TV Show Draft – Round 4 – Columbo

Welcome to my fourth round pick in the Hanspostcard TV Draft. Last round I chose Perry Mason, which was the ultimate court room “whodunit!” You never knew who committed the crime until the end of the episode. I thought it appropriate to choose Columbo for this round, because it is almost the exact opposite of Perry Mason, in that you know who the killer is right from the get go. It was called a murder mystery where the murder was no mystery.

The show pioneered the “inverted mystery” technique/format. Almost every show begins with a crime and the audience knows who the culprit is. Then enter the LAPD’s Lieutenant Columbo who spends the remainder of the show looking for clues, pestering the criminal, and eventually solving the case. The show was not a “whodunit” like Perry Mason, but rather it has been described as a “how’s he gonna catch him?”

The first season of Columbo began in September of 1971. I know that most of the shows being picked by others in the draft ran on a weekly basis. Columbo did not. Most episodes were featured as part of the NBC Mystery Movie rotation. It ran for 35 years with a total of 69 episodes.

The show was created by schoolmates Richard Levinson and William Link. The character first appeared in 1960 on The Chevy Mystery Show in an episode called “Enough Rope.” That episode was then adapted for a stage play entitled Prescription: Murder, which was then adapted for television in 1968. Columbo was played by Bert Freed in Enough Rope and by Thomas Mitchell in the stage version in 1962.

The writers of the show had originally wanted Lee J. Cobb to play Columbo, but he was unavailable. They next approached Bing Crosby, who turned down the role because it would take away from his time on the golf course. Peter Falk came across the script for Prescription: Murder and contacted Levinson and Link and said, “I’d kill to play that cop!”

Peter Falk and Gene Berry

They weren’t really sure about Peter Falk, who was only 39 at the time. They envisioned the character as being older. He won the role, and he plays him as a much straighter, cleaner, and firmer Columbo in the first episode. It was a huge hit! The Columbo quirks and mannerisms that fans came to know and love would develop as he continued to play the role.

Peter Falk really threw himself into the role. He wore his own clothes. The suit was one that he had dyed brown, because he felt that looked better. He wore his own shoes. The world famous raincoat was one that he purchased in New York City while caught in a rainstorm. It cost him a mere $15. One difference between Peter and Columbo – Columbo preferred cigars, while Falk enjoyed cigarettes.

I am currently reading a fantastic book on the show written by David Koenig.

Columbo is like no other cop. Koenig says, “There was nobody or nothing like Columbo at all before him. All the detectives were these hardboiled, emotionless, tough guys. And he was the opposite of that in every way. He hated guns and violence.” He describes the show this way, “Columbo wasn’t really a cop show. It was a drawing-room mystery done backwards with a cop as the lead. It was an anti-cop show.”

During the first few seasons of Columbo, it really set the standard for what some refer to as “event television.” There were some fabulous guest stars who played the murderer. Those stars included Gene Berry, Jack Cassidy, William Shatner, Dick Van Dyke, Ruth Gordon, Robert Vaughn, Anne Baxter, Janet Leigh, Robert Culp, Donald Pleasence, Eddie Albert, Leonard Nimoy, Johnny Cash, and Patrick McGoohan – just to name a few!!

After the murder, when Columbo finally shows up, his genius is hidden by his often confused look. It is also hidden by the way he is dressed and by his friendly demeanor. He is looked upon as a stupid fool. The killer has no idea what a brilliant man Columbo is and they are lured into a false sense of security. The killer becomes even more arrogant and dismisses Columbo as a dope, only to be caught in the end.

One of the things that certainly added to the character was his little idiosyncrasies like fumbling through his pockets for a piece of evidence, asking to borrow a pencil, or being distracted by something in the room in the middle of a conversation. Falk adlibbed those moments on camera while film was rolling as a way to keep the other actors off-balance. He felt that it really helped to make their confused and impatient reactions to Columbo more genuine. It really truly worked.

On the show, the murderer is often some famous person, or someone who is cultured or from high society. Either that, or some sort of successful professional (surgeon, psychologist, etc…). Paired up against Columbo, it is gold! The interactions between the two become such a marvelous part of the show and brings out Columbo’s character and cunning genius!

In those conversations Columbo is often confused. He doesn’t know anything about classical music, chess, fine wines, photography or pieces of art. One article on the show stated that his “ignorance” will often “allow him to draw in the murderer with a cunning humility that belies his understanding of human behavior and the criminal mind.”

The last episode of Columbo aired in 2003 and was entitled “Columbo Likes the Nightlife.” Falk had planned for one final episode. It was to be called “Columbo’s Last Case” which was to begin at his retirement party. There was a lack of network interest and with his age and failing health, the episode was never to be.

Columbo remains as popular as ever. It was one of the most watched shows on streaming platforms during the pandemic. Author David Koenig says about the show, “It has stood the test of time for 50-plus years now. That character is still vibrant and alive, appealing to people. People love that central character, that basic format, the fact that it’s not political, it’s not violent, it’s not all the things television shows are today, it’s something different. And that is charm. That’s what people love about it.”

