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!”
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.”
- 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).
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: