Peter Falk as Lieutenant Columbo. More Photos »


Published: June 24, 2011


Peter Falk, who marshaled actorly tics, prop room appurtenances and his own physical idiosyncrasies to personify Columbo, one of the most famous and beloved fictional detectives in television history, died on Thursday night at his home in Beverly Hills, Calif. He was 83.

June 25, 2011

Universal Pictures, via Reuters

Peter Falk as Lieutenant Columbo. More Photos »

His death was announced in a statement from Larry Larson, a longtime friend and the lawyer for Mr. Falk’s wife, Shera. He had been treated for Alzheimer’s disease in recent years.

Mr. Falk had a wide-ranging career in comedy and drama, in the movies and onstage, before and during the three and a half decades in which he portrayed the unkempt but canny lead on “Columbo.” He was nominated for two Oscars; appeared in original stage productions of works by Paddy Chayefsky, Neil Simon and Arthur Miller; worked with the directors Frank Capra, John Cassavetes, Blake Edwards and Mike Nichols; and co-starred with the likes of Frank Sinatra, Bette Davis and Jason Robards.

But Mr. Falk’s prime-time popularity, like that of his contemporary Telly Savalas, of “Kojak” fame, was founded on a single role.

A lieutenant in the Los Angeles Police Department, Columbo was a comic variation on the traditional fictional detective. With the keen mind of Sherlock Holmes and Philip Marlowe, he was cast in the mold of neither — not a gentleman scholar, not a tough guy. He was instead a mass of quirks and peculiarities, a seemingly distracted figure in a rumpled raincoat, perpetually patting his pockets for a light for his signature stogie.

He drove a battered Peugeot, was unfailingly polite, was sometimes accompanied by a basset hound named Dog, and was constantly referring to the wisdom of his wife (who was never seen on screen) and a variety of relatives and acquaintances who were identified in Homeric-epithet-like shorthand — an uncle who played the bagpipes with the Shriners, say, or a nephew majoring in dermatology at U.C.L.A. — and who were called to mind by the circumstances of the crime at hand.

It was a low-rent affect that was especially irksome to the high-society murderers he outwitted in episode after episode. In the detective-story niche where Columbo lived, whodunit was hardly the point; the murder was committed and the murderer revealed in the show’s opening minutes. How it was done was paramount. Typically, Columbo would string his suspects along, flattering them, apologizing profusely for continuing to trouble them with questions, appearing to have bought their alibis and, just before making an exit, nailing them with a final, damning query that he unfailingly introduced with the innocent-sounding phrase, “Just one more thing ….” It was the signal to viewers that the jig was up.

It was also the title of Mr. Falk’s anecdotal memoir, published in 2006, in which he summarized the appeal of the show.

“What are you hanging around for?” he wrote, referring to the viewer. “Just one thing. You want to know how he gets caught.”

Mr. Falk had a glass eye, resulting from an operation to remove a cancerous tumor when he was 3. The prosthesis gave all his characters a peculiar, almost quizzical squint. And he had a mild speech impediment that gave his L’s a breathy quality, a sound that emanated from the back of his throat and that seemed especially emphatic whenever, in character, he introduced himself as Lieutenant Columbo.

Such a deep well of eccentricity made Columbo amusing as well as incisive, not to mention a progenitor of later characters like Tony Shalhoub’s Monk, and it made him a representative Everyman too. Off and on from 1968 to 2003, Mr. Falk played the character numerous times, often in the format of a 90-minute or 2-hour television movie. Each time Columbo, the ordinary man as hero, brought low a greedy and murderous privileged denizen of Beverly Hills, Malibu or Brentwood, it was an implicit victory for the many over the few.

“This is, perhaps, the most thoroughgoing satisfaction ‘Columbo’ offers us,” Jeff Greenfield wrote in The New York Times in 1973: “the assurance that those who dwell in marble and satin, those whose clothes, food, cars and mates are the very best, do not deserve it.

Peter Michael Falk was born in Manhattan on Sept. 16, 1927, and lived for a time in the Bronx, near Yankee Stadium, but grew up mostly in Ossining, N.Y, where his father owned a clothing store and where, in spite of his missing eye, he was a high school athlete. In one story he liked to tell, after being called out at third base during a baseball game, he removed his eye and handed it to the umpire.

“You’ll do better with this,” he said.

After high school Mr. Falk went briefly to Hamilton College, in upstate New York, before dropping out and joining the Merchant Marine as a cook. He later returned to New York City, where he earned a degree in political science from the New School for Social Research before attending Syracuse University, where he received a master’s degree in public administration.

