Peter Michael Falk was born in 1927, in New York City and grew up in Ossining, N.Y., where his parents ran a clothing store.
After serving as a cook in the merchant marine and receiving a masters degree in public administration from Syracuse University, Falk worked as an efficiency expert for the budget bureau of the state of Connecticut.
He also acted in amateur theater and was encouraged to become a professional by actress-teacher Eva Le Gallienne.
An appearance in "The Iceman Cometh" off-Broadway led to other parts, among them Josef Stalin in Paddy Chayefsky's 1964 "The Passion of Josef D." In 1971, Falk scored a hit in Neil Simon's "The Prisoner of Second Avenue," Tony-nominated for best play.
Falk made his film debut in 1958 with "Wind Across the Everglades" and established himself as a talented character actor with his performance as the vicious killer Abe Reles in "Murder, Inc."
Among his other movies: "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World," "Robin and the Seven Hoods," "The Great Race," "Luv," "Castle Keep," "The Cheap Detective" and "The Brinks Job."
Falk also appeared in a number of art-house favorites, including "Wings of Desire" (in which he played himself as a former angel), and the semi-improvisational films "Husbands" and "A Woman Under the Influence," directed by his friend John Cassavetes.
"Today we lost someone who is very special and dear to my heart. Not only a wonderful actor but a very great friend," said Gena Rowlands, who co-starred with Falk in the latter film, and was married to the late Cassavetes.
Falk became prominent in television movies, beginning with his first Emmy for "The Price of Tomatoes" in 1961. His four other Emmys were for "Columbo."
As a police detective, Columbo's interview technique was famously disjointed, with his inevitable awkward afterthought ("Ahhh, there's just one more thing...") that tried the patience of his suspect as he was halfway out the door.
Somehow fittingly, Falk — the perfect choice to play Columbo — failed to be the first choice. Instead, the role was offered to easygoing crooner Bing Crosby. Fortunately, he turned it down.
With Falk in place, "Columbo" began its run in 1971 as part of the NBC Sunday Mystery Movie series, appearing every third week. The show became by far the most popular of the three mysteries, the others being "McCloud" and "McMillan and Wife."
Falk was reportedly paid $250,000 a movie and could have made much more if he had accepted an offer to convert "Columbo" into a weekly series. He declined, reasoning that carrying a weekly detective series would be too great a burden.
NBC canceled the three series in 1977. In 1989 ABC offered "Columbo" in a two-hour format usually appearing once or twice a season. The movies continued into the 21st century. "Columbo" appeared in 26 foreign countries and was a particular favorite in France and Iran.