Columbo Peter Falk
Credit: Adams/NBCU Photo Bank via AP Images

Peter Falk, the actor known to a generation as television’s Lt. Columbo, died yesterday in Beverly Hills, according to ABC News. “Falk died peacefully at his Beverly Hills home in the evening of June 23, 2011,” according to the statement from his family. He was 83.

Say Falk’s name and the image that instantly comes to mind is a slope-shouldered figure in a rumpled overcoat, staring down a suspect with one eye while the other roams unnervingly free. Few actors were ever identified with a single character as much as Falk was with Lt. Columbo, the slow-moving, sharp-witted detective he played in more than five dozen TV movies, beginning with 1968’s Presciption: Murder. But like his most famous character, Falk’s genial exterior concealed hidden depths. Falk came late to acting, earning a master’s in public administration and working as a Connecticut bureaucrat before taking legendary teacher Eva La Galienne’s advice to quit his day job. He spent the 1950s playing small roles on- and off-Broadway and eventually made the leap to movies, though not without a few setbacks. Falk’s false right eye — he lost the real one to cancer at the age of 3 — could have ruined his career, or at least confined him to playing eccentrics and psychopaths. But even in small roles, Falk made his mark, garnering back-to-back Supporting Actor Oscar nominations for Murder, Inc. (1961) and Pocketful of Miracles (1962). He lost, but eventually picked up five Emmys.

Falk’s comic skills (best seen in 1979’s The In-Laws) were never in doubt, but as a dramatic actor, in movies like Husbands and A Woman Under the Influence, he was consistently underrated. His instantly recognizable face gave Falk no choice but to play versions of himsef; even as an ex-angel walking the streets of Berlin in Wings of Desire, he’s accosted by children yelling “Columbo!” But Falk never caricatured himself, even if others did, and left a body of work that deserves further investigation.

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