GettyImages  | Facebook/catherinefalkorganization
Source: GettyImages | Facebook/catherinefalkorganization

Hardships of 'Columbo's Peter Falk and His Daughters

Monica Otayza
Sep 06, 2021
03:11 A.M.
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Peter Falk had a memorable career as an actor, but his last few years were plagued with challenges as he battled Alzheimer's and his family battled over his care in court. 

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Born Peter Michael Falk on September 16, 1927, in New York City, his younger years were challenging after being diagnosed with cancer. At 3, he had to have his right eye surgically removed because of it.

Despite the setback, he grew up to become a certified public accountant and worked as an efficiency expert for the Budget Bureau of state in Connecticut. He then decided to switch career paths, this time choosing to act. 

Peter Falk on October 3, 2005, in Hollywood, California. | Source: Getty Images

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HIS HOLLYWOOD FAME

Falk starred in 58 films and was nominated for two Academy Awards during his career, but his best-known role is on the 1971 television series "Columbo." He was then known for being the first actor to be nominated for an Oscar and Emmy in the same year. 

While he rose to fame through "Columbo," he wasn't actually the first actor to play the character. Bert Freed played the LAPD flatfoot in a 1960 episode of "The Chevy Mystery Show." A year later, Thomas Mitchell played him in "Prescription: Murder" in San Francisco. 

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HIS BREAKTHROUGH PROJECT

While Lee J. Cobb and Bing Crosby were offered the role of Columbo, Falk landed the part. During those years, the actor liked indulging in his scandalous vices, as Richard Lertzman documented in the biography "Beyond Columbo," co-written by William Birnes. Richard said:

“He drank and smoked incessantly, loved boozing with his friends, and was an inveterate womanizer. He was a negligent husband and an absentee father."

Peter Falk during The 20th Anniversary William S. Paley Television Festival Presents "Columbo" at Directors Guild of America in Hollywood, California, United States | Source: Getty Images

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HIS PERSONAL LIFE

Despite it all, Falk became one of the most iconic stars of his generation. The actor first married his college sweetheart, Alyce Mayo, after 12 years of dating in 1960, but he cheated on her at every chance he got. “He was an incorrigible philanderer,” Richard added.

Their marriage lasted until 1976 when it ended in divorce. Together, they shared two daughters named Jackie and Catherine. He didn't remain single for long, though, as he married longtime mistress Shera Danese who was 22 years his junior just a year later. 

Peter Falk on August 9, 2007, in Beverly Hills, California. | Source: Getty Images

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HIS DETERIORATING HEALTH

At the beginning of 2007, Falk's health took a severe knock after having dental surgery. Busy with the shooting of "American Cowslip" at the time, the actor needed full-time custodial care within a few weeks after surgery.

In 2008, he was diagnosed with dementia, which was likely brought about by Alzheimer's disease. His condition further deteriorated after hip replacement surgery in 2010.

Peter Falk and his wife Shera Danese on October 14, 2005 in Santa Monica, California. | Source: Getty Images

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HIS DAUGHTER'S BATTLE FOR CUSTODIANSHIP

By then, Falk's daughter Catherine already went to court demanding legal guardianship of her father. According to court documents, she asserted that her dad could no longer "recognize his physical needs or communicate those needs to others who can meet them and requires full-time custodial care for his health and safety."

As the bitter battle over the care of her father and his $100 million fortune continued, she claimed that Shera "cruelly" prevented her from seeing her father. She went on the say that she only wanted to make sure he got the care he needed.

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THE COURT'S RULING

Catherine eventually lost her battle for custodianship over her father, despite accusations of elder abuse against Shera. Instead, Shera got awarded conservatorship over Falk, while Catherine's visits got limited to 30 minutes twice a week.

While it initially came as a shock that Falk became ill so quickly after his dental surgery, research done at Southampton University showed evidence that infection, injury, or even surgery can drastically accelerate Alzheimer's in people who are in the early stages of the disease.

Peter Falk and wife Shera on April 28, 2004, at the Hollywood Athletic Club, in Hollywood, California. | Source: Getty Images.

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HIS PASSING

In 2011, Peter passed away at the age of 83 from pneumonia. After being married to the actor for 32 years, Shera confessed that life with her womanizing husband got tough at times. She said:

“We went through a really hard spell. I don’t know why but we didn’t agree on anything. Then, we made concessions; we accepted the bad habits of the other.”

Peter Falk on January 16, 2006, in Beverly Hills, California. | Source: Getty Images.

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HIS DAUGHTER'S PAIN

In the end, Catherine revealed she found out about her father's passing through the media. She was also allegedly "banned" from attending her father's funeral. 

Shera reportedly refused to give Catherine any information about her father's funeral, despite repeated attempts at asking for the details. She only later found out that Peter got buried at Westwood Memorial Park in California.

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"I haven't been able to grieve for my dad's passing because I've been filled with so much emotion, so much sadness, so much pain," Catherine said.

In light of her experience, she campaigned for Californian legislation to give children the same rights as the spouse on being notified about life-changing events, including hospitalization and burial.

The legislation holds conservators to legal standards that include notifying relatives of illness or death and allows for "reasonable visitation." If any disputes arise, they will be resolved through a streamlined court process to determine if such a visit would harm the family member in question, while conservators who fail to act would be fined.

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