Columbo (TV series)

Columbo (TV series)

Infobox Television
show_name = Columbo

caption = Peter Falk as Lt. Columbo
format = Television movie Mystery Police procedural
camera = Single-camera
picture_format = Film
audio_format = Monaural Stereophonic Sound
runtime = 30 x 73 minutes
39 x 98 minutes
creator = Richard Levinson
William Link
starring = Peter Falk
country = United States
language = English
network = NBC
first_aired = February 20, 1968
last_aired = January 30, 2003
num_episodes = 69
list_episodes = List of Columbo episodes
tv_com_id = 1011

"Columbo" is an American crime fiction TV series, starring Peter Falk as Lieutenant Columbo, a homicide detective with the Los Angeles Police Department. The show popularized the inverted detective story format; almost every episode began by showing the commission of the crime and its perpetrator. The character first appeared in a 1960 episode of the television-anthology series "The Chevy Mystery Show". This was adapted into a stage play, and a TV-movie based on the play was broadcast, in 1968, as the pilot for a series. The series began on a Sunday presentation of the "NBC Mystery Movie" rotation, which included "McCloud," "McMillan & Wife," and other whodunits. The series spawned a similar format on Wednesday nights with fare such as, "The Snoop Sisters," "Hec Ramsey," and "Banacek." "Columbo" aired regularly on NBC from 1971 to 1978, and sporadically on ABC from 1989 to 2003. Fact|date: September 15 2008|date=September 2008

Columbo is a scruffy-looking cop who is usually underestimated by his fellow officers, and by the murderer "du jour". Despite his appearance and superficial absentmindedness, he solves all of his cases and manages to come up with the evidence needed for indictment.


Police Lieutenant Columbo is a shabbily-dressed, seemingly slow-witted police detective (once described as rumpled, but loveable) whose fumbling, overly polite manner makes him an unlikely choice to solve "any" crime, let alone a complex murder. However, as the perpetrators eventually learn, appearances can be deceptive -- Columbo actually only uses his deferential and absent-minded persona to lull them into a false sense of security. Columbo often engages the suspect's assistance in his investigations, using their connection to the crime as a basis for their insights in his investigations; while they believe they are steering him away from the truth, they are actually confirming their own culpability. Columbo solves the case by paying close attention to tiny inconsistencies in the suspect's story, and by relentlessly hounding the suspect (with increasing forcefulness as time goes on) until he or she ends up confessing to the crime or otherwise by clearly doing something which establishes guilt.

Columbo's signature interrogation technique is to politely conclude an interview with a suspect and exit the scene... but to then stop in the doorway (or even return a moment later from outside) and ask the suspect "just one more thing" or "there's just one thing that bothers me, sir." The "one more thing" always brings to light the key inconsistency in the suspect's alibi. When the suspect tries to explain it away, the explanation either does not make much sense or Columbo would then torpedo it with a nonrefutable rebuttal.

:A prime example would be "Candidate for Crime" when Columbo points out the inconsistency in the time of death of the victim. The call to the police was recorded at around 9:23pm. The victim's watch which was smashed put the time of death at around 9:20pm establishing the suspect's alibi as being at home with his wife and friends at that time. (He had actually been murdered an hour earlier.)

:Columbo discovered that the nearest pay phone which was at a local gas station was actually seven minutes' driving time. So the suspect came up with a logical explanation, that the victim liked to set his watch five minutes forward so that he would never be late, making the time of death at about 9:15pm giving the killer enough time to smoke a cigarette and find a pay phone. Columbo said it was logical except the phone was "inside" the gas station and that it had closed early that day about two hours earlier.

In the end most of the killers either stand stunned when they are caught or even go so far as to congratulate Columbo himself for solving the case. On at least three occasions the killer tries to kill Columbo as in "Lady in Waiting", "Murder under Glass", or "Rest in Peace, Mrs. Columbo". In several cases, the killer hands Columbo his prized possessions, such as in "A Matter of Honor".

The character of Columbo was created by Richard Levinson and William Link, who claimed that Columbo was partially inspired by the "Crime and Punishment" character Porfiry Petrovich as well as G. K. Chesterton's humble clerical detective Father Brown. Other sources claim Columbo's character is based on Inspector Fichet from the classic French suspense-thriller "Les Diaboliques" (1955).Fact|date=September 2007

History of the character

The Columbo character first appeared, portrayed by Bert Freed, in a 1960 episode of the television anthology series "The Chevy Mystery Show" entitled "Enough Rope". This episode was adapted into a 1962 stage play called "Prescription: Murder" with Thomas Mitchell in the role of Columbo. "Prescription: Murder" then became a made-for-TV movie in 1968, with Peter Falk as Columbo. Falk continued in the role when the TV series began in 1971, and played the role until 2003.

