‘Columbo’: Why Peter Falk Often Had to Be Driven Home By Someone Else After Filming

The detective genre has been around as long as TV shows have. With roots going back to old literature, many fictional detectives have become household names in ways that are usually reserved for real-life people. Peter Falk’s Columbo is an instance of this.

However, while the actor played the role for several decades, certain aspects of the character did not require much acting.

‘Columbo’: Reinventing the genre

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According to its Fandom page, Columbo got several false starts before Peter Falk debuted the series that defined his career for several decades. Columbo wasn’t a well-polished officer who always did the right and moral thing. He was much more complicated than that. Columbo showed up looking like a clothes hamper and ran by his rule book. 

This dismissal of the norms made him a compelling archetype that remains until this day. While several writers, producers, and creators are behind this, Falk’s performance is the biggest key. While James Bond came and went and dozens of actors have played Sherlock Holmes, Falk was Columbo for several decades. The character changed with him, but it also stayed true because Falk pulled from real-life inspiration to play him. 

Peter Falk as Columbo

When Falk took the role in the 1960s, he saw a lot of himself in it. Like Falk, Columbo’s first impression wasn’t always the correct one. He was an unkempt man who didn’t always show up looking like a professional. However, when the cases got off the ground, he always had a way to tie up all the loose ends and catch the perpetrator. 

“[The role] was very good. It was somebody that I immediately wanted to play. The basic thrust of a guy appearing less than he actually is, that was always there… That disarming quality of not ever appearing formidable was always there,” the late actor told the Fresh Air host Terry Gross in 1995.

One aspect, the characters’ penchant for absentmindedly losing things, hit incredibly close to Falk’s real-life exploits. Falk spoke about these similarities later on in the interview. 

“I’ve always been sloppy, all my life. I never could keep myself together,” Falk told the show. “I can’t keep an umbrella more than three days. That was when I used to live in New York. You’d lose it, and I’d lose everything and frequently walk into walls. So I understood that quality. And I am a slow thinker, and I am attracted to ambiguity. I’m not somebody that has black-and-white answers to everything. And that kind of fits in with Columbo.”

Sometimes, he kept this penchant for scatter-brained antics going long after the cameras rolled. 

Carpooling

Peter Falk
Peter Falk | McCarthy/Daily Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Falk was a fascinating character in his own right. According to Mental Floss, Falk was a government worker with a master’s degree in Public Administration from Syracuse before taking on the role that would later define him. There, he worked with the Budget Bureau as an analyst. According to Falk, people often underestimated him in the same way that Columbo was on the first appearance. 

After taking on the detective role, however, Falk didn’t change. Notorious for misplacing things around the set, his most common misplacement was his keys. Falk often drove himself to the studio for a day of filming and somehow managed to lose his keys in the process. Rather than waiting for someone to retrieve the keys, he hitched a ride with other workers and returned the next day. 

Perhaps, this best defines Falk and Columbo. Many of the greatest actors do their best when they can get inside the psyche of the character they are playing. Falk may not have been a detective, but he was a highly analytical, occasionally forgetful, and overall brilliant man who knew how to use his gifts, the doubt of others, and his understanding of how things work to get ahead. 

In a television world where detectives are a dime a dozen, few resonate more than Columbo did. Falk passed away from Alzheimer’s in 2011, but Columbo’s legacy is still felt anytime someone turns on network television.