Benjamin Svetkey
July 01, 2011 AT 04:00 AM EDT

Peter Falk was a master at exits. In fact, he would sometimes make several of them during a single scene, especially when playing Lieutenant Columbo, the bumblingly brilliant 1970s TV detective that will always be the actor’s best-remembered role. Columbo would be halfway out the door, hover for a perfectly timed beat — ”There’s just one more thing,” he would mumble, tapping a finger to his forehead — then turn back to unravel the mystery of the week by pointing to a tiny overlooked clue. Part of the fun was watching the villains realize they’d been undone by a guy who looked like a bum and talked like he had ”borrowed Marlon Brando‘s chewing gum,” which is how The New York Times once described his gravelly voice.

Falk died on June 23 in Beverly Hills, at age 83, reportedly after a long struggle with Alzheimer’s. But even before he slipped into Columbo’s wrinkly raincoat (the show ran until 1978, with the character coming back for several TV movies), he’d already built a remarkable career for an actor who was only about 5 foot 6 and had a glass eye. Falk was nominated for an Oscar in 1960 for his role in Murder, Inc., and nominated again in 1961 for Frank Capra‘s Pocketful of Miracles. He played a cabbie in the 1963 classic It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, and sang with the Rat Pack in 1963’s Robin and the Seven Hoods. But the role that became his signature was the gumshoe with bad posture and the stubby cigar. ”Being chased by Columbo is like being nibbled to death by a duck,” Falk once said. For the audience, however, watching him play Columbo was one of the most enjoyable teases on TV. There was something about his down-to-earth demeanor that made Falk irresistible in the role. And it’s what makes his final exit so sad for so many fans.

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