Family & Companions
Received the Chevalier of Arts and Letters from the French government on February 28, 1996
Permanently enshrined in the hearts of television viewers and mystery fans for his Emmy and Golden Globe-winning portrayal of the savvy Lt. Columbo, actor-director-producer Peter Falk was a much-admired star of television, film and stage for over half a century. Falk brought streetwise energy to his comic roles, which included his Oscar-nominated turn in "Pocketful of Miracles" (1961) and the enduring cult favorite "The In-Laws" (1979), but could also be searingly intense in dramas, as he proved in a string of films for his close friend, independent filmmaker John Cassavetes, including "Husbands" (1970) and "A Woman Under the Influence" (1974). After reviving "Columbo" for a string of successful television movies in the late 1980s, he remained a fixture in television movies and feature films, which frequently tapped his boundless charm to play wise grandparents and even the occasional angel. His image as the perennially trenchcoat-clad curmudgeon was an enduring one; he was always ready with an endearing quip, and he became one of the most beloved television characters of all time.
Born Peter Michael Falk on Sept. 16, 1927 in New York City, he was raised in Ossining, NY. At age three, he earned his trademark squint after his right eye was removed due to a malignant tumor and replaced by a glass prosthetic. Falk received his first taste of the limelight at age 12 in a production of "The Pirates of Penzance" at a summer camp in upstate New York, but did not pursue acting until after college. A popular student and star athlete at Ossining High School, he served in the Merchant Marine before returning to New York and earning a degree in political science from the New School for Social Research in 1951. A Masters degree in Public Administration from Syracuse University followed in 1953, as did an unsuccessful bid to join the Central Intelligence Agency. Eventually, he settled into a job as a management analyst for the Connecticut State Budget Bureau. While serving the public sector, Falk was also treading the boards with the Mark Twain Maskers in Hartford and honing his craft with the White Barn Theatre in Westport. At age 29, he decided to pursue acting full time, moving to Greenwich Village. His debut as a professional actor came in 1956 with an off-Broadway production of "Don Juan;" his Broadway debut came soon after in "Saint Joan." The following year, he was part of the successful revival of "The Iceman Cometh" with Jason Robards, and remained active on the New York stage for the better part of the next three years.
Falk's agent at the time advised him about considering film and television, citing his glass eye as a detraction for casting agents, but by 1960, Falk had relocated to Los Angeles and delved wholeheartedly into the mediums. The results were exceptionally positive; he was landing regular work in low-budget features and episodic television almost immediately, picking up an Oscar nomination as real-life killer and mob informant Abe "Kid Twist" Reyes for "Murder, Inc." (1960) and an Emmy nomination as a drug addict on "The Law and Mr. Jones" (ABC, 1960-62). He repeated this astonishing feat a year later with an Oscar nod for the Frank Capra comedy "A Pocketful of Miracles" (1961), starring as the jittery right hand man to gangster Glenn Ford, and an Emmy win for "The Price of Tomatoes," which aired on "The Dick Powell Show" that same year. Falk became a fixture on television and in features for much of the early 1960s, and covered the gamut from drama, like "The Balcony" (1963), to comedies like "It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World" (1963) and "The Great Race" (1965), to even musicals, such as the Rat Pack feature "Robin and the Seven Hoods" (1964). He fielded several offers for his own television series during this period, before settling on a short-lived comedy-drama called "The Trials of O'Brien" (CBS, 1965-66), about an attorney with money problems.
Film work continued to come Falk's way, most notably "Machine Gun McCain" (1968), a violent, Italian-made crime drama co-starring John Cassavetes and his wife Gena Rowlands, and the WWII actioner "Anzio" (1968) with Robert Mitchum. That same year, Falk was tapped to play a shabby but keen-witted police detective named Columbo (no first name was ever given) in "Prescription" Murder" (1968), a TV movie based on a popular stage play. Lee J. Cobb and Bing Crosby had both been offered the project and rejected the role. Writers Richard Levinson and William Link both considered Falk too young for the part, but the actor's portrayal - a subtle mix of distraction and disorganization ("Just one more thing ") that hid a razor-sharp intellect with a gift for noticing even the smallest of details - resulted in a ratings smash. A second "Columbo" mystery, "Ransom for a Dead Man," was ordered in 1971, and a series, titled "Columbo," became one of three rotating shows that aired on "The NBC Sunday Mystery Movie" from 1971-77. The series' trademarks - Falk's wry performance, combined with sharp writing and an exceptional guest cast that included some of the best and most respected performers in Hollywood - made the show a perennial favorite during its network run, netting Falk four Emmys and a Golden Globe. It also made him an exceptionally wealthy man. His salary at the end of its network run was reportedly a quarter of a million dollars per episode, but he wisely refused to shoot more than a few episodes per season in order to keep active in other projects.
