Sept. 15, 1971—What many of its fans regard as the greatest
detective series in television history, Columbo, premiered as
part of “The NBC Tuesday Mystery Movie,” along with McCloud and McMillan
I began watching Columbo in the sixth grade and it
quickly became what later programmers would call “much-watch TV.” Like many
other viewers, I chuckled at the personal touches that Peter Falk
used to make the rumpled detective his own: the beat-up 1959 Peugeot 403
convertible, the basset hound, the foul-smelling cigars, and, of course, that
But two other aspects of the show also endeared it to
me: First, the weighing of evidence—not just hunting for clues, but also deliberating
whether they were significant or even in keeping with the context of the scene. It
helped cement a research orientation that eventually led me to become,
at different times, a librarian, writer and editor.
Second, the murders that Columbo investigated were
seldom committed by career criminals or gang members, but instead by the crème
de la crème of society—a tycoon, a football team owner, an author, a movie
star, a general or a politician, to name a few. It was a seemingly unending trail of
villains with not just all the power and privilege someone could have, but
enough craftiness to kill a human being and dispose of the evidence or manufacture a red herring.
Yet in each episode, the audience got to root for the
underdog—an unglamorous detective who used not a gun or even his fists, but a
carefully concealed intelligence that made the elite submit to the same forces
of justice that everyone else had to do.
McCloud and McMillan
and Wife, the other two occupants of the 8:30-10 PM Tuesday timeslot, have
not lingered in the popular imagination to the same extent and are not seen as much today, even on vintage
TV channels like MeTV and Cozi.
But Columbo endures—partly because of the
genius of its format (a cat-and-mouse game between killer and detective) and
partly because of the actor who brought the character to gloriously
During this pandemic, I have watched and rewatched many of its 69
episodes, whether on cable or DVD. Others share my addiction, including the
creators of the Websites “The Columbophile,” “The Columbo Podcast,” and the
modestly titled “The Ultimate Columbo Site.”
I admit that, to some extent, using the September 1971 date as the
starting point for the series is a bit arbitrary. Falk first appeared in the
role in the 1968 TV movie "Prescription: Murder," then reprised it,
in the spring of 1971, in the pilot for the series, “Ransom for a Dead Man.”
But the show began in earnest when NBC placed it as
part of a rotating “wheel” with McCloud, starring Dennis Weaver as a
fish-out-of-water New Mexico marshal brought to the streets of New York, and McMillan
and Wife, with Rock Hudson and Susan St. James attempting to recreate the
witty repartee of the “Thin Man” movie series of the Thirties and Forties.
Being grouped with the other two series satisfied one
of the concerns of Falk, who wanted to keep his hand in movies and use the
extra time between episodes working on scripts. (He had already been in a weekly meat-grinder of a series in The Trials of O'Brien, which lasted only 22 episodes in the 1965-66 season before being done in by The Man From U.N.C.L.E.) Like his character, he was
dogged and obsessed with details, sometimes testing the patience of series
creators Richard Levinson and William Link even as he helped
improve the quality of individual episodes.
Longtime writing partners who had created the
long-running private-eye series Mannix, Levinson and Link were inspired
to produce a far more cerebral series by their youthful reading of Fyodor Dostoyefsky’s Crime
and Punishment (featuring the detective Porfiry Petrovich), G.K.
Chesterton’s “Father Brown” stories, and the “Ellery Queen” short stories and
novels. Columbo would blend the quirky investigator of the first two
sources and the relentlessly logical reasoner in the Queen stories.
Levinson and Link first outlined the character in 1960
in the live-to-air murder mystery “Enough Rope,” part of the Chevy Mystery
Show drama anthology. The lieutenant, as in his later incarnation, went by
no first name and pursued his suspect with initially innocent but increasingly
relentless questions. But Bert Freed was a burly actor quite different
physically from the shorter Falk.
Next, the writing duo reworked their script into a
play for Thomas Mitchell (perhaps most famous for playing Scarlett O’Hara’s
Irish father in Gone With the Wind). But the Oscar-winning character
actor died of cancer before the drama could be taken to Broadway.
A few years later, Lee J. Cobb and Bing Crosby were
suggested for the role. But Cobb’s schedule was too full, and Crosby was
reluctant to come out of semi-retirement to accept the rigors of a series.