Bert Freed as Columbo

The character of Columbo first appeared in 1960 in an episode of the NBC anthology series "The Chevy Mystery Show", where he was played by Bert Freed, a character actor with a thatchy grey mane of hair. The episode, entitled "Enough Rope", was adapted by Levinson and Link from their short story "May I Come In" (originally entitled "Dear Corpus Delicti"), in which the character of Columbo did not appear. Link's name was listed first in the billing for the writers at the beginning of the show.

Freed wore a rumpled suit and smoked a cigar to play Columbo, but played the part somewhat straighter than either of his two successors in the role, with few of the familiar Columbo mannerisms. However, the character is still recognizably Columbo and uses some of the same methods of misdirection on his prey. 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. There is one particularly visible mistake in the live telecast (aside from the usual constant boom microphone shadows), with a momentarily flustered Columbo introducing himself to a receptionist as "Dr. Columbo", but she magically deduces that he's actually "Lt. Columbo" when she notifies her supervisor.

Although Bert Freed received third billing, he wound up with almost as much screen time as the killer, once he appeared immediately after the first commercial, several minutes into the show (more or less exactly the same formula used in most of the later Falk shows). Unlike many live television shows, this one continues to exist and is available for viewing in the archives of the Museum of Television and Radio in New York and Los Angeles.

Thomas Mitchell as Columbo

The "Enough Rope" teleplay in turn was adapted into a stage play called "Prescription: Murder" with revered character actor Thomas Mitchell in the role; the 70-year-old Mitchell had previously played the drunken Doc in John Ford's "Stagecoach" (1939), for which he won an Academy Award, as well as Scarlett O'Hara's father in "Gone with the Wind" that same year, and also portrayed the absent-minded Uncle Billy in Frank Capra's "It's a Wonderful Life" (1946). The stage production starred two veterans of Orson Welles's Mercury Theatre and "Citizen Kane": Joseph Cotten as the murderer and Agnes Moorehead as the victim.

Up to this point the writers had regarded Columbo as only a supporting role, but with Mitchell playing the part they soon found that he was deftly stealing attention away from the stars. Mitchell died of cancer while the play was touring in out-of-town tryouts; Columbo was his last role.

Peter Falk as Columbo

Finally, the play was made into a two-hour television movie that aired on NBC in 1968. Mitchell had died, and the writers suggested Lee J. Cobb and Bing Crosby for the role of Columbo, but Cobb was unavailable and Crosby turned it down. Director Richard Irving convinced Dick Levinson and Bill Link that Falk, who wanted the role, could pull it off even though he was much younger than the writers had in mind.

The first pilot, entitled "Prescription: Murder", has Falk's Columbo pitted against a psychiatrist, played by Gene Barry (star of the TV series "Burke's Law"), whose alibi Columbo breaks. The second pilot, made in 1971, is entitled "Ransom For a Dead Man", with Lee Grant playing the killer, who is also caught by Columbo.

The first pilot's script suffered from a number of conceptual flaws, and was not picked up for a series. In particular, Columbo himself did not appear until a quarter of the way through the two-hour show, after a lengthy and complex build-up to the murder, which, unfortunately, establishes the handsome and popular tv star Gene Barry as a sympathetic figure. Columbo's character in this first pilot, by contrast, is too cold and hard-bitten. He in fact harasses the principal witness and actually frightens her into co-operating with the police. The audience's sympathies were thus too much with the murderer instead of with the detective, which was not a sound basis on which to build a series.

However, the popularity of the second pilot 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". The Network hedged its bet by arranging for the "Columbo" segments to air once a month on Wednesday nights. "Columbo" was an immediate hit in the Nielsen ratings and Falk won an Emmy Award for his role in the show's first year, with the character quickly becoming an icon on American television. In its second year the "Mystery Movie" series was moved to Sunday nights, where it then remained, running in all for seven seasons. The show became the anchor of NBC's Sunday night line up; and a fixture of the Network's programming scheme of the period to (in the days before hundreds of cable channel choices) hold viewers in a fixed time slot each week even though their favored show did not air weekly. After its cancellation by NBC in 1978 "Columbo" was revived on ABC between 1989 and 2003 in occasional made-for-tv movies.

