|This article may be written from a fan's point of view, rather than a neutral point of view. (February 2015)|
Columbo is an American television series starring Peter Falk as a homicide detective with the Los Angeles Police Department. The character and show, created by William Link and Richard Levinson, popularized the inverted detective story format which begins by showing the commission of the crime and its perpetrator; the series therefore has no "whodunit" element. The plot revolves around how a perpetrator whose identity is already known to the audience will finally be caught and exposed (which the show's writers called a 'howcatchem', rather than a 'whodunit').
Columbo is a friendly, verbose, disheveled police detective of Italian descent, whose trademarks include wearing a rumpled, beige raincoat over his suit, and smoking a cigar. He is consistently underestimated by his suspects, who are initially reassured and distracted by his circumstantial speech, then increasingly irritated by his pestering behavior. Despite his unassuming appearance and apparent absentmindedness, he shrewdly solves all of his cases and secures all evidence needed for a conviction. His formidable eye for detail and relentlessly dedicated approach, though apparent to the viewer, often become clear to the killer only late in the story line.
The episodes are all movie-length, between 73 and 100 minutes long, and have been broadcast in forty-four countries. In 1997, "Murder by the Book" was ranked No. 16 on TV Guide's 100 Greatest Episodes of All Time and in 1999, the magazine ranked Lt. Columbo No. 7 on its 50 Greatest TV Characters of All Time list. In 2012, the program was chosen as the third-best cop or legal show on Best in TV: The Greatest TV Shows of Our Time. In 2013, TV Guide included it in its list of The 60 Greatest Dramas of All Time and ranked it at #33 on its list of the 60 Best Series. Also in 2013, the Writers Guild of America ranked it No. 57 in the list of 101 Best Written TV Series.
Columbo reversed the format of the standard whodunit mystery, as in almost every episode the audience sees the crime unfold at the beginning and knows the identity of the culprit. The murder is not always premeditated, but in each case the killer makes efforts to hide their crimes, implicating a false scenario of how the death occurred and often attempting to lead the police to a false culprit. In almost all cases, the investigation is confounded by the careful planning of the murder, which usually includes numerous pieces of misleading evidence, as well as a water-tight alibi for the murderer. The central event of each episode involves Columbo's attempts to sift his way through the contradictions presented by the combination of the readily apparent and asserted version of events, and that suggested by the evidence he shrewdly discovers. This style of mystery is sometimes referred to as a 'howcatchem', in contrast to the traditional 'whodunit'.
Columbo episodes tend to be driven by the characters. The audience observes the criminal's reaction to the ongoing investigation, and to the increasingly intrusive presence of Columbo. As a distraction, Columbo is generally polite and possibly even deferential to the suspect as the investigation proceeds. If they give him a hypothesis on how the murder must have occurred, Columbo often remarks on their intelligence and insight, only later showing that he sees problems in the story.
The objective is to observe the way Columbo finds and follows the clues that will lead him to the truth, and to enjoy the tricks he uses to obtain information or even a confession. This allows the story to unfold simultaneously from the point of view of Columbo and the murderer as they play cat and mouse. Describing the character, Variety columnist Howard Prouty wrote: "The joy of all this is watching Columbo disassemble the fiendishly clever cover stories of the loathsome rats who consider themselves his better."
Episodes of Columbo are generally split into two distinct parts. In the first, the soon-to-be murderer is introduced and the setting of the episode explored, generally themed by the profession or lifestyle of the murderer. The other characters, including the soon-to-be victim, are introduced through their relationship to the murderer. The murderer may be shown engaged in the activities of a normal working day, or already busy planning and arranging the murder. As the central premise and motivation for murder becomes apparent, the murderer typically puts into motion a well-arranged sequence of events, including the death of the victim and the establishment of a cover story for the death.
The second part begins with Columbo's appearance, following the discovery of the body, and usually opens to the scene of the crime some time after the arrival of the police. In some episodes, such as the original film Prescription: Murder, Columbo therefore does not appear until halfway through the episode. Columbo usually begins investigating the case at the scene of the crime, where before long some detail catches his attention. The death is often considered accidental, or an unplanned event as part of a burglary or mugging, until Columbo's investigations lead him to suspect otherwise. Before long, the detective will find himself encountering the murderer, to make related inquiries, and in many cases to break the news of the death itself.
The murderer is usually keen to demonstrate their desire to assist Columbo in his investigations and to make themselves available to him for questioning, generally depicting themselves as grieving and in many cases passionately determined to see the killer found and brought to justice. Whether through instinct for the truth of the matter or the simple pursuit of the case, over the course of the episode this allowance is steadily stretched by Columbo until breaking point is reached. This often results in an outburst of some kind, with the murderer feigning shock, horror and disbelief at their implication in the murder. In almost all cases the murderer demonstrates a notable capacity for deception, maintaining their pretense until the very end. Once the murderer realizes that the game of cat and mouse has undeniably concluded, the act is dropped, and an honest dialogue with Columbo generally takes place, often without enmity. Occasionally the killer attempts to murder him, whilst some express relief at being caught; in 'Swan Song' Columbo even assures the killer that he 'can't be all bad'. Several killers compliment Columbo on his breaking the case and discovering their guilt before they are taken into custody.
While every detail of the murderer's actions and ruse is generally shown to the viewer, Columbo's true thoughts and intentions are almost never revealed until near the end of the episode. Columbo's manner and erratic behavior often leaves the murderer uncertain of whether they are succeeding in deceiving the detective, an uncertainty which may be shared by the viewer. Columbo generally maintains a friendly relationship with the murderer until the end, apologizing repeatedly for taking up their time with questions, even as his true suspicions become increasingly evident. The point at which Columbo first begins to suspect the murderer is generally not revealed, leaving the true motivations for the detective's apparently bumbling actions for the viewer to decide. In some episodes, Columbo reveals that his suspicions were aroused during the initial investigation, while in others he states he never suspected the killer until deep into the case.
