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).