Falk's first stage appearance was at the age of 12 in The Pirates of Penzance at Camp High Point in upstate New York, where one of his camp counselors was Ross Martin (they would later act together in The Great Race and the Columbo episode "Suitable For Framing"). Falk attended Ossining High School in Westchester County, New York, where he was a star athlete and president of his senior class. After graduating from high school in 1945, Falk briefly attended Hamilton College in Clinton, New York, and then tried to join the armed services as World War II was drawing to a close. Rejected because of his glass eye, he joined the United States Merchant Marine, and served as a cook and mess boy. "There they don't care if you're blind or not", Falk said in 1997. "The only one on a ship who has to see is the captain. And in the case of the Titanic, he couldn't see very well, either."
After a year and a half in the Merchant Marine, Falk returned to Hamilton College and also attended the University of Wisconsin. He transferred to the New School for Social Research in New York City, which awarded him a bachelor's degree in literature and political science in 1951. He then traveled in Europe and worked on a railroad in Yugoslavia for six months. He returned to New York, enrolling at Syracuse University, but he recalled in his 2006 memoir Just One More Thing that he was unsure what he wanted to do with his life for years after leaving high school.
While working in Hartford, Falk joined a community theater group called the Mark Twain Masquers, where he performed in plays that included The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial, The Crucible, and The Country Girl by Clifford Odets. Falk also studied with Eva Le Gallienne, who was giving an acting class at the White Barn Theatre in Westport, Connecticut. Falk later recalled that he had "lied his way" into the class, which was for professional actors. He drove down to Westport from Hartford every Wednesday, when the classes were held, and was usually late.
Falk stayed with the Le Gallienne group for a few months more, and obtained a letter of recommendation from Le Galliene to an agent at the William Morris Agency in New York. In 1956, he left his job with the Budget Bureau and moved to Greenwich Village to pursue an acting career.
His first New York stage role was in an Off-Broadway production of Molière's Dom Juan at the Fourth Street Theatre that closed after its only performance on January 3, 1956. Falk played the second lead, Sganarelle. His next theater role proved far better for his career. In May he appeared at Circle in the Square in a revival of The Iceman Cometh with Jason Robards, playing the bartender.
Falk made his Broadway debut also in 1956, appearing in Alexander Ostrovsky's Diary of a Scoundrel. As the year came to an end, he appeared again on Broadway as an English soldier in Shaw's Saint Joan, with Siobhán McKenna. In 1972, he appeared in Broadway's The Prisoner of Second Avenue. According to film historian Ephraim Katz, "His characters derive added authenticity from his squinty gaze, the result of the loss of an eye . . .
The film turned out to be Falk's breakout role. In his 2006 autobiography, Just One More Thing, Falk said that his selection for the film from thousands of other Off-Broadway actors was a "miracle" that "made my career", and that without it he would not have gotten the other significant movie roles that he later played. Falk, who played Reles again in the 1960 TV series The Witness, was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Academy Award for his performance in the film.
For his part, Falk says that he "never worked with a director who showed greater enjoyment of actors and the acting craft." Falk says, "There is nothing more important to an actor than to know that the one person who represents the audience to you, the director, is responding well to what you are trying to do." Falk recalled one time that Capra reshot a scene even though he yelled "Cut and Print", indicating the scene was finalized. When Falk asked him why he wanted it reshot, "he laughed and said that he loved the scene so much he just wanted to see us do it again. How's that for support!"
Falk first appeared on television in 1957, in the dramatic anthology programs that later became known as the "Golden Age of Television." He appeared in one episode of Robert Montgomery Presents in 1957, and also appeared in Studio One, Kraft Television Theater, New York Confidential, Naked City, Have Gun–Will Travel and Decoy.
In 1961, Falk was nominated for an Emmy Award for his performance in the episode "Cold Turkey" of James Whitmore's short-lived series The Law and Mr. Jones on ABC. On September 29, 1961, Falk and Walter Matthau guest-starred in the premiere episode, "The Million Dollar Dump," of ABC's crime drama Target: The Corruptors!, with Stephen McNally. He won an Emmy for The Price of Tomatoes, a Dick Powell TV drama in 1962.
