Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Bringing Columbo to the Printed Page

For a guy who readily admits to being no expert on police procedures, author, screenwriter, and TV producer William Link has made an unexpected killing over the last four decades, creating the adventures of a Los Angeles police detective best known for his rumpled raincoat, cheap cigars, ramblings about his never-seen family, and an investigative talent second to none. That character is of course Lieutenant Columbo (no first name, according to his creators), who made his initial appearance in 1960 on a live-TV summer series called The Chevy Mystery Show. Link and his writing partner, Richard Levinson--who’d also been his best friend ever since their schoolboy days in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, during the 1940s--had batted out a script for the series titled “Enough Rope.” It featured (but did not star) an unexpectedly wily police detective called Columbo, played on the show by character actor Bert Freed.

Link and Levinson went on to turn their small-screen drama into a successful stage play, Prescription: Murder, with Lieutenant Columbo being portrayed by veteran performer Thomas Mitchell. The writing partners were pleased to see their work do well before the footlights, with Joseph Cotten and Agnes Moorehead cast in the lead roles. But as Link recalls all these years later in the introduction to his new book of short stories, The Columbo Collection (Crippen & Landru),
When the play ... opened in San Francisco, we realized to our surprise that during the curtain calls, Mitchell, playing the cop, received the most enthusiastic applause, not the star and popular movie actor Joseph Cotton. This was indeed a conundrum.

We had seen the cop, Lieutenant Columbo, as just another of our clever, but nothing-to-write-home-about, homicide lieutenants. Sure, Mitchell was a superb actor and some of his lines got big laughs, but come on! The star was Joseph Cotton. And yet the cop character as written had an undeniable appeal, a special Everyman quality. A man who hid his cleverness under a bushel, whose charm appealed to the audience.
Following that play’s year-and-a-half-long run in theaters across the United States and Canada, Link and Levinson sold scripts to crime dramas such as Arrest and Trial and Burke’s Law, The Name of the Game and The Bold Ones. But in 1968, the pair resurrected Prescription: Murder for Universal Studios as a series pilot. By that time, Thomas Mitchell had died, and Emmy-nominated, one-eyed actor Peter Falk was hired to play the shambling but cunning Columbo. It was the beginning of a beautiful collaboration. Falk’s Columbo was brought back in 1971 for a second pilot, which was finally picked up by NBC as a series, one of three that, beginning in the fall of ’71, rotated under the umbrella title The NBC Mystery Movie. (The other two components were Dennis Weaver’s McCloud, the pilot for which had also been penned by Link and Levinson, and McMillan & Wife, starring Rock Hudson and Susan Saint James.) Columbo led the NBC Mystery Movie roster for seven seasons (1971-1978), before it was canceled, only to be brought back by competitor ABC in a succession of TV movies broadcast between 1989 and 2003.

Link and Levinson didn’t just squat comfortably on their Columbo laurels, however. They exploited the popularity of the Falk series to win themselves enhanced freedom and influence as both screenwriters and producers. Before Columbo, they’d created the private-eye series Mannix. Afterwards, they gave TV audiences Tenafly, Ellery Queen, and Murder, She Wrote, in addition to myriad one-off TV movies and a couple of big-screen films, The Hindenburg (1975) and Rollercoaster (1977). They became so renowned for their Midas touches in the TV field, that The New York Times dubbed them “the Mr. Rolls and Mr. Royce of American television.” Even after Dick Levinson died in 1987, at age 52, Bill Link continued expanding his résumé, teaming up with science-fiction novelist Isaac Asimov to create the very short-lived Probe (1988), and developing a vehicle for comedian Bill Cosby, The Cosby Mysteries (1994–95).

But Link also composed short stories, something he and Levinson had enjoyed doing ever since their school days together. Over the years, he’d sold many of his yarns to Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine. The recent release of The Columbo Collection, though, has raised his profile as a short-story writer significantly. Tomorrow afternoon, Bill Link will appear as a guest at Bouchercon in San Francisco, where he’s to be interviewed before an audience by fellow screenwriter Lee Goldberg, and he’s already talking up the possibility of a sequel to this first collection.

Not long ago, I was able to conduct a telephone interview with Link from the home he shares with his wife, Margery, in Los Angeles. Around periodic comic interruptions from his little Yorkshire terrier, Winston--who apparently sees nothing wrong with “going after” his master’s Columbo manuscripts--the 76-year-old Link answered my numerous questions about his four-decades-long friendship with Levinson, his early days in the TV biz, his fondness for making small-screen movies of the week, the multiple challenges of delivering successful series, and the continuing appeal of Lieutenant Columbo.

J. Kingston Pierce: Is it true that you and Richard Levinson met on your very first day in junior high school, and it was magic that brought you together initially?

