He was not the first choice to play Columbo, he wasn't even the first actor to play the role. The now-famous detective first made his appearance in an episode of The Chevy Mystery Show in 1960, and was played by Bert Freed. The episode was written by Richard Levinson and William Link, who later adapted their teleplay for the stage (Scarlett O'Hara's father, Thomas Mitchell, played it in California and Boston, it never made it to Broadway). In 1967, third time was the charm, but even then, Falk almost missed his chance to create a TV institution. The role of Columbo was first offered to Bing Crosby, then to Lee J. Cobb; it finally went to Peter, who played it in the TV film which spawned the series.
Columbo became one of the most recognized detective shows in TV history, but was never a weekly series. After its first appearance as a stand-alone TV film (Prescription: Murder), a second, pilot film was shot (Ransom for a Dead Man, directed by a young Stephen Spielberg). Columbo was then placed in the revolving wheel of series which made up the NBC Mystery Movie, sharing the spot with Dennis Weaver as McCloud and the team of Rock Hudson and Susan St. James as MacMillan and Wife. After a break of several years, Falk returned as Columbo in a series of TV movies, ultimately playing the rumpled detective for 30 years or so. He won four Emmy Awards for his performance (an earlier Emmy was earned in 1962 for a guest shot on a Dick Powell series).
Falk's glass eye, a result of a cancer operation as a child, gave him a permanent squint, which served him well throughout his career. In the early 60s, he won back-to-back Oscar nominations for playing gangsters in back-to-back movies, Murder, Inc., and Pocketful of Miracles (which was to be Frank Capra's final film). He was working as an efficiency expert in Connecticut (he had a Masters degree in Public Administration) when he landed in an acting class taught by Eva LaGallienne, who encouraged him to become a professional. In New York, he was first noticed playing the bartender in the highly regarded revival of The Iceman Cometh opposite Jason Robards. He returned to the stage throughout his career, in plays by Arthur Miller, George Bernard Shaw, and Neil Simon (he was Broadway's original Prisoner of Second Avenue). He had a sure way with comedy, holding his own among the cast of clowns in It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World and The Great Race. He was also seen to good effect in several John Cassavetes films, all intermixed with his regular returns to the small screen and Columbo.
Peter Falk died June 23 as a result of complications from pneumonia and Alzheimer's. He was 83.
While Falk was a versatile actor appearing in a wide variety of roles throughout his career, this guy...um...was not. But he created a lawman on TV as enduring as Lt. Columbo.
You would be nuts to put this guy in a Neil Simon play or opposite Gene Rowlands in a John Cassavetes film, but he made a significant impact on the landscape of weekly television. At 6-foot-seven, he belonged in Westerns (or Science Fiction. He played the title character in the 1951 classic The Thing From Another World, in which his character was described as an "intellectual carrot"). He had quite a few films to his credit when his buddy John Wayne declined an offer to star in a TV Western, and suggested Arness as a substitute. James played Marshall Matt Dillon in Gunsmoke for a whopping 20 years, then revived the character in several TV films in later decades. The show earned Arness three Emmy nominations in its early years, when the show was a half-hour black and white program. By the time Gunsmoke ended, it had amassed 635 episodes, and currently holds the title of longest running prime-time drama series in American TV history (an accomplishment it shares with Law and Order, which produced only 456 episodes during its run).
Arness was a shy man who shunned publicity and banned the press from the Gunsmoke set. He walked with a slight limp, due to a WWII injury, and the fact that he had almost no training as an actor probably limited his versatility (his brother Peter Graves had a much more varied career, which I mentioned here). When he died in June, he was greatly praised for his work in Gunsmoke, a show which apparently broke the mold of TV Westerns by featuring a law man who preferred to talk rather than shoot. I say "apparently," because I never saw a single episode of the show, despite the fact that it ran during a period when I was growing up and was watching a lot of television. Westerns just did not appeal to me, so I never tried to sit through the show.
Full disclosure: I never watched an entire episode of Columbo either (though I did take a peek at the ill-advised spinoff series Mrs. Columbo, in which soap star Kate Mulgrew solved crimes on her own). Detective series were not to my taste either. But the contributions of Peter Falk and James Arness to the cultural landscape cannot be denied. Arness died from natural causes at the age of 88.