Lieutenant Columbo, played by Peter Falk, is one of the iconic TV detectives of modern times. It seems hard to realise that the TV show dates back to 1968. It originally ran on the American NBC network until 1977, then returned in 1989 on ABC.
The character Columbo - a brilliant but disarmingly dishevelled detective in the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) Homicide Division - was created by Richard Levinson and William Link. Columbo is so well known that most people can remember at least one plot from the show. Levinson and Link also created another highly successful TV murder detective series: Murder, She Wrote.
The Episode Format
Each episode of Columbo follows a similar line. At the very beginning, the audience is shown the events leading up to the murder, and even shown who the murderer is. They always have a complex plot to bump off the victim, and of course, a cast-iron alibi. This method is unique to TV detective shows, which goes some way to explaining its popularity.
You might think that this is insulting for the audience, to be told at the start who did it, how and why, but there is a good reason. Unlike other detectives, such as Sherlock Holmes, Poirot, or Inspector Morse, Columbo has no assistant or sidekick, no Dr Watson.
In the Sherlock Holmes stories, the character of Dr Watson exists for one reason, so that Holmes has someone to explain the mystery to, so that the audience/reader can 'get it' and understand how the crime was perpetrated. Columbo has no partner, he works alone1. But the joy with this series is in watching Columbo slowly piece the case together until the murderer's alibi crumbles and their motive is revealed.
Even if you missed the start of the episode, it is easy to know who did it, because:
- The killer is a famous guest star, with ratings pulling power
- Columbo is constantly visiting and questioning them - particularly when he makes to leave, only to turn back and utter the immortal line: 'Just one more thing…'
Many have suggested that Columbo's operating method is to simply annoy the chief suspect until they slip up and reveal themselves, but this is a fallacy. Instead, he seems to get a sense of who the criminal is, and then hounds them, all the time gathering evidence.
He always brings one hand up to his forehead, covering half of his face, when he is thinking hard, or having a revelation. He acts like a typical bumbling policeman, appears to be clumsy, makes mistakes and of course always returns to the room to ask 'just one more thing' as if he's absent-minded. But make no mistake, this is an act, and it's one that always manages to ensnare his suspect.
'Just One More Thing'
With that line, Columbo has been immortalised. His trademark dirty trench coat, old banger of a car (A 1959 Peugeot convertible, Model 403) and habit of smoking cigars are as much an icon as Sherlock Holmes' pipe and deerstalker, or Poirot's moustache and cane. His appearance has caused many people to compare him to a tramp.
Each episode is a battle of intellect and wits - Columbo vs the murderer - and we always know who will win.
It appears that Columbo is pretending to bumble along, but even when the murderer is not present, he still acts in the same manner. He occasionally asks entirely unrelated questions, and slips the pertinent ones in as an afterthought.
Columbo works by trying to catch the suspect off guard, essentially to annoy them in conversation until they give away something, usually a small slip, which he uses to create a complex theory about how they pulled off the crime.
Despite the setting, Columbo always shows the utmost respect to the criminal, perhaps out of old-fashioned good manners or maybe in tacit admiration for the complexity of the crime. He seems to enjoy the realisation of how it was committed2, yet operates on the principle that there is no such thing as the perfect murder, and that the murderer will always slip up, either during the crime or afterwards.
Columbo has a hawk eye for detail and can spot even very small items at the crime scene. In the past, he has resorted to trapping the bad guy, either leaving small pieces of evidence that the murderer picks up after the crime, or deliberately contradicting an event of the murder until the bad guy corrects him and proves himself to be guilty. Columbo's method always revolves around the idea that sooner or later, the murderer will give themselves away.
Columbo's Private Life
Very little is ever shown from Columbo's private life, but he talks a lot about it, particularly in conversation with the murderer. We learn early on that he is married3, but we never see Mrs Columbo4. Furthermore, we never know Columbo's first name5.
One of the few things in his life we have seen is his dog, a basset hound, whose crumpled expression matches Columbo's own. Like Columbo, we never know the dog's name. The dog likes ice cream, watching television and is often caught swimming in a neighbour's pool.
Columbo does seem to have an extended family, to which he is constantly referring in solving the crime. He'll see a vase in the murderer's house and say 'Y'know, my little niece would love this - how much would something like this cost?' to which the bored murderer would casually say '$15,000'. Columbo would act surprised and confess he was about to offer the murderer $50.
The character of Columbo has the distinction that, unlike many other famous detectives like Sherlock Holmes or Hercules Poirot, it is associated with just one actor - Peter Falk - who over the years helped shape the character. What might be surprising then is that Falk was not the first to play the part, nor was he first choice for the TV series. Columbo was originally created for an episode of an anthology series called The Chevy Mystery Show6 where Bert Freed played the detective. Richard Levinson and William Link incorporated the character into a play (where Columbo was played by an actor called Thomas Mitchell) before deciding to develop a TV show around him. The TV version was originally created with Bing Crosby in mind. Only when the famous crooner turned the part down (fearing it would interfere with his love for golf), did Peter Falk take up the challenge.
