Peter Falk, who marshaled actorly tics, prop room appurtenances and his own physical idiosyncrasies to personify Columbo, one of the most famous and beloved fictional detectives in television history, died on Thursday night at his home in Beverly Hills, Calif. He was 83.
His death was announced in a statement from Larry Larson, a longtime friend and the lawyer for Mr. Falk’s wife, Shera. He had been treated for Alzheimer’s disease in recent years.
Mr. Falk had a wide-ranging career in comedy and drama, in the movies and onstage, before and during the three and a half decades in which he portrayed the slovenly but canny lead on “Columbo.” He was nominated for two Oscars; appeared in original stage productions of works by Paddy Chayefsky, Neil Simon and Arthur Miller; worked with the directors Frank Capra, John Cassavetes, Blake Edwards and Mike Nichols; and co-starred with the likes of Frank Sinatra, Bette Davis and Jason Robards.
Absent from the obituaries I have seen is the fact Falk was an avid chessplayer, even once appearing on the cover of Chess Life magazine. Indeed, one of the reasons I became so hooked on Columbo was that the first episode I saw was from season two, episode seven, called “The Most Dangerous Match” in which an American chessplayer contending for the World Championship, realizing he has no hope of winning the match, murders his opponent. Mayhem ensues!
Individual episodes of Columbo were hit or miss, but the show overall was brilliant and original. It defied two seemingly sacrosanct conventions of television mysteries. First, in nearly every episode the viewer knows right from the start the identity of the killer and every detail of how and why the crime was committed. (One memorable exception involved Martin Landau playing identical twins. The viewer knows one of them is guilty. But which one?) Second, Columbo himself does not appear until the second act. The fun of the show was watching the killer’s seemingly brilliant and foolproof plan slowly unravel beneath Columbo’s relentless pursuit. In some of the better episodes there was an element of fair-play detection, in the sense that the viewer might hope to anticipate some of the things the killer overlooked.
Adding to the fun was the class warfare element. The killers were always very wealthy and powerful, and usually were not terribly sympathetic. Columbo, on the other hand, was a nebbishy and absent-minded everyman. Watching the killers get their comeuppance at his hands was always very satisfying.
In pondering Peter Falk’s contribution to the mystery genre, we also must mention that he was in Murder By Death, which for me is one of those movies where, when it shows up on television, I simply must stop and watch it. Add it to your Netflix queue immeidately!