Few actors were as linked to one role for so long as Mr. Falk, whose cockeyed glare from a glass right eye and slightly disheveled appearance hid a compelling intelligence he brought to the part.
“Columbo” ran on NBC for most of the 1970s, and ABC revived the franchise for nearly two dozen TV specials, the last of which aired in 2003.
Mr. Falk did not originate the role of the Los Angeles lieutenant. Bert Freed first played Columbo in a 1960 teleplay. Nor was Mr. Falk the front-runner for the part when NBC wanted to revive the character in 1968 for a made-for-TV movie, “Prescription: Murder.” The network hoped to cast entertainer Bing Crosby for that program.
“An agent called and said that Crosby was scheduled to play golf and couldn’t turn it down to go over and talk” to the show’s creators, Mr. Falk told The Washington Post in 1990. “He did love golf. I play too, but I went over and talked to them.”
“Columbo” creators Richard Levinson and William Link modeled the detective after the crazy-like-a-fox sleuth in the French suspense classic “Les Diaboliques” (1955). Mr. Falk made the role his own.
In addition to choosing the detective’s ride, a beat-up Peugeot, Mr. Falk plucked a raincoat from his closet as a prop. Other running gags were based on things the audience never saw: Columbo’s first name (Mr. Falk joked that it was “Lieutenant”) and his wife.
To catch suspects off-guard, Columbo would often fish a shopping list out of his trench coat instead of a crucial piece of evidence. He could procure an inadvertent confession by prefacing his question with a seemingly harmless, “Just one more thing.” The actor named his 2006 memoir after that catchphrase.
Mr. Falk took a circuitous route to acting, having been a Merchant Marine cook and government efficiency expert before rising to prominence as a stage actor in the mid-1950s.
He won his first Emmy as a kindhearted truck driver who picks up a pregnant hitchhiker in “The Price of Tomatoes” (1962), part of “The Dick Powell Show” anthology series.
In “Murder, Inc.” (1960), his breakthrough film, Mr. Falk was a hit man of chilling intensity. The next year, he played a Damon Runyon comical mobster in Capra’s “Pocketful of Miracles” (1961).
Those Academy Award-nominated performances catapulted Mr. Falk into other high-profile productions — mostly in farcical roles, including the taxi driver in Stanley Kramer’s ensemble comedy “It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World” (1963) opposite Milton Berle and Sid Caesar — and the 1964 Frank Sinatra crime caper “Robin and the 7 Hoods” (1964).
He continued to showcase a comic side, often as an inept loser, in films such as “The Great Race” (1965) with Jack Lemmon, “Murder by Death” (1976) and “The Brink’s Job” (1978). He was Alan Arkin’s wildly unpredictable potential relation in “The In-Laws” (1979).
Mr. Falk displayed improvisational talent in two soul-bearing films by his close friend Cassavetes, “Husbands” (1970) and “A Woman Under the Influence” (1974). The second offered a particularly harrowing example of Mr. Falk’s range.
Los Angeles Times film critic Charles Champlin praised the actor for creating “one of the most complex and contradictory portraits in his career” as a blue-collar worker who bullies his mentally fragile wife (played by Gena Rowlands).
In addition, Mr. Falk was the wry grandfather in Rob Reiner’s comic fairy tale “The Princess Bride” (1987) and a fictitious version of himself in German director Wim Wenders’s fantasy drama “Wings of Desire” (1987), which capitalized on Mr. Falk’s public identity as Columbo.
“I've been asked a few thousand times how much of Columbo is Falk and vice versa,” he wrote in his memoir. “For years I’ve had a stock answer: ‘I’m just as sloppy as the lieutenant but not nearly as smart.’ That was a quickie response for the media.
“The truth is, no one is like Columbo,” Mr. Falk wrote. “He’s unique — if he were up for auction, he would be described as ‘one of a kind — a human with the brain of Sherlock Holmes who dresses like the homeless.’ ”
Peter Michael Falk was born Sept. 16, 1927, in New York City and grew up in Ossining, N.Y., where his father owned a clothing store.
At age 3, his right eye was removed because of a cancerous growth, and he was given a glass eye. The eye supplied him with fodder for the colorful stories he liked to tell, including how it ended up in the mouth of a Pekingese and in the glass of gin that jazz pianist Art Tatum had been drinking.
At 12, he appeared in a stage production of the Gilbert and Sullivan operetta “The Pirates of Penzance,” which sparked his early interest in acting.
Because of his father’s dismay at the prospect of acting, Mr. Falk held other jobs while moonlighting in theater. Along the way, he received a bachelor’s degree in 1951 from the New School for Social Research in New York and a master’s degree in public administration from Syracuse University in 1953.
He became an efficiency expert for Connecticut’s budget bureau. “Oh, I was some efficiency expert,” he told the New York Times in 1990. “On my first day, I couldn’t find my own office in Hartford and wound up in the Post Office. I called my boss for directions, and he said, ‘This is not an auspicious beginning.’ ”
He quit work after hearing an inspiring lecture by stage actress Eva Le Gallienne and almost immediately landed an off-Broadway role that proved to be a big break, as Rocky the bartender in a Jose Quintero’s acclaimed 1956 production of Eugene O’Neill’s “The Iceman Cometh.”
He was brought to the attention of film mogul Harry Cohn, who told Mr. Falk, “Son, for the same price, I’ll get an actor with two eyes.”
“The eye thing, it was actually an asset in character parts,” Mr. Falk said. “And, of course, it was a boon to Columbo imitators who were able to look two ways at the same time.”
He returned periodically to the stage, notably in Neil Simon’s long-running “The Prisoner of Second Avenue” (1971) as a frustrated husband whose job loss eats away at his sanity and marriage.
Mr. Falk’s first marriage, to Alyce Mayo, ended in divorce. In 1977, he married actress Shera Danese. Besides his wife, survivors include two daughters from his first marriage, Catherine and Jackie Falk.
Reflecting on his career, Mr. Falk told the New York Times in 1990: “Never have thought about setting goals — so I never had to worry about achieving them. My career just sort of happened. And as a strategy? It hasn’t worked out all that badly.”