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Wednesday 7 December 2016

Peter Falk

The Broadway actor who later became famous for playing America TV's iconic detective, Lieutenant Frank Columbo

Published 03/07/2011 | 05:00

PETER FALK, the American actor who died on June 23 aged 83, is best remembered for his portrayal of the shambling, cigar-smoking detective Columbo in the television series of the same name.

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Throughout the seven-year-long series, Falk came to share many of his alter ego's traits. Where Columbo would badger suspects unremittingly for a clue to their crimes and would waste their time with seemingly pointless questions, Falk would badger studio bosses for better quality scripts, and became notorious for his time-wasting wrangles with producers in order to win directors more shooting time. The Columbo scriptwriters, William Link and Richard Lewison, admitted that in later episodes they based most of the character of Lieutenant Columbo on Falk himself. "Let's face it," Link recalled, "Peter was scruffy and forgetful, but at the same time he was charming and had a very good brain."

Columbo was a success as soon as the first episode was screened. The programme defied all the conventions of television detective drama. The viewer saw the murderer commit the crime, there were no car chases, no sex or violence, and Falk often did not appear during the first 20 minutes of the programme.

The success of the series rested with Falk's performance in the lead role. He invested the shabby, preoccupied detective with so much credibility that the show became one of the most successful detective series in the US. Although Falk tried to revive his film career in the late Seventies when Columbo ended he never enjoyed the same success in films as he had done on television. After ill-fated projects such as California Dolls (1981), which featured a female wrestling team, Falk returned to television in a revival of Columbo.

"I held them off for 11 years," he remembered, "but my wife was sick of having me around the house, she said if I didn't go back to work she was leaving me." Unlike the uxorious Lieutenant Columbo, Falk's relationship with his second wife, the actress Sheralyn Danese, remained unpredictable. So frequent were their numerous break ups and reconciliations that they were known in Hollywood as the "Fighting Falks".

"She makes me laugh," Falk said of his 23-year-old wife, "but if I had to say what we had in common I guess it would be that we both like the colour blue."

Peter Michael Falk was born on September 16, 1927, in New York, but was brought up in Ossining in the shadow of the infamous Sing Sing Prison. His parents owned a general store and assumed that Falk would join the business on leaving school.

"I probably would have done too, except that I lost my eye as a kid," Falk recalled, "I wanted to succeed in everything after that to prove I was as good as everyone else." At school Falk became "a straight-A student" and a fervent participant in all sports, particularly baseball and basketball. In 1946 he attended Hamilton College briefly before trying to enlist in the Marines. "I memorised the sight test," he recalled, "but they wouldn't take me, so I joined the Merchant Marines instead."

Falk trained as a cook and spent three years sailing around Europe and South America. In 1951 he enrolled at Syracuse University to study Political Science and went on to take a Masters in Public Administration. On graduation he began work as an efficiency expert for the budget director of Connecticut.

In 1953 Falk began to develop an interest in acting. Distinguishing himself from fellow efficiency experts, Falk divided his time between working for Governor Lodge and rehearsals with the Mark Twain Maskers.

"I wanted to act professionally," Falk recalled, "but I was scared, actors seemed such geniuses to me. Then when I heard them talking in the canteen I thought: 'They're just like me, I could do that'." Falk made his acting debut as Richard III in a White Barn production before leaving for New York to pursue an acting career. He arrived in 1956 and within six months was cast in his first professional role as Sagnarele in Don Juan.

In 1964 he made his Broadway debut as the young Joseph Stalin in The Passion of Joseph D. His film debut came in 1958 in Wind Across The Everglades and followed it with a small role in The Bloody Brood (1959). In his first two years in Hollywood, Falk won considerable acclaim for both his film and television work. He was nominated for an Academy Award for his portrayal of Abe Reles in Murder Inc., a documentary-like treatment of the Mafia in the 1930s.

The following year Falk was nominated for another Academy Award for his role in A Pocketful of Miracles. He won neither of them.

Between 1965 and 1966 Falk won considerable popularity in the role of the barrister Daniel O'Brian in The Trials of O'Brian. Falk's performance as the dishevelled but brilliant lawyer brought him to the attention of Link and Lewison, who were looking for an actor to play Lieutenant Columbo.

At first Falk turned the series down. He felt that he was doing too much television and that he was becoming typecast as either a lawyer or a policeman. After much wrangling with the producers Falk finally agreed to do a pilot for the show and Prescription; Murder was made in 1968. The film was a success and Falk began rehearsing the first series of Columbo in 1970. Columbo differed from every other police series on television in that the hero was an ordinary man who was unfit, worried about his wife, had a pet dog and wore ill-fitting suits. The producers of the series worried that viewers would tire of a show with complex plots and little action, and repeatedly tried to introduce elements of sex and violence. Falk made himself extremely unpopular by fighting these decisions and insisting on maintaining the quality of the original scripts.

Falk differed from other television actors because he demanded time to rehearse a scene. He became notorious for his regular arguments with both scriptwriters and producers. "Peter was a pest," recalled Link, "he had strong opinions about our scripts, he wouldn't accept any change in the standards at all. In the end we let him write a script of his own to prove to him how hard it was."

Richard Lewison recalled that shooting, which should have lasted 12 days per episode, easily stretched to 13 or 14. "We knowingly used Peter's intransigence to gain more shooting time," Lewison remembered, "through his endless arguing he bought us much better quality shows."

Falk eventually left the series in 1977 after complaining that the quality of the scripts had deteriorated. He returned to his film career with a series of comedy roles in The Brink's Job, The Cheap Detective (both 1978) and The In-Laws (1979).

In the early Eighties Falk's film career faltered when he made the unwise choice of accepting the lead in The California Dolls (1981) as the manager of two female wrestlers. But in 1989 Falk returned to the role of Lieutenant Columbo for one last series of films. He remained as eager to discuss production quality as he had been in the Seventies and refused to do the series unless he received the substantial fee of $600,000 per episode.

"It's not the money, it's the principle," he insisted. "I want them to know I won't accept anything substandard."

Falk retained the battered raincoat and cigar which had been his trademark. He remained as shambling and preoccupied as in the earlier programmes, but critics began to complain that Falk's mannerisms had become formularised. Accusations that Columbo had become predictable confirmed Falk's fears, and he declined another series.

Peter Falk married Alyce Mayo in 1960. They adopted two daughters, and divorced in 1976. In 1977 Falk married the actress Shera Danese, who guest-starred on the Columbo series on numerous occasions. She and his adopted daughters survive him.

Sunday Independent

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