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Columbo: A look back on America’s greatest detective series

Peter Falk played Lieutenant Columbo in a popular American detective series. Photo: Contributed - Credit: Archant

To mark 60 years since lieutenant Columbo’s first appearance on screen, Richard Luck assesses the distinctive detective and what has made him such a towering cultural figure.

‘There’s one detail that bothers me…’ I may as well use a line from the greatest American detective series to point up something the general public probably isn’t aware of; namely that lieutenant Columbo has been with us for longer than the series that made him a household name. Indeed, 2020 sees the man with the raincoat and the rumpled suit turn 60.

It was on a 1960 episode of The Chevy Mystery Show entitled Enough Rope that America first encountered Lieutenant Columbo. School friends turned writing partners Richard Levinson and William Link had adapted the script for one of their short stories, May I Come In? As fans of high literature and whodunnits, Levinson and Link’s investigator was inspired in equal parts by GK Chesterton’s humble cleric Father Brown and Porfiry Petrovich, the flattery-prone detective from Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishinment. And who better to play such a character than… Bert Freed.

Yes, TV stalwart Bert Freed was the first person to essay the world’s least likely crime fighter. Not that the actor recalled as much when he bumped into Link and Levinson years after the show aired. As far as Freed was concerned, Enough Rope was just another cop show, Lieutenant Columbo just another TV
cop. Convinced that they had something more substantial on their hands, Levinson and Link returned to their typewriters…

Two years later and Lieutenant Columbo returned in Prescription: Murder, a stage play mounted at San Francisco’s Curran Theater. With Freed tied up with telly work, the creatives had to hire another actor to play opposite Joseph Cotten’s killer. So it was then that they came to hire… Thomas Mitchell.

A septuagenarian character actor who’d won an Oscar for his role in John Ford’s Stagecoach, Mitchell made for a decent Columbo, by all accounts. The only issues were his age and his ill health, the combination of which led to his passing away at the end of Prescription: Murder’s run.

Two Columbos down and still no closer to bringing their character to the small screen, Levinson and Link threw themselves into another detective drama, Mannix, which made air in 1967, quickly becoming one of the year’s biggest hits.

Now that they had a success on their hands, Levinson and Link dusted off their Prescription: Murder script and presented it to NBC’s bigwigs. Impressed with what they saw, the studio commissioned a pilot.

Airing in February 1968, the drama starred Gene Barry (The War of the Worlds, Time Tunnel) as a psychiatrist who bumps off his wife then seeks to get clean away by having his mistress impersonate his other half. Enter Lieutenant Columbo played by… Peter Falk.

Yes, finally, the man who’d become synonymous with the role and the series was on board. This Columbo wasn’t quite the man we’d come to know and love, however.

Sure, the cigar was there, as was the raincoat – just the thing to wear in a city like LA where rain is rarer than rocking horse excrement. This, though, was a neater, less rumpled Lieutenant than the one we’d become familiar with. Why, he’d even dragged a comb through his hair.

A ratings success, Prescription: Murder should have kick-started the Columbo story but instead the studio’s reticence together with the creatives’ heavy workload meant that three more years passed before Falk returned to the raincoat.

And when he did, it was to star in a second pilot, 1971’s Ransom for a Dead Man, commissioned by a studio still unconvinced that Levinson and Link had anything particularly special on their hands. Fortunately, the viewing figures made up NBC’s minds for them. Six months after the second pilot aired, Murder by the Book, the first episode of the first season of Columbo, aired in America.

It’s worth concentrating on this first episode for a moment as it reveals much about what made Columbo so special. As series creators, Levinson and Link had a huge role in recruiting both on and off-screen talent. In the case of Murder by the Book, the latter included a firebrand director called Steven Spielberg and a cinematographer – Russell Metty – who had won an Oscar working on Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus.

The script, on the other hand, was developed from an idea by Levinson and Link by Steven Bochco, who a decade later would spark a television revolution of his own with the gritty police procedural Hill Street Blues.

There’s also a high calibre cast, topped off by Jack Cassidy (father of pop sensation David) as the no-good mystery writer Ken Franklin who kills his partner when he threatens to go solo – one can but imagine the fun Messrs Levinson and Link had with such a set-up.

And there, at the heart of it all, is Columbo, the unfailingly polite, usually late, often cigar-chomping, frequently eye-rubbing detective who has neither a gun nor a partner – just a whole lotta patience, the most inquiring of minds and a knack for deduction so impressive it might even earn a tip of the deerstalker from Sherlock Holmes.

Clues are Columbo’s real strong point – the discarded cigar butt, the stray bullet, the unusually tied shoelace, the wrong pair of glasses. Exactly why he’s so attuned to their significance we never find out.

In fact, a big part of Columbo’s strength as both a character and a detective is that so little is known about him. A man we never see at home and only rarely encounter at his desk, Columbo is as much a mystery as the cases he investigates. As Mark Dawidziak explains in his indispensable The Columbo Phile, what we do know about the lieutenant is revealed to us in small chunks over many years and several cases.

A New Yorker who relocated to Los Angeles in 1958, our knowledge of Columbo’s life before joining the police consists of just a few anecdotes about his uneventful school life, his time as a teenage tearaway and his stint in the US army during the Korean War. Any list of his favourite things would have to include pool, gangster films, cooking, eating, bowling and opera. His fears, on the other hand, consist of flying, needles, heights, guns and the sight of blood.

Columbo also adores his children, although we’re never quite sure how many he has, and his wife, whom we never meet.

In fact, it has been suggested that Mrs Columbo – who just so happens to love the work of whomever her husband happens to be investigating – is a fiction, used by the detective to make possible certain lines of inquiry.