Columbo's erratic behavior and absentminded manner is often key to solving the case, whether through causing the murderer to underestimate the detective's abilities, encouraging them to provide assistance beyond that which they might otherwise provide, or through irritating and infuriating the murderer such that they inadvertently cause critical information to be revealed. Throughout the case, Columbo generally remains friendly, apologetic and polite, even when faced with anger.
The ongoing dialogue between Columbo and the killer is a key component to the series. In solving the case, Columbo tends to work closely with the killer, visiting them repeatedly to ask further questions, and informing them as to the latest developments in the case. Columbo also often appears unexpectedly in the vicinity of the killer's home or place of work, making himself a persistent if apparently amicable presence in their lives. While apparently due to the necessity of their involvement in the case, this serves as opportunity for the detective to scrutinize, question and influence the killer. As further evidence is revealed, Columbo shares with the killer his thoughts on the case, pointing out contradictions between the new evidence and the killer's stated version of events in a generally amicable, conversational style. In response, the killer assists the detective by providing explanations for the discrepancies, whether through pre-arranged details or apparent improvisation. Columbo generally receives these explanations with great appreciation, often complimenting the killer's detective skills in a self-deprecating manner, before pointing out a flaw in the explanation.
Each case is generally concluded in a similar style, focusing on the dialogue between Columbo and the killer, and the impact on the latter of the revelation of a final and usually conclusive piece of evidence. In some episodes, Columbo visits the killer accompanied by uniformed officers, thus signalling to the audience that this is the final confrontation, and that the arrest of the killer is now imminent. During the final scene Columbo drops any remaining pretence of uncertainty, and shares with the killer details of the detective's workings and eventual arrival at the conclusion of the killer's guilt. Columbo's believed version of events is asserted and the killer shown that no room for doubt remains. The killer's reaction following the realisation that they have been caught varies, with some conversing in a friendly manner with the lieutenant about the error that closed the case, and others becoming aggressive or despondent. On occasion, Columbo will even sympathize with the killer over their motive for committing the crime. Following the killer's reaction, the episode generally ends, with no following or concluding scenes.
Class tension is often apparent between Columbo, a humble man with seemingly working class origins, and the killer, who is often affluent and well-positioned, and sometimes condescending. In some cases, the killer's arrogance and dismissive attitude help Columbo with his investigation, allowing him to manipulate his suspects into self-incrimination. In most cases, the killer initially underestimates Columbo, only realising the true extent of his shrewdness as the case draws near to its conclusion. At the conclusion, many affluent killers have a quizzical look as if to wonder how someone like Columbo could outsmart them.
Columbo's disheveled appearance is also often the source of initial confusion regarding his identity, to comic effect. Columbo is at times mistaken for a homeless man (as in "Negative Reaction"), a client or a bumbling passer-by, even by police officers. This is often due in part to his absentminded and unprepossessing manner, such as when inadvertently stumbling onto a television set during filming in "Fade in to Murder". Columbo's appearance sometimes prevents him from being admitted to places; and, only the flashing of his badge allows him to proceed unabated.
With the final arrest, the killer always goes quietly. In some instances, such as Ruth Gordon's avenging mystery writer in "Try and Catch Me", Janet Leigh's terminally ill actress in "Forgotten Lady", or Donald Pleasence's vintner in "Any Old Port in a Storm", the killer is more sympathetic than the victim or victims.
There are very few attempts to deceive the viewer or to provide a twist in the tale. One exception is "Last Salute to the Commodore", where Robert Vaughn is seen elaborately disposing of a body, but is proved later to be covering for his alcoholic wife whom he mistakenly thought to be the murderer.
Development and actors who played Columbo
The character of Columbo was created by William Link, who said that Columbo was partially inspired by the Crime and Punishment character Porfiry Petrovich as well as G. K. Chesterton's humble cleric-detective Father Brown. Other sources claim Columbo's character is also influenced by Inspector Fichet from the 1955 French suspense-thriller Les Diaboliques.
The character first appeared in a 1960 episode of the television-anthology series The Chevy Mystery Show, entitled "Enough Rope". This was adapted by Levinson and Link from their short story "May I Come In", which had been published as "Dear Corpus Delicti" in an issue of the Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine. The short story did not include Columbo as a character. The first actor to portray Columbo, Bert Freed, was a stocky character actor with a thatch of grey hair. Freed's Columbo wore a rumpled suit and smoked a cigar, but he otherwise had few of the other now-familiar Columbo mannerisms. However, the character is still recognizably Columbo, and uses some of the same methods of misdirecting and distracting his suspects. During the course of the show, the increasingly frightened murderer brings pressure from the district attorney's office to have Columbo taken off the case, but the detective fights back with his own contacts. Although Freed received third billing, he wound up with almost as much screen time as the killer and appeared immediately after the first commercial. This teleplay is available for viewing in the archives of the Paley Center for Media in New York City and Los Angeles.
Levinson and Link then adapted the TV drama into the stage play Prescription: Murder. This was first performed at the Curran Theatre in San Francisco on January 2, 1962, with character actor Thomas Mitchell in the role of Columbo. Mitchell was 70 years old at the time. The stage production starred Joseph Cotten as the murderer and Agnes Moorehead as the victim. Mitchell died of cancer while the play was touring in out-of-town tryouts; Columbo was his last role.
In 1968, the same play was made into a two-hour television movie that aired on NBC. The writers suggested Lee J. Cobb and Bing Crosby for the role of Columbo, but Cobb was unavailable and Crosby turned it down because he felt it would take too much time away from the golf links. Director Richard Irving convinced Levinson and Link that Falk, who wanted the role, could pull it off even though he was much younger than the writers had in mind.