Falk returned to Broadway in 1971 for Neil Simon's "The Prisoner of Second Avenue," and later gave remarkably funny performances as a faux Humphrey Bogart in two noir parodies written by Simon, 1976's "Murder By Death" and 1978's "The Cheap Detective." He was also the comic highlight of William Friedkin's ill-fated "The Brink's Job" (1978) and was paired brilliantly with Alan Arkin for Arthur Hiller's "The In-Laws" (1979), about a rogue CIA agent (Falk) who enlists his future brother-in-law (Arkin) to help topple a South American dictator prior to their children's wedding. But Falk also kept his dramatic edge sharp, most notably in Cassavetes' unforgiving "Husbands" (1970) and the devastating "A Woman Under the Influence" (1974), in which he held his own as the husband of Gena Rowlands' slowly unraveling housewife. Falk was also solid in the lesser-known "Griffin and Phoenix: A Love Story" (1976), a TV movie about two terminally ill patients who fall for each other, and "Mikey and Nicky" (1976), a mob drama with Cassavetes, directed by Elaine May.
Falk remained inactive on screen for much of the early 1980s, though he was busy on stage with a touring production of David Mamet's "Glengarry Glen Ross" in 1986. That same year, he reunited with Cassavetes and Arkin in "Big Trouble," the long-awaited sequel to "The In-Laws," but the troubled project failed to ignite the same comic sparks. By the late-1980s, Falk was busier than ever; he returned to "Columbo" for a string of successful TV movies, and won another Emmy in 1990 for "Columbo: Agenda for Murder," as well as three Golden Globe nominations for subsequent features. He remained exceptionally popular on film as well; young arthouse audiences were charmed by his appearance as himself, albeit an ex-angel, in Wim Wenders' popular "Wings of Desire" (1987), and children (and adults) everywhere wanted him as their grandfather after seeing him as the narrator of Rob Reiner's lovely fantasy "The Princess Bride" (1987). Falk soon settled into a combination of these roles - a sort of heavenly father figure with a New York attitude - for much of his subsequent projects, including "Cookie" (1987), as a lovable gangster; "Tune in Tomorrow" (1990), as an eccentric radio actor, and "Roommates" (1995), as a charming grandfather, and so on. But there were still standout performances, including a smart but crooked bookie in "Vig" (1998), an angry older man who comes to terms with his own racism in Robert Wise's TV adaptation of Rod Serling's "A Storm in Summer" (2000), which earned Falk a Daytime Emmy nomination; and "Lakeboat" (2000), which marked Joe Mantegna's debut as director.
Falk, who remained busy on stage during this period with a sold-out run of Arthur Miller's "Mr. Peter's Connections" in 1998 and "Defiled," which did similar box office business in Los Angeles in 2000, was a fixture on television and in films in the early 21st century. The "Columbo" movies rolled on with no signs of stopping or slowing, and Falk was seen in Jon Favreau's comedy "Made" (2001), as well as developed a second, smaller franchise as a Christmas angel named Max in three holiday TV movies: "A Town Without Christmas," which was the highest-rated TV movie of 2001; "Finding John Christmas" (2003), and "When Angels Come to Town" (2004). He lent his distinctive voice to a shark mobster in "Shark Tale" (2004), and was paired nicely with Paul Reiser and Olympia Dukakis in the bittersweet comedy "The Thing About My Folks" (2005). In 2004, he received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the prestigious David Di Donatello Awards in Italy, and earned similar laurels from several state film festivals, as well as the Method Fest in 2003. In 2006, he penned an autobiography, Just One More Thing: Stories from My Life.
