Peter Falk, who died last week at 83, had a varied and celebrated career, including film and the Broadway stage. He received his first Oscar nomination for his first movie role. Both his stage and screen work varied from madcap to manic, from amenable to antagonistic.
But he will always be best remembered by most for his TV portrayal of the disheveled and deceptively clever Lt. Columbo. His rumpled raincoat, his ever-present stogie, his mussed hair, his rattletrap Peugeot and his perfect -- and false -- obsequious courtesy are as much a part of television history as Jack Lord's "Book 'em, Dano" and tough guy Telly Savalas' "Kojak" sweetened by an affection for lollypops.
He was Monk before "Monk," full of peculiarities and quirks, with a voice that rasped yet charmed the most dedicated and devious criminals and instilled in them a certain confidence -- until he made his case with "Just one more thing."
Columbo was, as The New York Times pointed out in its obituary, neither Philip Marlowe nor Sherlock Holmes. Neither hard-boiled nor intellectual, Lt. Columbo (Falk always responded, when asked Columbo's first name, that it was "Lieutenant") of the Los Angeles Police Department was happily married to Mrs. Columbo (also no first name) and seemingly plodded doggedly through every case and every day.
But how he could bring the bad guys (and gals) down, solving every case to the audience's satisfaction and endearing himself to millions of viewers in the bargain.
This was a detective we could call our own, an Everyman who proved that the wealth of Beverly Hills and Malibu was no protection from justice, not when Columbo was on the case.
Much of Columbo's persona was created not by producers but by Falk. He turned down the wardrobe choices of the show's writers, insisting on the battered raincoat (one he brought to the studio from home) and picked the rusting car that usually had something wrong with it over nicer models in the studio pool.
His wife was never seen on screen during the show's off and on appearances for 35 years, but often quoted, as were the assortment of relatives he called to mind when making a point (and making points) with a suspect. Did they exist? It didn't matter. It was all part of his method of endearing himself to the criminals who made sport of his apparent stumblebum tactics, until the unfailingly polite Columbo closed the case with a squint and a small smile of satisfaction.
It was satisfying to the audience as well. "Columbo" wasn't a typical mystery in that the audience knew from the beginning "whodunit." What the lieutenant solved was how and why. And that -- like his ability to be both disarming and devious -- made the show, and the character, more intriguing, more likeable and more about the guy you would want on your side.