Encouraged by Le Gallienne to become a professional actor at 28, Falk quit his job and moved to New York City.
He made his Broadway debut playing the English solider in "Saint Joan" in 1956 and appeared on television shows such as "Studio One" and "Naked City."
Although Falk made a screen test for Columbia Pictures in the late '50s, studio boss Harry Cohn turned him down, saying, "For the same money I can get an actor with two eyes."
But his glass eye proved to be no handicap.
In the wake of his two Oscar-nominated film performances and Emmy Award in the early '60s, Falk was offered — and turned down — a number of potential TV series.
But he accepted "The Trials of O'Brien," a legal drama in which he played a talented New York attorney with a less-successful personal life. Although a critical success, the show fared poorly in the ratings and was canceled in 1966 after one season.
For Falk, who had played his share of heavies over the years, "Columbo" was a welcome change of pace.
"I'd done too many shows where I'd walk into a hospital room where a man was in bed and I'd go over and turn off the oxygen," he told TV Guide in 1972. "I've shot, knifed and beat people in too many bloody scenes. There's no fun in doing that. I like to do something optimistic, where the people try to live, not die."
During his long run as Columbo, Falk received a lot of fan mail from police officers.
"You get cops saying, 'I use the Columbo technique,'" he told The Times in 1990. "Or you go somewhere and a cop will come up and say, 'We have got a Columbo on the force who we call Columbo, and on his birthday we bought him a raincoat.' They send me pictures of cops dressed as Columbo. So they get a kick out of it."
While it is hard to imagine anyone else playing the character, "Columbo" creators Levinson and Link originally offered the role to 67-year-old Bing Crosby, who turned it down.
As Falk often said: "Thank God he had a golf tournament."
Falk married his first wife, Alyce, in 1960, and adopted two daughters, Catherine and Jackie. A year after the couple divorced in 1976, he married actress Shera Danese.
Catherine Falk had filed for conservatorship of her father in late 2008, contending that she had not been allowed to see him since his hip-replacement surgery earlier that year. She later withdrew a petition to take control of his finances.
In 2009, the court allowed his wife to remain in control of his personal care and affairs but ordered that his daughter be allowed to see her father for 30 minutes every other month, a mandate that remained in place at the time of his death.
Falk's survivors include his wife and his two daughters.
PHOTOS: Peter Falk's life and career
Los Angeles Times staff writer Valerie J. Nelson contributed to this report.