Married twice - to Alice May from 1960 to 1976, and then to actress Shera Danese-Falk, who appeared in several "Columbo" movies, from 1977 onward - Falk was the father of two daughters, one of whom was, ironically, a private investigator. He also developed a side career as an artist, which began through pencil sketches in between takes. His charcoal sketches and watercolors received critical acclaim and a gallery showing in Rome in 2004. The actor remained generally low profile as he hit his eighties, appearing in a small role in the Nicholas Cage thriller "Next" in 2007, while the following year, fans were saddened to hear that he had been diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease. Falk's condition was reclassified as full-blown dementia the following spring, when news of a battle over his conservatorship hit newspapers. In the contentious court drama, Falk's years-younger wife, Shera Danese, maintained that Falk and daughter Catherine were estranged and questioned the daughter's financial motives for wanting control of his affairs. Meanwhile, daughter Catherine claimed that her stepmother had willfully been preventing her from seeing her father for several years; that her only motive was wanting to spend time with the ailing father with whom she had shared a close relationship for years. In June 2009, Shera Danese Falk was appointed as her husband's conservator. The actor eventually succumbed to his illness on June 23, 2011 at his Beverly Hills home. He was 83 years old.
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Joined the Merchant Marines as a cook
Worked as an efficiency expert for Budget Bureau of the State of Connecticut
Made Broadway debut playing an English soldier in George Bernard Shaw's "Saint Joan"
Professional Off-Broadway debut in Molière's "Don Juan" at the Fourth Street Theatre
Cast in the Circle in the Square's highly successful revival of "The Iceman Cometh" with Jason Robards
Film acting debut in Nicholas Ray's "Wind Across the Everglades"
Received a Best Supporting Actor Academy Award nomination for his role in "Murder, Inc."
Earned an Emmy nomination for appearing in the "Cold Turkey" episode of James Whitmore's "The Law and Mr. Jones" (ABC)
Co-starred with Glenn Ford in "Pocketful of Miracles"; earned second Supporting Actor Academy Award nomination
Played a cab driver in the all-star comedy film "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World"
Appeared opposite members of the Rat Pack in the crime spoof, "Robin and the 7 Hoods"
Portrayed Stalin in the Broadway production of "The Passion of Josef D."
Co-starred in the Blake Edwards farce "The Great Race" with Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis
Played the title role in his debut TV series, "The Trials of O'Brien"
First appearance as Lt. Columbo in the TV-movie "Prescription: Murder"
First of four appearances in films directed by John Cassavetes, "Husbands"
Played the absent-minded police detective, Lt. Columbo in the long-running TV series "Columbo" (NBC)
Returned to Broadway for Neil Simon's play, "The Prisoner of Second Avenue"; directed by Mike Nichols
Co-starred with Stockard Channing in Neil Simon's play "The Cheap Detective"
Re-teamed with director John Cassavetes for "A Woman Under the Influence"
Co-starred with Alan Arkin in the comedy "The In-Laws"
Featured in the national touring company of David Mamet's "Glengarry Glen Ross" playing shady real-estate salesman, Shelley Levine
Played an ex-angel in Win Wenders' "Wings of Desire"
Played the beloved grandfather in Rob Reiner's fantasy film "The Princess Bride"
Reprised the role of Lt. Columbo for a long-running series of 2-hour ABC TV-movies; also co-executive produced and sometimes wrote
Appeared with Woody Allen in the television adaptation of Neil Simon's play "The Sunshine Boys" (CBS)
Returned to the stage to star in Arthur Miller's "Mr. Peter's Connections" at the Signature Theatre in New York
Appeared in Joe Mantegna's directorial debut, "Lakeboat," which also starred Joe Mantegna, Andy Garcia and John Turturo
Featured in the mobster drama "Made," opposite Jon Favreau and Vince Vaughn
Co-starred in the two-part miniseries adaptation of the classic "The Lost World" with Bob Hoskins (aired on the BBC and A&E Networks)
Appeared in the final Columbo TV-movie, "Columbo Likes The Nightlife" on ABC
Provided the voice of Don Brizzi in the animated film "Sharktale"
Played Paul Reiser's father in "The Thing About My Folks"; also written and produced by Reiser
Featured in the thriller "Next" with Nicolas Cage
Final film appearance, playing a family priest in "American Cowslip"
Received the Chevalier of Arts and Letters from the French government on February 28, 1996