Following a four-year battle with dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, the great character actor Peter Falk died in his Beverly Hills home last night. He was 83.
What’s remarkable about Peter Falk is that his career headed down two radically different paths simultaneously: There was Peter Falk the populist entertainer, who delighted the masses with his lovably irascible turns in movies like The In-Laws and The Princess Bride, and his stint as the eponymous sleuth in the long-running, reliably pleasing hour-long mystery show Columbo. And then there was Peter Falk the art-movie icon, a central character in John Cassavetes’ combustible dramas Husbands and A Woman Under The Influence and an unlikely (but poignant and funny) angel in Wim Wenders’ Wings Of Desire. Though these separate pursuits revealed Falk’s extraordinary range and sense of adventure as an actor, his unique presence remained a constant: wry, colorful, and so singularly charismatic that it was hard to notice anyone else on screen. (He also, as our own Noel Murray discovered in 2004, gives great interview.)
Known for his squinty, often withering gaze—the result of losing his right eye to cancer as a youth, and wearing a glass replacement for the remainder of his life—Falk cut his teeth in community theater, but soon broke into the New York theater scene in the mid-‘50s, quickly established himself as a force. Not long after moving to Greenwich Village to pursue an acting career, Falk scored a small part in a Circle On The Square revival of The Iceman Cometh with Jason Robards, and debuted on Broadway shortly thereafter, with appearances in 1956 productions of Diary Of A Scoundrel and Saint Joan. (He eventually won a Tony, in 1972, for his work in The Prisoner Of Second Avenue.)
Despite warnings that his glass eye would limit his potential as a screen actor, Falk’s singularity proved to be an advantage, starting with his Oscar-nominated role as a gleeful killer in the otherwise forgotten 1960 gangster film Murder, Inc. From there, he worked with the legendary Frank Capra on Capra’s final film, the also largely forgotten 1961 comedy Pocketful Of Miracles, and showed off his comic chops again when he joined the zany ensemble cast for Stanley Kramer’s 1963 caper It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. At the same time, he also broke through on television, putting his stage experience to good use on live anthology shows like Robert Montgomery Presents in 1957, Studio One, and Kraft Television Theater. In the early ‘60s, he collected on Emmy nomination (for an episode of the 1961 series The Law And Mrs. Jones) and won another (for the 1962 Dick Powell drama The Price Of Tomatoes). He also got cast as the lead in his first series, The Trials Of O’Brien, which straddled 1965 and 1966, but was pulled after 22 episodes.
But it was in the late ‘60s to early ‘70s when Falk really made his mark, in two very different places. Not many actors could play a role as popular and instantly iconic as Lt. Columbo, his uncannily brilliant L.A. homicide detective, and hope audiences accept him in any other part. It’s to Falk’s credit that he insisted on making sure his signature role didn’t lead to a subsequent career of narrow typecasting. And while there’s no question Columbo remains the part that earned him the most attention—from awards-giving bodies (he won four Emmys for it) and the public at large—Falk simultaneously cemented his place in the pantheon of great screen actors by becoming a part of John Cassavetes’ performance troupe. Those two worlds collided in a 1972 episode of Columbo, in which Cassavetes played the killer-of-the-week and Falk, in this scene, presents the case against him:
Contrast that with a scene in Cassavetes’ 1974 masterpiece A Woman Under The Influence, in which Falk starred opposite Gena Rowlands as the beleaguered husband of a woman whose behavior suggests psychosis. Falk’s response to her behavior veers from anger and exasperation to bone-deep sadness.
It was Falk’s turn to play the crazy person in the 1979 comedy The In-Laws, starring opposite Alan Arkin as an (possible but unlikely) ex-CIA agent who ropes Arkin’s mild-mannered dentist into an international plot that whisks them from New York to Central America. In this classic scene, Arkin follows Falk’s advice about dodging bullets through the “serpentine” technique:
Of the roles in the latter part of his career, Falk gave two performances in 1987 that made the strongest impression: One as the storyteller in The Princess Bride, a role that capitalized on his crusty jocularity and charm, and the other as himself in Wenders’ Wings Of Desire. Wenders’ film became an arthouse staple for its poetic depiction of life from an ethereal perspective, but it would have been hard to digest without Falk’s grounding humor and presence. We learn that Falk was once an angel who rejected immortality because he was tired of observing peoples’ thoughts and actions. He wanted to experience the fullness of life.
It’s safe to say the real Falk did likewise.