It’s a nice idea but this is something we know not to be the case, with other characters referring to their own encounters with the good lady. So hard is Columbo to pin down, however, it would be easy to believe that his family are no more real than the Loch Ness Monster.

Whatever it was about Columbo, viewers the world over wanted more of it. With the show a success from the off, Levinson and Link were free to scoff at those who’d mocked its central premise – that the killer’s identity is known to the audience from the off. Rather than whodunnits, with Columbo it was a case of howwillhecatchhim.

It was certainly an original idea as far as American episodic television was concerned. Among those who were particularly taken with it were regular guest star and director Patrick McGoohan, a man not known for freely handing out compliments. ‘There’s two marvellous things about Columbo,’ McGoohan told Mark Dawidziak. ‘[The audience] knows who the murderer is and lieutenant Columbo is always up against an able protagonist.’ Less a standard cop show than a game of chess, such a comparison seemed especially apt after season two’s The Most Dangerous Match pitted our hero against Laurence Harvey’s grand master.

Aware that the character had become his as much as anybody else’s, Falk earned a certain infamy for the demands he made of both his co-workers and their paymasters. An actor for whom there could never be enough takes, Falk left both casts and crews frazzled. Realising his worth, the actor also demanded incremental pay increases. Come the final episode in 1978, he was earning $300,000 a show.

If all this makes Falk sound egotistical and money-grabbing, the truth is really rather different. For as he loved playing the part – he even bought his own raincoat – the actor was very protective of the character. ‘Shouldn’t Columbo have a smarter car?’ enquired the studio. ‘No, his knackered 1959 Peugeot Model 403 was just fine, thanks,’ came the

Likewise, when NBC suggested that Columbo should have a young, thrusting partner, Falk, Levinson and Link went out and purchased an asthmatic basset hound that they named Dog. It was the perfect pet for the lieutenant and the only partner he’d ever need.

Though it took a while to get Columbo out of the starting blocks, there was no stopping the show once it was up-and-running. Playing a murderer on Columbo became the US equivalent of appearing on Morecambe and Wise.

Jack Cassidy, Robert Culp and Patrick McGoohan enjoyed the show and playing opposite Falk so much, they racked up multiple appearances. The lieutenant even went international, travelling to London for season two’s Dagger of the Mind where Scotland Yard entrust him with bringing Burton and Taylor-alikes Richard Basehart and Honor Blackman to book.

It wasn’t just in Britain and the Americas that Columbo caught fire – the detective was even in demand behind the Iron Curtain. Such was the show’s popularity in Romania that Nicolae Ceausescu feared social unrest when the show came to an end in 1978.

So grave were their concerns that Falk was summoned to the Romanian embassy in Washington DC where he recorded a brief address assuring fans in Bucharest and beyond that their government weren’t responsible for cancelling their favourite programme, nor were they withholding episodes from them.

With the show popular wherever television was watched, Columbo could have run and run. That it didn’t had everything to do with the bean counters at NBC who considered the series prohibitively expensive. Still, they had a lot to show for their money – by the time the final episode aired on May 13, 1978, Columbo had won two Golden Globes and 10 Emmys. Of the latter, three were awarded to Falk – ‘I’m trying to figure out some way to appear humble,’ he memorably quipped after receiving his prize at the 1972 ceremony.

But while Columbo ought to have hung up his raincoat in 1978, the lieutenant reappeared in the 1980s. These more recent cases – dismissed by purists as ‘New Columbo’ – found an audience and even secured Falk a fourth Emmy. However, watching them is a little like seeing a much-loved band come out of retirement to treat fans to the old hits without adding much else to their

As for Columbo’s legacy, it includes all the series made in its wake – Kojak, Cannon, Ironside – in which a detective was successful even though they didn’t resemble your typical, lantern-jawed TV cop. Why, Columbo looked so rumpled and seedy, he’d have been booked had handsome Steve McGarrett bumped into him on Hawaii Five-O.

Conversely, the people Columbo ends up pinching tend to come from life’s upper echelons. This led some to claim that the lieutenant was a class warrior, a proud son of the proletariat bent on bringing the decadent bourgeoisie to justice. Well, maybe.

As far as Levinson and Link were concerned, it simply wouldn’t look right were Falk pursuing other character players like Quincy’s Jack Klugman. Far better to see him sparring with the people with the perfect teeth and the $100 haircuts.

Though time was called on the second coming of Columbo in 2003, you get the impression Falk was never quite finished with the role. After all, it had made a global star, it had allowed him to work with close friends like John Cassavetes and Ben Gazzara, and it was while making the programme that he met his second wife, Shera Danese. Little wonder then that Falk was toying with revisiting the role right up until Alzheimer’s first left him unable to remember lines then robbed him of any memory of having ever played Columbo.

That which the cruellest of diseases can spirit away isn’t so easily forgotten by the collective memory. Stephen Fry and Steven Moffat might both be big Sherlock Holmes fans but they’re each quick to champion Columbo as a true television high-point. Likewise the comedian Frank Skinner who, when he lived with David Baddiel, spent long hours arguing over whether the character had a glass eye. Sure, Peter Falk lost an eye to cancer as a toddler, but was Columbo stricken with the same affliction? The pair never found out.

There’s also no satisfactory answer to the question of Columbo’s first name. Yes, you can glimpse ‘Frank’ on certain pieces of paperwork seen on the show; no, he wasn’t called ‘Philip’, no matter how much the creators of Trivial
Pursuit argued otherwise, and besides,
all those who love the show know the
true answer. Columbo’s first name? Lieutenant.

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