William Link: Yeah, we both did magic tricks, and when we were kids, we went to the same magic store in downtown Philly. Dick lived in Philadelphia proper, and I lived in Elkins Park, which was a suburb of Philadelphia. But when it came to junior high, we wound up in the same school. We met because we had the same interests. Someone suggested I find this tall guy who liked to do magic and write mysteries, and he was told to look for a short guy who did magic and wrote mysteries.

JKP: And did you both set out to be novelists, or did you always intend to go to Hollywood and make a living?

WL: We loved movies, but we loved television even more at that point. We had live television in those days, with terrific writers--Paddy Chayefsky, Gore Vidal, etc. And television was sort of always in our blood, because we’d grown up with it. I had a television set--or, rather, my family had one--very early, in 1946. There were three shows a week on the air, and you waited all week to see them. Our family was very popular with the neighborhood because of that set.

JKP: Did you even know any other families with TV sets back then?

WL: No. It was probably one of the first sets in the country. My father was a gadget freak, and he always liked to get the newest stuff.

JKP: Before I leave the matter of magic, let me ask whether you had a favorite magic trick that you performed. And were you any good?

WL: I think we were pretty good. Dick and I used to give magic shows at kids’ parties and bar mitzvahs and such, and we would lug along our suitcases filled with our tricks. We’d get hecklers every now and then, which is never any fun. But really, we had a great time doing it. I remember we charged $5 a show.

JKP: Which must have seemed like a lot more in those days.

WL: About 10 times more! So not bad. But we ultimately didn’t go into magic. We always were more interested in writing. We were also big fans of motion-picture music back then and the movie composers, people like Miklós Rózsa and Alfred Newman and Max Steiner. They were melodic people, but if you notice now, the background scores by the new composers never have any melodies.

It’s a problem of construction, just like writing books or short stories. A lot of young writers I meet now, and when I was at Universal [Studios], they’re very good at characterization, they’re good at atmospherics. But they all had trouble constructing the stories--beginning, middle, and end--telling a story not only through the plot, but through characterization. ... I think the main problem is that they don’t read enough. I go to writers’ homes now--no books, no magazines, no daily newspaper. They get everything off the computer screen, or the TV screen. When I lecture at drama schools out here, and universities, to wannabe writers, I always get the question: “Mr. Link, how do I tell a story, how do I plot?” Invariably I get that question, and I think it’s because these writers don’t read enough.

Look at the results now in the major feature films: Always the cinematography is good, always the acting is good, always the editing is good, always the direction is just fine. It’s always the screenplay that is weak, and it all comes back to telling a story and writers who really aren’t good at that task.

JKP: So what were the things that you and Levinson were reading that made you superior storytellers?

WL: We loved mysteries. We loved Ellery Queen, we loved John Dickson Carr. Georges Simenon was one of my favorites. He was a French-Belgian author and he wrote 600 books--which was incredible. He was great with character; he was less strong on construction. But he knew people through and through. Dick wasn’t an especially big fan of Simenon, but I was.

JKP: How did you two work together? Did you have individual strengths and worked on different parts of a story separately?

WL: No, on the contrary, we both had identical strengths. That’s what kept my writing popular after Dick died. I still miss Dick to this day. He was terrific, and it was cataclysmic when Dick died, you know--very quickly, out of the blue; it was a heart attack, I guess. And I didn’t know whether I could write alone after 43 years with Dick. But I found out very quickly I could, so everything was fine. ...

I still dream about Dick: We’re still pitching stories, we’re still doing magic--it’s wonderful. [George] Bernard Shaw once said there are some people so important and valuable in your life, that you don’t lose them with their death, you only lose them with your own. And that is very, very true, I’ve found out, with Dick Levinson.

JKP: Have you ever been able to work with another writer?

WL: I didn’t want to. Once I had a relationship like I had with Dick, that was it. Another strong part of the bond, of course, was that we grew up together. That was bond made in heaven. ...

JKP: You said that you and Levinson shared the same strengths. What do you see as those strengths?

WL: I see, number one, plotting--especially in mysteries. [We were also good at] turning a good phrase now and then, and creating good, realistic characters, even though Joe Wambaugh, who I knew back then, said, “Bill, you know Columbo--I love the series, but it’s not realistic at all.” I said, “Joe, it’s fantasy.” Dick and I knew very little about police work; we made a lot of it up. And whether it was true or not, we didn’t know, but it worked for the audience, so we kept doing what we were doing

JKP: That’s all the viewers really wanted, right? A great character and a story through which they could follow him.

WL: Yeah. [Columbo] is an obsessive character who’s like Joe Everyman, except that he’s got a brain like a computer, although he hides it. And that’s the way he sucks these murderers in. ... He doesn’t seem like the brightest guy, not the sharpest knife in the drawer; he’s always talking about his wife and relatives. So [the murderers] give him leeway. But he’s just conning them there before he goes in for the kill.

