Thursday, September 15, 2011
After 40 years, I have far more than just one thing to say about Columbo
"That's me — I'm paranoid. Every time I see a dead body, I think it's murder.…But that's me. I'd like to see everyone die of old age." — Lt. Columbo, "Étude in Black" (Season 2, Episode 1)
By Edward Copeland
Actually, television audiences met Lt. Columbo three times before his series debut 40 years ago on this date as part of the NBC Mystery Movie — and the first time he wasn't even played by Peter Falk. Though most who are old enough probably remember the series as part of a Sunday night rotation with NBC's other mystery series, McMillan & Wife and McCloud, the "wheel" actually started on Wednesday nights. The troika didn't move to Sunday until the second season. As far as the Columbo character goes, actor Bert Freed first played the cigar-chomping lieutenant in an episode of NBC's The Chevy Mystery Show , a summer anthology series hosted by Walter Slezak, that aired July 31, 1960, titled "Enough Rope." William Link and Richard Levinson, the creators of the Columbo character, adapted the teleplay from a story "Dear Corpus Delicti" that they published in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine with Richard Carlson playing a murderous doctor. Two years later, the writers expanded the story into a stage play called Prescription: Murder which starred legendary Oscar-winning character actor Thomas Mitchell as Columbo with Joseph Cotten as the homicidal physician. By 1968, they decided to return Columbo to television with a movie version of Prescription: Murder. They sought Lee J. Cobb to play Columbo, but he was unavailable, but consider this frightening possibility: Their second choice was Bing Crosby. Fortunately, Bing's golf game proved more important to him than a television series and, though they thought he was too young for the part, Peter Falk won the role with Gene Barry playing the killer. They did a second TV movie, Ransom for a Dead Man, that aired in early 1971 with Lee Grant as the murderer (for which she received an Emmy nomination), and come that fall Columbo became a regular series as part of that mystery wheel and Falk's portrayal of the scruffy homicide detective with his junky car, tattered raincoat and ever-present cigar became an irreplaceable TV icon. In the first season episode "Lady in Waiting," a socialite mother (Jessie Royce Landis) arrives at her son's mansion after he's been shot to death and doesn't immediately recognize exactly who or what Lt. Columbo is. When he introduces himself as a police detective, she says, "I must say you hardly look the role." That may have been true, but no one but Peter Falk could have played the role any better.
I was too young to catch the early years in first run, but I remember how excited Henry Mancini's spooky theme music for The NBC Mystery Movie with the unknown figure waving a flashlight in all directions at whatever shows were in the rotation at the time followed by the announcer's booming voice announcing, "Tonight's episode —" It always punctured my balloon if he finished his statement with McMillan & Wife, McCloud or even Hec Ramsey. Thankfully, in this example, it is Columbo.
If you have never seen an episode of Columbo (and if that's the case, I must ask what the hell you've been doing with your life), you needn't worry that for a mystery series I'm being so carefree in identifying the various killers because what made Link & Levinson's creation (in this case the series, not the detective) so great was that you know from the outset who the murderer is. Spoiler alerts aren't necessary here because Columbo begins by showing the culprit plotting and carrying out his and her crime and Falk's intrepid homicide detective doesn't show up until later to play cat-and-mouse with the killer. In the first season, the movies (which, in essence, is what they were more than a series) ran 90 minutes with commercials while in later seasons they alternated between 90 minute and two hour installments. Sometimes, Columbo didn't turn up until as late as 30 minutes into the show. In the first episode when Columbo was a regularly scheduled series, "Murder By the Book," Falk's lieutenant first appears as a faint figure at the end of an office hallway as he approaches the wife (Rosemary Forsyth) of apparently kidnapped and possibly dead mystery writer Jim Ferris (Martin Milner), who is getting a drink from a water fountain. It's about 15 minutes into the story and the audience already knows that Ferris' soon-to-be-ex-writing partner Ken Franklin (Jack Cassidy) has lured Jim to his lakeside cabin, killed him and staged the entire kidnapping. Cassidy will be one of the show's favorite actors to cast as a killer: he'll play the villain two more times. Others in this rogues gallery include Robert Culp (three times as a murderer, once as the father of a murderer) and Patrick McGoohan (a killer four times, taking home Emmys for two of them; he also directed five episodes, one of which he wrote). It's also one of several Columbo mysteries that involve writers. Most interesting of all, the series premiere was written by the show's story editor at the time, Steven Bochco, who would go on to co-create Hill Street Blues, and was directed by a 24-year-old kid named Steven Spielberg.