Originally a one-off TV-Movie-of-the-Week, Prescription: Murder has Falk's Columbo pitted against a psychiatrist (Gene Barry). Due to the success of this film, NBC requested that a pilot for a potential series be made to see if the character could be sustained on a regular basis, leading to the 1971 hour and a half film, Ransom For a Dead Man, with Lee Grant playing the killer. The popularity of the second film prompted the creation of a regular series on NBC, that premiered in the fall of 1971 as part of the wheel series NBC Mystery Movie rotation: McCloud, McMillan & Wife, and other whodunits. According to TV Guide, the original plan was that a new Columbo episode would air every week, but as a motion picture star, Peter Falk refused to commit to such an arduous schedule, which would have meant shooting an episode every five days. The network arranged for the Columbo segments to air once a month on Wednesday nights. The high quality of Columbo, McMillan & Wife, and McCloud was partly due to the extra time they could spend on each episode. The term wheel show was coined to describe this format, and additional such series were attempted by NBC, but the astounding success of the NBC Mystery Movie series was not repeated, and the term is now considered archaic.
Columbo was an immediate hit in the Nielsen ratings and Falk won an Emmy Award for his role in the show's first season. In its second year the Mystery Movie series was moved to Sunday nights, where it then remained during its seven-season run. The show became the anchor of NBC's Sunday night line up. Columbo aired regularly from 1971–78 on NBC. After its cancellation by NBC in 1978 Columbo was revived on ABC between 1989 and 2003 in several new seasons and a few made-for-TV movie "specials".
Columbo's wardrobe was provided by Peter Falk himself; they were his own clothes, including the high-topped shoes and the shabby raincoat which made its first appearance in Prescription: Murder. Falk would often ad lib his character's idiosyncrasies (fumbling through his pockets for a piece of evidence and discovering a grocery list, asking to borrow a pencil, becoming distracted by something irrelevant in the room at a dramatic point in a conversation with a suspect, etc.), inserting these into his performance as a way to keep his fellow actors off-balance. He felt it helped to make their confused and impatient reactions to Columbo's antics more genuine.
A few years prior to his death, Falk had expressed interest in returning to the role. In 2007 he claimed he had chosen a script for one last Columbo episode, "Columbo: Hear No Evil". The script was renamed "Columbo's Last Case". ABC declined the project. In response, producers for the series announced that they were attempting to shop the project to foreign production companies. However, Falk was diagnosed with dementia in late 2007. During a 2009 court trial over Falk's care, Dr Stephen Read stated that the actor's condition had deteriorated so badly that Falk could no longer remember playing a character named Columbo, nor could he identify who Columbo was. Falk died on June 23, 2011, aged 83.
"You know, sir, it's a funny thing. All my life I kept running into smart people. I don't just mean smart like you and the people in this house. You know what I mean. In school, there were lots of smarter kids. And when I first joined the force, sir, they had some very clever people there. And I could tell right away that it wasn't gonna be easy making detective as long as they were around. But I figured, if I worked harder than they did, put in more time, read the books, kept my eyes open, maybe I could make it happen. And I did. And I really love my work, sir."
—Lieutenant Columbo in Columbo (season 6) episode 3 "The Bye-Bye Sky High IQ Murder Case"
Over the years, the chatty Columbo would let slip many details about his personal life in conversations with suspects. However, in the episode "Dead Weight" Columbo more-or-less admits that he will sometimes make up certain details about his life and/or his relatives (or even make up fictional relatives) in order to establish a better rapport with a suspect. So some of the following biographical details may be exaggerated or otherwise inaccurate, particularly those concerning his family life—although there is no way to tell which details are not accurate, or how inaccurate they may be.
Columbo's boyhood hero was Joe DiMaggio, and he also liked gangster pictures. Columbo broke street lamps and played too much pinball (he expressed a wish to have a pinball machine at home). The trick of putting a potato in a car exhaust – which purportedly prevents the car from starting without causing permanent damage – served well on one of his cases. He jokes that he became a cop in part to make up for these juvenile pranks.
In "The Bye-Bye Sky High I.Q. Murder Case", in a conversation with the suspect, Columbo revealed: "All my life I kept running into smart people. I don't just mean smart like you and the people in this house. You know what I mean..." He added, "I could tell right away that it wasn't gonna be easy making detective as long as they were around", but he determined that he could even the odds "by working harder than any of them, reading all of the required books and paying attention to every detail."
His trademark outfit (rumpled raincoat over a suit-and-tie) never varies from case to case or year to year – with one exception: when he gets a new raincoat as a birthday gift from his wife in the episode "Now You See Him". Because he "can't think" in this coat, Columbo is desperately trying to lose it. Finally he is able to retrieve his beloved original raincoat.
He sometimes wears his trademark outfit while on vacation. In the episode "Troubled Waters", Columbo takes a Mexican cruise with his wife. He boards the cruise ship in his usual attire. Upon meeting Columbo dressed in the raincoat, the Captain of the ship quips "Oh, tell me Lieutenant, do you expect inclement weather in the Mexican waters?" In this episode Columbo does actually wear a Hawaiian shirt later on in the film, during a party.
Although not socially polished, Columbo is polite, addressing everyone to do with the case as "sir", "ma'am" or "miss". He rarely displays anger toward his prime suspect, though he sometimes becomes frustrated with other characters. In an impromptu speech to a ladies' club meeting hosted by Ruth Gordon's character, at which he shows up uninvited, he admits that over the course of many of his investigations he grew to like and respect the suspects.
