LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Peter Falk, star of the 1970s hit TV drama “Columbo,” whose role as the rumpled detective of the same name earned him four Emmys, has died after years of battling Alzheimer’s disease. He was 83.
Falk passed away peacefully at his Beverly Hills home on Wednesday evening, according to a statement issued by his wife’s attorney.
The actor enjoyed a long and successful career, first on the stage, then in movies and on television, where he gained fame as police lieutenant Columbo, whose seeming absent-mindedness was actually a ruse to cover for his shrewd questioning of suspects and investigations.
He earned two nominations for the film industry’s top honors, the Oscar, for supporting roles in 1960’s “Murder, Inc.” and in “Pocketful of Miracles” the following year.
Falk took hold of his first Emmy trophy in a leading role in a 1961 production of “The Dick Powell Theater,” and 10 years later, in 1972, he began a string of Emmy wins that would see him claim U.S. TV’s top honor four more times as Columbo.
As a child, the actor’s right eye had been surgically removed due to a malignant tumor and was replaced with a glass eye. That handicap became, perhaps, one of Falk’s major assets in his “Columbo” role, as the physical trademark enhanced the detective’s image as a disheveled, oddball crime sleuth.
The homicide cop’s questions would often seem disorganized and out-of-place, but they inevitably would lead the murderer to help reveal his guilt.
The show became a smash hit after its prime-time debut on NBC in 1971 and continued on television for many years, even spawning several TV movies later in the actor’s life.
Born on September 16, 1927, in New York City, Falk was the son of a store owner. He began acting as a child in school and later joined the U.S. Merchant Marine because his glass eye made him ineligible for military service.
He left the Merchant Marine after a more than a year and returned to school, eventually receiving a master’s degree from Syracuse University in 1953.
But his love of acting took him to community theater and from there he moved to off-Broadway productions and eventually the Great White Way.
In 1956, he made his Broadway debut in “Diary of a Scoundrel” and thus began a string of stage roles that eventually sent him to Hollywood, aiming for a movie career.
His glass eye gave him an on-screen look that some thought was strange for a leading man, and he was forced into a series of supporting roles. Yet, it was that cockeyed facial expression that eventually made him a star.
In “Murder, Inc.” he was singled out for his sheer ability to look more sinister than his peers as a member of a gang of killers.
Yet, as Columbo, he was able to turn his slightly menacing look on its ear by delivering comic punch lines and conveying the outward appearance of a bumbling detective.
After “Columbo,” Falk enjoyed numerous TV and film roles, continuing to working up until 2009.
In late 2008, his daughter Catherine Falk filed court papers seeking to place his business and personal affairs under conservatorship and away from his wife Shera because, Catherine revealed, he was suffering from Alzheimer’s and dementia.
On Friday, Catherine and Falk’s other daughter Jackie, who he had in a previous marriage, issued a statement saying they had not been informed of their father’s death and instead learned of it through the media.
The pair noted Falk’s combination of odd looks and ability to make people laugh. “His daughters will always remember him for his wisdom and humor, time shared on vacations and hockey games, and for wild rides through the streets of Los Angeles with a one-eyed driver.”
Along with his two daughters, Falk is survived by Shera, his wife of 34 years. Catherine and Jackie are daughters with his previous wife to Alyce Mayo, whom Falk had divorced.
Additional reporting by Alex Dobuzinskis and Steve Gorman; Editing Anthony Boadle