Columbo's wardrobe was provided by Peter Falk himself; they were his own clothes. ["Just One More Thing" by Peter Falk, 2006]

Peter Falk would often ad-lib "Columbo-isms" (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, etcetera), inserting these into his performance as a way to keep his fellow actors off-balance. He felt it helped to make the confused and impatient reactions of their characters to Columbo's antics more genuine.

Columbo's car

Lt Columbo's battered car is a 1959 Peugeot 403 Cabriolet convertible, which Falk selected personally, after seeing it in a parking lot at Universal Studios. [ Peugeot official history] ] When Columbo boasts that it's a rare automobile, he isn't kidding: from June 1956 to July 1961 only 2,050 were produced, [ [ Peugeot 403 page] ] and only 504 were produced for model year 1959. [ [ Classic Cars: Peugeot 403] ] In the episode "Identity Crisis", Columbo tells the murderer that his is one of only three in the country.

Columbo wrecks the car at least four times: in "Make Me a Perfect Murder" when he t-bones one police car and is hit from behind by another while trying to repair his rear view mirror; in "A Matter of Honor" when he rear-ends another car; in "Caution: Murder Can Be Hazardous to Your Health" when it takes him three tries to crash into the killer's car; and in "Old Fashioned Murder" when he crashes into the back of a police car as he arrives at the murder scene. He also has many other problems with the car. [ [ see this site for a complete history] ]

During the show's initial run on NBC, the licence number was 044-APD. The car was sold after cancellation of the series, and when the show resurfaced on ABC in 1989 the car was found in Ohio] and received a new licence plate number, 448-DBZ.

eries format

The series is noted by TV critics and historians for the way it reversed the cliché of the standard whodunit mystery. "TV Guide" has referred to the basic plot structure as a"howcatchem", though it is more properly known as an inverted detective story, a subgenre created by British writer Richard Austin Freeman.

In a typical murder mystery, the identity of the murderer is not revealed until the climax of the story, and the hero uncovers clues pointing to the killer. In most episodes of "Columbo", the audience sees the crime unfold at the beginning and knows exactly who did it and how it was done; the "mystery", from the audience's perspective, is spotting the clues that will lead Columbo to discover and expose the killer's guilt. This allows the story to unfold from the criminal's point of view, rather than that of the detective. In some episodes, Columbo does not even appear until as late as 30 minutes into the story, the preceding time being taken up depicting the complex nature of the crime, including the history between the killer and the victim.

However, there are interesting exceptions to this. For instance in the episode "Double Shock" (Season 2, Episode 8) the story begins in the usual manner, but as the plot unfolds the murderer is revealed to have an identical twin with an equal motive to commit the murder, leaving the audience uncertain as to the identity of the killer.

A "Columbo" mystery therefore tends to be driven by the characters, rather than by technical procedures or the gathering of clues. The audience observe the criminal's reaction to the ongoing investigation, and to the increasingly intrusive presence of Lt. Columbo. Initially Columbo's personality and manners are disarming and non-intimidating, so that the killer feels safe and 'helps' Columbo with his investigation (but in so doing, frequently backs himself into a corner by building up too detailed an alibi). Inevitably, the murderer discovers too late that the Lieutenant is not nearly as simple-minded or scatterbrained as he appears; and the murderer's level of irritation, arrogance or panic escalates as the noose begins to tighten.

Columbo typically manipulates the killer into incriminating himself, often using extremely unorthodox and unpredictable methods. This unpredictability and the quirky mannerisms of Columbo – which are partly his natural personality, partly an affectation to give him an edge in his investigations – are part of the attraction of the series.

In several instances, the killer is more sympathetic than the victim, mostly in episodes where the killer is a woman (such as Ruth Gordon's avenging mystery writer, Janet Leigh's mentally ill diva, and Vera Miles' besieged industrialist), but also including Donald Pleasence's vintner. Never again, however, would the series repeat the mistake of the first pilot in making the killer more sympathetic than the Lieutenant himself.

Columbo rarely displays anger toward the (usually well-to-do) suspects; and 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 suspect.

By the same token, Columbo rarely carries a gun, and is never required to exercise physical force. When the final arrest comes, the killer always goes quietly (though at least two suspects try to kill Columbo in the end, only to find their means of doing so has been circumvented by him beforehand). However, he will drop his usual disarming act and become openly aggressive and intimidating if the circumstances require it.

