An average-Joe hero, Peter Falk embodied the best of us on our worst day. He was best known as TV's Lieutenant Columbo, the crinkly-faced detective who for 30 years taught snooty murderers that however crafty they thought themselves, he was smarter. Every episode of Columbo was a class struggle, played as a comedy of manners and won by the wily proletarian.
In the movies, Falk spanned the gulf between mainstream movies (like The Cheap Detective and The In-Laws) and indie films (notably those of John Cassavetes) with the ease of a colossus straddling a mud puddle. He played tough guys, gangsters and cops, managing to show the fraternity of these groups and the humanity of each. And his craggy, warm voice of authority was perfect for one of Falk's late-career signature roles: the old man reading his grandson the story that is the movie The Princess Bride. Who better than Falk to sell a kid the idea of the world's greatest kiss? And who wouldn't want a grandpa or a friend like the ones Falk played?
Corliss is TIME's film critic