Many directors whose names you'd recognize helmed a Columbo, though no one else who'd become a Spielberg. The other director who would probably go on to the most notable career would be Jonathan Demme, who directed an installment in its seventh season. Many known better for their acting gave it a try as well as some whose names might not ring a bell but who did direct some interesting features such as Jack Smight (No Way to Treat a Lady), Boris Sagal (The Omega Man), Richard Quine (My Sister Eileen, The Solid Gold Cadillac), Robert Butler (The Barefoot Executive, The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes), Jeannot Szwarc (Somewhere in Time), Ted Post (Hang 'em High, Magnum Force) and James Frawley (The Muppet Movie). Other writers who would pass through included the prolific Stephen J. Cannell, Dean Hargrove, who went on to create or co-create The Father Dowling Mysteries and Matlock, and Larry Cohen who would go on to write and direct such quirky horror films as It's Alive and Q.
While the two previous made-for-TV movies had set the basic mold for what a Columbo mystery would be, it truly wasn't until it became a regular network fixture that Falk could really cut loose as the lieutenant and the show could become a comedy as much as it was about catching the bad guy. That's really why I think Tony Shalhoub's Monk gets compared to Columbo so often — it's not because Columbo has a mental disorder but because Columbo and Monk both emphasize comedic elements. In fact, Monk tends to be more dramatic than Columbo with Monk's underlying mourning for his murdered wife while Columbo just got funnier the longer it went on. "Murder By the Book" really sets the template for the entire series and even if you have no interest in Columbo, it's fascinating to watch just as one of Spielberg's earliest credits. "Murder By the Book" opens with the sound of typing (sigh…typewriters) while the visual shows a car driving down an L.A. street. We soon see that Milner's Jim Ferris busily types away. On the wall, (Homage to Rear Window or not? You decide.) are plaques, painting and photos charting the partnership of Ferris and Ken Franklin (Cassidy). As the typing continues to be the only sound, the car we're watching pulls into the building's garage and parks on the roof. A hand reaches inside the glove compartment and removes a gun. A man exits the car and shuts the door and we see it is Franklin whom Spielberg films at a low angle as credits continue. The director throughout the episode uses a lot more adventurous angles and quick cuts than I've seen from him in years, but he was young and trying to gain notice. Upstairs, something only a grammarian or a copy editor would notice — Ferris types a quote but places the period outside the quotation mark. It turns out the gun was a joke — it's not even loaded — and he's not wearing gloves. Franklin was just trying a good-natured ruse to show Ferris that there aren't any hard feelings about severing their partnership and asks him Jim to his lakeside cabin near San Diego to mark the end of a fruitful relationship. Ferris doesn't know that it also will mark the end of his life.
It's obvious why they would re-team Falk with an actor such as Jack Cassidy more than once because some performers' chemistry with Falk's Columbo reached a perfection that you expect came from a lab and since the interplay between the lieutenant and the killer drove the show, why not go back to a proven winner as they did with Cassidy, who would return in seasons 3 and 5. He might have appeared again if he hadn't fallen asleep with a lit cigarette and died in 1976, 10 months after his third Columbo aired. Cassidy excelled at what was the most common Columbo scenario — a villain who's not only a killer, but a snob. In most cases, class comes into play with the murderer always assuming he or she is smarter and better than that rumpled lieutenant, but no one plays dumb on purpose better than this detective so when he makes the case on the cultured killer, they inevitably are surprised that this little man in the tattered raincoat, always seeming to be forgetful and driving that Peugeot 403 convertible that looks as if it could crumble into a million pieces at any moment beat them. In "Murder By the Book," it takes 35 minutes for Columbo to say his first, "There is one more thing." The comic highlight, harbinger of many to come in the series, occurs as Ken Franklin is being interviewed by a magazine writer and her photographer tries to take photos of him while in the background Falk does some great slapstick as Columbo, juggles an armful of books, cigar stuck in his mouth, looking for a place to put the books down.