Columbo rarely carries a gun, and is never shown to exercise much physical force; in some episodes he allows himself to be placed in a predicament in which the killer believes he or she will be able to kill Columbo and escape. In the 1971 episode "Death Lends a Hand," it is revealed that he does not carry a gun when he walks through a metal detector and doesn't set it off. In the 1975 episode "Forgotten Lady" he explains that he keeps it "downtown", and in other episodes he expresses a strong dislike of guns and their use, as well as an intolerance to the noise produced when firing them. Columbo has failed to attend his required semi-annual evaluation at the department's firing range. When an Internal Affairs sergeant threatens to ask for his badge because of this, Columbo pays a colleague to take the test for him. He does carry a gun for his work in 1992's "No Time to Die" and 1994's "Undercover" (even threatening someone with it in the latter), both of which are based on Ed McBain novels.
"Murder Under Glass" reveals Columbo to be an accomplished cook, having learned a recipe for veal scaloppine from his Italian father, which he makes for the killer, a famed food critic, who seems impressed by it. However, in "Murder by the Book" he claims he can cook only a certain type of omelet, which he cooks for the victim's wife. In early episodes he appears to be particularly fond of eating chili con carne.
In "Identity Crisis", Columbo clearly speaks fluent Italian, which he demonstrates again later on in "Murder Under Glass". When inspecting a chemical formula in "Lovely But Lethal", he claims not to have recognized the writing as Latin, stating that he had "only taken Spanish", some of which he speaks in "A Matter of Honor".
Columbo is a simple man, mainly because of hard work and not necessarily by choice. As his homicide investigations are almost always amongst the rich and famous of Los Angeles rather than gangland shootings, mafia killings or psychopaths, he regularly finds time during cases to take advantage of the suspect's social circle (e.g. the cuisine on tap in "Murder Under Glass").
As a distraction tactic, Columbo regularly asks to sit behind the wheel of a suspect's luxury car. He asks suspects who are authors to sign copies of their books, suspects who are actors to give him free tickets to their next performance, and so on. He has good enough taste to fully appreciate all the fine perks he obtains from his suspects, but he often seems to be (or pretends to be) in awe of their wealthy lifestyles. He sometimes comments on the absurdity of spending thousands of dollars on a bottle of wine or a couch, when he himself lives on an income of $11,000 a year.
He also possesses an encyclopedic knowledge, which he usually hides. He has explained to colleagues that his wife believes there is "something wrong" with him. His other trademark is the ever-present (but not always lit) cigar. More than once he attempts to quit smoking. Columbo has explained that he smokes cigars although his wife wishes he would smoke a pipe, which Columbo refuses to try "because there's too much stuff to carry around." His shoe size is referred to as "10 1/2 or 11" in "By Dawn's Early Light".
Columbo appears to be prone to airsickness and seasickness, and he cannot swim, though he has been known to row a boat. In "Dead Weight", when General Hollister (Eddie Albert) comments on Columbo's seasickness by asking why someone with the name "Columbo" would not be at home on a boat, the detective responds, "It must have been another branch of the family." In other episodes, Columbo does claim that his family has a tradition of being descended from Columbus.
He is (or pretends to be) squeamish, and does not like hospitals or autopsies. He finds it distasteful to look at photographs of autopsies while eating ("Dagger of the Mind"). He demonstrates an aversion to viewing surgical procedures and an apparent fear of needles. In "A Stitch in Crime", Columbo says he "faints" merely by being in a hospital, but this is all an obvious ruse to distract Dr. Mayfield (Leonard Nimoy). At the end of "A Stitch in Crime" it is obvious Columbo has no fear of hospitals, surgical procedures or any such thing. He claims to be afraid of heights, once remarking to an FAA investigator who offered him a job, "I don't even like being this tall" ("Swan Song", 1974). Columbo claims he is always nervous when he is in the passenger seat rather than driving, and in fact is extremely nervous during certain investigations.
In "A Stitch in Crime", Columbo grumbles throughout the episode about being sleep-deprived and working too hard. (Columbo suffers from severe allergies "every spring", although when we first see him suffering symptoms in this episode, he does not know what they are. He says he will not take allergy medicine because of the side effects.) This is also the one and only time – at least in the NBC decade – Columbo challenges his suspect with physical violence (by slamming a water carafe on Dr. Mayfield's desk with great force before directly accusing Mayfield of murder). In "Double Shock", Columbo is genuinely alarmed and upset by the housekeeper's dislike of him. He confronts her to ask why she must behave in so hostile a fashion; finally he convinces her that he is simply doing his job.
Columbo's unsettling, uneven-eyed stare was due to Falk's glass eye in the right eye socket. It remained a mystery for 25 years whether the character had one as well, until 1997's "Columbo: A Trace of Murder", whereupon asking another character to revisit the crime scene with him he jokes: "You know, three eyes are better than one."
In almost every episode of the later ABC series, Columbo is heard whistling the children's song "This Old Man". It often appears as a motif in the musical score. However, in many of the first season films, it is clear Columbo loves classical music, and has a high level of knowledge about it.
Columbo frequently mentions his wife. In a number of episodes, the murderer is a celebrity or figure well-known to Columbo's wife, and in several Columbo attempts to procure a souvenir for her, or to enlist the celebrity to make a telephone call to her. However, she is never at home.
Columbo also has a habit of receiving police calls on the landline of the witness or suspect's house while he is visiting them.
"Étude in Black" (1972) marked the first appearance of the lieutenant's basset hound, named "Dog". "Dog" came to be an occasional regular character in the films. Columbo considered names like "Fido", "Munch" and "Beethoven" but ultimately settled on "Dog".
In "Sex and the Married Detective", Columbo is put on the spot when he is asked to play the tuba. Reluctantly he agrees, only to demonstrate great proficiency. He subsequently claimed that at school, the tuba was the only instrument left.