He took a job in Hartford as an efficiency expert for the Connecticut budget bureau. It was in Connecticut that he began acting, joining an amateur troupe called the Mark Twain Masquers in Hartford and taking classes from Eva Le Gallienne at the White Barn Theater in Westport. He was 29 when he decided to move to New York again, this time to be an actor.

He made his professional debut in an Off Broadway production of Molière’s “Don Juan” in 1956. In 1957 he was cast as the bartender in the famous Circle in the Square revival of “The Iceman Cometh,” directed by José Quintero and starring Jason Robards; he made his first splash on screen, as Abe Reles, a violent mob thug, in the 1960 film “Murder, Inc.” That performance earned him an Oscar nomination for best supporting actor and a moment of high embarrassment at the awards ceremony. When the winner was announced — it was Peter Ustinov for “Spartacus” — Mr. Falk heard the first name and stood, only to have to sit back down again a moment later.

“When I hit the seat, I turned to the press agent and said, ‘You’re fired!’ ” Mr. Falk wrote in his memoir. “I didn’t want him charging me for another day.”

The next year, newly married to a Syracuse classmate, Alyce Mayo — they would have two daughters and divorce in 1976 — Mr. Falk again earned a supporting-actor Oscar nomination for playing a mobster, though this time with a more light-hearted stripe, in the final film to be directed by Frank Capra, “Pocketful of Miracles,” starring Bette Davis and Glenn Ford.

From then on Mr. Falk, who was swarthy, squat (he was 5-foot-6) and handsome, had to fend off offers to play gangsters. He did take such a part in “Robin and the 7 Hoods,” alongside Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Bing Crosby and Sammy Davis Jr., but fearful of typecasting, he also took roles in comic films like “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World” and “The Great Race.”

He returned to the stage as well, as Stalin, the title role, in Paddy Chayefsky’s “Passion of Josef D,” which earned him solid reviews in spite of the show’s brief run (less than two weeks). Mr. Falk played Stalin “with brilliant, unsmiling ferocity,” Howard Taubman wrote in his largely positive review in The Times.

His life was forever changed in 1967 when, reportedly after both Bing Crosby and Lee J. Cobb turned down the role, he was cast as Columbo in the television film “Prescription: Murder.” The story, about a psychiatrist who kills his wife with the help of one of his patients, was written by Richard Levinson and William Link; they had adapted it from their stage play, which opened in San Francisco and Boston in 1964, and which itself was an adaptation. Mr. Levinson and Mr. Link first wrote the story in 1960 for a series called “The Chevy Mystery Show.” It was in that show — the episode was titled “Enough Rope” — that Columbo made his debut as a character, played by Bert Freed.

But it was Mr. Falk who made him a legend. During the filming it was he who rejected the fashionable attire the costume shop had laid out for him; it was he who chose the raincoat — one of his own — and who matched the rest of the detective’s clothes to its shabbiness. It was he who picked out the Peugeot from the studio motor pool, a convertible with a flat tire and needing a paint job that, he reflected years afterward, “even matched the raincoat.”

And as the character grew, the line between the actor and the role grew hazier. They shared a general disregard for nattiness, an informal mode of speech, an obsession with detail, an irrepressible absent-mindedness. Even Columbo’s favorite song, “This Old Man,” which seemed to run through his mind (and the series) like a broken record, was one that Mr. Falk had loved from childhood and that ended up in the show because he was standing around humming it one day, in character, when Columbo was waiting for someone to come to the phone.

Three years passed between the first “Columbo” movie and the second, “Ransom for a Dead Man,” which became the pilot that turned the show into a regular network offering. It was part of a revolving wheel of Sunday night mysteries with recurring characters that appeared under the rubric “NBC Mystery Theater.” The first set included “McCloud,” with Dennis Weaver, and “McMillan and Wife,” with Rock Hudson and Susan Saint James.

In between, Mr. Falk made “Husbands,” the first of his collaborations with his friend Cassavetes. The others were “A Woman Under the Influence,” in 1974, a brutally realistic portrayal of a marriage undermined by mental illness, directed by Cassavetes, for which Mr. Falk’s co-star and Cassavetes’s wife, Gena Rowlands, was nominated for an Academy Award; and “Mikey and Nicky” in 1976, a dark buddy film directed by Elaine May in which the two men played the title roles.

In 1971 he once again returned to Broadway, in Neil Simon’s angry comedy “The Prisoner of Second Avenue.”

