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16 fascinating facts about Peter Falk and 'Columbo'

Learn how a restless young man became one of television's most iconic characters.

Top image: The Everett Collection

A young New York native named Peter Falk was restless, bouncing around colleges, unsure what to do with himself in a post–World War II America. During the 1950s his restlessness and thirst for a thrill piqued an interest in acting, which spurred the fateful decision to join a community theatre group.

The aimless twenty-something would go on to become one of Hollywood's most versatile actors, an Emmy-winning and Oscar-nominated talent who could portray vicious thugs in noir films as well as likable characters in comedy and drama.

But regardless of his prolific work in television and film, Peter Falk will forever be synonymous with the lovable detective Columbo, a cigar-chomping man in a tattered raincoat who hides his brilliance behind a shabby, scatterbrained facade.

From Broadway to the silver and small screens, here are 16 fascinating facts about Peter Falk and Columbo.

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1

He had Ross Martin as a summer camp counselor.

Early on there were signs that Falk would become an acting legend. While away at summer camp at the age of 12, where he took a part in a production of The Pirates of Penzance, one of the councelors who looked after him was a young Ross Martin, known today for playing Artemus Gordon on The Wild Wild West. Falk and Martin would work together later in life, too, with film The Great Race and Columbo episode "Suitable for Framing."

2

Eva Le Gallienne suggested he become a professional actor.

Drawn to community theatre groups and not particularly interested in any one career path, a twenty-something Falk lied his way into a class for professional actors taught by Broadway legend Eva Le Gallienne. When he eventually conceded to Le Gallienne that he wasn't a professional, she, according to Falk, said he should be. That was enough to convince the budding actor to quit his job and move to Greenwich Village to pursue his new passion full-time.

Image: commons.wikimedia

3

His trademark squint was due to a prosthetic eye.

Falk, who lost one eye to cancer at the age of three, found success on Broadway in the 1950s. Though advised by an agent that an actor with a prosthetic eye shouldn't expect much work off the stage, Falk wouldn't give up trying to land a film role. After a few setbacks, he got a few small parts and then his big break with 1960's Murder, Inc. Falk's performance as vicious killer Abe Reles earned him an Academy Award nomination and cemented his career in Hollywood.

Image: The Everett Collection

4

He was the first actor nominated for an Oscar and Emmy the same year.

In 1961, Falk earned the distinction of becoming the first actor to be nominated for an Oscar and an Emmy in the same year. He received nominations for his supporting roles in Murder, Inc. and television program The Law and Mr. Jones. Incredibly, Falk repeated this double nomination in 1962, being nominated again for a supporting actor role in Pocketful of Miracles and best actor in "The Price of Tomatoes," an episode of The Dick Powell Theatre, for which he took home the award.

Image: The Everett Collection

5

He said he owed it all to psychopath Abe Reles.

Falk's Oscar-nominated performance in 1960's Murder, Inc. was celebrated by critics though the film itself was considered rather average. According to Falk, his getting the role was a "miracle," without which he would have never been nearly as successful. In fact, Falk felt so indebted to the character that he played the psychopathic killer twice, resuming the role again for television series The Witness.

Image: The Everett Collection

6

He played villains for Rod Serling and Alfred Hitchcock.

Falk portrayed a variety of unsavory characters on television during the early 1960s. In The Twilight Zone episode "The Mirror," Falk stars as a paranoid Castro-esque revolutionary who begins seeing would-be assassins in a mirror. In Hitchcock's series, Alfred Hitchcock Presents and The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, Falk first stars as a gangster and then a murderous evangelical.

Image: The Everett Collection

7

His first leading role in a television series came in 1965.

Having had many roles in film and television during the early 1960s, Falk's first lead in a television series came with CBS's The Trials of O'Brien. The show ran from 1965 to 1966, its 22 episodes featuring Falk as a Shakespeare-quoting lawyer who defends clients while solving mysteries.

Image: The Everett Collection

8

He wasn't the first actor to play Columbo.

Though the character Columbo first appeared on television in 1960, it would be nearly a decade before Falk would become synonymous with the rumpled detective. First, Bert Freed played the LAPD flatfoot in a 1960 episode of anthology series The Chevy Mystery Show. A couple years later, Thomas Mitchell (pictured to the left) played the sleuth onstage in a production called  Prescription: Murder in San Francisco. When it was decided that the play would be turned into a television movie in 1968, the lead was offered to Lee J. Cobb and Bing Crosby, but Falk landed the part.

Image: commons.wikimedia

9

Steven Spielberg directed the first episode of the 'Columbo' series.

A 25-year-old Steven Spielberg directed the first non-pilot episode of Columbo, "Murder by the Book," in 1971 for NBC. The young prodigy even impressed Falk, who told the show's producers, "This guy is too good for Columbo." Columbo aired on NBC from 1971 to 1978. Then, beginning in 1989, the show began airing less frequently on ABC, with the last film broadcast in 2003.

10

'Columbo' popularized the inverted detective story.

Columbo, created by William Link and Richard Levinson, broke away from the traditional whodunit series with its employment of the inverted detective story. The plots revolve around how a perpetrator, whose identity is already known to the audience, is finally ensnared by Columbo's brilliant detective work.

11

Columbo's first name is Frank.

Falk's trademark character is known simply as "Columbo" for the approximately 20-year period during which episodes were being produced. However, in the 1971 episode "Dead Weight," the detective flashes his badge and a closeup reveals that the gumshoe's first name is in fact Frank. The badge makes another appearance in the 1976 episode "A Matter of Honor."

Image: Wikipedia

12

Columbo roasted Frank Sinatra.

Falk appeared in character as Columbo in a 1978 episode of The Dean Martin Celebrity Roast in which Old Blue Eyes was the target.

13

He supplied Columbo's wardrobe and often ad libbed.

Perhaps to add further authenticity to the LAPD detective, Falk personally supplied his character's shabby clothes. One anecdote purports that when asked whether Columbo's trademark raincoat was in the Smithsonian, the actor retorted that the garment was in his upstairs closet. Falk also ad libbed extensively as the character, throwing adversaries (and fellow actors) off balance with improvised misdirection.

14

He starred in a women's wrestling comedy flick.

Burt Reynolds must have been unavailable during casting calls for Robert Aldrich's last film, the 1981 comedy …All the Marbles. Falk stars in a rather out-of-place role as crooked wrestling manager Harry Sears, who takes buxom wrestling beauties Iris and Molly, the California Dolls, to the top of the journeyman wrestling circuit.

Image: The Everett Collection

15

He wrote his autobiography just five years before his death.

Falk's 2006 autobiography, Just One More Thing, was published about five years before his death and about two years before he was afflicted by dementia. Falk was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease in December 2008 and died on June 23, 2011, at the age of 83.

16

He has a bronze statue in Hungary.

Appearing befuddled, with cigar in hand and rumbled raincoat, a life-sized, bronze statue of Falk as his iconic character graces Falk Miksa Street in Budapest, Hungary. Installed in 2014 at an estimated cost of $63,000, it is believed that the actor is a relative of the street's namesake, a 19th-century Hungarian political figure.

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