In several episodes Columbo is seen eating a breakfast of a boiled egg, usually while investigating the scene of the crime or even while interviewing a suspect. He generally produces the egg from his raincoat pocket, before seeking a hard surface upon which to break its shell; in "A Stitch in Crime" he uses a piece of evidence found at the murder scene. He prefers to eat the egg salted, stating in "Lovely But Lethal" that he usually carries a shaker of salt in his pocket.
Columbo's first name is never explicitly mentioned during the series. Even the opening credits just simply read, "Peter Falk as Columbo". When asked, Columbo always emphatically answers "Lieutenant". In the episode "By Dawn's Early Light", when he is asked if he has a first name, he replies that the only person who "calls" him "that" is his wife.
However, the name "Frank" is often seen relatively clearly on his police ID. In the 1971 episode "Dead Weight", when Columbo introduces himself to General Hollister, the audience is shown a brief close-up of Columbo's badge and police ID; the signature reads "Frank Columbo". The signature "Frank Columbo" is most clearly visible in the episode "A Matter of Honor", in which it is also seen that Columbo's badge number is 416. This later appears on the address of a neighbor of the local police comisario (played by Pedro Armendáriz Jr.). Universal Studios, in the box set of seasons 1–4 under their Playback label, included a picture of Columbo's police badge on the back of the box, with signature "Frank Columbo" and "Lt. Frank Columbo" in type. This appears to be a different badge from the one seen in "Dead Weight", with a different signature (a common occurrence with props). The name "Frank" is also clearly seen in the episode from 1991 called "Death Hits The Jackpot" when Lt. Columbo shows how shiny his badge is when explaining to Rip Torn's character how he was able to figure out how he was in the victim's apartment at the time of the murder. When Columbo holds his badge up, the name "Frank" is clearly typed on his LAPD I.D. card at the top.
Several sources cite the lieutenant's name as "Philip Columbo". Columbo's first name Philip was conceived by Fred L. Worth. In Worth's book, The Trivia Encyclopedia, the fictitious entry about Columbo's first name was actually a "copyright trap" – a deliberately false statement intended to reveal subsequent copyright infringement. When his false information was later included as one of the questions in the board game Trivial Pursuit, he filed a $300 million lawsuit. The publishers of Trivial Pursuit did acknowledge that Worth's books were among their sources, but argued that this was not improper, as facts are not protected by copyright and the name appeared across several sources. The district court judge agreed, ruling in favor of the Trivial Pursuit publishers. The decision was appealed, but in September 1987 the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit upheld the ruling. Worth asked the Supreme Court of the United States to review the case, but the Court declined, denying certiorari in March 1988.
"I like my job. Oh, I like it a lot. And I'm not depressed by it. And I don't think the world is full of criminals and full of murderers. Because it isn't. It's full of nice people just like you. And if it wasn't for my job, I wouldn't be getting to meet you like this. And I'll tell you something else. Even with some of the murderers that I meet, I even like them too, sometimes. Like them and even respect them. Not for what they did, certainly not for that. But for that part of them which is intelligent or funny or just nice. Because there's niceness in everyone, a little bit, anyhow. You can take a cop's word for it."
—Lieutenant Columbo in an impromptu speech to a ladies' club meeting in Season 7 episode 1 "Try and Catch Me"
After serving in the army during the Korean War ("mostly KP", as he says), Columbo joined the New York City Police Department and was assigned to the 12th precinct. He trained under Sergeant Gilhooley, a genial Irishman who mentored him and taught him a great deal about police work. Columbo reminisces about Gilhooley and mentions him often. Columbo moved to Los Angeles in 1958, at the behest of his cousin Fred who convinced him he'd prefer it to New York.
In Falk's first appearance as Columbo in the 1968 TV-movie, Prescription Murder, the character had the rank of police lieutenant. In Prescription Murder, Columbo speaks of a colleague, Lieutenant Silver, who was supposed to be assigned to the case but was thought to be "too young and inexperienced" compared to Columbo. In mentioning Lt. Silver, Columbo begins a tradition that will return often, of the rejection of lesser officers from his investigations. However, he also often involves younger detectives in his investigations and usually finds some reason to praise them. This in turn allows the other common motif of suspects attempting to have Columbo removed from investigating, because they fear him. Despite solving numerous murders over the next few decades, in Falk's last appearance as Columbo in the 2003 cable-TV movie Columbo Likes the Nightlife, the detective is still a lieutenant.
A very common motif is that Columbo enjoys and lives for his work. He is happy being a lieutenant with the homicide department, and often makes statements about his lack of ambition. He is precisely where he has always wanted to be, and he will remain there. The attempts to remove him from cases never work because Columbo "is something of a legend", and thus has a powerful position with the police force. In fact, in Falk's pilot episode, Prescription Murder, he mentions to a suspected accessory that somebody has attempted to have him removed from the case, but he says:
"Just to clear things up on one point, Miss Hudson: I am on the case. Somebody was pulling a few strings, all right. But my superior doesn’t like that. Gets him thinking. So he says to me, ‘Columbo, you must be touching a sore spot somewhere. Keep at it.’ Very intelligent man, my superior."
|This section needs additional citations for verification. (February 2013)|
Columbo was born and raised in New York City in a neighborhood near Chinatown. In the episode "Murder Under Glass", he says that he ate more egg rolls than cannelloni during his childhood. He is Italian on both sides. The Columbo household included his grandfather, parents, five brothers (one named George), and a sister (Rose). His father wore glasses and did the cooking when his mother was in the hospital having another baby. His grandfather "was a tailgunner on a beer truck during Prohibition" and let him stomp the grapes when they made wine in the cellar.
"You know, I can remember the only new car my father ever bought. How proud he was. The way it smelled. Kind of like the inside of a Pullman car."
—Lieutenant Columbo in Columbo (season 7) episode 1 "Try and Catch Me"
His father, who never earned more than $5,000 a year and bought only one new car in his life, taught him how to play pool, at which Columbo excels in "How to Dial a Murder".
