NEW YORK (AP) — The best way to celebrate Peter Falk’s life is to savor how Columbo, his signature character, fortified our lives.
Thanks to Falk’s affectionately genuine portrayal, Lt. Columbo established himself for all time as a champion of any viewer who ever felt less than graceful, elegant or well-spoken.
Falk died Thursday at age 83 in his Beverly Hills, Calif., home, according to a statement released Friday by family friend Larry Larson. But Columbo lives on as the shining ideal of anyone with a smudge on his tie, whose car isn’t the sportiest, who often seems clueless, who gets dissed by fancy people.
As a police detective, Columbo’s interview technique was famously disjointed, with his inevitable awkward afterthought (“Ahhh, there’s just one more thing…”) that tried the patience of his suspect as he was halfway out the door.
Columbo was underestimated, patronized or simply overlooked by nearly everyone he met — especially the culprit.
And yet Columbo, drawing on inner pluck for which only he (and an actor as skilled as Falk) could have accounted, always prevailed. Contrary to all evidence (that is, until he nailed the bad guy), Columbo always knew what he was doing.
Even more inspiring for viewers, he was unconcerned with how other people saw him. He seemed to be perfectly happy with himself, his life, his pet basset, Dog, his wheezing Peugeot, and his never-seen wife. A squat man chewing cigars in a rumpled raincoat, he stands tall among TV’s most self-assured heroes.
What viewer won’t take solace forever from the lessons Columbo taught us by his enduring example?
Columbo — he never had a first name — presented a refreshing contrast to other TV detectives. “He looks like a flood victim,” Falk once said. “You feel sorry for him. He appears to be seeing nothing, but he’s seeing everything. Underneath his dishevelment, a good mind is at work.”
On another occasion, he described Columbo as “an ass-backwards Sherlock Holmes.”
“As a person, he was like Columbo. He was exactly the same way: a great sense of humor, constantly forgetting things,” said Charles Engel, an NBCUniversal executive who worked with Falk on “Columbo” and was his neighbor and longtime friend.
He remembered Falk as a “brilliant” actor and “an amazingly wonderful, crazy guy,” and said a script was in place for a two-hour “Columbo” special, but Falk’s illness made the project impossible. In a court document filed in December 2008, Falk’s daughter Catherine Falk said her father was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease.
Somehow fittingly, Falk — the perfect choice to play Columbo — failed to be the first choice. Instead, the role was offered to easygoing crooner Bing Crosby. Fortunately, he turned it down.
With Falk in place, “Columbo” began its run in 1971 as part of the NBC Sunday Mystery Movie series, appearing every third week. The show became by far the most popular of the three mysteries, the others being “McCloud” and “McMillan and Wife.”
Falk was reportedly paid $250,000 a movie and could have made much more if he had accepted an offer to convert “Columbo” into a weekly series. He declined, reasoning that carrying a weekly detective series would be too great a burden.