The second episode of its first season had another three-time killer, Robert Culp, as Brimmer, the head of a big private investigation agency hired by Ray Milland to find out if his much younger wife (Patricia Crowley) is cheating on him in "Death Lends a Hand," which won Columbo creators Levinson & Link the Emmy for outstanding writing in a drama series, the only writing Emmy the series ever received though it earned a lot of nominations in that category. Brimmer proves she did, but lies (with the wife in a nearby room) and says she's faithful. She asks why he would do such a thing. "Oddly enough, I'm a moralist," he tells her. So moral that he lied to her husband to hold the truth over her head so she can feed him information about her husband's powerful friends and business interests. She balks, saying she'll expose the private eye instead and he kills her in a rage — the cleanup and coverup of which gets wonderfully filmed as reflections in the lenses of Culp's glasses. He stages her death to look like she was robbed and dumped in a vacant lot. Some interesting facts about L.A. life in 1971: 187 already was the police code for a homicide and when Brimmer tries to woo Columbo to take a job at his agency, Columbo learns a top position there can pull in $30,000 a year. That doesn't seem like much and in the first episode of season two, Columbo says his salary is $11,000 a year, which is the start of the poverty line for a single person today and the oft-mentioned Mrs. Columbo is a housewife. When they tried to spin her off in the form of Kate Mulgrew when Columbo ended the first time in 1978, she had a part-time job writing for a weekly neighborhood newspaper, until they decided to change her name to Callahan and forget that she was supposed to be related to Columbo at all (though at the start of Mrs. Columbo she even took their unnamed basset hound Dog with her).
Falk won the first of his four Emmys (out of 11 nominations) for playing Columbo for that first season. The sole time the show won an Emmy for best series, it actually was shared ith the other NBC Mystery Movie members for outstanding limited series. Throughout its two runs (the original NBC run from 1971-78 and the ABC return from 1989-2003), it earned 38 Emmy nominations and won 11 awards. Because of the shared time slot, it also meant shorter seasons than a regular series. Where a normal network show would be producing around 26 episodes a year at that time, Columbo only had seven installments in season one. Some of the other actors who played killers that year were Eddie Albert, Ross Martin, Susan Clark (in "Lady in Waiting" which featured Leslie Nielsen when he could still play it straight and was directed by veteran actor Norman Lloyd, who fell off the Statue of Liberty in Hitchcock's Saboteur and would play Dr. Auschlander on St. Elsewhere), Patrick O'Neal, who played a homicidal architect in "Blueprint for Murder," the only Columbo episode that Falk directed himself, and perhaps most fun of all, Roddy McDowall in an episode titled "Short Fuse." Did you hear the one about the exploding cigar? You will in "Short Fuse," where we also learn aboute Columbo's famous fear of heights. Because McDowall's character Roger Stanford is a playboy and a prankster (oh — and there is that murder), he does fool around with things such as those cans that spray strings of sticky colored plastic. When Columbo snoops around his darkroom, he accidentally sets it off on himself and an entire scene consists of McDowall picking the goo out of Falk's hair.
As I mentioned when I sadly had to write my appreciation of Peter Falk when he passed away in late June, there was much more to the actor than just Lt. Columbo, as great and iconic as Columbo is. Between the time he made his first Columbo movie Prescription: Murder and prior to filming his second Ransom for a Dead Man and beginning the series, Falk began another important creative relationship — with John Cassavetes. The two actually had worked as actors in 1969 first in the Italian gangster flick Machine Gun McCain, which also featured Gena Rowlands but didn't open in the U.S. until October 1970. The important film they made together though was Husbands (subtitled A Comedy About Life, Death and Freedom) that was written and directed by Cassavetes and co-starred Ben Gazzara. Falk became a vital part of Cassavetes' unofficial repertory company appearing in A Woman Under the Influence, Opening Night (as himself) and Big Trouble. The two also co-starred in Elaine May's Mikey and Nicky. The Cassavetes troupe all played with Falk on Columbo in some capacity. Rowlands appeared as the wife of a killer, Gazzara directed two episodes and Cassavetes starred as the killer in the second season premiere, "Étude in Black," one of the series' best episodes thanks to chemistry these two fine actors already had with one another.
Cassavetes plays gifted conductor and composer Alex Benedict who kills his pianist mistress (Anjanette Comer) after she threatens to tell his wife Janice (Blythe Danner) about their affair if he doesn't leave her. Benedict tries to make it look like a suicide, but Columbo sees through the ruse rather quickly. He and Mrs. Columbo also are big fans of Benedict, who is prepping a big concert at the Hollywood Bowl. The scenes between Cassavetes and Falk prove positively electric as their relationship switches from a killer who thinks Columbo's swooning will save him until he figures out that the lieutenant actually has more on the ball than he ever suspected and he starts challenging the cop to find the evidence. The episode has time for laughs as well as Benedict stumbles upon Columbo waiting for him on stage at the Hollywood Bowl playing "Chopsticks" on a concert piano. The cast also includes Myrna Loy as his mother-in-law and patron of the orchestra, concerned over the P.R. when another member of the orchestra who was the murdered woman's ex-boyfriend turns out to have a criminal past. Benedict defends the musician, telling the woman who played Nora Charles that it's not like she didn't drink gin during Prohibition. This excellent episode was written by Bochco from a story by Levinson & Link and was directed by none other Nicholas Colasanto, best known as Coach on Cheers. This also is the episode where Columbo gets the basset hound that he never bothers to give a name.