While visiting London, Columbo remarks to Scotland Yard officers that his "father was an Elk until my mother stopped him" (Dagger of the Mind).
Columbo frequently mentions his wife. During the first few seasons of the series it was widely believed in Hollywood that the character actually had no wife. However, in "A Stitch in Crime" (1972) Columbo tells only his fellow officers, when he first arrives on the scene, that his wife has some kind of flu. He explains he had been up all night caring for her and also has the flu as a result. In the episode "Troubled Waters" (1975) other characters describe meeting and speaking to Mrs. Columbo while they are on a cruise ship, although she remains unseen. In three other episodes ("An Exercise in Fatality", "Any Old Port in a Storm" and "Rest in Peace, Mrs. Columbo"), Columbo is seen talking on the telephone with his wife. In "Identity Crisis", murderer Nelson Brenner (Patrick McGoohan) bugs Columbo's home and learns Mrs. Columbo's favorite piece of music is Madama Butterfly from Giacomo Puccini. Columbo tells Brenner he is glad his wife does not know about the bugging. In "A Matter of Honor", Columbo tells his Mexican colleague (Pedro Armendáriz Jr.) that his wife has left Mexico in order to attend the 10th anniversary celebration of Columbo's cousin, Vito. Columbo explains that his wife is very sensitive about such things, and implies that she is deeply caring about family. In "No Time to Die", Columbo states that his wife loves to dance, saying it is the only exercise he gets, and states that they were married in an Italian restaurant. In the 1990 episode "Rest in Peace, Mrs. Columbo", the lieutenant states that he and his wife were to celebrate their 28th or 29th anniversary next January, placing the year of their marriage between 1961 and 1963.
In the episode "Rest in Peace, Mrs. Columbo", Columbo's wife is targeted by a psychotic killer (Helen Shaver). During the investigation Columbo states that his wife loves Chopin and describes her as being busy with church, volunteering at the hospital, watching her sister's children and walking the dog five times a day. He mentions that she has a sister named Ruth and later while talking with his wife on the phone he refers also to her having another sister, Rita. This episode teases the audience as to whether or not Mrs. Columbo has actually been murdered and by featuring prominently displayed photographs of Mrs. Columbo, apparently finally disclosing her appearance to viewers. However, the photos are revealed to be of one of his wife's sisters, as he informs the killer at the end of the episode.
Columbo has children but no details were ever disclosed about them. In "Any Old Port in a Storm", he refers to the difficulty of getting a babysitter. He also mentions in that episode taking his wife and "child" on a picnic, and alludes to this child in "The Most Crucial Game". In "Mind over Mayhem" he mentions that his "wife and kids" are in Fresno visiting his mother-in-law. However, in "Rest in Peace, Mrs. Columbo" he claims in conversation with the killer that he and his wife have no children, although it is plausible that this was a deception, as he was already aware at this point that the killer had taken a special interest in him, and his wife.
In "No Time to Die" he attends the wedding of his nephew, who is also a police officer. In "Short Fuse", he states that his wife's younger brother is a photography buff and in "Blueprint for Murder" he says he has a brother-in-law who is an attorney. At the end of "Dead Weight", he states that he has a niece named Cynthia, who is the daughter of his wife's sister. In "Requiem for a Falling Star", he tells the murderess that he has a brother-in-law named George who is a fan and has her speak to him over the phone. In "Lovely But Lethal" Columbo speaks of his nephew who is resident dermatologist at UCLA. Columbo often explains that he has an immense family and speaks of several siblings. Two brothers figure quite often: George and Fred (the brother who convinced Columbo to move to California from New York). Columbo sometimes refers to a cousin, also named Fred.[episode needed]
Columbo does refer to a 15-year-old son in a couple of episodes.[which?]
|This section does not cite any references (sources). (February 2013)|
Columbo is polite. He has a keen intellect and good taste which he hides very well. Columbo never divulges his first name. His absent-minded approach to cases, his distracted outbursts and constant pestering of suspects is his modus operandi. He is gifted at lulling anyone guilty into a false sense of security. Often he would pursue a line of question that brings about minimal information, not pressing enough to cause the suspect any alarm. Columbo would thank the suspect, and turn to leave – only to turn back at the last second, claiming to suddenly have remembered something (stating, "Oh, there's just one more thing..." or some variant thereof), and present the suspect with a far more serious and vital question, catching the suspect off guard. In some cases this would be a contradiction to the suspect's explanation. One example was in "Candidate for Crime" when the suspect's face went pale after Columbo pointed out the hole in his explanation. This is referred to as "the false exit".
While on duty, Columbo does not drive an official LAPD car; he prefers to drive his own car, a French automobile, a 1959 Peugeot 403 convertible which is equipped with a police radio. In the earlier series, the car used was clearly royal blue at one time although faded and sun-damaged. In the later series the car seems to be "primer"-colored. Columbo says he parks his car in the shade because the sun ruins the paint. The California license plate is damaged in later episodes, but is clearly shown undamaged in episode 1 of season 1 from both the front and back as "044 APD".
Peter Falk selected the car personally, after seeing it in a parking lot at Universal Studios. In the season 5 episode "Identity Crisis", Columbo boasts that the car is a rare automobile, "only three like it in the States". From June 1956 to July 1961 only 2,050 were produced, and only 504 were produced for model year 1959. Columbo's car frequently has mechanical problems. This car can also be seen in a stock shot used at the beginning of the pilot of The Rockford Files, "The Backlash of the Hunter". The car also made an appearance in an episode of Adam-12.
In "Columbo Goes to College"(1990) he reveals that this is not his only car as his wife has a "little runaround for the shopping".
When the series returned on ABC, James and Connie Delaney of Findlay, Ohio owned the car but were unwilling to sell it, though they lent it to Universal for filming.
