Peter Michael Falk was born on September 16, 1927, in New York City. His father, Michael Peter Falk, who owned a clothing and dry goods store, and his mother, Madeline (née Hochhauser), who was an accountant, were both of Eastern European descent. When he was three, Falk's right eye was surgically removed because of a retinoblastoma and he wore a glass eye for most of his life. After graduating from high school in 1945, Falk briefly attended Hamilton College in Clinton, New York. He then tried to join the armed services at the end of World War II but was rejected because of his glass eye and instead joined the U.S. Merchant Marine and served as a cook and mess boy. After returning to Hamilton College, and also briefly attending the University of Wisconsin, Falk transferred to the New School for Social Research in New York City and received a bachelor's degree in literature and political science in 1951. He obtained a Master of Public Administration degree at the Maxwell School of Syracuse University in 1953.
Falk joined a community theater group called the Mark Twain Masquers while he was working in Hartford as a management analyst with the Connecticut State Budget Bureau. In 1956, he left his job and moved to Greenwich Village to pursue an action career. He made his Broadway debut in 1956, appearing in Alexander Ostrovsky's Diary of a Scoundrel.
Falk's first film performances were small roles in Wind Across the Everglades (1958), The Bloody Brood (1959) and Pretty Boy Floyd (1960). His breakout performance came in 1960's Murder, Inc. in the supporting role of killed Abe Reles, for which he was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor.
Though he appeared in numerous other television roles in the 1960s and 1970s, Falk is best known as the star of the TV series Columbo. His character first appeared in the 1968 film Prescription: Murder and the series regularly aired from 1971 to 1978. Falk won four Emmys for his role in Columbo.
Falk married Alyce Mayo on April 17, 1960, and they adopted two daughters, Catherine and Jackie. They divorced in 1976 and on December 7, 1977, Falk married actress Shera Danese, a recurring guest-star on the Columbo series.
Falk's memoir, Just One More Thing, was published in August 2006.
Falk died at his Beverly Hills home on June 23, 2011, at age 83. According to his family, Falk had been suffering from dementia and Alzheimer's disease.