drawing on inner pluck for which only he (and an actor as skilled as Falk) could have accounted, always prevailed. Contrary to all evidence (that is, until he nailed the bad guy), Columbo always knew what he was doing.
Even more inspiring for viewers, he was unconcerned with how other people saw him. He seemed to be perfectly happy with himself, his life, his pet basset, Dog, his wheezing Peugeot, and his never-seen wife. A squat man chewing cigars in a rumpled raincoat, he stands tall among TV's most self-assured heroes.
What viewer won't take solace forever from the lessons Columbo taught us by his enduring example?
Columbo - he never had a first name - presented a refreshing contrast to other TV detectives. "He looks like a flood victim," Falk once said. "You feel sorry for him. He appears to be seeing nothing, but he's seeing everything. Underneath his dishevelment, a good mind is at work."
On another occasion, he described Columbo as "an ass-backwards Sherlock Holmes."
"As a person, he was like Columbo. He was exactly the same way: a great sense of humor, constantly forgetting things," said Charles Engel, an NBCUniversal executive who worked with Falk on "Columbo" and was his neighbor and longtime friend.
He remembered Falk as a "brilliant" actor and "an amazingly wonderful, crazy guy," and said a script was in place for a two-hour "Columbo" special, but Falk's illness made the project impossible. In a court document filed in December 2008, Falk's daughter Catherine Falk said her father was suffering from Alzheimer's disease.
Somehow fittingly, Falk - the perfect choice to play Columbo - failed to be the first choice. Instead, the role was offered to easygoing crooner Bing Crosby. Fortunately, he passed.
With Falk in place, "Columbo" began its run in 1971 as part of the NBC Sunday Mystery Movie series, appearing every third week. The show became by far the most popular of the three mysteries, the others being "McCloud" and "McMillan and Wife."
Falk was reportedly paid $250,000 a movie and could have made much more if he had accepted an offer to convert "Columbo" into a weekly series. He declined, reasoning that carrying a weekly detective series would be too great a burden.
NBC canceled the three series in 1977. In 1989 ABC offered "Columbo" in a two-hour format usually appearing once or twice a season. The movies continued into the 21st century. "Columbo" appeared in 26 foreign countries and was a particular favorite in France and Iran.
Columbo's trademark: an ancient raincoat Falk had once bought for himself. After 25 years on television, the coat became so tattered it had to be replaced.
Falk was already an experienced Broadway actor and two-time Oscar nominee when he began playing Columbo. And, long before then, he had demonstrated a bit of Columbo-worthy spunk: at 3, he had one eye removed because of cancer.
Then, when he was starting as an actor in New York, an agent told him, "Of course, you won't be able to work in movies or TV because of your eye." And after failing a screen test at Columbia Pictures, he was told by studio boss Harry Cohn that "for the same price I can get an actor with two eyes."
But Falk prevailed, even before "Columbo," picking up back-to-back Oscar nominations as best supporting actor for the 1960 mob drama "Murder, Inc." and Frank Capra's last film, the 1961 comedy-drama "Pocketful of Miracles."
Paying tribute, actor-comedian Michael McKean said, "Peter Falk's assault on conventional stardom went like this: You're not conventionally handsome, you're missing an eye and you have a speech impediment. Should you become a movie star? Peter's correct answer: Absolutely.
"I got to hang with him a few times and later worked a day with him on a forgettable TV movie," McKean went on, calling Falk "a sweet, sharp and funny man with a great soul. Wim Wenders called it correctly in 'Wings of Desire': He was an angel if there ever was one on Earth."
"There is literally nobody you could compare him to. He was a completely unique actor," said Rob Reiner, who directed Falk in "The Princess Bride."
"His personality was really what drew people to him. ... He had this great sense of humor and this great natural quality nobody could come close to," Reiner said. Falk's work with Alan Arkin in "The In-Laws" represents "one of the most brilliant comedy pairings we've seen on screen."
Peter Michael Falk was born in 1927, in New York City and grew up in Ossining, N.Y., where his parents ran a clothing store.
After serving as a cook in the merchant marine and receiving a master's degree in public administration from Syracuse University, Falk worked as an efficiency expert for the budget bureau of the state of Connecticut.
He also acted in amateur theater and was encouraged to become a pro fessional by actress-teacher Eva Le Gallienne.
An appearance in "The Iceman Cometh" off-Broadway led to other parts, among them Josef Stalin in Paddy Chayefsky's 1964 "The Passion of Josef D." In 1971, Falk scored a hit in Neil Simon's "The Prisoner of Second Avenue," Tony-nominated for best play.
Falk made his film debut in 1958 with "Wind Across the Everglades" and established himself as a talented character actor with his performance as the vicious killer Abe Reles in "Murder, Inc."
Among his other movies: "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World," "Robin and the Seven Hoods," "The Great Race," "Luv," "Castle Keep," "The Cheap Detective" and "The Brinks Job."
Falk also appeared in a number of art-house favorites, including "Wings of Desire" (in which he played himself as a former angel), and the semi-improvisational films "Husbands" and "A Woman Under the Influence," directed by his friend John Cassavetes.
"Today we lost someone who is very special and dear to my heart. Not only a wonderful actor but a very great friend," said Gena Rowlands, who co-starred with Falk in the latter film, and was married to the late Cassavetes.
Falk became prominent in television movies, beginning with his first Emmy for "The Price of Tomatoes" in 1961. His four other Emmys were for "Columbo."
He was married to pianist Alyce Mayo in 1960; they had two daughters, Jackie and Catherine, and divorced in 1976. The following year he married actress Shera Danese. They filed for divorce twice and reconciled each time.
When not working, Falk spent time in the garage of his Beverly Hills home. He had converted it into a studio where he created charcoal drawings. He took up art in New York when he was in the Simon play and one day happened into the Art Students League.
He recalled: "I opened a door and there she was, a nude model, shoulders back, a light from above, buck-ass naked. The female body is awesome. Believe me, I signed up right away."
Falk is survived by his wife Shera and his two daughters.
Copyright © 2011 The Associated Press