Today: Why actor Peter Falk, best known as the great detective Lieutenant Columbo, didn’t become an actor until he was nearly 30 years old.
With a rattle and exhaust backfire, an old Peugeot in desperate need of an engine overhaul, a new paint job and a new convertible top would park in front of a mansion crime scene in Bel Air, Brentwood or some other ritzy part of Los Angeles.
The driver would be wearing a rumpled old beige raincoat, with pants and shoes that appeared to be from a second hand store. When he got to the door, he would introduce himself as “Lieutenant Columbo, Los Angeles Police Department.” At the crime scene would be the perpetrator, a well to do man or woman who viewers at the start of the show saw commit an elaborate murder, one so carefully crafted, it appeared to be impossible to solve.
As Lt. Columbo spoke, it was with a Bronx sound somewhat like “dese and dose,” for “these and those,” yet always respectful and often in awe of the powerful person, the perpetrator, in front of him. The perpetrator would greatly underestimate the Lieutenant until, in each scene as he was leaving, Columbo would suddenly stop and say, “Just one more thing,” and ask a clever question often bedeviling the perpetrator who struggled to answer it.
Later, as the show drew to a close, the last “Just one more thing,” was when the perpetrator knew he or she was caught and Columbo would fill in the details as to how the murder took place, while the perpetrator was about to be arrested. The role of Lt. Columbo made Peter Falk famous. The show periodically filmed for television in 90 or 120 minute segments, less commercial time, from 1968 to 2003. Audiences across the globe loved this kindly, rumpled 5 foot, 6 inch detective.
But long before Columbo, long before his stage and movie career, Peter never intended to be an actor. Born in New York City in 1927 to a Jewish family, his father was a clothing store owner and his mother was an accountant. But at the age of 3, tragedy struck. Little Peter had cancer in his right eye and the eye had to be removed, replaced by a marble eye. But it didn’t stop him, as he later competed in sports and enjoyed a wide range of other activities.
After high school, Peter briefly attended Hamilton College, one of several colleges he would later attend but quit to join the Merchant Marine and sailed out as a 3rd cook preparing pork chops for 1,600 U.S. servicemen headed for battle. But after repeatedly screwing up, he was demoted to bussing and washing dishes. When Peter returned to New York City, he eventually went back to school and earned his degree from the New School for Social Research, for his parents paid for his education with the hope he would finally make something of himself.
Later, after sojourns to Europe seeking excitement, some of it behind the Iron Curtain and trying to join the Israeli Army, and knocking around directionless, Peter earned a Master’s Degree from Syracuse University and worked for the Connecticut budget bureau. He had a solid paycheck and a secure career. But he sought something more interesting and part-time joined an acting troupe and started taking acting classes and he came to love acting.
At the age of 29, Peter quit the budget bureau and moved to New York City to become an actor and soon got a small role in an Off-Broadway production. A year later in 1957 he landed a role as a bartender in “The Iceman Cometh,” starring Jason Robards at the famous Circle in the Square. This began a successful 50 year acting career in which Peter landed big Broadway roles, major Hollywood films and numerous television roles (he won four Emmys for Columbo).
In his personal life, in 1960 Peter married Alyce Mayo, whom he had met at Syracuse University. They had two daughters, Catherine and Jackie, before they divorced 16 years later in 1976.
A year later, he married actress Shera Danese, who had guest-starred on Columbo and their 33 year marriage would continue for the rest of Peter’s life. On June 23, 2011 Peter passed away at his Beverly Hills home at the age of 83 from complications of Alzheimer’s, a condition that set in the last few years of his life. But what a life it was, as Peter not only succeeded as an actor but became a painter, sculptor and charcoal sketch artist, whose works have been shown widely. But it is his role as Lt. Columbo that in reruns will long entertain a vast audience.
The primary source for this piece was Peter’s autobiography, “Just one more thing: Stories from my life,” (2006). To see a very funny 6 minute, 44 second video of Peter as Columbo at a “Dean Martin Roast: [of] Frank Sinatra.” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AKunEn9VUrw
In the next KazanToday:
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