Falk created one of TV’s most iconic personalities in Lt. Columbo, a disheveled-looking and rambling homicide detective who’d arrive at a crime scene clad in a trench coat and full of questions — many of them quietly revelatory — and leave with his prime suspect shaking in their shoes. Since viewers almost always saw who committed the crime in the cold open, the series was described as a “howcatchem” versus a “whodunnit.” The role would net Falk 10 Emmy nominations, with him actually grabbing gold four times.
Falk first played Columbo — his first name has been up for debate; Falk claimed it was Phillip, though some props indicated it as Frank — in a 1960 episode of the anthology series The Chevy Mystery Show, before becoming a part of the NBC Sunday Mystery Movie series, where the L.A. detective rotated every third week with McCloud and McMillan and Wife.
A decade after NBC canceled the Sunday Mystery, ABC started producing Columbo TV-movies once or twice a year. The last of the bunch, Columbo Likes the Night Life, aired in 2003. After that, Falk and ABC went back and forth on how to continue the serial, with the network angling to amp up the titillation factor. Specifically, ABC wanted to set Columbo’s next case in the world of lingerie models, while Falk unsuccessfully pitched his own, less prurient concept. “The script that I like, the network doesn’t like. The script that they like, I don’t like,” the actor lamented to me during a 2005 film junket for The Thing About My Folks (in which he played dad to Paul Reiser).
Before ABC and Falk could find a happy medium, the actor fell prey to dementia, which only progressed in the years until his passing. Nonetheless, Falk had crafted an iconic crimesolver, one whose trademark tactics can be spied in modern-day TV detectives such as The Closer‘s Brenda Johnson.
At the time I interviewed Falk, I asked if he was ever wooed to guest-star on a TV series, much the way his contemporaries Doris Roberts and Betty White do now. “If I saw the part and it was really funny and it would be a lot of fun to do, I’d do it,” he said. “But so far, I haven’t seen anything.”
Of course, Falk also created many memorable film characters, including the cuddly narrator of The Princess Bride, a CIA operative who schooled Alan Arkin in all sorts of things in The In-Laws, and Sam Diamond in the 1976 whodunnit send-up Murder By Death.
I’m sure everyone has their favorite Falk memories and roles, so please use the comments section to share them and tribute the actor.