A Cop Like No Other
Peter Falk as Lt. Columbo
September 15, 1971-September 1, 1978
February 6, 1989-July 28, 1990
Call it a police non-procedural. Call it a tour de force. Call it one of the most popular television crime shows of all time.
What stood out about this seemingly ordinary show was how extraordinary it really was. Columbo was a show about a detective who behaved unlike any cop viewers had seen previously. It was a whodunit in which the killer’s identity was known in the first few minutes and the real mystery was how the strange little man in the rumpled raincoat was going to catch him. It was a show in which the central character was all schtick, and yet remained both fascinating and appealing.
Lt. Columbo (no first name was ever given) was created by Richard Levinson and William Link. Years later, this duo helped create another of TV’s signature mystery characters, Murder, She Wrote’s Jessica Fletcher. They said they modeled him after Petrovich, the detective in Dostoyevsky’s “Crime and Punishment.” The character was created long before Peter Falk came into the picture. An even though Falk is now inseparable from Lt. Columbo, they didn’t create him for Falk to play, nor as a continuing series character.
Lt. Columbo first appeared in a 1960 script called “Enough Rope,” on a live summer replacement TV show called The Sunday Mystery Hour. Veteran character actor Bert Freed played the role. Columbo reappeared later in a stage play based on that script, Prescription: Murder, in which another great character actor, Thomas Mitchell, was the persistent sleuth (it was his final role). The play did well enough at the box office but closed without ever getting to Broadway. That seemed to mark the end of the road.
The birth of the two-hour TV movie changed things. Levinson and Link rolled out Prescription: Murder again. They hired Gene Barry to be the killer psychiatrist and, after failing to snag Bing Crosby or Lee J. Cobb, reluctantly gave the Columbo role to an insistent but, they thought, “too young” Peter Falk. The show aired on NBC on February 20, 1968, and ranked number one for the week. The network immediately sought a series but was rebuffed, since neither the writers nor Falk thought it possible to manage a weekly Columbo. Three years later, the brand new NBC Mystery Movie, a series of 90-minute shows revolving around three separate characters, opened the door again.
A Columbo pilot, “Ransom for a Dead Man,” aired on March 1, 1971, with actress Lee Grant as a lawyer who shot her husband and tried to make it look like kidnapping. Columbo tripped her up, ratings soared, and Columbo became a Mystery Movie segment, rotating with McMillan and Wife and McCloud. The first official series episode, “Murder by the Book,” was broadcast Sept. 15, 1971. The rotating lineup ran on Wednesday nights for two seasons, then became the NBC Sunday Mystery Movie in Sept. 1972, continuing until the 1976-77 season. Other shows added to the rotation during the Sunday run included Hec Ramsey, Amy Prentiss, McCoy and Quincy.
As noted, the fun lay in watching Columbo get his man (or woman). He didn’t do the things policemen usually do in mystery stories. He didn’t “detect” in the classic sense and most certainly didn’t appear to be part of an official investigative team or to rely on lab tests, coroner’s reports, and the like. He was more in the mode of the traditional private eye or, perhaps even more accurately, the amateur sleuth. He was someone who probed and pushed, and asked questions almost apologetically. “Just one more little thing… something I don’t quite understand… If you could just explain for me…” While appearing to be merely fumbling about, Columbo worried and tugged at things until, at last, the one tiny element the killer had overlooked fell into place and exposed the crime.
Columbo stood alone, both as an investigator and as a character. Falk was the only permanent cast member, facing a new criminal, a new set of circumstances, and new surroundings in each episode. Oh, there were familiar faces now and again, but these were never acknowledged. They belonged to famous guest stars who returned in new roles to take another crack at foiling the disheveled and seemingly overmatched detective.
Jack Cassidy was the villain in “Murder by the Book” and returned twice thereafter. He was a publisher who murders a writer (played by Mickey Spillane) in one return engagement, “Publish or Perish” (Jan. 18, 1974). Robert Culp took three cracks at outsmarting Columbo, beginning with the second show, “Death Lends a Hand,” (Oct. 6, 1971). In that one, he was a private eye who tried to blackmail the wife of his client and then killed her. Another multi-episode killer, Patrick McGoohan, won an Emmy as the commandant of a military academy in “By Dawn’s Early Light,” (Oct. 27, 1974) and later got to be a spy in his roles in Secret Agent and The Prisoner in “Identity Crisis” (Nov. 2, 1975).
Columbo was, on the surface, a one-note character. He wore the same wardrobe in every show, including the famous raincoat (which actually belonged to Falk). He had the same mannerisms every time and seemed to arrive on the scene just because it was time for him to be there. Indeed, he seemed to have no real existence outside the story itself. Somehow Falk made it all work, and made it work every show. He added just enough of a twist to the character’s stock mannerisms to leave the audience relishing each familiar bit anew rather than becoming bored with it all.
Some of this undoubtedly had to do with the big-name stars who played opposite Falk in each story– it’s fun to watch real professionals in action– and some of it with the types of characters they played. There was always a subtle level of class warfare in each Columbo. The killers were usually rich, powerful, and openly disdainful of this blue-collar bumbler who just wouldn’t go away. To watch each of them slowly come to realize, in horror and desperation, that Columbo was smarter than they had ever imagined was pure joy.
Columbo disappeared from the TV scene in 1978 when Falk decided to call it quits. Then, a decade later, inspired by his role in a German film, Wings of Desire, in which he played an actor who played a television detective, Falk agreed to return for a new cycle of two-hour movies, this time on ABC. The first of these, Columbo Goes to the Guillotine, aired on Feb. 6, 1989. While not quite as powerful a show in this second go-round, Columbo was still above-average mystery fare and the character reaffirmed his place as a television icon.