Actor Peter Falk reportedly died last night at age 83, at his home in Beverly Hills. According to his daughter, reports USA Today, Falk had been suffering from Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.
As an actor, Falk was a performer who was more than he at first seemed: he had a famously raspy, tough-guy manner of speech, but performed subtly in a wide range of roles, from comedy to gangster movies to the art films of John Cassavetes and Wim Wenders. His most beloved role, though, and the one for which he’s immortalized on TV, was as a cigar-chewing, trenchcoat-wearing detective on NBC’s Columbo—who was, himself, the very definition of a character who was more than he looked like, and used it to his advantage.
Lt. Columbo, hero of the show that began airing in 1971, was a role that seemed tailor-made for Falk (though other actors originated it, beginning with a TV movie in 1960), if you can credibly use the phrase “tailor-made” and “Columbo” in the same sentence. (It is, I believe, a constitutional requirement that Lt. Columbo be described as “rumpled.”) He looked like he might have just rolled off a park bench or stumbled out of a bar in early-morning light. He was sheathed in wrinkles and looked like a cigar smelled. (He was, as Falk describes him in the documentary clip below, “a schlepper.”) He had a roughed-up style, a working-class accent and a pleasantly addled aspect—thanks, partly, to the fact that Falk had a glass eye from age three, because of a tumor.
(PHOTOS: Peter Falk’s Life on Screen)
All of which led his quarry, the criminals that he investigated, to underestimate him—which, of course, was the entire point of Columbo. It was a whodunit in which the audience knew who did it; so the thrill came in seeing how Columbo would outwit his targets and catch them up in their lies. He did it with dogged determination, genius and a cheerful willingness to be underestimated. Also, with persistence: his signature move was to turn from an interrogation, letting the suspects think they had outfoxed him, and then turn back to ask “Just one more thing…” which would be their undoing.
Like Columbo, Falk had an easy style and man-of-the-streets manner that disguised the fact that he was actually a deadly serious artist dedicated to his craft. He had impressive range for an actor so closely linked with one memorable role, and gladly described himself as a perfectionist. Whether playing the bad guy, the good guy, a lovable grandpa (in The Princess Bride) or (in Wenders’ meditative Wings of Desire) himself, he had a way of using his careworn face and shambling manner to embody fallible but noble humanity. His Columbo didn’t look like much, but there was much more inside him, and isn’t that how we’d like to think of ourselves?
Just one more thing, Mr. Falk: thank you, and RIP.