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:

Mystery Mania 2019

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As someone who loves a good mystery, I jumped at the chance to take part in the “Mystery Mania Blogathon” being hosted by Robin and her site, Pop Culture Reverie.  For this event, the topics could include movies, novels, video games, and TV shows.  While there are plenty of books and TV shows that I would have loved to write about, two movies immediately came to mind and I have chosen to write about them.  You can read what other bloggers have chosen for this event here:

https://popculturereverie.wordpress.com/

The Old Dark House Genre

Both of the films I am writing about would fall into what movie critics would call “The Old Dark House” genre.  This would be a sub-genre of the suspense/thriller/mystery film.  The genre tends to lean toward comedy, farce, parody, or whodunit mysteries. I wouldn’t call them “Haunted House” movies, as those tend to involve ghosts or the supernatural. Some common themes you may find in an Old Dark House movie include: (1) a group of people or strangers having to spend the night in some sort of castle, house, or mansion, (2) a murderer, creature, or some sort of madman on the loose, (3) usually the setting is a dark, foggy, or stormy night, (4) the house has hidden rooms or some sort of secret passageway (5) a butler, maid, or servants (6) a mysterious host, (7) pictures with removable eyes for spying on guests, and (8) possibly, a murder.

These movies are referred to as “Old Dark House” movies because they are similar to the plot of the 1932 film “Old Dark House” which starred Boris Karloff, Charles Laughton, and Gloria Stuart.  Other famous films of this genre include 1945’s And Then There Were None and The House of Fear, 1948’s Who Killed Doc Robbin?, 1941’s Murder By Invitation, 1975’s The Spiral Staircase, 1978’s The Cat and the Canary, 1985’s Clue, and 1980’s Private Eyes, which will be the second film I am writing about.  Oh, and of course, the first film I am writing about ….

Murder By Death (1976)

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There are a few reasons I chose to write about this film.  First, it is a very funny film written by Neil Simon.  The film is a comedy/parody that is loaded with quick and funny lines.  Second, it is a send up of some of the greatest literary sleuths and detectives.  The film parodies Charlie Chan, Nick and Nora Charles, Miss Marple, Hercule Poirot, and Sam Spade.  Finally, it has a simply wonderful and amazing cast.  Peter Sellers is Sidney Wang (Charlie Chan), David Niven and Maggie Smith are Dick and Dora Charleston (Nick and Nora Charles), Elsa Lanchester is Jessica Marbles (Miss Marple), James Coco is Milo Perrier (Hercule Poirot), and Peter Falk is Sam Diamond (Sam Spade).  Other greats in the cast include Eileen Brennan, Nancy Walker, Truman Capote, James Cromwell, Estelle Winwood, and Alec Guinness.

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A keen observer will notice that the opening credits are drawn by Charles Addams, who created the comic strip The Addams Family.  We see a body with 11 knives lodged in the back, followed by the 11 “suspects”.

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Whether it is deliberate or not, the plot to the film is fairly ridiculous.  Millionaire Lionel Twain (Capote) invites five of the world’s greatest detectives to his home to solve a murder that hadn’t been committed yet (it will happen at midnight that evening).  He offers a million dollar prize to the one who can solve the murder.  The cast avoid numerous attempts on their own lives, while stumbling on more than one apparent murder throughout the film.

One of the true joys of this film is the performance of Alec Guinness as the blind butler, Jamesir Bensonmumm.  The dialogue between Guinness, David Niven and Maggie Smith regarding his name plays out like an Abbott and Costello bit.  He has some very funny lines and he delivers them perfectly.  When asked about Mrs. Twain, Bensonmum says, “She murdered herself in her sleep, sir.”  When asked if it was suicide, he replies, “Oh no.  It was murder alright.  Mrs. Twain hated herself!”  Sidney Wang asks about loud growling and barking from a cage.  He is told by the butler that it is the cat.  When he is questioned again in disbelief, Bensonmum replies, “I’m afraid he is a very angry cat. Mr. Twain had him fixed … and he didn’t want to be.”