For a network series to have more good episodes than bad, especially when it involves a set formula that they didn't tinker with much, Columbo truly stands as a monumental television achievement. Of course, I refer only to NBC years from 1971-1978. In a way, they had the luxury that cable series have now by not having to deliver so many episodes a year. While they call it seven seasons, it only adds up to 45 episodes. The sixth season only produced three episodes and no season made more than eight. In a way, it was the Curb Your Enthusiasm of mystery shows: A formula and a limited number of shows per season. When ABC revived Columbo in 1989, they tried originally to pair it with other mysteries, but they all eventually flopped and it just turned into occasional movies. Some were OK, but they had a hard time getting worthy killers except for the two appearances by McGoohan and had some silly outing where Columbo went undercover in disguise with accents and one where there wasn't even a murder but a kidnapping. Faye Dunaway won a guest actress Emmy for what really was a controversial one, "It's All in the Game," because Columbo purposely lets the killer get away because of the victim's loathsomeness. They had two seasons where they were regularly scheduled between 1989 and 1991 and then just TV movies. They made 24 in all.
However, those first 45, I could go on about them all. While it wasn't unusual in the NBC version to have killers who turned out to be more sympathetic than their victims, Columbo still took them to jail. Donald Pleasence's wine maker in "Any Old Port in a Storm" may be the best example. His playboy half-brother plans to sell the vineyards to another wine company, taking away his pride and joy and he kills him in a rage. He also was one of the few cultured characters who didn't look down on Columbo. When his longtime secretary (Julie Harris) figures out his guilt, she proposes he marry her to keep her quiet. Columbo solves the crime first and he gratefully confesses — finding prison preferable to marriage. "Freedom is purely relative," he tells Columbo, who brings out a special bottle of wine when he arrests him, which his high tastes approve. "You learn very well, lieutenant," he says. "Thank you, sir. That's about the nicest thing anyone has said to me," Columbo responds. All the Jack Cassidy episodes are great, but in the second outing, "Publish or Perish," it's neat to see him play a book publisher losing his biggest author and that they cast Mickey Spillane in the part. The episode also sends Columbo to Chasen's to interview some people and has the high-scale eatery whip him up some chili. Director Robert Butler also includes an imaginative triple split screen that shows Spillane's character at work dictating his book while the hired killer approaches down a hall and Cassidy is elsewhere, establishing his alibi. "Swan Song" from the third season proves to be another favorite of mine with probably the most unusual casting choice for a killer ever — Johnny Cash. He plays a gospel singer blackmailed by his controlling shrew of a wife (Ida Lupino) and turns in a solid acting performance. Cash's character drugs Lupino and a young girl singer that he had sex with when she was underage so he drugs the two of them when they are flying to the next concert site and bails out of the plane, making it look like a simple plane crash. As Columbo investigates, an air crash investigator asks Columbo if he flies. "My ears pop in an elevator. In fact, I don't even like being this tall," he replies. I can't leave out Patrick McGoohan, always great, but of his four I think his first episode, the one that got him the first Emmy, "By Dawn's Early Light," ranks first. His strict commandant at a boys' military academy would be a great performance on any series. Some of the best guest killers whose episodes I didn't have time or space to mention in detail (original 45 only): Anne Baxter, Leonard Nimoy, Laurence Harvey, Martin Landau (as twins), Vera Miles, Jackie Cooper, José Ferrer, Richard Kiley, Robert Conrad, Robert Vaughn, Janet Leigh, Hector Elizondo, Ricardo Montalban, William Shatner, Theodore Bikel, Ruth Gordon, Louis Jourdan and Nicol Williamson.
