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Created by Richard Levinson and William Link, Columbo is one of the most popular of all television detective shows and is a classic example of the inverted detective story. From the outset the murderer is known to viewers so the delight comes from watching Columbo as he wears down his prime suspect. This suspect is usually rich, influential and believes that he is smarter than Columbo. However, over the course of the programme Columbo first annoys then breaks down the murderer’s alibi, discovering a vital clue, which is often something minor.
The murderer, the guest star in the series, was played by a number of leading actors, including Gene Barry, John Cassavetes, Anne Baxter, Dick van Dyke and Robert Vaughn. Some actors – Robert Culp, Jack Cassidy and Patrick McGoohan – appeared, as different characters, many times in the series and Patrick McGoohan also directed a number of episodes.
Columbo first appeared in The Chevy Mystery Show in 1961 in an episode called ‘Enough Rope’ where the detective was played by Ben Freed. That episode was adapted for the stage as Prescription: Murder, which opened on the 15th January 1962 in San Francisco with Thomas Mitchell as Columbo. The play was adapted for television in 1968 with Lee J. Cobb and Bing Crosby favoured for the role of Columbo. However, neither actor was available and, although initially considered too young, Peter Falk landed the part.
Three years later NBC commissioned a second pilot, ‘Ransom for a Dead Man’ and the series proper started in September 1971 with ‘Murder by the Book’, an episode written by Steven Bochco and directed by Steven Spielberg.
Columbo alternated with McMillan and Wife and McCloud in a Mystery Movie series, though Columbo was by far the most popular of the three. Seeking to capitalize on its success, NBC considered a weekly series. However, Peter Falk sensed that over-exposure would kill the series and refused to play ball. His wisdom ensured that the series retained its integrity and that production standards remained high.
The show ran for seven seasons, until May 1978, and was resurrected in 1989. Over these series Peter Falk was Columbo with his shabby raincoat – the actor’s own – a battered car and a sad-looking basset hound. Seemingly bumbling and ineffectual, apologetic, with always one more question up his sleeve, Columbo’s persona concealed a sharp, perceptive, analytical mind. Peter Falk was born to play the part and he made it his own.
Peter Falk as Columbo
Columbo developed into an affable, friendly character, a man you would welcome as a friend. However, in the 1968 pilot and play, Prescription: Murder, Columbo had a harder edge and would often become angry. That anger appeared occasionally in later episodes, but was always well placed and effective. Humour also played a big part in the series, though the jokes worked best when they flowed naturally, rather than when the writers made Columbo behave like a clown, for a clown he was certainly not.
Constant references to Mrs Columbo, the detective’s wife, whom we never see, provided an in-joke to the series. Ill-advised, the producers gave Mrs Columbo a series of her own. Starring Kate Mulgrew as a newspaper reporter, that series commenced in February 1979 and ran for thirteen episodes. However, after only five episodes the producers recognized their error and dropped all references to Mrs Columbo. Instead Kate became Kate Callahan, but by then the series was lost.
Many quality detective series have been made over the years, but surely Columbo must rank in the all-time top five.
The Big Cheese
In 1906 two Carlisle colliers, John Torrance and James Miller, were down on their luck. However, they came up with a plan: burgle the local Co-operative Society store. The men planned their burglary and slipped into the store unnoticed. They helped themselves to everything they could carry, though had to leave a great deal behind. One item proved too tempting to leave in the store – a piece of cheese. So they nibbled the cheese, discarded the leftovers and thought nothing of it.
John Torrance and James Miller were feeling pleased with themselves, until they discovered that no two sets of teeth are identical and that a sharp-eyed policeman had noticed the piece of cheese with the bite marks. Despite the villains knocking out teeth stumps to try to avoid identification, a dentist matched the resulting bite marks with a cast of the suspects’ teeth, leading to a conviction at Cumberland Assizes and a sentence of three years imprisonment.
Footnote: teeth marks in a piece of cheese were later used in Agenda For Murder, an episode of Columbo, when Columbo ensnares a ruthless attorney by matching bite marks on chewing gum with bite marks on a piece of cheese.