In later years Mr. Falk starred in several notable films — among them “Murder by Death” (1976), “The In-Laws” (1979), “The Princess Bride” (1987), “Tune In Tomorrow” (1990) and “Wings of Desire” (1987), in which he played himself, contemplating his acting career — and in 1998 he opened Off Broadway in the title role of Arthur Miller’s play “Mr. Peters’ Connections,” a portrait of an older man trying to make sense out his life as it comes to an end. By that time, however, Mr. Falk and Columbo had become more or less interchangeable as cultural references. Mr. Peters, Ben Brantley wrote in his review of the play in The Times, “is as genuinely perplexed as Columbo, his aggressively rumpled television detective, only pretends to be.”

Mr. Falk, who began sketching as a way to while away time on movie sets, had had many gallery shows of his charcoal drawings and watercolors. He is survived by his second wife, the former Shera Danese, and his two daughters, Jackie and Catherine.

For all the mysteries Columbo solved, one remains. Many viewers claim that in one or more episodes Columbo’s police identification is visible with the first name “Frank” visibly scrawled on it. However, the character was initially created without a first name; an exhaustive book about the television show, “The Columbo Phile,” does not give a first name, and Mr. Falk, for his part, was no help in this regard. Whenever he was asked Columbo’s first name, his response was the same.

“Lieutenant,” he said.


Lt. Columbo.

He was always dismissed as nondescript and insignificant in the eyes of the accused he was investigating, but, Lt. Columbo had a sharp and calculating mind that no criminal could match.

As played by Peter Falk, Columbo went up against various criminals, many of whom thought they had committed the perfect murder, until they did or said something that Columbo caught that incriminated them.

With his ancient Peugeot, his sad-eyed Bassett hound named Dog, rumpled clothes and trench coat, Columbo was never taken too seriously, until it was too late for those he got the evidence on.

Mr. Falk is very well-known for his famous character, but, he also gave many memorable performances through the decades, as in the following where he played an amoral hood who strikes fear in those who cross him, in Murder, Inc.:

But, one scene that has stayed with me these many years is Mr. Falk’s role as a dictator who looks in a mirror and begins to see everyone as his enemy–even those who helped him bump off the previous dictator. The classic Twilight Zone episode “The Mirror” was chilling in how too much power not only can go to one’s head, but it can corrupt with horrific consequences:

Mr. Falk was a great actor who left an enduring legacy for his many fans.

He will be missed.

Oh, there’s just one more thing. . . .

Rest in peace, Mr. Falk.

Rest in peace.




Published: June 25, 2011


Don Diamond, a character actor on radio, television and film who was best known for playing supporting roles on TV westerns, died on Sunday en route to a hospital in Los Angeles. He was 90.

June 25, 2011

Everett Collection

Don Diamond in an appearance on the show “F Troop.”


The cause was heart failure, his wife, Louisa, said.

Mr. Diamond, a New Yorker of Russian Jewish heritage, often played ethnic minorities because he had mastered several accents. During his nearly 40-year career he played El Toro, a Mexican sidekick, on “The Adventures of Kit Carson”; Corporal Reyes on “Zorro”; and Crazy Cat, Chief Wild Eagle’s inept subordinate, on the comedy “F Troop.”

Donald Alan Diamond was born on June 4, 1921, in New York City. He received a degree in drama and studied Spanish at the University of Michigan before he enlisted during World War II. He served stateside in the Army Air Corps because his myopia had made him unfit for combat.

While awaiting induction in New York, Mr. Diamond began developing his accents on radio shows like “The March of Time.” He continued studying Spanish while stationed in the Southwest, and acted on the radio after the war.

Mr. Diamond also appeared on nonwestern shows like “Get Smart” and “Mission: Impossible” and in several movies, including the crime drama “Borderline” (1950), the Elvis Presley vehicle “Fun in Acapulco” (1963) and “The Carpetbaggers” (1964). He also did voice-over work in commercials and in cartoons like the “Tijuana Toads” shorts.

In addition to his wife, Mr. Diamond is survived by a brother, Neil (not the singer); a sister, Muriel Krems; a daughter, Maxine Roxanne Diamond; two stepdaughters, Emily and Fortuna Israel; two step-grandchildren; and two step-great-grandchildren.





Published: June 19, 2011


Frederick Chiluba, the first democratically elected president of Zambia, a man whose image as a defender of civil liberties was later tarnished by his efforts to suppress political opposition and accusations that he used millions of dollars of public money on his wardrobe and other extravagances, died Saturday in Lusaka. He was 68.

June 20, 2011

Salim Henry/Associated Press

Frederick Chiluba’s presidency did little to address Zambia’s poverty.

June 20, 2011

Mariella Furrer for The New York Times

Mr. Chiluba was accused of stealing to support shopping sprees, said to involve suitcases full of cash, for items like shoes.

He suffered from chronic heart problems. His death was confirmed by his spokesman, Emmanuel Mwamba.

