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
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.
Columbo: Stitch in Crime (1973)
VHS TV Movie - Buy online
Shirl Hendryx's superb script sets our hero the task of saving an ailing doctor from being killed on the operating table by his ruthless protege, the latter attempting to grab all the credit for a revolutionary new surgical drug they are developing. A pair of eerie operating-theatre sequences, a startling moment in which Columbo threatens his suspect somewhat less obliquely than usual, and a brilliantly clever resolution that's saved for the final frame, all combine to make this a good candidate for the title 'Columbo's Best Ever Case'.
The Cheap Detective DVD (Columbo Movie)
DVD - Buy online
Most fans of everything-but-the-kitchen-sink comedies like The Naked Gun andHot Shots probably think the genre started with Airplane!, but Neil Simon's The Cheap Detective came two years earlier. It's a camp parody of Humphrey Bogart's 1940s detective flicks (particularly The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep), with a big dose of Casablanca thrown in for good measure.
Murder by Death DVD (Columbo Movie)
DVD - Buy online
Neil Simon wrote this 1976 spoof in which virtually every famous fictional detective of the 1930s and 1940s congregate at the home of a mysterious fellow (Truman Capote) to try and solve the mystery of who's trying to kill them all. Simon's jokes are mostly obvious, and the film's real appeal is the clever concept matched with fine--sometimes legendary--actors. Peter Falk plays a very Bogart-like Sam Spade equivalent, James Coco is a Hercule Poirot wannabe, Peter Sellers does a Charlie Chan bit, David Niven and Maggie Smith are reflections of Nick and Nora.... You get the picture. Lighthearted and silly, this is cotton-candy comedy for the cast as well as viewers