A telling example of this comes late in 1973's "A Stitch in Crime," in which a surgeon has intentionally botched an operation to replace a colleague's defective heart valve by using the wrong type of sutures, to ensure that he would appear to die of an unrelated heart attack at a later date. Columbo realizes that the only way to save the man's life is to manipulate the surgeon into performing another surgery. When his efforts prove futile, Columbo drops the facade, reveals all of his cards, and angrily promises that if the patient dies, the body would be immediately seized and autopsied to collect the evidence required to put the doctor in jail.

The episodes are all movie-length, between 70 and 100 minutes long, excluding commercials. The series was and remains very popular in Britain, where the similarity to the British model of the drawing-room mystery was much appreciated, as was the use of several British guest stars (in the original series). However, most British fans find the episode "Dagger Of The Mind", which finds Columbo on placement with Scotland Yard, to be cliched and embarrassing; on one UK TV screening on "Channel 5", a sarcastic warning was made beforehand about it containing "mild violence, and very dodgy British accents". Falk is on record (in Mark Dawidziak's book "The Columbo Phile") as disliking the episode himself.

Peter Falk, who played Columbo, has a glass eye and it remained a mystery for 25 years whether this glass eye "played the part of a real eye" (i.e. did the character, as opposed to the actor, have one or two eyes), until 1997's "Columbo: A Trace of Murder", where upon asking another character to revisit the crime scene with him he jokes: “You know, three eyes are better than one.”

Columbo's wife

During the first incarnation of the series, between 1971 and 1978, it was widely believed in Hollywood that Columbo's "wife" was a fictional ploy used only for conversation with his prey, and that the character actually lived alone in a furnished room. Falk is reported in magazine profiles to have strongly believed this.

However, in the episode "Troubled Waters" other characters describe meeting and speaking to Mrs. Columbo, though she never appears on screen. In three further 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 her. And in the episode "Identity Crisis" the character played by Patrick McGoohan bugs Columbo's home and learns her favorite piece of music.

In the episode "Rest in Peace, Mrs. Columbo", Columbo's unseen wife is herself targeted by a deranged killer (played by 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 called Rita. This episode is to some extent an extended joke with the audience, in which we are teased as to whether or not Mrs. Columbo has actually been murdered. It also teases the audience by featuring prominently displayed photographs of Mrs. Columbo, apparently finally disclosing her appearance to viewers. However, for a very important reason in the storyline, the photos turn out not to be of Columbo's wife after all.

Psychologically, the audience came to want the mystery of Mrs. Columbo to be the one mystery the series never solved. She was an element of the show's format, as important to the series as Columbo's shabby raincoat, ancient car, and extraordinary hound dog.

After cancellation of the original "Columbo" series in 1978, Mrs. Columbo was the lead character in a TV detective series of the same name, in which she was played by Kate Mulgrew (later of ) (see below).

Peter Falk's real-life wife, Shera Danese, appeared in six "Columbo" episodes in various roles.

Guest contributions


Steven Spielberg and Jonathan Demme each directed episodes of the show during its first run. Jonathan Latimer and Steven Bochco were once writers.

Ben Gazzara directed episodes "Troubled Waters" (1975) and "A Friend in Deed" (1974).

Peter Falk himself directed the last episode of the 1st season, "Blueprint For Murder".

Nicholas Colasanto, who acted in "Raging Bull" and "Cheers" (as Coach), directed some episodes, including "Swan Song" with Johnny Cash. However, "Étude in Black", which is credited to Colasanto, was actually co-directed by its co-stars John Cassavetes and Peter Falk as a favor to their friend Colasanto. This has given rise to the false rumor that Cassavetes sometimes directed under the pseudonym Nicholas Colasanto.

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).

Guest stars

"Columbo" was noted for its high-profile guest stars. Frequently, viewers were treated to seeing their favorite film and television stars as either the murderer or victim. See miscellaneous (below) for actors who played other roles, such as friends, relatives, witnesses, etc., rather than murderers or victims.

Noted actors appearing on "Columbo" include:

ee also

*Furuhata Ninzaburo


Dawidziak, Mark. "The Columbo Phile: A Casebook." The Mysterious Press, 1989.


External links

* [ Ultimate Columbo Site]
* []
* [ Ultimate Columbo Site: article about $300 million lawsuit over Columbo's first name]
* [ Peter Falk's website]
* [ Encyclopedia of Television]
* [ Columbo on DVD]
* [ 'Columbo: Just One More Thing' - BBC Radio 4]
* [ 'I'm just another cop, my name is Columbo']
* [,M1 'COLUMBO: Perchance to Dream' - A script for an episode that was never made]

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