The son of a copper miner, Frederick Jacob Titus Chiluba — a diminutive man barely five feet tall — was Zambia’s president from 1991 to 2002. His ascent to high office was for a time considered a heartening success story in a poor, landlocked nation of 13 million people in southern Africa.

He left secondary school before graduation and was working as a low-paid bookkeeper when he joined a union, rising through the ranks in the labor movement until he became chairman of the Zambia Congress of Trade Unions in 1974.

The nation had won independence 10 years earlier. Kenneth Kaunda, a hero of the liberation struggle, was Zambia’s first president, but his single-party, socialist rule was an economic failure. In 1981, he jailed Mr. Chiluba and other labor leaders without charges after they instigated wildcat strikes.

A judge ruled the detentions unconstitutional, and after three months behind bars, Mr. Chiluba emerged emboldened. He would eventually forge a coalition of unions, civic groups and churches to form the Movement for Multi-Party Democracy to challenge Mr. Kaunda at the polls.

A personable man with oratorical gifts, Mr. Chiluba was a born-again Christian and often used biblical references in his speeches. He was also a passionate advocate of democracy, and in 1991, when Mr. Kaunda finally agreed to multiparty elections, Mr. Chiluba won the presidency with nearly 76 percent of the vote.

In his first address, the new president said, “The Zambia we inherit is destitute — ravaged by the excesses, ineptitude and straight corruption of a party and a people who have been in power for too long.” He lamented that after 27 years of Mr. Kaunda’s leadership, “Now the coffers are empty. The people are poor. The misery endless.”

Mr. Chiluba was indeed inheriting a fiscal mess, and though he steered the country toward a free-market economy, the government remained dependent on foreign aid, and the average Zambian was still mired in poverty.

The remarkable transformation seemed to come in Mr. Chiluba rather than in his nation.

The Chiluba government was notably corrupt, and the president appeared to regard himself as irreplaceable. In 1996, he barred Mr. Kaunda from running against him, changing the Constitution to preclude candidates born outside Zambia. He even attempted to deport Mr. Kaunda to Malawi.

In 2001, Mr. Chiluba again toyed with rewriting the law, this time to allow himself a third term in office. But by then, the president’s reputation as a reformer had been replaced by one far less flattering. Civic groups and churches rose up in opposition and thwarted the plan. Instead, Mr. Chiluba anointed his former vice president, Levy Mwanawasa, as his successor, presuming that incriminating secrets would remain concealed.

But the new president, narrowly elected, instead decided to shine a light on public corruption. Mr. Chiluba would soon be charged with stealing $500,000 of public funds. He additionally was sued in a civil action by Zambia’s attorney general, who decided to try the case in Great Britain, where the former president was said to have laundered millions of dollars he plundered while in office.

Testimony in the civil matter was astonishing. Zambia’s anti-corruption task force had seized much of Mr. Chiluba’s wardrobe, including 349 shirts, 206 jackets and suits, and 72 pairs of size-6 shoes, many of them personalized with his initials affixed in brass. The heels added two inches to his stature.

Mr. Chiluba spent more than $500,000 in a single clothing store, Boutique Basile, in Geneva. Its owner testified that garments were sometimes paid for with suitcases full of cash.

“The president,” unlike the emperor, “needs to be clothed,” Justice Peter Smith of the High Court said in 2007, ruling that Mr. Chiluba owed Zambia $57 million. Much of the money, Justice Smith said, had been funneled into an intelligence agency bank account in London “set up primarily to steal government money.” Justice Smith said the former president “should be ashamed,” pointing out that while he was accumulating handmade shoes and silk pajamas, many Zambians “could not afford more than one meal a day.”

Mr. Chiluba, who never appeared in court, refused to recognize Justice Smith’s verdict, calling it “racist” and “obscene.”

The criminal proceedings, held in Lusaka, were less sensational. They dragged on for six years, frequently delayed by Mr. Chiluba’s ill health. The former president denied stealing any public funds, saying instead that he had received millions in gifts from “corporate interests” and “well-wishers” whose identities he would not reveal because of “the golden rule of anonymity.”

In 2009, a magistrate acquitted Mr. Chiluba, ruling that however large his fortune, the money could not be traced to missing government funds. Celebrating the news, the former president said, “The devil has tried to put the stigma of a thief on me, but God has dealt with the devil.”

By then, Levy Mwanawasa had died in office. His successor, Rupiah Banda, has since disbanded much of the nation’s anticorruption apparatus. Mr. Banda has referred to Mr. Chiluba as a “damn good president” and credited him with bringing political freedoms to the country.

Mr. Chiluba will be accorded a state funeral, the government announced. He is survived by his wife, Regina, and, according to local reports, 10 children.


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