Peter Falk (born September 16, 1927) is an American actor, best known
for his role as Lieutenant Columbo in the television series Columbo. He appeared
in numerous films and television guest roles, and has been nominated for an
Academy Award twice, and won the Emmy Award on five occasions and the Golden
Globe award once.
Born Peter Michael Peter in New York City, Peter was the son of Michael Falk, owner of a clothing and dry goods store, and his wife, Madeline, an accountant and buyer. His mother was Russian and his father was Polish, and of Hungarian and Czech descent. He is the grandson of Mike Falk, chief editor of the Budapest newspaper Pester Lloyd. Falk's parents were of Jewish descent but were not religious.
Peter Falk's right eye was surgically removed at the age of three because of a malignant tumor; he has worn a glass eye for most of his life. Despite the handicap, Peter participated in team sports, mainly baseball and basketball, as a boy. In a 1997 interview in Cigar Aficionado magazine with Arthur Marx, Peter said, "I remember once in high school the umpire called me out at third base when I was sure I was safe. I got so mad I took out my glass eye, handed it to him and said, 'Try this.' I got such a laugh you wouldn't believe."
At the age of 12, Falk's first stage appearance was in The Pirates of Penzance at Camp High Point in upstate New York. Peter attended Ossining High School in Westchester County, New York, where he was a star athlete and president of his senior class. After graduating from high school in 1945, Peter briefly attended Hamilton College in Clinton, New York, and then tried to join the armed services as World War II was drawing to a close. Rejected because of his glass eye, he joined the United States Merchant Marine, and served as a cook and mess boy. "There they don't care if you're blind or not," Peter said in 1997. "The only one on a ship who has to see is the captain. And in the case of the Titanic, he couldn't see very well, either."
After a year and a half in the Merchant Marine, Peter returned to Hamilton College and also attended the University of Wisconsin. He transferred to the New School for Social Research in New York City, which awarded him a bachelor's degree in literature and political science in 1951. He then traveled in Europe and worked on a railroad in Yugoslavia for six months. He returned to New York, enrolling at Syracuse University , but he recalled in his 2006 memoir Just One More Thing that he was unsure what he wanted to do with his life for years after leaving high school.
Peter obtained a Masters degree in public administration at Syracuse University in 1953. It was a new program designed to train future workers in the federal bureaucracy, a career that Peter said in his memoir that he had "no interest in and no aptitude for." Peter Falk applied for a job with the CIA, but was rejected because of his membership in the Marine Cooks and Stewards Union while serving in the Merchant Marine, even though he was required to join and was not active in the union. Peter Falk then became a management analyst with the Connecticut State Budget Bureau, in Hartford. Peter described his Hartford job as "efficiency expert. "I was such an efficiency expert that the first morning on the job, I couldn't find the building where I was to report for work," he said in 1997. "Naturally, I was late, which I always was in those days, but ironically it was my tendency never to be on time that got me started as a professional actor."
While working in Hartford, Peter joined a community theater group called the Mark Twain Masquers, where he performed in plays that included The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial, The Crucible and The Country Girl. Peter also studied with Eva Le Gallienne, who was giving an acting class at the White Barn Theatre in Westport, Connecticut. Peter later recalled that he had "lied his way" into the class, which was for professional actors. He drove down to Westport from Hartford every Wednesday, when the classes were held, and was usually late.
In his 1997 interview with Arthur Marx, Peter said "One evening when I arrived late, she looked at me and asked, 'Young man, why are you always late?' and I said, 'I have to drive down from Hartford.'" She looked down her nose and said, "What do you do in Hartford? There's no theater there. How do you make a living acting?" Peter confessed he wasn't a professional actor. According to Falk, she looked at him sternly and said, "Well, you should be." He drove back to Hartford and quit his job.
Peter stayed with the La Gallienne group for a few months more, and obtained a letter of recommendation from La Galliene to an agent at the William Morris Agency in New York. In 1956, he left his job with the Budget Bureau and moved to Greenwich Village to pursue an acting career.
His first New York stage role was in a flop—an off-Broadway production of Molière's Don Juan at the Fourth Street Theatre that closed after its only performance on January 3, 1956. Peter played the second lead, Sganarelle. Peter Falk's next theater role proved far better for his career. In May he appeared at Circle in the Square in a revival of The Iceman Cometh with Jason Robards, playing the bartender.
Peter made his Broadway debut also in 1956, appearing in Diary of a Scoundrel. As the year came to an end, he appeared again on Broadway as an English soldier in Shaw's Saint Joan, with Siobhán McKenna.
Peter was nominated for an Academy Award for his performance as the gangster Abe Reles in Murder, Inc.Despite his stage success, a theatrical agent advised Peter not to expect much film work because of his glass eye.
Peter 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." He also failed to get a role in the film adapation of Marjorie Morningstar despite a promising interview for the second lead.
Peter Falk's first film performances were in small roles in Wind Across the
Everglades (1958), The Bloody Brood (1959) and Pretty Boy Floyd (1960).