When Levinson and Link suggested that Columbo needed a car, Falk resisted saying that the coat, cigar and haircut was enough of a gimmick, but they persuaded him to tour the Paramount car lot to see if anything caught his eye. After a fruitless search, he spotted the nose of his trademark car jutting out and said 'That's the one!'. The car at first did not run, mainly because the engine was missing.
For a show as long-running as Columbo, the list of guest stars is very long. They include; Leslie Neilsen, William Shatner, Dean Stockwell, Robert Vaughn, George Hamilton, Tim O'Connor, Leonard Nimoy, Martin Landau (as twins), Donald Pleasence, Dick Van Dyke, Janet Leigh, Ricardo Montalban (Khan in Star Trek), Dabney Coleman (From the Dolly Parton film 9 to 5), Faye Dunaway, Rip Torn (Z in Men In Black) and George Wendt (Norm from Cheers).
Peter Falk's home in Los Angeles is a modern colonial affair. His sense of humour prevails however, as his mail box on the street is a scale model of the house itself.
He lives across the street from Arnold Schwarzenegger's gargantuan mansion.
In each episode there is the same piece of music, either as incidental background music, or more often Columbo is whistling or humming it to himself. The music is This Old Man Came Rolling Home, an old children's song.
Only 504 1959 Peugeot convertible, Model 403s were produced in France, and Falk's production company owns two of them, one as a backup car.
P.1 Prescription: Murder
P.2 Ransom For A Dead Man
Season One (1971/1972)
Season Two (1972/1973)
Season Three (1973/1974)
| 1.1 'Murder By The Book'
1.2 'Death Lends A Hand'
1.3 'Dead Weight'
1.4 'Suitable For Framing'
1.5 'Lady In Waiting'
1.6 'Short Fuse'
1.7 'Blueprint For Murder'
| 2.1 'Etude In Black'
2.2 'The Greenhouse Jungle'
2.3 'The Most Crucial Game'
2.4 'Dagger Of The Mind'
2.5 'Requiem For A Falling Star'
2.6 'A Stitch In Crime'
2.7 'The Most Dangerous Match'
2.8 'Double Shock'
| 3.1 'Lovely But Lethal'
3.2 'Any Old Port In A Storm'
3.3 'Candidate For Crime'
3.4 'Double Exposure'
3.5 'Publish Or Perish'
3.6 'Mind Over Mayhem'
3.7 'Swan Song'
3.8 'A Friend In Deed'
Season Four (1974/1975)
Season Five (1975/1796)
Season Six (1976/1977)
| 4.1 'An Exercise In Fatality'
4.2 'Negative Reaction'
4.3 'By Dawn's Early Light'
4.4 'Troubled Waters'
4.6 'A Deadly State Of Mind'
| 5.1 'Forgotten Lady'
5.2 'A Case Of Immunity'
5.3 'Identity Crisis'
5.4 'A Matter Of Honor'
5.5 'Now You See Him'
5.6 'Last Salute To The Commodore'
| 6.1 'Fade In To Murder'
6.2 'Old Fashioned Murder'
6.3 'The Bye Bye Sky-High IQ Murder Case'
Season Seven (1977/1978)
Season Eight (1989)8
Season Nine (1989/1990)
| 7.1 'Try And Catch Me'
7.2 'Murder Under Glass'
7.3 'Make Me A Perfect Murder'
7.4 'How To Dial A Murder'
7.5 The Conspirators
| 8.1 'Columbo Goes To The Guillotine'
8.2 'Murder, Smoke, And Shadows'
8.3 'Sex And The Married Detective'
8.4 'Grand Deceptions'
| 9.1 'Murder, A Self Portrait'
9.2 'Columbo Cries Wolf '
9.3 'Agenda For Murder '
9.4 'Rest In Peace, Mrs Columbo'
9.5 'Uneasy Lies The Crown'
9.6 'Murder In Malibu'
Season Ten (1990/1991)
Season Eleven (1993/1994)
| 10.1 'Columbo Goes To College'
10.2 'Caution: Murder Can Be Hazardous To Your Health'
10.3 'Columbo And The Murder Of A Rock Star'
| 11.1 'It's All In The Game'
11.2 'Butterfly In Shades Of Gray'
| S.1 'Death Hits The Jackpot'
S.2 'No Time To Die'
S.3 'A Bird In The Hand...'
S.4 'Strange Bedfellows'
S.5 'A Trace of Murder' - 25th Anniversary
S.6 'Ashes to Ashes'
S.7 'Murder With Too Many Notes'
S.8 'Columbo Likes the Nightlife'