Best known as the rumpled television detective Columbo, character actor Peter Falk also enjoyed a successful film career, often in association with the groundbreaking independent filmmaker John Cassavetes. Born September 16, 1927, in New York City, Falk lost an eye at the age of three, resulting in the odd, squinting gaze which later became his trademark. He initially pursued a career in public administration, serving as an efficiency expert with the Connecticut Budget Bureau, but in the early '50s, boredom with his work sparked an interest in acting. By 1955, Falk had turned professional, and an appearance in a New York production of The Iceman Cometh earned him much attention. He soon graduated to Broadway and in 1958 made his feature debut in the Nicholas Ray/Budd Schulberg drama Wind Across the Everglades.
A diminutive, stocky, and unkempt presence, Falk's early screen roles often portrayed him as a blue-collar type or as a thug; it was as the latter in 1960's Murder Inc. that he earned a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination, a major career boost. He was nominated in the same category the following year as well, this time as a sarcastic bodyguard in Frank Capra's Pocketful of Miracles. In 1962, Falk won an Emmy for his work in the television film The Price of Tomatoes, a presentation of the Dick Powell Theater series. The steady stream of accolades made him a hot property, and he next starred in the 1962 feature Pressure Point. A cameo in Stanley Kramer's 1963 smash It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World preceded Falk's appearance in the Rat Pack outing Robin and the Seven Hoods, but the film stardom many predicted for him always seemed just out of reach, despite lead roles in 1965's The Great Race and 1967's Luv.
In 1968, Falk first assumed the role of Columbo, the disheveled police lieutenant whose seemingly slow and inept investigative manner masked a steel-trap mind; debuting in the TV movie Prescription: Murder, the character was an immediate hit, and after a second telefilm, Ransom for a Dead Man, a regular Columbo series premiered as part of the revolving NBC Mystery Movie anthology in the fall of 1971, running for seven years and earning Falk a second Emmy in the process. In the meantime, he also continued his film career, most notably with Cassavetes; in 1970, Falk starred in the director's Husbands, and in 1974 they reunited for the brilliant A Woman Under the Influence. In between the two pictures, Falk also returned to Broadway, where he won a Tony award for his performance in the 1972 Neil Simon comedy The Prisoner of Second Avenue. In 1976, Cassavetes joined him in front of the camera to co-star in Elaine May's Mikey and Nicky, and directed him again in 1977's Opening Night.
After Columbo ceased production in 1978, Falk starred in the Simon-penned mystery spoof The Cheap Detective, followed by the William Friedkin caper comedy The Brink's Job (1978). After 1979's The In-Laws, he starred two years later in ...All the Marbles, but was then virtually absent from the screen for the next half decade. Cassavetes' 1986 effort Big Trouble brought Falk back to the screen (albeit on a poor note; Cassavetes later practically disowned the embarrassing film) and and in 1987 he starred in Happy New Year along with the Rob Reiner cult favorite The Princess Bride. An appearance as himself in Wim Wenders' masterful Wings of Desire in 1988 preceded his 1989 resumption of the Columbo character for another regular series; the program was to remain Falk's focus well into the next decade, with only a handful of film appearances in pictures including 1990's Tune in Tomorrow and a cameo in Robert Altman's The Player. After the cancellation of Columbo, he next turned up in Wenders' Desire sequel Far Away, So Close before starring in the 1995 comedy Roommates.
Falk continued to work in both film and television for the next decade and a half, starring in various Columbo specials through 2003, appearing with Woody Allen in the made-for-TV The Sunshine Boys in 1997, and playing a bar owner caught up in mafia dealings in 1999's The Money Kings. Other projects included the Adam Sandler-produced gangster comedy Corky Romano (2001), the Dreamworks animated family film A Shark Tale (as the voice of Ira Feinberg), and the Paul Reiser-scripted, Raymond de Felitta-directed comedy-drama The Thing About My Folks (2005). In 2007, Falk starred opposite Nicolas Cage and Julianne Moore in Lee Tamahori's sci-fi thriller Next. That same year, Falk announced to the public that he had Alzheimer's disease. He died in June 2011 at age 83. ~ Jason Ankeny, Rovi