Though Peter Falk is best remembered for his iconic character Lieutenant Columbo, the disheveled and eccentric homicide detective who worked for the Los Angeles Police Department, Falk was an incredibly versatile and talented actor whose career spanned several decades. As Columbo, Falk regularly smoked cigars and was a hero to the common man, frequently solving complex cases to apprehend murderers. Cigars became a crucial part of Columbo's identity and were masterfully used by Falk as acting props, making exchanges with suspects more intense and solidifying Columbo's legacy as one of television's greatest characters.
Life and Career
Peter Michael Falk was born in Manhattan on September 16, 1927 and later moved with his family to the town of Ossining along the Hudson River, where the famous Sing Sing Correctional Facility is located. Falk's parents owned a dry goods store and they did fairly well during the Great Depression years thanks to the store's proximity to the maximum-security prison, benefiting from the traffic to and from the penitentiary.
When Falk was three-years old, the family experienced a health scare with their young son. After Falk's daycare teacher noticed that he may have vision problems, his mother took him to a doctor where it was discovered he had retinoblastoma, a form of cancer that rapidly develops from the immature cells of a retina. As a result, his right eye had to be removed and he wore an eye patch for a short time before switching to a glass eye and later a plastic one when he was older.
Falk learned to become less self-conscious about his glass eye by participating in sports, particularly basketball and baseball. He also wasn't afraid to use his eye for a laugh, recounting in an interview, "I remember once in high school the umpire called me out at third base when I was sure I was safe. I got so mad I took out my glass eye, handed it to him and said, 'Try this.' I got such a laugh you wouldn't believe."
During his senior year in high school, Falk became acquainted with acting after filling in for a sick student two days before a performance. Fittingly, Falk played a detective and made his appearance in the play's third act. Though Falk performed well in school, he had no idea about what he wanted to do after he graduated in 1945. During the summer that year, Falk enrolled at Hamilton College in upstate New York but dropped out after only a month, citing a lack of fun and women as his primary reasons.
Falk attempted to join the Marines and recounted in an interview how he tried to trick the pharmacist during his eye exam, saying, "He never noticed that I covered my false eye twice and read the chart 20/20 both times with my good eye. I thought I was in, but suddenly the doctor in the next cubicle looked over and said to the pharmacist, 'You dumb cluck, can't you see he's tricking you?'" (Marx, 1997). The doctor then administered the exam and quickly discovered Falk's glass eye.
Falk enrolled at Hamilton College ... but dropped out after only a month, citing a lack of fun and women
A few months after being denied, Falk joined the Merchant Marine where he stayed for a year-and-a-half before eventually returning to New York City. While there, Falk earned a bachelor's degree in literature and political science at The New School for Social Research and later attended Syracuse University, where he received a master's degree in public administration. After unsuccessfully applying for a job with the CIA, Falk worked as a management analyst for the Connecticut State Budget Bureau in Hartford. However, Falk became interested in acting again and joined a local community theater group called the Mark Twain Masquers. Though he didn't earn any money, Falk gained valuable acting experience by performing in such plays as The Crucible, The Country Girl, and The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial.
Falk further developed as an actor by taking acting classes taught by Eva Le Gallienne, a renowned actress and highly respected stage director. It was Le Gallienne's letter of recommendation that helped Falk earn the role of Sganarelle in an off-Broadway production of Molière's comedy Don Juan. Falk's perseverance helped land him the role, explaining in an interview, "They weren't paying anything. So lots of time you'd go to rehearsal and people wouldn't show up. So the director would say to me, 'You take that part.' So I got a bigger part. They kept firing the Don Juans. And they also kept firing the directors. But there was one person who showed up every week. That was me. So by the time we were about two weeks from opening night, I had the second lead."
