Peter Falk, TV's Lt. Columbo, Dead at 83

Actor was also known for role in "The Princess Bride"

By Greg Wilson
|  Friday, Jun 24, 2011  |  Updated 5:08 PM EDT
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Actor Peter Falk, known as the legendary Inspector Columbo.

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Peter Falk, the actor most famous for portraying shrewd, but shambling television detective Lt. Columbo, has died at the age of 83.

A family spokesman confirmed the development for NBC LA, saying the iconic actor died Thursday night at his Beverly Hills home. He reportedly had suffered from Alzheimer's disease.

Falk, born in New York City to a Polish storekeeper, suffered a childhood trauma that became a trademark of sorts. Surgery to remove a malignant tumor when he was just three years old left him with a glass eye, which he often joked about. In a 1997 interview with Cigar Aficionado magazine, Falk recalled a story from his childhood involving the prosthesis.

"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."

His signature turn was the title role in "Columbo," the series that ran on NBC from 1971-78, then sporadically on ABC all the way up to 2003. In the show, Falk played a cagey Los Angeles Police Department lieutenant who wore a disheveled trenchcoat and lured suspects into confessing with his unassuming and quizzical style. "Just one more thing," he would say, before cornering a smug criminal in a carefully sprung trap. Falk won four of his five Emmy Awards for "Columbo."

The likable actor took up drama when he was nearly 30, after serving as a cook in the Merchant Marines following WWII, and earning a degree in political science from the New School for Social Research in 1951 and his M.A. in public administration at Syracuse University.

He took up community theater, and his teacher encouraged him to take up the profession full-time. He quit his job and moved to New York to study under Jack Landau and Sanford Meisner, making his Off Broadway debut in 1956 in Moliere's "Don Juan" and hitting Broadway in "St. Joan" when it transferred from Off Broadway in 1957, according to Variety.

Falk was at home on the stage as well, winning a Tony Award in 1972 for his work in the Neil Simon play "The Prisoner of Second Avenue."

Falk's portrayal of a gangster in 1960's "Murder, Inc." brought him the first of two Oscar nominations. The second came in a comedic role the following year, in Frank Capra's "Pocketful of Miracles." The film that led to the role of his lifetime was a 1967 TV movie called "Prescription Murder." There, he launched the famous character that would star in 90-minute programs in NBC's "Mystery Movie" rotation. At the program's height in the mid-1970s, Falk earned a reported $500,000 per episode.

Falk took to directing episodes of "Columbo," and used his Rolodex to recruit such stars as John Cassavetes and Ben Gazzara to star alongside him.

He continued to work in films long after the popularity of "Columbo" waned, starring in Neil Simon comedies "Murder by Death" and "The Cheap Detective." He co-starred with Alan Arkin in 1979's "The In-Laws," playing a wizened agent who advised the neurotic and terrified dentist Arkin to avoid gunfire by running "Serpentine!"

A younger generation knew Falk as the grandfather and narrator in 1987's "The Princess Bride."

He is survived by his wife of 34 years, actress Shera Falk, and two daughters from a prior marriage.

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