Columbo Facts:

  • Steven Spielberg directed the first episode of Season 1 – Murder by the Book.
  • Peter Falk won 4 Emmy Awards for his portrayal of Columbo (1972, 1975, 1976, and 1990)
  • He also won a Golden Globe Award for the role.
  • Patrick McGoohan played a murderer more times than any other actor – 4 times. Jack Cassidy and Robert Culp each had 3 times, William Shatner and George Hamilton each played a killer twice.
  • Columbo’s name is never revealed – although a close up of his badge in the first season says it is ‘Frank.’ The creators of the show have stated that his first name was never known, so take that however you want to.
  • Columbo drives a 1960 Peugeot 403 convertible.
  • Columbo’s favorite food is chili and black coffee is his drink of choice.
  • In the 1972 episode entitled, “Etude in Black,” Columbo rescued a basset hound from the dog pound. The dog could be seen in many other episodes, and was as close to a sidekick/partner as Columbo ever got.
  • In 1997, the episode Murder by the Book was ranked #16 in TV Guide’s “100 Greatest Episodes of All Time” list.
  • In 1999, Lieutenant Columbo was ranked #7 on TV Guide’s “50 Greatest TV Characters of All Time.”
  • There is a bronze statue of Columbo (and his dog) in Budapest, Hungary. It was unveiled in 2017. Peter Falk is rumored to be a distant relative of the well-known Hungarian politician Miksa Falk (1828-1908).
Columbo Statue in Budapest, Hungary

I thought I would close with little treat for you. In one of the Dean Celebrity Roasts, Frank Sinatra was the Man of the Hour. Now, these roasts were often edited down to make sure all the best stuff was shown on TV. In Lee Hale’s book, he stated that there was only one performance that was shown in its entirety – Peter Falk’s appearance during the Sinatra roast.

Falk appears from the audience – as Lt. Columbo. The entire 11 minute bit is just priceless. It is a must see. Enjoy:

My 5 Favorite Films of the ’50’s

Fave Films 50s Blogathon Poster Ver 3

National Classic Movie Day

Today, May 16th is National Classic Movie Day.  This blog is part of a blogathon being hosted by my friends at the Classic Film and TV Cafe’.  This is the first time I have participated in it, but it is something they have done for the past few years.  According to other bloggers, it started with the “You are stuck on a deserted island” premise.  “What are the ‘must have’ movies you have to have?”  Over the years, the theme of the blog has changed yearly.  This year, bloggers were asked to pick their five favorite films of the 1950’s.  You can find links to all of the blogs that are a part of this blogathon by going to their website at: http://www.classicfilmtvcafe.com

Lauren Bacall once said, “It’s not an old movie if you haven’t seen it.”  There is SO much truth to this quote.  I don’t remember where I first stumbled on it, but it was a quote that stuck with me. The reason I start this blog with this quote is to prompt you to expand your thinking and attitude a bit.

The movies I am going to write about are what some would consider “old.”  This does note mean that they lack in a good story or a good performance.  As a matter of fact, as I look over my list of movies, I feel that they all have a good story and some powerful performances.  What makes them even better, in my opinion, is that they lack the CGI special effects and modern day movie magic!  They are good films without all that.

Honorable Mentions

Trying to trim my original list down to 5 movies was a difficult task.  I started with a list of about 50 films.  I whittled that down to a list of about 17.  Certainly, any of these could be in my top 5 and are well worth a watch if you have never seen them:

  • Rear Window
  • Singing in the Rain
  • Ben Hur
  • Dial M for Murder
  • Shane
  • North By Northwest
  • Forbidden Planet
  • On the Waterfront
  • Vertigo
  • The Ten Commandments
  • Gun Fight at the OK Corral
  • The Young Lions.

The star power in the movies listed above is amazing!  Now, here are the 5 I have chosen to write about for National Classic Movie Day (in chronological order):

The Wild One (1953)

The film opens with these words on the screen:  “This is a shocking story.  It could never take place in most American towns – but it did in this one.  It is a public challenge not to let it happen again.”  Well, right from the start you are hooked.  The film is based on Frank Rooney’s short story “The Cyclists’ Raid”, which was inspired by media coverage of a motorcycle rally that got out of hand in July of 1947.

The film stars Marlon Brando as Johnny, the leader of The Black Rebels Motorcycle Club.  Word is Brando only took the role because of producer Stanley Kramer.  It’s an odd role for him, at least for me because I am use to him delivering these great monologues in other films.  He rarely speaks in this film, but it is still a powerful performance.

Even though he is only in the film for about 10 minutes, Lee Marvin’s performance as Chino, the leader of the Beetles, is very memorable.  Other members of the cast include Mary Murphy as Brando’s love interest and Robert Keith and Jay C. Flippen as law officers.

While the “shock” value today is a whole lot less than it was when this film is released, there are still moments that will stick with you!  Perhaps this is a bit stereotypical in the portrayal of rebellious teens, if you can get past the 50’s jive lingo, it’s worth a watch.