JKP: Viewers certainly seemed to like that approach.

WL: All over the world, they did. The original was based on a stage play that Dick and I wrote called Prescription: Murder, and that was the play we sold to Universal originally. And that play is now touring London, or the British Isles, as we speak. And I just signed a contract for doing it in Poland, and it still goes on and on. It’s an incredible hit still in France, and the Japanese just had a film company come over here two or three years ago. They filmed me for an hour-and-a-half interview about Columbo, which is still their favorite detective character.

JKP: How do you see Lieutenant Columbo evolving from that play, to the Bert Freed TV episode, to the Peter Falk character?

WL: He didn’t evolve. It’s the same person all along. … Peter added some quirks in the character. He was born to play that role. He doesn’t care much about his clothes, just like Columbo. He wears the same thing most days--and that’s Columbo too, the same green suit, the same raincoat. Originally, of course, the raincoat was Peter’s. He’d bought it in a store that sold rainwear on 57th Street in New York when he was caught in a sudden rainsquall. That’s the same coat we used on the show. The Smithsonian wanted it, but they didn’t get it.

JKP: So Peter Falk became Columbo in your mind. Does that mean you visualized Falk when you wrote the stories in The Columbo Collection?

WL: Yes. … I can’t write them without seeing Peter in the part. And I think most people I’ve talked to, who claim to have read the book, they say the same thing. I mean, Falk is on every page. He’s just indelibly Columbo, even though on the stage Columbo has been played by dozens and dozens of other actors through the years. And I wrote a second play a couple of years ago, called Columbo Takes the Rap, which is very contemporary--it’s Columbo against a bad rap star, and there’s a good rap star in the play too, and that was a big hit at the International Mystery Writers Festival.

I don’t know whether I’m going to write any more Columbo plays. But I’ve been asked to write a Columbo novel, finally, and I might do that--I’m thinking about that seriously.

JKP: Do you have a plot in mind?

WL: I have a plot about an ex-president who’s a murderer. And a mafia don and--well, I’m still working on it. I don’t want to give too many things away, because someone might steal.

JKP: This could be your first Columbo novel, but a bunch of others have already been published over the years, including some episode tie-ins and half a dozen originals by William Harrington. Have you read those?

WL: Yeah, I’ve read two or three. Nothing to write home about.

JKP: What was your big break in the TV and film game? You and Levinson started out doing a lot of different things, writing for Honey West, Michael Shayne, the western Stoney Burke

WL: We were independent television writers for about 10 years. The break came when we sold the play [Prescription: Murder] to Universal. And they brought us in on a seven-year contract; I wound up staying there 25 years, long after Dick died. Eventually we became producers, because we had to protect what we had written. We sometimes saw what directors did when they came in to our material, and we didn’t like it. So we created an insurance policy by becoming producers of our own things. We simply had to do that.

JKP: You’ve said before that the 25 years you spent at Universal were your most satisfying and creative ones. Is that because you were allowed to do just about anything and everything you wanted to do?

WL: Just about. They backed us up--Lew Wasserman, who was the head of the whole [studio], and a man named Sid Sheinberg, who was the head of Television. They just gave us the reins and we brought them a lot of hits. So the networks were happy, and Universal was especially happy.

I still occasionally see Sid and his wife, Lorraine--they’re very, very nice people, very bright. But Wasserman is not with us anymore. Too bad. Dick and I loved Lew.

JKP: Columbo started out as part of the NBC Mystery Moviewheel series,” which offered half a dozen new episodes of Columbo each year. NBC finally dropped the show, along with the other Mystery Movie segments, in 1978. But then you brought Columbo back to the small screen--on a different network--a decade later as one of three shows that originally ran under the umbrella title of The ABC Mystery Movie.

WL: That was two years after Dick died. [Universal] came to me and said, “We’ve got to have Columbo again.” And so I was all for that.

JKP: Were you as pleased with this second incarnation of Columbo as you had been with the first?

WL: I was happy with that second series, yes. It [alternated on ABC] with a show [Gideon Oliver, about a New York City-based anthropologist-sleuth] that starred Lou Gossett Jr., who’s a terrific actor and one of the world’s nicest men. I worked on that one [as supervising executive producer]. And Burt Reynolds was in another [ABC Mystery Movie segment], and that wasn’t very successful.

JKP: You mean B.L. Stryker.

WL: Yeah. As I said, I liked that second Columbo series, but I thought it got weak after I left Universal and retired [in 1993], and Peter [Falk] took over as producer, something he’d always wanted to do. That sounds egotistical, on my part, but it’s not. Peter, while he was a brilliant actor, was just not used to working with writers, as I was. ... So I think the [later] shows were weaker, because they weren’t that well put together.