With the assistance of the William Morris Talent Agency in New York, Falk continued to land minor roles but experienced a big break with 1956's off-Broadway revival of Eugene O'Neill's The Iceman Cometh, playing the bartender role. Soon after, Falk attempted to earn roles in films but was told not to expect much work due to his artificial eye. After failing a screen test at Columbia Pictures, Falk was told by the production company's president Harry Cohn, "Mr. Falk, for the same price, I'll get an actor with two eyes."
Falk was undeterred and found his breakout role portraying Abe Reles, a cigar-smoking, violent mafia thug in the classic film Murder, Inc. (1960). For his performance, Falk was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor and was nominated again the following year for his work in the 1961 comedy film Pocketful of Miracles. Falk was also a member of the all-star cast for 1963's It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, playing a greedy cab driver who takes part in a crazy pursuit for a large sum of stolen money.
Columbo and Cigars
While several of his movie and television performances continue to be held in high regard, it's the role of Columbo that many associate with Falk, who portrayed the famous sleuth on and off from 1968 until 2003. Though it's difficult to imagine anyone but Falk as Columbo, the show's writers initially wanted Bing Crosby to play Columbo, but Crosby turned the role down, feeling that it would interfere with his golfing. Columbo was a hardworking blue-collar detective known for several trademarks, including his rumpled raincoat, love of cigars, the old Peugeot 403 he drove, his basset hound named Dog, and his signature catchphrase "one more thing," which he would often employ while interrogating suspects.
Falk's own style and mannerisms informed much of Columbo's appearance and personality. It was his shabby raincoat that was used after he felt the wardrobe the studio had chosen didn't suit Columbo. After surveying the studio lot to choose Columbo's vehicle, Falk selected the famous Peugeot the detective drove, a beat-up car that needed a paint job and was allegedly missing its engine. Falk typically improvised while acting and created several of his character's idiosyncrasies such as frequently asking to borrow a pencil, clumsily searching his pockets for evidence, and being randomly distracted by an irrelevant object while interviewing suspects.
Like many aspects of the show, Columbo's cigar smoking was possibly influenced by Falk's personal preferences. In a 1997 interview with Cigar Aficionado Falk said, "I don't remember at this late date whose idea it was for me to smoke a cigar on the series. It was probably mine, since I enjoy smoking so much and cigars looked like a much more macho smoke for a detective than cigarettes. I do know I came up with my outfit — the beat-up raincoat and worn-out brown shoes."
Falk expressed his fondness for cigars in the Cigar Aficionado interview:
Falk didn't have a favorite brand or vitola, saying, "I'll smoke anything anybody gives me. I'm not particular. On Columbo I smoke the cheapest cigars you can buy. They come six to a pack." Cigars were heavily featured throughout several episodes and made-for TV movies, quickly becoming an integral part of Columbo's personality.
In the 1968 TV movie Prescription: Murder, Falk's debut as Columbo, the detective notably says to a female suspect, "Well, then, if you don't mind then I'll light up. See, a lot of women they don't like cigars. Now my wife, she prefers a pipe. I could never get used to those things. There's just too much to carry around with you." During Columbo's first on-screen appearance, the detective is seen carrying his cigars in the breast pocket of his suit jacket. When talking to murder suspect Dr. Ray Flemming later in the movie, the psychiatrist remarks, "You're a bag of tricks, Columbo, Right down to that prop cigar you use."
Cigars are a major plot point in the 1972 episode "Short Fuse" with an exploding case of Cuban cigars being the murder weapon. Though an exploding cigar sounds almost too comical and is quickly dismissed by others, including the suspect, Columbo continues to pursue his theory throughout the episode. The detective's persistence pays off in the end, with Columbo using a damaged box of cigars to trick the killer into thinking it was the same box recovered from the crime scene, sending the murderer into a panic as he believes they'll explode while they're inside a mountain cable car. With the killer's guilt confirmed, Columbo stuffs a handful Cubans into his jacket pocket before another person in the cable car asks, "Aren't those supposed to be evidence, Lieutenant Columbo?" Columbo reluctantly puts them down and replies, "Yeah, I guess they are. It's a shame, though."