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Night of the Hunter (1955)

This film is the only film directed by Charles Laughton.  It is also one of those films that scared the hell out of me.  Robert Mitchum is simply amazing as Reverend Powell.  Powell is a serial killer who has the words “L-O-V-E” and “H-A-T-E” tattooed on his hands, and often uses them for spur of the moment sermons.  While in jail, Powell’s cell mate speaks of the money he has hidden from a bank robbery he committed.  Powell only learns that the man’s children are aware of where the money is hidden.  After the man is executed for his crimes, Powell finds the man’s children and widow and marries her in hopes of finding the money.

The cast also includes a young Peter Graves, James Gleason, Lillian Gish, and Shelley Winters.  This movie still freaks me out when I see the “under water” scene!  Mitchum is the perfect villain and this movie will stay with you long after you watch it!

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Patterns (1956)

This is one of those films that not many people know about, and that is a shame!  The screen play is written by Rod Serling (Yes, Rod Serling of the Twilight Zone!) and it is a marvelous and suspenseful drama.  It was originally broadcast live on the Kraft Television Theatre in 1955 with Richard Kiley in the starring role of Fred Staples.  In the film, Van Heflin takes over the role.

Most of the movie takes place at the offices of Ramsey & Co – an industrial corporation headed by Walter Ramsey, played brilliantly by Everett Sloan.  You think you hate your boss?  Wait until you see Sloan in action.  He is the ultimate JERK!

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Ed Begley Sr. plays the role of Bill Briggs.  Briggs and Ramsey are always at odds with each other.  Briggs and Staples hit it off and become good friends.  In a story that could happen at any company anywhere, Staples finds out that he has been brought in to replace Briggs.

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The movie is a true representation of corporate America.  We see the every day stress and the effects of it on the employees of the company and their family members throughout the film.  Serling was very careful to make the dialogue of the film as “normal” as possible.  One source stated that he re-wrote the screen play often to be sure the dialogue was honest.

The end of the film features a very tense confrontation between Staples and Ramsey.  The performances of Heflin and Sloan are Oscar worthy, in my opinion.  It may not be loaded with a whole lot of action, but it truly is an amazing film.

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12 Angry Men (1957)

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Hands down, this is one of my favorite films of all time.  It is a film that is often showed as part of management training or employee orientations because it shows a group of men with different morals and personalities working toward a solution (in this case – a verdict).

I have never been picked for jury duty.  I cannot imagine the weight or stress that is put on 12 people to decide whether someone is guilty or innocent of a crime.  I can’t imagine the stress of possibly sending someone to death as a result of the verdict either.  Watching this film is an experience, without a doubt.

The film basically takes place in one room.  After the first vote, there are 11 votes for guilty and one for innocent, which begins the process of examining the evidence.  In one of the most effective camera tricks in film, it continues to close in as the film progresses.  In other words, we start seeing the entire jury room and all 12 men.  As the movie continues, the camera gets closer and closer to each of the jurors as tensions continue to build.  It may or may not be noticed to the casual viewer, but it is really adds to the movie and the eventually conclusion.

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The cast is also top notch!  Henry Fonda is juror #8, the one who starts all the trouble.  Martin Balsam, John Fiedler, E.G. Marshall, Ed Begley Sr., Joseph Sweeney, Jack Warden, Edward Binns, Jack Klugman, Robert Webber, George Voskovec, and Lee J. Cobb comprise the rest of the jury.

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The personalities and the conflicts that go on between them are a clear picture of what we deal with each and every day in human nature.  We are all different.  We all come from different backgrounds and beliefs.  It is no wonder this film is used to help people in management understand the differences in humans and human nature.

While all the performances are spot on, the one that stands out the most to me is that of Lee J. Cobb.  His performance is exhausting and perfect – and just one of the many reasons to see this movie.

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Rio Bravo (1959)

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This one made my list as a guilty pleasure.  I love John Wayne, and have plenty of his films among my favorites, but it’s not his performance that stands out to me – it’s Dean Martin’s.

After Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis parted ways, there were many people who thought that Dean Martin’s career was over.  It almost was because of his first solo film (Ten Thousand Bedrooms), which flopped.  He came back to become quite a good actor and this is one of those performances that often cited as one that made his critics re-think what he could do. No surprise, Dean plays a drunk in this film.  His performance in this movie, to me, is one of his best.

The film was produced and directed by Howard Hawks.  Along with John Wayne and Dean Martin (who would also star together in The Sons of Katie Elder), the cast features singer/actor Ricky Nelson, the lovely Angie Dickinson, Ward Bond, and Walter Brennan.  It’s a good story, with something for everyone.  For me, I always come back for Dean’s performance.

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Conclusion

If you have never seen these five films (or the “honorable mentions”), I encourage you to check them out.  I also encourage you to surf over to the Classic Film and TV Cafe’ (www.classicfilmtvcafe.com) to read other entries in this blogathon, and read some other great posts.  I thank them for allowing me to participate and look forward to the next blogathon!

What are YOUR five favorite films of the ’50s??