U.S. actor Peter Falk, best known for his portrayal of a rumpled detective in the TV series Columbo, has died. He was 83.

"Falk died peacefully at his Beverly Hills home in the evening of June 23, 2011," according to a statement from his family. He had been suffering from Alzheimer's since 2007.

Falk won four Emmy awards for his work on Columbo and was nominated for Oscars for his roles in 1960's Murder, Inc. and 1961's Pocketful of Miracles.

Falk's final years were marred by a legal tug-of-war between his wife, Shera, and his daughter, Catherine, over who should be in charge of his personal affairs. A judge ruled in 2009 that Shera would retain control.

Falk was born in Manhattan and raised in New York state. He served in the merchant marine and studied political science at college, then applied to the CIA. After he was rejected, he began acting in community theatre and then moved to New York to study under Jack Landau and Sanford Meisner.

He found early success on the stage, debuting on Broadway in St. Joan in 1957, then going on to roles in a hit revival of Eugene O'Neill's The Iceman Cometh and in plays such as The Lady's Not for Burning, Purple Dust and Comic Strip.

He continued to mix stage with his screen roles, winning a Tony in the early '70s for Neil Simon's The Prisoner of Second Avenue.

The Peter Falk squint

Agents discouraged Falk from seeking employment in the movies because of his glass eye, which gave him his characteristic squint. His real eye had been removed at age three due to a malignant tumour.


Peter Falk accepts his Emmy Award for best actor in a drama for his role in the Columbo series on Sept. 16, 1990. (Nick Ut/Associated Press)

However, he landed his first part in 1958's Wind Across the Everglades, soon followed by films such as 1960's Pretty Boy Floyd and Secret of the Purple Reef. In 1960, he also played a violent hitman in Murder, Inc., a role that sprang him to wider attention with an unexpected Oscar nomination for best supporting actor.

In 1961, Frank Capra cast him in his last feature film Pocketful of Miracles, where he upstaged Bette Davis and Glenn Ford in a comic role, proving his versatility as an actor. Capra raved to others about Falk's performance.

First played Columbo in 1968

Falk made several movies with actor-director John Cassavetes, including A Woman Under the Influence, Husbands and Opening Night. Cassevetes, who was a close friend, called Falk the man "everybody falls in love with."

His TV career began with small roles in the 1950s and he first played Lt. Columbo in a 1968 TV movie Prescription: Murder.  The character was so popular it became a TV series beginning in 1971 and was reprised in series and TV movies for the next three decades. Falk chafed against the typecasting but nonetheless returned to the Columbo role repeatedly until 2003.

The seemingly absent-minded Lt. Columbo, dishevelled and squinting, is always underestimated by the crooks, until he brings up the one last detail that trips them up.

"He looks like a flood victim," Falk once said. "You feel sorry for him. He appears to be seeing nothing, but he's seeing everything. Underneath his dishevelment, a good mind is at work."

Wings of Desire

The role made him world famous and brought him to the attention of German director Wim Wenders, who cast Falk as himself in Wings of Desire and its 1993 sequel, Faraway, So Close!

In addition to his four Emmys for Columbo, the actor won a 1961 Emmy for The Price of Tomatoes.

Among his other movies are It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, Robin and the Seven Hoods, The Great Race, Castle Keep, The Brinks Job and The Princess Bride. In 2007, in one of his final appearances, he was cast alongside Nicholas Cage in Next.

Falk was married to pianist Alyce Mayo in 1960 and they had two daughters, Jackie and Catherine, who survive him. He and Mayo divorced in 1976 and he married actress Shera Danese, who also survives him.

With files from The Associated Press