And it’s a very, very tough show to write. ... There are no car chases, there’s no violence--it’s just two guys circling each other, or the cop and a woman circling each other, for two hours--or an hour and a half in the original [NBC] version.

JKP: Actually, hadn’t Columbo expanded from 90 minutes long to two hours by the close of its seven-season NBC run, as well?

WL: Oh, right. That’s because Peter was the highest-paid actor in American television at that time. As a result, we had to get a higher license fee from the network, and you could only do that by stretching the shows from an hour and a half to two hours.

JKP: Really! That’s why all of the NBC Mystery Movie series, not just Columbo, became two hours long, because of Falk’s salary demands?

WL: Yep. That’s how the business works.

JKP: In addition to doing TV series, you and Levinson worked on a lot of small-screen movies during the 1970s.

WL: Yeah, we did all these “movies of the week,” some that I’m very proud of. We did the first homosexual drama--ever--on television, a sympathetic view of gay people called That Certain Summer, with Hal Holbrook and Martin Sheen as gay lovers. We got that on in 1972. I still look back and say, that’s incredible.

JKP: You also did The Execution of Private Slovik [1974].

WL: Yeah, that was our favorite of all our movies. Again with Marty Sheen--we made him a television star.

JKP: Why was Private Slovick your favorite made-for-TV movie?

WL: It was about military injustice. Dick and I were both in the army, drafted, way back, and we saw the inequities in that system. [The TV movie] was based on a wonderful [non-fiction] book by a man named William Bradford Huie. He called us up after the show and congratulated us on the good job that we had done. And it was a very powerful show. Sheen’s performance [as a World War II soldier executed for desertion] was really first-rate. I think Private Slovik had more impact than the other movies of the week we did. Most were mysteries, and you don’t go for the same big impact in mysteries, except for some surprises and a good ending that fools the viewer.

There is a connection between magic and mystery, you know. They’re both about deception. And we were good at that--not in our real lives, but certainly on paper.

JKP: Interestingly, you wound up incorporating your loves of magic and mystery in a short-lived and mostly forgotten, 1986 midseason replacement series for NBC called Blacke’s Magic, which starred Hal Linden and Harry Morgan.

WL: Yes, Dick and I did that one with another writer ...

JKP: You mean Peter S. Fischer.

WL: Right. But that wasn’t too successful. ... The head of the network at NBC didn’t particularly care for [Blacke’s Magic]. Besides, we weren’t getting the ratings, and it’s all about the ratings. That was true back then, and it hasn’t changed.

JKP: But I remember Blacke’s Magic as being pretty entertaining. And I actually own all dozen episodes of that series.

WL: Oh, really. Very good. I do not have them all myself. A lot of the boxed sets have come out, but that’s not one of them. All of the Columbos are out, though.

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JKP: And I own those, too. I would like to own all the episodes of Tenafly, another series you guys did, but unfortunately they’re not available.

WL: No, and I don’t think they’ll ever be out. It was a one-year show only, something of a misfire. We really liked that show, and we had a good star, but ...

JKP: James McEachin did a splendid job in the title role. He played a unusually happily married Los Angeles private eye with a family, who punched a time clock at a big detective firm and had to deal with both trouble on the job and the troubles of trying to live in suburbia.

WL: Oh, yeah, McEachin was terrific. And the woman who played his wife was terrific, too--I forget her name [Lillian Lehman]. But Tenafly was only on for a year; they don’t have enough episodes to bring it out [on DVD]. You’ve got to have several years to put out a boxed set. The boxed sets are important. But a lot of things haven’t made it to DVD, like the great television movies--not just the ones we made, but those made by other people, too. They’ve never come out. I don’t know why.

JKP: Can you ballpark for me how many episodes of Columbo you and Levinson wrote over the years?

WL: You’re going to be stunned. I can tell you exactly: one.

JKP: How many?

WL: Just one. We wrote the [first] pilot [Prescription: Murder, 1968], and we consulted and made up the plot on the second Columbo pilot, Ransom for a Dead Man [1971]. Then we consulted with other writers and plotted, and we had a very heavy hand in what followed. We were very much involved, because of all the 14 shows we had on the air at various times, Columbo was far and away our favorite. I remember Dick saying it would be written on his tombstone [that he’d co-created Columbo].

I loved Columbo, still love Columbo. I loved Peter’s portrayal. I love everything about it. And [the show] has been copied by people. There’s talk now about doing a Columbo series in Europe. And you know, ... it’s a great feeling having created something with such enduring appeal.

JKP: I was sorry to hear about Peter Falk’s declining health. Have you stayed in contact with him all these years?

WL: No, I haven’t seen Peter in a couple of years. We wish him the very, very best. We’re friendly with his wife, Shera--a wonderful person. Shera’s taking good care of Peter, I’m sure. ... We hope he gets better soon. Millions of people do.