If I had to pick, the fourth season episode "Negative Reaction" might be my favorite Columbo of them all. Written by Peter S. Fischer, who would later create Murder, She Wrote and directed by Alf Kjelllin, it cast Dick Van Dyke against type as an asshole and a killer — even if what little we saw of his wife (Antoinette Bower) made it appear as if she had it coming. Van Dyke plays Paul Gallesko, an acclaimed photographer reduced to shooting portraits because he's under the thumb of his wife. He fakes her kidnapping and gets a recently released ex-con named Alvin Deschler (Don Gordon) he met while chronicling San Quentin to photograph possible houses for him to buy, unaware that Gallesko is setting him up to be the fall guy and eventually kills him and shoots himself in a faked ransom exchange gone awry. What makes "Negative Reaction" so great in addition to Van Dyke being a bad guy is that it also may be the funniest Columbo as well. When the lieutenant arrives in the beat-up Peugot at the junkyard where it was staged, he passes a sign that says "WE BUY JUNK CARS." It seems that Gallesko had an unexpected witness — a drunk bum played by character actor Vito Scotti who appeared in six episodes in vastly different parts. (In "Swan Song," he was a funeral director trying to sell Columbo on post-life planning.) After he gets sobered up and gives his statement, the police let him slip away and Columbo has to track him down at a Catholic mission where a nun (Joyce Van Patten, who will return in a later episode as a killer) mistakes Columbo as a homeless person and tries to find him a new coat and gets him a bowl of stew. Columbo keeps trying to explain that he's not homeless, but the nun replies, "No false pride between friends." When he finally finds the bum and talks with him, the nun returns with a coat and tries to take his and Columbo finally says, "I appreciate what you're doing ma'am, but I've had this coat for seven years and I'm very fond of it" and shows her his badge. The nun assumes he's undercover and compliments his disguise and promises not to blow his cover. Gallesko certainly isn't as friendly as the nun every time Columbo pops up to dig. "You're like a little shaggy-haired terrier. You've got a grip on my trousers and you won't let go. I can't turn around without you looking up at me with that blank innocent expression on your face," Gallesko growls. One of the other things that bothers Columbo is that Deschler was taking cabs everywhere until the last day, the day of the supposed ransom exchange, when he suddenly rented a car. It would have been a lot less expensive to rent a car earlier than taking all these cab rides, but then it dawns on the detective: He didn't have a driver's license yet. Columbo goes to the DMV to check it out and it turns out the man who gave him the driving test that day, Mr. Weekly (Larry Storch), is stuck out on a street because a car broke down. Columbo goes and picks him up to see if he can identify Deschler, but Mr. Weekly keeps being distracted over worries about the safety of Columbo's car and his reckless driving. It's a hysterical scene — and they chose to break for this bit of comedy with only 14 minutes left. On top of everything else, "Negative Reaction" contains one of those classic endings where Columbo tricks the killer by using his own arrogance against him to give himself away. That's why this YouTube clip of conductor Alex Benedict's parting words to Lt. Columbo sum him and his series up.
Labels: Bochco, Cassavetes, Demme, Dunaway, Falk, Ferrer, Hitchcock, Joseph Cotten, Landau, Lee J. Cobb, Loy, Lupino, Nielsen, Nimoy, Pleasence, Ruth Gordon, Shatner, Spielberg, T. Mitchell, TV Tribute
You have one error in the article. The secretary in the Donald Pleasance episode was not Eva Marie Saint. She was Julie Harris.
Other episodes, such as the kidnapping or the Ed Begley Jr. one in which he went undercover broke the mold a bit, but had enough fun in them to keep me entertained.
You're right, Ed, in that the ones with Dick Van Dyke and Donald Pleasance are great. The one with Leonard Nimoy as a wicked doctor, a "A Stitch in Crime" I believe it's called, is also one of my favorites (it features one of those rare occasions where Columbo shows a display of temper as he shows his cards to the suspect). The one with Ruth Gordon as a mystery writer who is avenging the murder of her daughter at the hands of her son-in-law ("Try and Catch Me" it's called) is a wonderful one. Particularly a scene in which Columbo makes a very honest speech about his job it to a club of women.
If I had to pick a favorite funny moment, though, from a Columbo mystery, it would be in "An Exercise in Fatality" wherein Columbo deals with the frustration of state bureaucracy and modern technology in the span of five minutes. He goes to a government building to see if a particular person worked there, is told he can't bring in is cigar (even unlit) and ends up not only waiting forever for the information he needs but being treated quite horribly by the woman behind the counter. He then makes a phone call and ends up leaving a hilariously robotic-sounding message on an answering machine and then retrieves his cigar from the ashtray before leaving the building. It's hysterical.
My wife and I have been watching Columbo on Netflix streaming lately. They hold up amazingly well. Great stuff.
I don't mind when that format is altered so long as the characters are interesting and the dialogue and situations are fun. But in my view, Falk was exaggerating Columbo's eccentricities far too much in the Commodore episode-to the point of self-parody.
And while there were a few scenes that were amusing or interesting-Wilfred Hyde-White mentioning his motel rendezvous comes to mind-the rest of it played pretty much like a standard whodunit with no one character particularly interesting. Part of the fun in Columbo was the interaction between Columbo and the killer, a feature missing in the "Commodore".
As an aside, the Louis Jordan one is another favorite. "That's the damnedest example of good citizenship I've ever seen" (or something like that).
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