When you’re talking about Columbo, the answer should come first, right? Okay, then: Columbo is the answer. But how many questions precede it? You could be asking who were the greatest TV characters, what was one of the best-written shows of all time, or which series nabbed its lead an Emmy almost 20 years after the first time he took on the role. Maybe you’re asking what character was popular enough to sustain a two-season reboot 12 years after its original final episode aired. And it’s possible that you might want know which classic TV series began its regular run 50 years ago this week. Of course, we already told you the solution: all of the answers are Columbo. Here’s how he did it.
The first swing at Columbo happened on the printed page. Writers Richard Levinson and William Link created the character in the short story, “May I Come In.” That story saw publication under a different name, “Dear Corpus Delicti,” in the March 1960 issue of Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine. His first TV appearance came later that year in the July 31, 1960, episode of the anthology series The Chevy Mystery Show on NBC. Bert Freed played the detective. That episode led directly to . . . a stage play?
Levinson and Link bumped Columbo to the theater by turning that TV script into the play Prescription: Murder. It debuted in San Francisco in 1962 with Thomas Mitchell as Columbo. By 1968, NBC wanted to make the play into a stand-alone Movie of the Week. For Columbo, director Richard Irving wanted Peter Falk, an actor who moved from small to big screen with ease while earning nominations for both Emmys and Oscars in 1961 and 1962. But Levinson and Link were skeptical; at 41, Falk was much younger than the other actors who had already played the character, and younger than they had envisioned. Irving managed to convince them, and the TV movie version of Prescription: Murder was a major hit.
Eventually, NBC decided that they wanted to make another Columbo TV movie as a pilot to see if an ongoing TV series could happen. The second film, 1971’s Ransom for a Dead Man, was another hit and convinced the network that they needed the rumpled detective on a regular basis. However, Falk was reluctant to sign on for the grind of a weekly TV show. Fortunately for NBC, they had their own solution ready. The network had already tested a “wheel” concept of shows where different shows under one heading (like Four in One) would rotate. As it happened, NBC was cancelling two shows from Four in One, and saving the other two; Rod Serling’s Night Gallery would get its own slot, and McCloud would join a new “wheel” concept: The NBC Mystery Movie. With the “wheel,” new episodes of Columbo would air every three weeks, giving shooting a more leisurely pace and time to produce a more quality product. McCloud and Columbo would be joined by McMillan & Wife, and NBC had itself a big mystery franchise.
While the Columbo scripts were solid and the parade of guest-stars lining up to be the criminal of the month was impressive, the main draw of the show was always Falk’s performance. The lived-in quality of the character was no accident; Falk generally wore his own clothes, including the famous raincoat. Falk would frequently improv his conversational digressions and wander the set during shots on purpose as a way of keeping his castmates off-balance; he thought that he could mine real discomfort from the criminals under questioning by keeping the other actors on their toes. Falk’s investment in his performance worked; he earned an Emmy for the role during his first season (and two more in 1975 and 1976). It certainly didn’t hurt that the very first episode, “Murder by the Book,” was written by future Hill Street Blues and NYPD Blue creator Stephen Bochco and directed by an up-and-coming youngster named Steven Spielberg.
All three series on the Mystery Movie were successful for years. After the first season, NBC gave two nights to the franchise, moving the original three to Sundays and redubbing it The NBC Sunday Mystery Movie. They also added the NBC Wednesday Mystery Movie, a separate wheel structure that would introduce the long-running Quincy, M.E., starring Jack Klugman. Columbo wound down its original run in May of 1978, having completed seven seasons. The show generated the spin-off Mrs. Columbo in 1979, starring Kate Mulgrew as the detective’s often-mentioned but never-seen better half solving mysteries on her own; however, as the show struggled, it was renamed to Kate the Detective and then again to Kate Loves a Mystery. It limped through two seasons before being cancelled in 1980.
Columbo itself got better at the end of the decade. ABC resurrected the mystery wheel concept with the cleverly named The ABC Mystery Movie in 1989. Falk returned to headline as Columbo. For the first season, he was joined by Louis Gossett, Jr. as Gideon Oliver and Burt Reynolds as B.L. Stryker. Falk and Reynolds returned for a second season, with additional roster pick-ups Jaclyn Smith as Christine Cromwell and Telly Savalas rebooting Kojak. During the first season, Falk pulled in his fourth Emmy for playing the character. The “wheel” ground to a halt in 1990, but Falk continued to play Columbo in an ongoing series of 14 TV movies for the next 13 years. Falk even wrote 1993’s installment, “It’s All in the Game.” As late as 2007, Falk was still making films and television, and there was talk of more Columbo. However, his health began to decline, and he passed away in 2011, closing the book on one of the great TV detectives.
Just one more thing. Audiences loved Columbo because he was unique. He was never slick or sharply dressed. He didn’t punch his way to the bottom of a mystery like Mike Hammer or rely on science like a Gil Grissom. He was, however, the smartest guy in any room, a fact that he underplayed with his disheveled appearance and chatty manner. By keeping the bad guys (who were often upper-class snobs) distracted, he was able to take his time and figure out what really happened. In the end, Columbo was just a slightly amplified version of a regular guy, and the viewers loved him for it. But then, we already knew that at the beginning.
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