JKP: I want to ask you about Mrs. Columbo, the notorious 1979-1980 NBC series that was supposedly about Lieutenant Columbo’s previously unseen spouse. Were you shocked when Universal authorized that other show? I mean, surely you were against it ...

WL: No. We heard it was in the works, and then the head of NBC at the time, [Fred] Silverman, asked us to get involved with it, and we said, “No thanks.” And it was a one-year disaster. We said, “Look, if you’re going to go ahead and do this thing, you’ve got to get Brenda Vaccaro to play Mrs. Columbo. She’d have been perfect, and she’s a damn good actress, and she’s funny. Instead, he chose some Canadian babe ...

JKP: Kate Mulgrew, who later starred in Star Trek: Voyager.

WL: Yeah, and it didn’t work. We could’ve told them that after we saw the pilot. Thank God we didn’t work on it. And it’s gone now, while Columbo lives on!

JKP: Although there is a “bonus episode” of Mrs. Columbo on, I think, the fourth season DVD collection of Columbo.

But let’s get back to the subject of your new book, The Columbo Collection. After supervising the writing of Columbo on television for so many years, it would seem you’d have had enough of that character. And yet here you are writing Columbo short stories. Have you been working on this book for a long time?

WL: No, just maybe the last two or three years. I’d written so many dozens of short stories, all of which have been published ... and then one day I said to myself, “You know, idiot, the most popular character Dick and I ever created was Columbo. Why haven’t you written a Columbo short story?” So I sat down, and now I’ve written almost 28 of them. I’m still working on one of them. I write seven days a week still, can’t stop writing. So this book has 12 short stories. If it’s successful, I’ve already got enough for a follow-up book. We’ll see what happens, but it seems to be selling pretty well. So fingers crossed.

JKP: That’s excellent news, indeed. Do you have a favorite story among those in The Columbo Collection?

WL: I’ve got a couple. I like “The Criminal Criminal Attorney” a lot. And the hit man story [“Requiem for a Hitman”]--I like that too. I guess those are my two favorites, though it’s like choosing between your children.

JKP: You originally started out with 14 stories in this book. What happened to the other two? Did you just chop them out at the end?

WL: Yeah, one didn’t work. It was a locked-room mystery--the murder’s committed in a locked room, and everything’s locked from the inside. That had some flaws, so I didn’t include it. And the other--I just don’t remember. Maybe it had flaws too and required some work. When you have these stories with these multiple clues, and you have to have the big “pop” ending, as Peter calls it--the big clue that finally catches the murderer--you’ve got to keep on it, and keep on it, and keep on it till you get it just right. But I think the 12 stories in the book are up to the standards that we tried to maintain, Dick and I.

JKP: I was surprised, when reading these stories, that they’re set in modern times, and Columbo has a cell phone. I was assuming they would be set during Columbo’s prime years, back in the 1970s.

WL: No, no. They have to be contemporary. I don’t have nostalgia, necessarily, for that time. And I think the new readers, the younger readers, they want stories set now. They’re now kind of people. ... It’s what’s happening now that they care about. I was trying to fulfill their needs, not write a book for the show’s original audience.

JKP: I’m going to bring up what is probably a sore subject after all of these years: Columbo’s first name.

WL: Can’t tell you.

JKP: I know, because he doesn’t have one, right? Except at least one screen shot of Columbo’s LAPD badge, flashed during the Season 1 episode “Dead Weight,” shows “Frank Columbo” written clearly on it.

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WL: That was a prop man screwing up, creating a badge without even knowing the series. That’s been pointed out to me by a big Columbo fan in Australia, of all people. But no, he never had a first name. And I have to be honest with you, Dick and I didn’t know what his first name was, either. We considered it. We had a pact with Peter, though, way back at the beginning, that we would never tell the audience his first name--we wanted to keep them intrigued. And you would never see Columbo’s wife, who he’s always talking about, either.

JKP: Some prop guy just arbitrarily made up “Frank Columbo”?

WL: Yeah, that’s what happened, and Peter didn’t even catch that on the set. But I guess he was too involved with other things.

JKP: You’d have thought it would’ve been easy enough for the prop people to just scribble something you couldn’t read at all, as far as the name went, and flash that at the camera.

WL: The one who did it didn’t really know the show, and didn’t care, apparently. A Canadian board game, years back, said Columbo’s [first] name was “Philip.” I don’t know where they got that, but that’s wrong too. You know, Peter says that his first name was “Lieutenant,” and that always gets some laughs.

And here’s another joke, about his raincoat. He said it’s in the upstairs closet, and every night he puts out a bowl of milk for it. [Laughs]

JKP: When you were starting out with Columbo, you considered singer-performer Bing Crosby for the title role. Looking back now, do you think that would have worked?

