Originally from Porto Empedocle, Sicily, Camilleri began studies at the Faculty of Literature in 1944, without concluding them, meanwhile publishing poems and short stories.
From 1948 to 1950 Camilleri studied stage and film direction at the Silvio D'Amico Academy of Dramatic Arts (Accademia Nazionale d'Arte Drammatica) and began to take on work as a director and screenwriter, directing especially plays by Pirandello and Beckett. His parents knew, and were, reportedly, "distant friends" of, Pirandello, as he tells in his essay on Pirandello Biography of the Changed Son. His most famous works, the Montalbano series, show many Pirandellian elements: for example, the wild olive tree that helps Montalbano think is on stage in his late work The Giants of the Mountain.
With RAI, Camilleri worked on several TV productions, such as Inspector Maigret with Gino Cervi. In 1977 he returned to the Academy of Dramatic Arts, holding the chair of Film Direction and occupying it for 20 years.
In 1978 Camilleri wrote his first novel Il Corso Delle Cose ("The Way Things Go"). This was followed by Un Filo di Fumo ("A Thread of Smoke") in 1980. Neither of these works enjoyed any significant amount of popularity.
In 1992, after a long pause of 12 years, Camilleri once more took up novel-writing. A new book, La Stagione della Caccia ("The Hunting Season") turned out to be a best-seller.
In 1994 Camilleri published the first in a long series of novels: La forma dell'Acqua (The Shape of Water) featured the character of Inspector Montalbano, a fractious Sicilian detective in the police force of Vigàta, an imaginary Sicilian town. The series is written in Italian but with a substantial sprinkling of Sicilian phrases and grammar. The name Montalbano is a homage to the Spanish writer Manuel Vázquez Montalbán; the similarities between Montalban's Pepe Carvalho and Camilleri's fictional detective are remarkable. Both writers make great play of their protagonists' gastronomic preferences.
This feature provides an interesting quirk which has become something of a fad among his readership even in mainland Italy. The TV adaptation of Montalbano's adventures, starring Luca Zingaretti, further increased Camilleri's popularity to such a point that in 2003 Camilleri's home town, Porto Empedocle – on which Vigàta is modelled – took the extraordinary step of changing its official name to that of Porto Empedocle Vigàta, no doubt with an eye to capitalising on the tourism possibilities thrown up by the author's work. On his website, Camilleri refers to the engaging and multi-faceted character of Montalbano as a "serial killer of characters," meaning that he has developed a life of his own and demands great attention from his author, to the demise of other potential books and different personages. Camilleri added that he writes a Montalbano novel every so often just so that the character will be appeased and allow him to work on other stories.
In 2012, Camilleri's The Potter's Field (translated by Stephen Sartarelli) was announced as the winner of the 2012 Crime Writers' Association International Dagger. The announcement was made on 5 July 2012 at the awards ceremony held at One Birdcage Walk in London.
Camilleri now lives in Rome where he works as a TV and theatre director. About 10 million copies of his novels have been sold to date and are becoming increasingly popular in the UK (where BBC Four broadcast the Montalbano TV series from mid-2011), Australia and North America.
In addition to the degree of popularity brought him by the novels, in recent months Andrea Camilleri has become even more of a media icon thanks to the parodies aired on an RAI radio show, where popular comedian, TV host and impressionist Fiorello presents him as a raspy voiced, caustic character, madly in love with cigarettes and smoking, since in Italy, Camilleri is well known for being a heavy smoker of cigarettes. He considers himself a "non-militant atheist".1998 Camilleri won the Nino Martoglio International Book Award.
2001 Grand Officer in the Order of Merit of the Italian Republic (Grande Ufficiale Ordine al Merito della Repubblica Italiana).
2008 RBA International Prize for Crime Writing for La rizzagliata / La muerte de Amalia Sacerdote ("The Death of Amalia Sacerdote"), the world's most lucrative crime fiction prize at €125,000.
He received a number of honorary degrees from several Italian universities, among which the IULM University of Milan (2002), the University of Pisa (2005), the University of L'Aquila (2007), the University of Chieti (2007). In 2012 he received an honorary PhD from the Sapienza University of Rome.
Camilleri has also received honorary degrees from UCD (University College Dublin) on 5 December 2011 and the American University of Rome on 30 October 2013.