Falk typically improvised while acting and created several of his character's idiosyncrasies
In the 1974 episode "Mind Over Mayhem'' there are two smoking-related clues Columbo discovers at the crime scene. He first notices a completely burned match in an ashtray and then encounters a seven-day pipe stand with Thursday's pipe missing. As the episode progresses, Columbo realizes the match was used by the killer, who must be a cigar smoker, as the victim was a pipe smoker who only used a special lighter. He then finds the missing pipe broken in several pieces on the victim's driveway, later learning that a car was used as the murder weapon and that it drove over the pipe. This is confirmed when it's discovered that the car's tire treads contain shreds of the same imported English tobacco the victim smoked and was still in the chamber of his broken pipe.
During the same episode, Columbo asks the suspect where he buys his cigars, to which he tells Columbo that a friend brings them into the United States from Cuba. Columbo pulls out his own cigars and says, "You know, these fellows that I smoke, I pick these up here at the supermarket." When offered a Cuban, Columbo politely takes one and says, "I'll save this for a special occasion." At the episode's conclusion, Columbo smokes a cigar and uses a match to demonstrate to the murderer how he solved the case, showing how a match burned from top to bottom would be used by the killer to light his cigar.
In the 1977 episode "Try and Catch Me," Columbo begins his off-the-cuff speech at a special book event by taking out a cigar and saying, "I talk better when this is lit," before striking a match. Throughout much of the show's run, Columbo usually smoked cheap, pre-cut factory cigars, readily apparent in the 1974 episode "By Dawn's Early Light." After Colonel Rumford hands Columbo a high-end cigar, Columbo appears perplexed by a cigar with an uncut end before Rumford hands him a cutter, saying, "Maybe you could use this." Despite admiring the cigar for its in-hand feel and aroma, Columbo still doesn't smoke the cigar.
Smoking is a crucial plot point in 1975's episode "A Deadly State of Mind." Dr. Mark Collier is having an affair with a patient of his, a rich housewife, and he kills her husband once their affair is discovered. The doctor is also a chain smoker and after his special, engraved lighter fails to produce a flame following the murder, he pulls out a pack of matches. After Columbo arrives at the crime scene, he spots a tiny piece of metal in the carpet. He's initially unsure what it could be but feels it could be significant and hangs onto it for evidence. After speaking to Dr. Collier the night of the murder, Columbo sees him use a match to light his cigarette but the following morning he observes the doctor using a lighter. Columbo realizes the metal was a flint from the doctor's lighter and because the flint was so thin and worn down, it popped out of the lighter at the crime scene when Collier tried to light a cigarette. This then leads to Columbo to investigate Collier further, piecing together all of the other evidence before deducing the doctor committed the murder.
Columbo as Everyman
Falk likened Columbo to a backwards Sherlock Holmes in an interview, saying, "Holmes was smart, but he was an aristocrat. Columbo was just like everyone who walks the streets. Dirty raincoat, a dog, a wife. Not much money. On the other hand, there's something exceptional about the way his mind works. Also, he's human. He's interested in what ordinary people are interested in."
When asked about the reason behind the show's success and longevity, Falk said:
As Columbo, Peter Falk was a hero that normal people could relate to, portraying a hard-working detective who always tried to do the right thing but did so in his own unique way. Falk continued to act in movies throughout the '80s, '90s, and early 2000s, occasionally revisiting Columbo in a series of television specials. Though Falk expressed interest in returning as Columbo in the future, he was sadly diagnosed with Alzheimer's and passed away at age 83 from pneumonia and complications from Alzheimer's disease in 2009. Falk was an outstanding actor and performer, with his films and television work testifying to his brilliance and continuing his legacy. Falk's time as Columbo provided engaging, thrilling stories that showcased the detective's dedication to justice and his love for cigars.