WL: We knew he was a very good actor. We even sent him the [pilot] script. And he returned it with a very nice letter, saying, “Boys, I’m really out of television now. I do one or two specials for CBS every year, and I hear a weekly series is really a grind.” And it was good we didn’t cast Crosby, because not that many years later he died on a golf course.

JKP: So he wouldn’t have been around for the whole run of the series.

WL: Yeah, thank the Lord we got Mr. Falk instead.

JKP: You know, I was interested to read an interview that Falk gave several years ago, in which he said the only other guy he thought could’ve pulled off the Columbo part was Art Carney.

WL: Yeah, I can see that. Of course, Carney was an Everyman type too. He was a working-class guy too, like Columbo.

You know, our other trick in the series was we always put Columbo against a very wealthy murderer, whether a man or a woman. And The New York Times once said, it was like Columbo had been captured by a helicopter in the stands at Yankee Stadium and dropped into a murderer’s backyard in Brentwood, the wealthy area in Los Angeles. And that was sort of true. We played the class war, and I think a lot of people would root for the underdog. Columbo is truly, at the beginning of every show, the underdog. The murderer has all the cards, and Columbo’s got nothing. He comes in just using his brilliance, his wit, to trap the killer. But he’s a regular guy, someone you’d have coffee or a drink with. I think that had great appeal not only in this country, but all over the world.

JKP: If I recall correctly, there’s only one episode of NBC’s original Columbo series that broke the “inverted mystery” pattern you and Levinson had established for the show. The usual set-up was that a crime would be committed at the start of each episode, the viewers would see who did it, and then Lieutenant Columbo would spend the rest of the show trying to identify and catch the criminal. But in 1976’s “Last Salute to the Commodore,” the murderer isn’t revealed until the end. Why did you choose to change the pattern for that one Season 5 episode?

WL: Jackson Gillis wrote that one, a very fine writer. He used to do--


WL: Yeah, Perry Mason. And we plucked him out, because we knew he could write the intricate kinds of shows with the clues that we wanted.

JKP: So why reverse the storytelling style for that one episode?

WL: That was going to be the last show of the series. At the end, you may remember, Columbo rowed a rowboat out into the water, away from the camera. It was like he was saying good-bye--not only to people on the shore, but to all of his fans out there.

JKP: But then NBC renewed the show for Seasons 6 and 7.

WL: Yes, then they renewed it.

JKP: Earlier you mentioned your longstanding fondness for Ellery Queen. You and Levinson actually took two shots at doing an Ellery Queen TV series, one that would’ve spun off from a TV movie called Ellery Queen: Don’t Look Behind You, based on the 1949 novel Cat of Many Tails, and starring Peter Lawford and Harry Morgan; and a later one with Jim Hutton and David Wayne.

WL: We weren’t happy with [the Peter Lawford] one.

JKP: You weren’t? But you were responsible for it.

WL: What happened was, we wrote the script and then Universal gave us fully paid vacations in Europe with our wives. That’s when the show was produced, and there were changes made that we would not have gone for.

JKP: That’s a shame.

WL: We loved Ellery Queen, and when we did the [1975-1976] Queen series, we finally met one of the authors ... Well, you know that Ellery Queen was really two people--


WL: --two cousins, and one died [Lee in 1971], and the surviving member of the team, Fred Dannay, created Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, which publishes my short stories. And that was great. We went out, we spent a whole afternoon in Larchmont, New York, outside of New York City, with the remaining Ellery Queen. We talked about mysteries the whole afternoon. It was such a treat for Dick and me. And [Dannay] was a terrific guy. He’s not around anymore [he died in 1982], but I remember him extremely well. And I was so glad we finally met one of our childhood favorites, Ellery Queen.

JKP: What did you think of NBC’s Ellery Queen?

WL: We thought Jim [Hutton] was not quite cast properly. He was a very nice guy and a good actor, but it was hard for him to show the brilliance of the Queen character. He was extremely good at other things, but that wasn’t really his mode. But he tried his damndest. I mean, he lived on the [Universal Pictures] lot during that period so he could study at night and study immediately when he woke up in the morning. He never went home. He really put his all into it. And I don’t think it was a bad series ...

JKP: I loved it, actually.

WL: And Fred Dannay liked it a lot. He said it was the best job ever done with the Ellery Queen character, so Dick and I were more than pleased to have that stamp of approval. But it’s especially difficult to adapt other people’s work, which we didn’t like to do. It’s hard ... to be very faithful to the vision of another novelist or short-story writer. It’s much easier if you have full rein, if you create your own original character and have that much more freedom.

JKP: And in the case of Ellery Queen, you had an obligation as well to all of the series’ readers and fans. They wanted to see the character just the way they’d imagined him for so many years, and in the environment where they thought he was most comfortable.

WL: Exactly. And we made [Ellery Queen] a period piece. We set it back [in the 1940s]. The man who played Inspector Queen was a terrific actor, too--what was his name?

