NBC, 1968-78; ABC 1989-2003
‘I called the Commissioner and he said he’d send his very best man.’ – Doris Buckner
‘Is that a fact?’ – Roger Stanford
‘My wife says I’m the second-best. She claims there are 80 men tied for first.’ – Lt Columbo
Peter Falk, with guest stars including Robert Vaughn, Patrick McGoohan, Johnny Cash, Faye Dunaway, Janet Leigh, Johnny Cash, Dick Van Dyke and Billy Connolly
Identikit: Tatty raincoat, chomped cigar and distracted demeanor were all part of Lt Columbo’s camouflage, hiding from slick murderers his Holmesian powers of insight and deduction.
HAILED by no less a mega-brain than Stephen Fry as one of the all-time great cop shows, Columbo turned the whodunit formula on its head because the whodunit was rarely in question. The fun lay in watching self-deprecating, bumbling, crumpled Lt Columbo – the opposite of slick cop action hero – snaring overconfident killers. Columbo’s sting often resided in his ‘Oh, there’s just one more thing’ moments, or his non sequitur remarks during a casual questioning – ‘Gee, you have a wonderful view here’ – all part of the detective’s method of misdirecting and lulling the suspect into underestimating him. In a masterful performance, Peter Falk, who used his own clothes to wear as the shambling cop and improvised his absent-minded fumblings, usually only revealed the steel in Columbo when he was booking the culprit. Therein lay the biggest mystery in the series. Who was Columbo? Certainly not the clown driving that clapped-out Peugeot 403 that his adversaries assumed he was. His ‘never exactly thin’ wife does not appear, but, assuming he’s not a secret cross-dressing cabaret artist, he seems to be an ordinary Joe who likes pool, cooking, limericks, bowling, Westerns, Italian opera, Strauss waltzes, golf, and football on television – but who also has an extraordinary brain. The character was dreamed up by William Link, who was partly inspired by Porfiry Petrovich in Crime and Punishment and GK Chesterton’s Father Brown, and was further developed in a short story written by Link and Richard Levinson in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine. Columbo first appeared in a 1960 episode of The Chevy Mystery Show (played by actor Bert Freed). Prescription: Murder, a TV movie starring Falk, went out in 1968 and the show started alternating with McCloud, McMillan & Wife and other whodunits in NBC’s Mystery Movie slot in 1968. His last appearance came in 2003. British crime writer Mark Billingham is another admirer of the series, and said recently: ‘I’m still a big fan of Columbo, which really was revolutionary television. Not just because it was more about the dance of death between Columbo and the perpetrator than simply who did it, but also because of the people who worked on it, such as Spielberg and Jonathan Demme.’ [Guardian 4 8 12]
Classic episode: Death Lends a Hand, one of the early movies from 1971, and starring Robert Culp, Pat Crowley and Ray Milland, this is an episode most admired by hardcore fans. This time the murder is accidental as private eye Culp, hired by powerful publisher Milland to watch his wife (Crowley), tries to blackmail her when he realises she is having an affair. Director Bernard L Kowalski films the post-murder scenes in montage style, the acting is top class and there’s a high-energy jazz score from Gil Melle. By the way, Steven Bochco was story editor.
Watercooler fact: Writer/creators William Link and Richard Levinson suggested in 1968 that the crumpled cop should be played by crooner Bing Crosby. The star apparently felt the commitment to filming would take him away from the golf course too much. Lee J Cobb, the other actor they suggested, had other commitments.