Seasons and broadcast history
After two pilot episodes, the show originally aired on NBC from 1971 to 1978 as one of the rotating programs of the NBC Mystery Movie. Columbo then aired more infrequently on ABC beginning in 1989 under the umbrella of The ABC Mystery Movie. The last film was broadcast in 2003 as part of ABC Thursday Night at the Movies. See List of Columbo episodes for more details. Since 2011, reruns of Columbo have aired on Me-TV; the series currently airs Sunday nights and as part of the nightly "MeTV Mystery Movie" block, which features Columbo and four other film series rotating in the slot from week to week.
Directors and writers
The first season première "Murder by the Book" was written by Steven Bochco and directed by Steven Spielberg. Jonathan Demme directed the seventh season episode "Murder Under Glass". Jonathan Latimer was also a writer. Actor Ben Gazzara, a friend of Falk's, directed the episodes "A Friend in Deed" (1974) and "Troubled Waters" (1975).
Falk himself directed the last episode of the first season, "Blueprint For Murder". Actor Nicholas Colasanto, best known for playing Coach on Cheers, directed two episodes, "Swan Song" with Johnny Cash, and "Étude in Black".
Patrick McGoohan directed five episodes (including three of the four in which he played the murderer) and wrote and produced two (including one of these). Vincent McEveety was a frequent director, and homage was paid to him by a humorous mention of a character with his surname in the episode "Undercover" (which he directed).
Columbo episodes contain a variety of music that contributes to the uniqueness of each. The score becomes of particular importance during turning points of the plots. "The Mystery Movie Theme" by Henry Mancini written for the NBC Mystery Movie was used extensively in the whole of 38 episodes, from 1971 to 1977. Unlike the other elements of the Mystery Movie wheel, Columbo never had an official theme as such, although some composers did write their own signature pieces (such as Dick DeBenedictis and Gil Mellé). Several composers created original music for the series, that was often used along with "The Mystery Movie Theme":
- Dick DeBenedictis (23 episodes, 1972–2000)
- Patrick Williams (9 episodes, 1977–92)
- Bernardo Segall (10 episodes, 1974–76)
- Billy Goldenberg (7 episodes, 1971–74)
- Gil Mellé (4 episodes, 1971–72)
- Jeff Alexander (1 episode, 1975)
- Oliver Nelson (1 episode, 1972)
- Dave Grusin (1 episode, 1968)
- Bob Prince (1 episode, 1977)
- Jonathan Tunick (1 episode, 1978)
- John Cacavas (3 episodes, 1989–91)
- James Di Pasquale (2 episodes, 1990)
- Steve Dorff (2 episodes, 1991)
- Dennis Dreith (1 episode, 1990)
- Richard Markowitz (1 episode, 1990)
- David Michael Frank (1 episode, 1990)
- Ken Jordan (1 episode, 2003)
- Jim Latham (1 episode, 2003)
Series Music department included:
- Henry Mancini – composer: "Mystery Movie" theme / "Sunday Mystery Movie" theme (38 episodes, 1971–77)
- Hal Mooney – music supervisor (27 episodes, 1972–76)
- Mike Post – composer: "Mystery Movie" theme (9 episodes, 1989–90)
Patrick Williams received two Emmy nominations for Outstanding Music Composition for a Series in 1978 (for "Try and Catch Me") and 1989 (for "Murder, Smoke and Shadows"). Billy Goldenberg was nominated in the same category in 1972 for "Lady in Waiting".
Columbo also featured an unofficial signature tune, the children's song "This Old Man". It was introduced in the episode "Any Old Port in a Storm" in 1973 and the detective can be heard humming or whistling it often in subsequent films. Peter Falk admitted that it was a melody he personally enjoyed and one day it became a part of his character. The tune was also used in various score arrangements throughout the three decades of the series, including opening and closing credits. A version of it, entitled "Columbo", was created by one of the show's composers, Patrick Williams.
Awards and nominations
|Awards and nominations|
Home video releases
As of January 10, 2012, Universal Studios Home Entertainment had released all 69 episodes of Columbo on DVD. The episodes are released in the same chronological order as they were originally broadcast. On October 16, 2012, Universal released Columbo – The Complete Series on DVD in Region 1.
Because the Columbo episodes from 1989 to 2003 were aired very infrequently, different DVD sets have been released around the world. In many Region 2 and Region 4 countries, all episodes have now been released as ten seasons, with the tenth season covering the last 14 shows from "Columbo Goes to College" (1990) to the most recent "Columbo Likes the Nightlife" (2003). However, in France, and The Netherlands (also Region 2), the DVDs were grouped differently and released as twelve seasons.
In Region 1, all episodes from seasons 8 are grouped differently; all the episodes that are originally aired on ABC were released under the title COLUMBO: The Mystery Movie Collection. Many other sites such as IMDb, had grouped the Columbo episodes into 13 seasons. To avoid confusion, all episodes here will be arranged as it is in the R2/R4 release and only episode name will be referred in this article.