JKP: David Wayne.

WL: Yes, he was wonderful.

JKP: Even though he didn’t wear a mustache in the series. The Inspector Richard Queen of the books, remember, had a mustache. But David Wayne with a mustache might have reminded TV viewers of his role as The Mad Hatter on the classic series Batman.

WL: [Laughs] No, he was clean-shaven in Ellery Queen. We spent some time with him. He was a great guy, too.

JKP: You tried another idea for a series twice, as well. It began with the pilot The Judge and Jake Wyler in 1972, followed by another pilot, Partners in Crime in 1973. Both focused on a judge who solved crimes with the aid of an ex-con investigator.

WL: Yeah, that was a script that was brought to us. It was originally at Warner Bros., but they got rid of it. And we tried our hand at it. Didn’t quite work either time. You know, sometimes things just don’t gel, which is too bad, because Bette Davis [who starred with Doug McClure in The Judge and Jake Wyler] was a wonderful actress--I don’t have to tell anybody that. We used to hang out at her office after she was through shooting for the day, and [she would] tell us all these wonderful stories about the old days at Warner Bros., her fights with Jack Warner, the head of the studio, all the stars she worked with--Bogie and John Garfield and Edward G. Robinson, etc. I wish I’d tape-recorded a lot of that, but I didn’t. But she was wonderful, we loved her.

JKP: And what do you think it was about the concept behind both of those teleflicks that didn’t work?

WL: I don’t know, maybe the scripts were a problem. The casting was fine, and Lee Grant [who starred with Lou Antonio in Partners in Crime] was excellent. It must’ve been the scripts. I’d have to go back and look, but usually on the failures I don’t like to do a postmortem thing. I just don’t remember now.

JKP: Were there other projects you and Levinson worked on that you thought should have been hot, but that were never sold?

WL: I tell you, the movies of the week were really our favorite venues, because you could stretch them out to two hours, and they were standalones ... You didn’t have to go back to your original characters, and sometimes Dick and I got bored with our characters, with the exception of Columbo. But the one movie of the week we could never sell was a story about the young woman who investigated the nuclear industry, and she was murdered--Karen Silkwood was her name. And it was in all of the newspapers at the time [1974], and we wanted to get the rights for that [story]; I think we did. But no network would touch it. As we found out later, [the TV networks] all had subsidiaries that
video
were in with the nuclear [power industry]. Silkwood’s story was a radioactive--no pun intended--subject for them, and they didn’t want it.

When we did the homosexual show, A Certain Summer [a clip from which is embedded on the left] NBC said it wouldn’t touch it with a six-foot pole. And CBS wasn’t interested, either, but ABC finally did it--Barry Diller was the head of movies of the week then, and we sold it to him in two seconds. And he had to fight his own network to put it on. Then, when it was on that week, ABC affiliates got bomb threats. “Don’t put that filth on the air,” they were told. Can you believe it?

JKP: It was a different era, for sure.

WL: People are different, and some people just do different things in the bedroom than the rest of us do. So give ’em a break. It’s not hurting anyone else. ...

I hear from young friends [in the industry] that it’s even worse in television now, because the networks have so much power, it’s incredible. Dick and I were so lucky to live at that time we did, when we were in the business, and deliver a lot of hits. And [the TV networks] loved us, and they let us do practically anything we wanted to do, except nuclear. I can’t complain.

JKP: I understand that you weren’t very happy with Mannix. You guys worked on just the pilot, or just the concept, as I remember. But you were credited thereafter as the creators of that series.

WL: [The pilot] was rewritten, and we didn’t like that. Mannix we left in order to go to Universal. We usually didn’t like to stick with shows. Set them up, launch them, get the right writers, and then we’d go our merry way. We always had other projects in mind. On Mannix, the star [Mike Connors] was terrific; we liked him a lot. But that was considered a very violent show back then. Can you believe it?

JKP: Not really. Over the last couple of years, I’ve rewatched the first three seasons of Mannix, and they seem fairly tame by today’s standards.

WL: I know. It was very, very unfair to call that violent. And then Dick and I--though we’d left Mannix early on--were blamed for creating a violent show, whereas we always shunned any kind of violence on our shows. We also shunned smoking, except in Columbo. We’d wanted [the character] to get rid of the cigar in the second season, but Peter said, “No, it’s a great prop; I want to use it.” Well, he was the 800-pound gorilla, and you don’t mess with them. And the cigar has become an indelible part of that character. But in all our other shows, there was no smoking. And ironically, that’s probably what killed Dick Levinson. He smoked three packs a day.

JKP: Have there been other screenwriters over the decades whose work you particularly appreciated?

