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Peter Falk, who won four Emmys for his portrayal of the rumpled TV detective Columbo, as well as Oscar nominations for his first two films, Murder, Inc. and Frank Capra’s last film A Pocketful of Miracles, died Thursday in Beverly Hills, reports CBS News. He was 83.
While best known for his role as the crusty L.A. detective in the crumpled raincoat whose persistence and sly skills always managed to outsmart the bad guy, Falk also was a veteran stage and screen star, winning critical acclaim in a number of John Cassavetes films: Husbands, A Woman Under the Influence, Mikey and Nicky, Opening Night and Big Trouble. In 1972, Falk won a Tony Award for his Broadway performance in Neil Simon’s The Prisoner of Second Avenue.
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Falk won an earlier Emmy Award in 1961 for The Price of Tomatoes, presented by the Dick Powell Playhouse.
Falk also had prominent roles in such films as The Great Race, The Brink’s Job, The In-Laws, Roommates,The Princess Bride, Wings of Desire, Faraway, So Close! and Made, among several others. More recently, he returned to stage, including a performance in Defied at the Geffen Playhouse in Westwood.
In 1960 he married Alyce Mayo, a former Syracuse classmate. The couple subsequently adopted two daughters, Jacqueline and Catherine, but later divorced in 1977. Falk went on to marry actress Shera Danese that year, enjoying a long-term marriage.
Peter Falk was born on September 16, 1927 in New York City. The family soon moved to nearby Ossining where he was raised. His parents ran a dry-good store. At age three, he was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor, which was successfully removed along with his right eye. The glass eye came to be a trademark for Falk.
Following graduation from high school in 1945, where he was president of his class, Falk tried to enlist in the Army but was declared ineligible because of his eye. Unfettered, he signed up with the Merchant Marines as a cook, touring France and South America. Following that stint, he attended the New School for Social Research in Manhattan, graduating in 1951 with a degree in political science. Unsure of his career, he traveled through Europe and eventually went to Syracuse University for graduate school. While at graduate student, Falk joined the university’s theater group.
Still, he only dabbled in acting. A certified public accountant, Falk moved to Hartford, Connecticut in 1953, taking a job as an efficiency expert, but continuing to dabble in amateur productions. Uninspired by his job, he began to commute one evening per week to New York to attend the acting class of Eva Le Gallienne. With a two-hour each way drive, he often arrived late, incurring the wrath of his teacher; he explained that he had a day job in Hartford and was not an actor. She told him that he “should” be an actor. With that encouragement, Falk immediately quit his day job, and moved to New York City that year, 1955. While struggling for his break, he roomed with Dustin Hoffman and Gene Hackman.
Falk first won notice in The Iceman Cometh, with Jason Robards and subsequently made the trek to Hollywood. He was an immediate success, garnering two Oscar nominations in his first two films. He received a best supporting actor nod for his role as a vicious killer in Murder, Inc. (1960) and a second best supporting actor nomination for his portrayal of a mouthy bodyguard in A Pocketful of Miracles (1961). In those early years, he was generally cast as criminal sorts or blue-collar guys, winning his Emmy Award for his portrayal of a truck driver in The Price of Tomatoes.
Despite such success, Falk still struggled, in part due to his glass eye. Columbia chief Harry Cohn once ranted, with his usual degree of sensitivity, against hiring Falk – “For the same price I can get an actor with two good eyes.”
Fortunately, Falk was able to overcome such prejudice as well as to transcend the tough-guy roles, landing parts in a number of comedies, including: It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963) with Sid Caesar, Jonathan Winters and Milton Berle. In 1964, he performed with Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra in Robin and the Seven Hoods. The Great Race (1965) followed as he played alongside Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis, delivering a hilarious slapstick performance.
In the 1970s he further showed his versatility, playing in both serious drama and comedy in the ’70s, beginning with Husbands, the first of a number of films he did for his friend John Cassavetes. He played Gena Rowland husband in A Woman Under the Influence, and alongside Cassavetes in Mikey and Nickey. He also starred at the other spectrum, in a Neil Simon parody, starring as a Bogart-type detective in the spoof Murder by Death.
Yet, it was the role of the rumpled but brilliant Lt. Columbo that vaulted his career. Falk first played the Columbo role in the 1968 TV movie Prescription: Murder. The Columbo series was an outgrowth of the hit TV movie, running every third Sunday from 1971 to 1977, rotating with McCloud and McMillan & Wife.
With his popularity at a peak with his Columbo persona, Falk balanced his work in a varied array of films, including three lighthearted films: The In-Laws, a spy comedy with Alan Arkin, Big Trouble, a slapstick offering from Cassavettes, and the magical The Princess Bride for Rob Reiner.
In 1989, he reprised the Columbo role for a series of ABC movies. He mixed up his work between TV and movies in his later years, starring in such projects as the made-for-TV movies The Sun Shine Boys, as well as the TV drama, A Storm in the Summer (2000).
An accomplished amateur artist, Falk maintained a home studio where his studio was filled with many of his drawings, including a sketch of Lt. Columbo.
Falk is survived by his wife Shera and his two daughters.
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