Falk's performance in Murder, Inc. (1960) was a turning point in his career. He was cast in the supporting role of killer Abe Reles, in a film based on the real-life murder gang of that name, which terrorized New York in the 1930s. New York Times film critic Bosley Crowther, while dismissing the movie as "an average gangster film," singled out Falk's "amusingly vicious performance."
“ Mr. Falk, moving as if weary, looking at people out of the corners of his eyes and talking as if he had borrowed Marlon Brando's chewing gum, seems a travesty of a killer, until the water suddenly freezes in his eyes and he whips an icepick from his pocket and starts punching holes in someone's ribs. Then viciousness pours out of him and you get a sense of a felon who is hopelessly cracked and corrupt. ”
The film turned out to be Falk's breakout role. In his 2006 autobiography,
Just One More Thing, Peter said that his selection for the film from thousands
of other off-Broadway actors was a "miracle" that "made my career," and that
without it he would not have gotten the other significant movie roles that he
Falk, who played Reles again in a 1960 TV series The Witness, was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Academy Award for his performance in the film. He was nominated in the same Academy Award category the following year for his performance in the 1961 Frank Capra comedy Pocketful of Miracles. In both roles he played gangsters, though in Pocketful of Miracles he portrayed a more lighthearted Damon Runyon character.
The remainder of the 1960s saw Peter playing mainly small movie roles and in TV guest starring appearances. He played a cab driver in the all-star comedy film It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. He played mainly comical crooks, as in 1964's Rat Pack crime spoof Robin and the 7 Hoods and the 1965 farce The Great Race, with Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis.
Peter first appeared on television in 1957, in the dramatic anthology programs that later became known as the "Golden Age of Television." He appeared in one episode of Robert Montgomery Presents in 1957, and also appeared in Studio One, Kraft Television Theater, New York Confidential and Decoy.
In 1961, Peter was nominated for an Emmy Award for his performance in the episode "Cold Turkey" of James Whitmore's short-lived series The Law and Mr. Jones on ABC. On September 29, 1961, Peter and Walter Matthau guest-starred in the premiere episode, "The Million Dollar Dump," of ABC's crime drama Target: The Corruptors!, with Stephen McNally. He won an Emmy for The Price of Tomatoes, a Dick Powell TV drama in 1962.
Falk's first television series was in the title role of the drama The Trials of O'Brien, in which he played a lawyer. The show ran in 1965 and 1966 and was cancelled after 22 episodes.
Peter appeared in numerous other television roles in the 1960s and 1970s, but he is probably best known for the title role of the shabby and ostensibly absent-minded police detective lieutenant in the long-running TV series Columbo. The character was originally played in a 1960 episode of the NBC anthology series The Chevy Mystery Show, where the detective was played by Bert Freed, and in a subsequent Broadway play by Thomas Mitchell. Peter first appeared as Columbo in Prescription: Murder , a 1968 TV movie, but the character was not the subject of a show of its own until 1971. Columbo aired regularly from 1971 to 1978 on NBC, and then more infrequently on ABC as TV movies beginning in 1989. The most recent episode was broadcast in 2003.
Despite his frazzled exterior, Columbo possesses a keen mind and invariably solves his cases by paying close attention to tiny inconsistencies in suspects' stories, hounding them until they confess; he merely puts on a good show of being dimwitted so that the criminals will be more at ease around him. Columbo's signature technique is to exit the scene of an interview, only to stop in the doorway to ask a suspect "just one more thing," which often brings to light the key inconsistency. The role won Peter four Emmy Awards and a Golden Globe. Four of Columbo's cases gave Peter the chance to work with his longtime friend Patrick McGoohan, the latter playing the episodes' villain roles.
Peter was a close friend of independent film director John Cassavetes and appeared in Cassavetes' films Husbands, A Woman Under the Influence, and, in a cameo, at the end of Opening Night. Cassavetes, in turn, guest-starred in the Columbo episode "Étude in Black" in 1972.
Peter continued to work in films, including his performance as a possible ex-CIA agent of dubious sanity in the Arthur Hiller comedy The In-Laws. He also appeared in The Princess Bride, and (cast as himself) in Wim Wenders' Wings of Desire. In 1998, Peter returned to the New York stage to star in an off-Broadway production of Arthur Miller's Mr. Peters' Connections. His previous stage work included shady real estate salesman Shelley "the Machine" Levene in a Los Angeles production of David Mamet's prizewinning Glengarry Glen Ross.
Peter also starred in such holiday television movies as Finding John Christmas (2003) and When Angels Come to Town (2004). In 2007, Peter appeared with Nicolas Cage in the thriller Next.
Peter married Alyce Mayo, whom he met when they were both students at Syracuse University, on April 17, 1960. They adopted two daughters, Catherine (who is a private investigator) and Jackie. They divorced in 1976. On December 3, 1977, Peter married actress Shera Danese, who guest-starred on the Columbo series on numerous occasions.
In May 2009, it was reported that Peter is suffering from dementia, and in June 2009, a conservatorship was placed on him by a California court.
This Peter Falk Biography Page is Copyright © 2004 - 2009 Chuck Ayoub