The beloved rumpled trenchcoat-wearing police lieutenant on the Columbo TV series died at his Beverly Hills home last night after a long bout with Alzheimer’s Disease, according to his daughter, who gave the news to KNX-1070. He was 83. The five-time Emmy winner (four for Columbo) also was a two-time Oscar nominee (for 1960’s Murder, Inc and 1961’s Pocketful of Miracles). He was a key member of iconoclastic filmmaker John Cassavetes’ regular ensemble, starring in such independent film classics as Husbands (1970) and A Woman Under the Influence (1974), and in a cameo at the end of Opening Night. In 1972 he won a Tony for his performance in Broadway’s The Prisoner of Second Avenue. But his most famous role was Columbo, which first aired in 1968 as part of an anthology series on NBC from 1971-1978, took a five-year respite, and returned occasionally on ABC from 1983-2003. He once described Columbo as “an ass-backwards Sherlock Holmes” who chewed cigars instead of smoked a pipe. (The debut episode in 1971 was helmed by 25-year-old Steven Spielberg in one of his earliest directing roles.)
Born in New York City, Falk had his right eye surgically removed when he was 3 because of a malignant tumor and wore a glass eye for most of his life. That and his talent made him a natural character actor when he joined a community theater group in Hartford, Conn. Eventually he was signed by the William Morris Agency and began acting full-time in 1956 on the New York stage and that year made his Broadway debut in Diary of a Scoundrel. Lore has it Falk failed a screen test at Columbia Pictures and was told by studio boss Harry Cohn that “for the same price I can get an actor with two eyes.” But Murder Inc in 1960 was his breakout movie role, and he was nominated for Best Supporting Actor and again in this category in 1961 for Pocketful of Miracles, Frank Capra’s last feature. He co-starred in the 1963 comedy It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, in Robin And The 7 Hoods, and in The Great Race his TV career caught fire. Falk occasionally worked in films in his later life (The In-Laws, The Princess Bride, Wings of Desire, Faraway, Roommates, among them).