June 27, 2011

Peter Falk, Emmy-Winning Columbo Star, Passes

He earned four of his five Primetime Emmys for the role of the iconic raincoat-wearing police lieutenant.

Peter Falk, the Primetime Emmy-winning actor best known as disheveled police lieutenant Columbo, the character he played on television over a span of more than 30 years, died June 23, 2011, at his home in Beverly Hills. He was 83.

According to news reports, Falk had Alzheimer’s disease.

In a statement, the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences said, “Peter Falk was one of the originals. His work encompassed so much, but he created in Columbo a stand-alone, unique character who made an indelible impression on anyone who saw this portrayal. He won five Emmys over the course of his career — four of them as Lieutenant Columbo — which ties for the most Emmys ever for portraying one character. We thank him for his contributions to television, and know that his legacy of work will live on.”

Falk, who also enjoyed a long and celebrated career as a stage and film actor, first played Columbo — the character never had a first name — in the 1968 production Prescription: Murder.

In 1971 the character became part of the NBC Sunday Mystery Movie series, appearing every third week. Columbo rotated with McCloud, McMillan and Wife and, later, Hec Ramsey.

NBC canceled the series in 1977. Twelve years later, ABC began revived in a series of two-hours movies once or twice a season. The movies continued through 2003.

Of the five Primetime Emmys Falk won during his caree, four were for the role of Columbo. His first came in 1962, for his work on The Dick Powell Theatre. In all, he earned 12 Primetime Emmy nominations.

He was born Peter Michael Falk was born on September 16, 1927, in New York City and grew up in Ossining, N.Y. When he was three years old, his right eye had to be removed due to a malignant tumor.

Years later, when he began acting, agents cautioned him that the missing eye would limit his opportunities, but that proved not to be the case — in addition to his Emmys success, he earned two Oscar nominations — for Murder, Inc., in 1960, and for Pocketful of Miracles in 1961.

Before he became a performer, Falk worked as a cook in the merchant marine and earned a master’s degree in public administration from Syracuse University, he worked as an efficiency expert for the budget bureau of the state of Connecticut. He also acted in amateur theater and was encouraged to become a professional by actress-teacher Eva La Gallienne.

An off-Broadway appearance in Eugene O'Neill's The Iceman Cometh led to other classical parts, including Joseph Stalin in The Passion of Joseph D. In 1971 Falk was among the stars of the Neil Simon hit The Prisoner of Second Avenue.

Falk made his film debut in 1958 with Wind Across the Everglades and quickly became a busy character actor. Notable films included Murder, Inc., It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, Robin and the Seven Hoods, The Great Race, Luv, Castle Keep, The Cheap Detective, The Brinks Job, The In-Laws and The Princess Bride.

He also appeared in several foreign and art-house films, including Husbands and A Woman Under the Influence, directed by his friend John Cassavetes, and German director Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire, in which he played himself.

Falk married his wife, pianist Alyce Mayo, in 1960. They had two daughters and divorced in 1976. The following year he married actress Shera Danese. They filed for divorce twice but reconciled both times.

He is survived by his wife Shera and his daughters.

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