Falk's first television series was in the title role of the drama The Trials of O'Brien, in which he played a lawyer. The show ran in 1965 and 1966 and was cancelled after 22 episodes.
Although Falk appeared in numerous other television roles in the 1960s and 1970s, he is best known as the star of the TV series Columbo, "everyone's favorite rumpled television detective", writes historian David Fantle. His character was a shabby and ostensibly absent-minded police detective lieutenant, who had first appeared in the 1968 film Prescription: Murder. Falk described his role to Fantle:
- "Columbo has a genuine mistiness about him. It seems to hang in the air . . . [and] he's capable of being distracted. . . . Columbo is an ass-backwards Sherlock Holmes. Holmes had a long neck, Columbo has no neck; Holmes smoked a pipe, Columbo chews up six cigars a day."
"'m a Virgo Jew, and that means I have an obsessive thoroughness. It's not enough to get most of the details, it's necessary to get them all. I've been accused of perfectionism. When Lew Wasserman (head of Universal Studios) said that Falk is a perfectionist, I don't know whether it was out of affection or because he felt I was a monumental pain in the ass."
- "Let's face it, we had some good fortune at the beginning. Our debut episode, in 1971, was directed by this young kid named Steven Spielberg. I told the producers, Link and Levinson, This guy is too good for Columbo. . . . Steven was shooting me with a long lens from across the street. That wasn't common twenty years ago. The comfort level it gave me as an actor, besides its great look artistically—well, it told you that this wasn't any ordinary director."
- The character of Columbo had previously been played by Bert Freed in a single TV episode and by Thomas Mitchell on Broadway. Falk first played Columbo in Prescription: Murder, a 1968 TV-movie, and from 1971 to 1978 Columbo aired regularly on NBC as part of the umbrella series NBC Mystery Movie. All episodes were of TV-movie length, in a 90 or 120 minutes slot including commercials. The show returned on ABC in the form of a less frequent series of TV-movies, still starring Falk, from 1989 until 2003.
- Falk was a close friend of independent film director John Cassavetes and appeared in Cassavetes' films Husbands, A Woman Under the Influence, and, in a cameo, at the end of Opening Night. Cassavetes, in turn, guest-starred in the Columbo episode "Étude in Black" in 1972. Falk describes his experiences working with Cassavetes, and specifically remembers his directing strategies such as "shooting an actor when he might be unaware the camera was running."
- "You never knew when the camera might be going. And it was never: 'Stop. Cut. Start again.' John would walk in the middle of a scene and talk, and though you didn't realize it, the camera kept going. So I never knew what the hell he was doing. [Laughs] But he ultimately made me, and I think every actor, less self-conscious, less aware of the camera than anybody I've ever worked with.
Falk continued to work in films, including his performance as a questionable ex-CIA agent of dubious sanity in the comedy The In-Laws. Director Arthur Hiller said during an interview that the "film started out because Alan Arkin and Peter Falk wanted to work together. They went to Warner's and said, 'We'd like to do a picture,' and Warner's said fine . . . and out came The In-laws. . . . of all the films I've done, The In-laws is the one I get the most comments on."
He also appeared in The Princess Bride, and (as himself) in Wim Wenders' 1987 film Wings of Desire and its 1993 sequel, Faraway, So Close!. In 1998, Falk returned to the New York stage to star in an Off-Broadway production of Arthur Miller's Mr. Peters' Connections. His previous stage work included shady real estate salesman Shelley "the Machine" Levine in a Boston/Los Angeles production of David Mamet's prizewinning Glengarry Glen Ross.
Falk also starred in such holiday television movies as A Town Without Christmas (2001), Finding John Christmas (2003) and When Angels Come to Town (2004). In 2005 he starred in The Thing About My Folks. Although movie critic Roger Ebert was not impressed with most of the other actors, he writes in his review, ". . . we discover once again what a warm and engaging actor Peter Falk is. I can't recommend the movie, but I can be grateful that I saw it, for Falk." In 2007, Falk appeared with Nicolas Cage in the thriller Next.
Falk was an accomplished artist. For many years he took classes at the Art Students League of New York. Examples of his sketches can be seen on his official website.
If your mind is at work, we're in danger of reproducing another cliche. If we can keep our minds out of it and our thoughts out of it, maybe we'll come up with something original".
Good Night Mr. Falk