Peter Falk, the sly, restless, actor equally beloved by viewers of syndicated TV, auteurists, and the latchkey children of baby boomers, has died at his home in California, according to his family; he was 83, and had been in poor health the last few years following a series of surgeries.
Falk, who wore a glass eye for most of his life (he lost his right eye to a tumor aged three) bummed around college and the Merchant Marine in the 40s and 50s before deciding, in the late 50s, to move to Greenwich Village and become an actor; he did plays (his big break was The Iceman Cometh with Jason Robards) and live TV and then moved to L.A., where he made friends with John Cassavetes, and was eventually cast as the rumpled, dogged, enduringly popular TV detective Columbo, whose self-effacing unraveling (“Oh, uh, just one more thing”) of elaborately conceived murders (always shown to us at the beginning of each episode), often committed by renowned, temperamental figures in artistic fields, represents a sustained rebuke to Nietzschean theories of superior and irreproachable genius.
Falk was also a regular star of movies directed by his close friend Cassavetes, delivering brilliantly off-balance performances, riffing, indulging, exploring the male psyche. (He also appeared opposite Cassavetes in the jobs the latter took for love, like Mikey and Nickey, or money, like Machine Gun McCain).
Here is Colombo interrogating a murderer—an orchestra conductor—played by Cassavetes in the 1972 Columbo episode “Etude in Black”:
Late in his career, Falk’s cross-quadrant appeal meant he cameoed in some surprising places: Wim Wenders had the brilliant idea to cast him as himself—who happened to also be an angel, world-weary and bemused—in Wings of Desire; and he played the grandfather—patient, forgetful, quick-witted, persistent, and loving—in The Princess Bride. He exuded a mysterious confidence far too worldly to be called “zen.”