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It was while filming Murder By Death, that Guinness received his copy of a script for Star Wars.  He read the script between takes while in his dressing room. Guinness was not one to spend a lot of time in Hollywood, but he liked the script so much that he made the trip to play the part of Bensonmum.  He is also on record as saying, “The script made me laugh, and not many things in recent times have done that.”

Peter Sellers plays Mr. Wang as stereotypical as Charlie Chan was.  One of my favorite lines from him is: “Conversation like television set on honeymoon: unnecessary.”  James Coco plays his role very self centered and prissy.  He has some funny scenes with James Cromwell and some good lines.  He finds a bill in the butler’s pocket and notes “Everything here has been rented for tonight. The butler, the cook, the food, the dining room chairs, everything!”  When Jessica Marbles begins to question, “You mean …”, he interrupts and states, “Yes. This entire murder has been… catered.”  After he drinks wine and begins to choke, the guests gasp and react, but he puts them at ease by saying, “No, no, it’s all right. My wine is not poisoned. It was just a bad year.”

Not to take away from fine performances by Peter Sellers, David Niven, or James Coco (they are all wonderful!), but a highlight for me is Peter Falk’s performance as Sam Diamond.  He plays it almost in a Humphrey Bogart sort of way.  Throughout the film, the detectives are often scurrying and unorganized.  Falk does such a great job with this.  He has some very funny lines in the film.  One of my favorites follows a bit of a monologue from Sam:  “Now, if one of you gentlemen would be so kind as to give my lady friend here a glass of cheap white wine, I’m going down the hall to find the can. I talk so much sometimes, I forget to go.”  When the issue of trust comes up, he proclaims, “The last time that I trusted a dame was in Paris in 1940. She said she was going out to get a bottle of wine. Two hours later, the Germans marched into France.”

Peter Sellers, Peter Falk,  MURDER BY DEATH, Columbia, 1976, I.V.

As hard as it is, I won’t spoil the ending.  I will tell you that the climax of the film has many revelations that are just ludacris, more theories and unmaskings than every episode of Perry Mason, Scooby Doo, and Agatha Christie novel put together!  By the time it is over, you wonder what happened, in a good way.  Wang has a great line as he and his adopted son are leaving the Twain mansion in the morning.  His son says, “I don’t get something, Pop. WAS there a murder, or WASN’T there?”  His reply:  “Yes: Killed good weekend.”

Despite the wonderful script and all-star cast, there were some who had their doubts about the film.  David Niven’s son worked for a company that invested in the film and thought that it would be a flop and expected it to be a tax loss.  Peter Sellers wasn’t happy with his performance and the film in general, so he sold back his percentage of the film for a little over a million dollars.  To everyone’s surprise, the film was the eight biggest money maker of 1976.  The film is included among the American Film Institute’s 2000 list of the 500 movies nominated for the Top 100 Funniest American Movies.

The Private Eyes (1980)

The next film I chose to write about stars two comedy legends who are just as funny separately as they are when paired together – Tim Conway and Don Knotts.  Tim is best remembered for his work on McHale’s Navy and the Carol Burnett show and Don is remembered for his work on the Andy Griffith Show and Three’s Company.  The Private Eyes is not the first film where they starred together, but it is their last.  They were in Disney’s The Apple Dumpling Gang (1975) and the sequel The Apple Dumpling Gang Rides Again, (1979) and The Prize Fighter (1979).  They did do a brief cameo together in Cannonball Run II in 1984, a film that was pretty much a flop.

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The Private Eyes is, again, an Old Dark House film.  Don Knott’s character Inspector Winship is an obvious parody of Sherlock Holmes and Tim Conway’s character, Dr. Tart, is a parody of Dr. Watson.  The film opens with Lady and Lord Morley being murdered in their car by a cloaked shadowy figure.  Winship and Tart are two American detectives who are transferred to Scotland Yard.  They travel to the Morley Mansion with a letter from Lord Morley, asking them to investigate his own murder.

