is a popular detective series featuring Peter Falk as Lieutenant
Columbo. The character (who never had a first name), and the series
are a creation of the writing/producing team of Richard Levinson
and William Link. Columbo ran as a television series from
1971 to 1978, but the character had appeared in a short story, a
live-television broadcast, and a stage play before making his first
network television appearance in the Made-For-Television Movie Prescription:
Murder (1968). Originally written for Bing Crosby, the Columbo role
went to Falk when Crosby opted not to end his retirement.
The series' original run was not in weekly hour-long episodes, but
as a 90-minute "spoke" in the NBC Mystery Movie "wheel" concept:
each week, one of three different series was shown on a rotating
basis. Columbo was interspersed with McMillan & Wife (starring
Rock Hudson and Susan Saint James), and McCloud (starring
Dennis Weaver. This suited Falk and the producers just fine since
the pace of production would be much slower than was usually the
case with weekly series. The 90-minute program length also allowed
each episode to be more intricate than the typical one-hour installment,
and intricacy was stock in trade for the character.
was not a "who-done-it." Indeed, the most distinguishing aspect
of the series is the plot structure itself. Although this structure
is just as rigid and successful as that in Perry Mason, Dragnet,
or The Rockford Files, each episode is actually an inversion
of the classic detective formula. In the classic formula, the crime
is committed by an unknown person, a detective comes onto the case,
clues are gathered, the detective solves the crime with the aid
of his/her assistants, and the ability of the detective is proven
true. In each Columbo plot, the crime and the culprit
are shown in great detail. The audience sees the murder planned,
committed, and covered up by the murderer. Since the audience knows
who did it and how, the enigma becomes "how will Columbo figure
it out?" The methods of the murderer are presented with such care
that there is little doubt that the horrible crime will go unpunished--little
doubt until Columbo comes onto the scene.
his rumpled overcoat, stubby cigar, tousled hair and (apparently)
confused attitude, Columbo rambles around in his old Peugeot, doggedly
following the suspect of a homicide. The attitude and behavior,
however, are all an act. Columbo is not confused but acutely aware,
like a falcon circling its prey, waiting for a moment of weakness.
Columbo bumbles about, often interfering with the activities of
the uniformed police and gathering what seem to be the most unimportant
clues. All the while he constantly pesters the person he has pegged
as his central suspect.
first even the murderer is amused at the lieutenant's style and
usually seems inclined to assume that if this is the best the Los
Angeles police can offer, the murder will never be found out. But
whenever the suspect seems to be rid of the Lieutenant, Columbo
turns with a bemused remark, something like "Oh, there's just one
more thing ...." By the end of the episode, Columbo has taken an
apparently minor discrepancy in the murderer's story and wound it
into the noose with which to hang the suspect. Conclusions often
feature a weary, yet agreeable, criminal admitting to his or her
guilt as Columbo, in the form of some imaginative turnabout, delivers
the final blow. If the suspect is a magician, the Lieutenant uses
a magic "trick". If the crime was done by knowledge of movie special
effects, Columbo uses similar special effects.
is the only regular character in the series. There is no grizzled
police commissioner, no confidant with whom the case could be discussed.
For Columbo, each guest villain becomes something of an ironic "Watson".
Columbo and the murderer spend most of the story playing off each
other. The Lieutenant discusses the twists and turns of the case,
the possible motives, the implications of clues with his primary
suspect, always rich, powerful, and arrogant, always happy to match
wits with the apparently witless policeman on the doorstep. In the
end the working-class hero overcomes the wealthy, privileged criminal.
influential writers, directors, and producers of the 1980s and 1990s
worked on this series. Stephen J. Cannell (The Rockford Files,
The A-Team, Wiseguy), Peter S. Fisher (Murder, She Wrote),
and Steven Bochco (L. A. Law, Hill Street Blues) were writers.
Dean Hargrove (Matlock, Perry Mason) and Roland Kibbee (Barney
Miller) were producers. The premiere episode was directed by
a very young Steven Spielberg. Each episode featured a well-known
character actor or minor star as the murderer. Robert Culp and Jack
Cassidy had the highest number of returns as guest villain (three
won seven Emmys over the first run of the series, including three
for Falk and one for the series itself. Columbo spawned only
one spin-off, NBC's short-lived, Mrs. Columbo (name later
changed to Kate Columbo, Kate the Detective, and Kate
Loves a Mystery) with Kate Mulgrew in the title role. This series
played against Columbo in several ways. Instead of Mrs. Columbo
being absent each episode, the lieutenant was "unavailable".
And here the plot followed the traditional detective format instead
of the inverted one. It is not clear what caused this series to
fail, but Mrs. Columbo was ill fated and ill advised. Both Link
and Levinson disavowed it and Falk disliked the concept.
the success of Raymond Burr's return as Perry Mason in a series
of Made-for-Television Movies, Falk returned to Columbo on
6 February 1989, for a new "mystery wheel" concept (this time on
ABC and alternating with Burt Reynolds in B. L. Stryker and
Lou Gossett, Jr., in Gideon Oliver). Just as he left Rock
Hudson and Dennis Weaver behind during his original run, the rumpled
detective was the only one of the new "wheel" to survive. Indeed,
like the character, Columbo always seems to be coming back
as if to say "Oh, there's just one more thing . . ."
Lt. Columbo............................................. Peter
Richard Levinson and William Link, Dean Hargrove, Roland Kibbee,
Richard Alan Simmons
Episodes in Original Series
September 1971-September 1972.....................................
September 1972-July 1974............ Sunday 8:30-10:00 August 1974-August
1975............. Sunday 8:30-10:30 September 1975-September 1976..
Sunday 9:00-11:00 October 1976-September 1977........ Sunday 8:00-9:30
ABC February 1989-May 1989...... Monday 9:00-11:00 August 1989-July
199O.............. Saturday 9:00-11:00 August 1990.................................
Sunday 9:00-l1:00 January 1992-May 1992............. Thursday 8:00-10:00
November 1992-February 1993.... Saturday 8:00-10:00
Dawidziak, Mark. The Columbo Phile: A Casebook. New York: Mysterious,
David, and Robert J. Thompson. Prime Time, Prime Movers.
Boston: Little, Brown, 1992.
Richard. Murder on the Air: Television's Great Mystery Series.
New York: Mysterious, 1989.
_______________. TV Detectives. San Diego: Barnes, 1988.
Horace, and Robert S. Alley. The Producer's Medium: Conversations
With Creators Of American TV. New York: Oxford University, 1983.