WL: Yeah, Steven Zaillian is number one--he wrote Schindler’s List, a brilliant Steven Spielberg movie. We worked with Steven when he first began, we mentored him at Universal. He did our first on-the-air Columbo, “Murder by the Book.” In that episode, we had two mystery writers, and one killed the other--his partner. The jest around the Universal lot was, did Link kill Levinson, or did Levinson kill Link?

JKP: [Laughs] Jack Cassidy played one of the writers, I recall, but who played the other one?

WL: Uh, he did a police series before that. It was ... Martin Milner, who’d been on Adam-12. Yeah.

That was a good episode. We had a terrific cinematographer, Russ Metty, for those early Columbo shows. He was a four-time Oscar winner. He’d directed three Orson Welles movies. He was incredible, a curmudgeonly sort of guy. But he started out lighting the shows like deep, dark mysteries--all shadowy. We said, “It’s not that type of mystery.” We wanted him to light [Columbo] like a Technicolor musical at MGM, but he didn’t get that. So we finally bought him two boxes of Havana cigars--genuine, because he was a big cigar smoker--and we took him to the best restaurant for lunch at Universal, and he finally got the key light up, so we were happy. [Laughs] Metty died not too many years later. He had cancer, I think, at the time he did Columbo.

JKP: What are you reading these days?

WL: I read a lot of crime novels, especially those by Michael Connelly. And I’ve discovered another brilliant author; he’s Norwegian, and his name is Jo Nesbø. You know him?

JKP: Oh, sure, the author of Redbreast, Nemesis, and The Devil’s Star.

WL: Right. Well, Michael Connelly put me on to him. He said, “If you like my books, Bill, you’ve got to read Jo Nesbø.” I also love the Parker books. Do you know those?

JKP: You mean Robert B. Parker?

WL: No, though I liked his books too. But I’m talking about Donald Westlake writing under the pseudonym “Richard Stark.”

JKP: Oh, Westlake’s books about the professional thief, Parker.

WL: Yes. He wrote 23 of them, I’ve read 20 so far. The three last ones are coming out next summer. I don’t know if you know those books ...

JKP: I do. And the University of Chicago Press has been republishing the whole Parker series over the last couple of years.

WL: Yes. Wow, you really know your stuff.

JKP: I’ve been doing this for a while. I love crime fiction. But you know the reason why I got interested in crime fiction in the first place?

WL: Why?

JKP: Because of the old NBC Mystery Movie and Columbo. Until my introduction to those in the early 1970s, I had been a science-fiction reader. Since then, I’ve hardly read any science fiction at all, but I have enjoyed thousands and thousands of crime novels. And it’s because of those old TV shows that I have come to this point. I went from watching the NBC Mystery Movie to discovering Ross Macdonald, to discovering Robert B. Parker, to discovering Arthur Lyons and so many other wonderful crime writers.

WL: Ah, wasn’t Ross Macdonald great?

JKP: He was. I had the chance to interview him once. But it was just at the time when he was starting his decline, losing his memories. I was young then, and there were times during our conversation when he couldn’t remember some things. He and I went to some Chinese restaurant to talk, and we stayed there for hours.

WL: In Santa Barbara [where he lived]?

JKP: Yeah.

WL: No kidding. You’re a lucky guy.

JKP: I’ve been told that.

WL: He wrote wonderful books. So did Raymond Chandler, one of my all-time favorite crime authors. He didn’t write many books, unfortunately, what with his drinking problems. But he wrote so well. He had great similes. He was terrific.

JKP: Just one more question: What are you going to do after we end our conversation here?

WL: [Laughs] I’m going to go back to work on another Columbo short story, as it happens. I’ve been working on it for a while, and I think I have it almost right.

5 comments:

Yvette said...

Fabulous, FABULOUS interview, Jeff.
LOVED reading it and thinking back to the shows I watched and loved in the 'golden age of tv'. Link seems like a terrific guy as well as being a helluva writer.

AndyDecker said...

Wonderful interview! Levinson really knows his mysterys :-) I have to get this book. I love the first seasons of Columbo. They should feel dated, but do not, even if the last clue is the murder forgot is an answering machine twice as big as today´s laptop. I even like some of the last batch, except those McBain adaptions which feel horribly ill-suited for the series. But the character is so strong that it is kind of ageless, and it is nice to hear that the storys are contemporay. I also assumed that these would be a kind of period pieces.

Paul D. Brazill said...

Smashing interview. Columbo is a great creation. I have fond memories of Tenafly too.

Lee Goldberg said...

Great interview... certainly far better than the one I did with him at Bouchercon!

Lee

J. Kingston Pierce said...

No need to belittle your Bouchercon interview, Lee. I thought you did a great--and very entertaining--job speaking with William Link. You had a connection with him as a fellow screenwriter that I lacked. But I think people who both heard your interview and read mine now know a great deal about the man and his classic television efforts.

Cheers,
Jeff