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When they arrive at the Morley Mansion, they meet the Morley’s adopted daughter (and heiress), Phyllis.  They also meet the odd array of staff members who work for the Morley’s.  They include a samurai, a busty blonde maid, a hunchback, a gypsy, an insane butler, and a Nazi Nanny.

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As Winship and Tart begin their investigation of the Morley murders, the members of the staff begin to show up apparently murdered one by one.  A message is left with each body (more on that in a second) and each time they bring Phyllis back to where they body had previously been, it has disappeared.

The first of two running gags in the film is Dr. Tart’s pigeons.  He insists on sending messages back to “the Yard” via homing pigeons.  They never seem to make it, however, as each time he tries to send the message the pigeon usually ends up dying.  The other is the messages that are left on the dead bodies.

Outside of Tim Conway’s performance, the reason to watch this film is for the messages.  The messages are written as poems.  They follow a similar pattern each time and rhyme consistently right up until the last line, where all of a sudden, they don’t!  Each time the last line is read, you can see Tim Conway’s Tart, trying to make sense of it.  He knows there is another word that would rhyme – and actually make more sense – but the author doesn’t use it.  Once it happens in the first poem, you know it’s coming with each future poem, and it is a consistently funny gag throughout the film.

A few worth mentioning:

In this house it’s hard to survive
Some will be dead who are now alive
Mr. Uwatsum is gona cuz he knew too much
Bye for now but rest assured, we will keep in constant contact with each other
(Instead of keep in touch)

If Jock could talk, he’d give you a clue
But now that he’s dead, what can you do?
He deserved what he got, I don’t regret it a bit
By the way, you’re standing in bull caca
(instead of Bullsh*t)

And my favorite:

I said when I died that I’d come back
If you believe in ghosts then you’re on the right track
I’m out of the grove and roaming the moors
If you wanna be safe you’d better lock all the windows and screens
(instead of doors)

What is disappointing about the movie is there is so much potential for it to be a very good film, but it winds up being just mediocre.  We are introduced to these crazy house servants in the beginning and yet nothing really comes from any of it.  If the movie had been handled as more of an ensemble comedy (as with Murder By Death and Clue), it would have been a much better film.

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Tim Conway does not disappoint, but Don Knotts seems slow and tired.  I recently read where he had contracted mononucleosis during filming, so I am guessing his performance is lackluster because of this.   Outside of our stars, I should note that the relationship between Nanny & Justin (seen above) are fun to watch.    Justin has a very funny line when introducing Winship and Tart to Nanny.  Upon learning that they are from Scotland Yard, he says, “This is Inspector Winship and Dr. Tart. They were in the yard.”  To which Winship corrects him, “That’s FROM the Yard!” Sadly, again, there is so much that the film makers could have done with their characters.  They are very funny together, but their time on screen is limited.

I should also mention that Trisha Noble does a wonderful job as the very stunning daughter, Phyllis.  If she looks familiar, its because she went on to appear in the TV Series Strike Force as Sergeant Rosie Johnson, various TV series, and in Star Wars Episode III as Jobal Naberrie. In 1967, she changed her stage name from Patsy Ann Noble to Trisha Noble in order to distance herself from her years as a teenage popular singer.

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The film is more of a “who is left to have done it”, rather than a “whodunit” because of how fast the members of the staff are being bumped off.  There is a bit of a twist at the end, and I won’t spoil it for you – after all, this blog is all about mystery.  While there are some funny moments, it is one of those movies you want to sit around on a weekend and watch with the kids, they will probably find it funnier than you.

Thanks!

Thanks to Robin for allowing me to participate in the Mystery Mania Blogathon.  I hope you enjoyed reading this and I encourage you to read the other entries at the link provided earlier in this blog.