|DVD name||Ep#||Region 1||Region 2||Region 4|
|Pilots||2||1968–1971||The Complete First Season||1~9||September 7, 2004||September 13, 2004||December 3, 2004|
|2||8||1972–1973||The Complete Second Season||10~17||March 8, 2005||July 18, 2005||July 13, 2005|
|3||8||1973–1974||The Complete Third Season||18~25||August 9, 2005||November 14, 2005||July 20, 2006|
|4||6||1974–1975||The Complete Fourth Season||26~31||March 14, 2006||September 18, 2006||September 19, 2006|
|5||6||1975–1976||The Complete Fifth Season||32~37||June 27, 2006||February 12, 2007||Unknown 2007|
|6||3||1976–1977||The Complete Sixth & Seventh Seasons||38~45||November 21, 2006||April 30, 2007||May 2, 2007|
|8||4||1989||The Complete Eighth Season (R2)||46~49||N/A||March 31, 2008||N/A|
|9||6||1989–1990||The Complete Ninth Season (R2/R4)||50~55||N/A||March 30, 2009||May 6, 2009|
|The Complete Tenth Season – Volume 1 (R2/R4)
The Complete Tenth Season – Volume 2 (R2/R4)
|N/A||June 15, 2009
July 27, 2009
|July 28, 2009
November 28, 2009
|Other DVD Release|
|DVD name||Ep#||Region 1||Region 2||Region 4|
|The Mystery Movie Collection 1989(R1/R4)||46~50||April 24, 2007||N/A||July 4, 2008|
|The Mystery Movie Collection 1990||51~56||February 3, 2009||N/A||N/A|
|The Mystery Movie Collection 1991–1993
||57~62||February 8, 2011||N/A||N/A|
|The Mystery Movie Collection 1994–2003
||63~69||January 10, 2012||N/A||N/A|
|Columbo: The Complete Series||1~69||October 16, 2012||October 19, 2009||N/A|
|Columbo Season 6 and 7||?||N/A||March 27, 2007||N/A|
|Columbo Season 8 and 9||?||N/A||July 24, 2007||N/A|
|Columbo Season 10 and 11||?||N/A||October 23, 2007||N/A|
|Columbo season 12||?||N/A||December 4, 2009||N/A|
To commemorate the death of Peter Falk, the complete series was released on Blu-ray in Japan as a ten-season set, taken from new HD masters and original 1.33:1 (4:3) aspect ratio (1989–2003 episodes are presented in 1.78:1 (16:9)). The set contains 35 discs and is presented in a faux-wooden cigar box. It features a brochure with episode details, and a script for the Japanese version of Prescription: Murder. Special features include the original 96-minute version of Étude In Black and the original NBC Mystery Movie title sequence. In addition, many episodes include isolated music and sound-effects tracks. Before the release of this set, only the episodes up to Murder, a Self-Portrait were released on DVD in Japan.
Seasons one through seven are available for streaming from Netflix.
In Wim Wenders' 1987 film Wings of Desire, Falk portrays "himself" and muses about his previous role as Columbo. He is addressed affectionately as "Lieutenant" by some people in the film, illustrating the character's popularity in Germany. In one scene, the character Marion played by Solveig Dommartin speaks to Falk as if he is Lt. Columbo, though they are only joking. Of course, Falk's character is eventually revealed to be a former angel, so this character may also be considered to be fictional.
The Columbo character first appeared on stage in 1962 in "Prescription: Murder" with Thomas Mitchell in the role of Columbo.
In 2010, Prescription: Murder, was revived for a tour of the United Kingdom with Dirk Benedict and later John Guerrasio as Columbo.
Falk appeared as Columbo in a faux episode of Alias produced for a 2003 TV special celebrating the 50th anniversary of ABC.
Falk appeared in character as Columbo in 1977 at The Dean Martin Celebrity Roast of Frank Sinatra.
A Columbo series of books was published by MCA Publishing in 1972 by authors Alfred Lawrence, Henry Clement and Lee Hays, mostly adapted from the TV series.
William Link, the co-creator of the series, has written a collection of Columbo short stories, entitled The Columbo Collection, which was published in May 2010 by Crippen & Landru, the specialty mystery publisher.
The Columbo character is highlighted in volume 7 of the Detective Conan manga edition of Gosho Aoyama's Mystery Library. Columbo was briefly mentioned in the anime adaptation in the episode "The Forgotten Cellphone Part 2" when Conan said one of Columbo's lines: "You know, my wife says...".
Columbo was briefly mentioned in a 1990 chapter of the long-running manga, JoJo's Bizarre Adventure, where the main character Jotaro Kujo begins to suspect the actions of a suspicious old woman. He mentions to her that he couldn't sleep at night if he had doubts, because he frequently watched Columbo as a child.
A statue of Lieutenant Columbo and his dog was unveiled in 2014 on Miksa Falk Street in Budapest, Hungary. According to Antal Rogán, then-district mayor of the city, Peter Falk may have been related to Hungarian writer and politician Miksa Falk, although there is no evidence yet to prove it.
A podcast about Columbo was launched in 2014, primarily considering episodes of the television series.
Mrs. Columbo spin-off
Mrs. Columbo, a spin-off TV series starring Kate Mulgrew, aired in 1979 and was canceled after only thirteen episodes. Lt. Columbo was never seen on Mrs. Columbo; each episode featured the resourceful Mrs. Columbo solving a murder mystery she encountered in her work as a newspaper reporter. Connections with the original Columbo series were made obvious: the glaring presence of Columbo's car in the driveway, Dog, and Mrs. Columbo emptying ashtrays containing the famous green cigar butts – all featured in the show's opening sequence. References were also made to Kate's husband being a police lieutenant.
There were also notable discrepancies between the two shows. Most visibly, Kate Mulgrew was much younger than was plausible for the role of Columbo's wife; only 24 when the Mrs. Columbo series aired, Mulgrew would have been 12 when we first saw Columbo talking about his wife in 1967's Prescription: Murder. Other discrepancies involved Mrs. Columbo having different interests and hobbies than had been previously described by the lieutenant.
Due to the negative critical and public reaction to the show, the producers made changes to Mrs. Columbo almost immediately. The spin-off was renamed Kate Columbo, followed by Kate the Detective, and finally Kate Loves a Mystery. The main character was likewise renamed "Kate Callahan"; all references to and ties with the original Columbo show were dropped. After this, a reference was made in the show to Kate's divorce: the character was no longer Mrs. Columbo nor was she meant to have any connection with him at all.