Highly regarded as a dramatic actor by Levinson and Link, Crosby would have made the character much like himself: smooth, laid-back, pipe-smoking. But Falk, in addition to the personal
accoutrements I mentioned earlier, made the lieutenant a figure eminently ripe for underestimation
by unwary criminals: so gravelly voiced, stooped, squinting (making use of the actor's glass eye), and shambling that
his character was once mistaken for a homeless man in a soup kitchen.
You can still see Falk finding his way in his first appearance in the role, in Prescription: Murder. Like Leonard Nimoy in the pilot for Star Trek, he accentuates the intense, relentless aspects of his character initially. The passage of three years led him to emphasize Columbo's more offbeat traits in Ransom for a Dead Man.
Nevertheless, this surface “half-assed Sherlock Holmes”
(as Falk called him) didn’t miss a trick, finding an unusual bit of evidence as
annoying as a bit between the teeth.
In one of the show’s great comic touches, these
murderers fumed when Columbo would wheel around, just before departing, and say,
“Just one more thing…” (A phrase that became the title of Falk’s autobiography.)
No wonder: He was so implacable that Falk likened being targeted by Columbo to “being
nibbled to death by a duck.”
But the actors playing the villains were even more likely
to be thrown off guard by Falk’s ad-libbed tricks: a request for a pencil,
fumbling for something in his pockets, going off on trivia, talking about his
wife or another relative, or, on one memorable occasion, asking a suspect, “How
much did you pay for those shoes?”
I have a confession to make here. Maybe this goes back
to my Sixties childhood, when I delighted in each week’s “guest villain” on Batman,
but I loved Columbo’s adversaries just as much as the detective himself. I practically
hissed as these chic, wealthy, famous people carried out their killings in the
most cold-blooded, cocky fashion possible, only to be brought to heel by their
arrogance and by the investigator who wouldn’t let go of his quarry.
I’m sure every fan has his set of favorite baddies,
but most, I think, would return to the actors who came back most often: Robert
Culp, Patrick McGoohan, and my favorite, Jack Cassidy. (Yes, baby boomers: the
father of David and Shaun.) These repeat offenders brought different
characteristics to the roles (Culp, barely controlled resentment; McGoohan,
elegant malice; and Cassidy, preening egotism), but all made memorable impressions.
Three other reasons why I liked the series:
*It gave memorable roles to middle-aged and elderly actresses. At a time when Hollywood often didn’t know what to do with actresses
who were beyond the ingenue stage, Columbo provided them with multi-dimensional,
if sometimes brief, roles, not necessarily confined to villains. These women
included Lee Grant, Anne Baxter, Ida Lupino, Myrna Loy, Kim Hunter, Gena Rowlands, Martha Scott, Vera
Miles, Ruth Gordon, Faye Dunaway, and Janet Leigh.
*It boosted the careers of rising talents, in front
of or behind the camera. Steven Bochco (Hill Street Blues, NYPD
Blue) first won wide attention with a Columbo teleplay that Falk
publicly praised when the actor picked up the first of his four Emmys for the role,
while Steven Spielberg and Jonathan Demme cut their teeth as directors with
some of the series’ most striking episodes. Appearing on the show early in
their careers were Blythe Danner, Jeff Goldblum, Martin Sheen, Kim Cattrall, Katey
Sagal, and Jamie Lee Curtis.
*It blended realistic characterization and the clues
of great detective stories into great scripts. The series ranks #57 on a
list of “The 101 Best-Written TV Series” compiled by the Writers Guild
of America West.
Just one more thing (where did I hear that before?) on
this last point: The best scripts of the series were most likely to have been
written in the original run of the series, from 1971 to 1978. After a
decade-long hiatus, Falk revived the role in 1989, beginning a string of
occasional two-hour TV movies that continued until 2003.
But be warned: the longer the series continued, the lower
its quality sank. In no small part, this was because the scripts did not match
the quality of the original series. (Another sign of a below-average episode: if one of the guest stars included Falk's second wife, Shera Danese.)
By this time, Levinson had died while Link was busy with another long-running detective series, Murder She Wrote. As executive producer of the new movies, Falk was involved even more intimately with their creation than he was before. He might have taken on more than he could handle.
One sign of it: two episodes that departed
from the cat-and-mouse format of the show—meaning that any other detective
could have been inserted into the space reserved for “Columbo” with no one in
the audience being the wiser. Falk loved playing the character so much that he
simply didn’t know when to stop.
But at its best, Columbo is virtually unrivaled
among detective series. Falk enjoyed acclaim on stage and the big screen, but
television gave him his greatest vehicle.