In another episode, a nun at a soup kitchen where Columbo was interviewing a witness took one look at his worn raincoat, mistook him as a vagrant and insisted on finding him a better coat in the shelter's used-clothing collection.

Columbo: "Y'know, I appreciate what you're doin', I really do, but I've had this coat for seven years."

Sister: "Oh, you poor man!"

Admonished by the nun not to feel ashamed of his shabby raincoat, Columbo said: "No, I'm very fond of it."

But beyond his rumpled exterior, disarmingly childlike curiosity and seeming disorganization — he'd frequently lose his pencil and have to borrow a pen to jot down notes — there was no question Columbo was the right man for the job.

Head cocked, slightly hunched and his hand occasionally rubbing his furrowed forehead, he may have appeared to be absorbing nothing, but he missed nothing.

For the prime suspect, that was never more clear than when Columbo headed to the door, stopped and, in his gravelly voice, said, "Oh, there's just one more thing …"

Falk had the best take on Columbo, a character he never tired of portraying.

"I love him," he told TV Guide in 2000. "He's eccentric, oblivious to the impression he makes on people. His obsessiveness is hidden by his graciousness. He has a sly sense of humor, is by nature polite and totally devoid of pretension. But God help anyone who commits murder in Los Angeles."

In 1989, Falk returned in new "Columbo" dramas as part of the "The ABC Mystery Movie," a new series of three rotating two-hour dramas. After that series ended in 1990, he continued to turn up periodically in "Columbo" TV movies until 2003.

In 2000, after more than three decades of playing his famous TV character, Falk acknowledged that only slight changes had been made.

"It's tougher to bum a match; there are a few more ketchup stains on the raincoat," he told TV Guide. "Other than that, we're still dying to know what he's thinking."

Falk was born in New York City on Sept. 16, 1927, and grew up in Ossining, N.Y., where his parents owned a clothing store. (Decades later, Ossining named a street after him — Peter Falk Place — which he unveiled by pulling a Columbo-style raincoat off the street sign.)

At age 3, Falk underwent surgery to remove a malignant tumor that cost him his right eye. He later recalled dreading having anyone ask him what was the matter with his eye. But by the time he was a teenager, his self-consciousness disappeared after he realized he could get a laugh with it.

Once, when he was unfairly called out at third base during a high school baseball game, Falk is said to have taken out his glass eye and offered it to the umpire saying, "You need this more than I do."

In high school, he was a three-letter athlete (baseball, basketball and track), a debating-team member and senior class president.

Falk, who first appeared on stage in a summer-camp musical, also played small parts in high school stage productions.

"But," he told People magazine in 1991, "I could never tell any of the guys I was knockin' around with I wanted to be an actor. It was too strange."

After graduating from high school in 1945, Falk began a year-long post-war stint as a cook in the merchant marines. He attended Hamilton College in Clinton, N.Y., from 1946 to 1948, then transferred to the New School for Social Research in New York City, where he earned a bachelor's degree in political science in 1951.

Two years later, he earned a master's in public administration from Syracuse University and went to work as an efficiency expert for the Connecticut State Budget Bureau in Hartford.