Monday, September 10, 2007

“I’m Just Another Cop. My Name Is Columbo”

Editor’s note: As we noted in this space last month, British novelist Mark Billingham (Death Message) has recently been involved in the production of a radio documentary about Columbo, the popular 1970s American TV series that starred Peter Falk as a rumpled Los Angeles homicide detective who was far savvier than his well-off suspects realized--until it was too late. That documentary, titled Just One More Thing: Columbo! is scheduled to be broadcast on the UK’s BBC Radio 4 tomorrow, September 11, beginning at 11:30 a.m. Columbo fans living outside of Britain will be able to “listen again” to the show via the Radio 4 Web site a day or so afterwards. In anticipation of that broadcast, we asked Billingham to share with us some of his experiences in assembling this special and meeting “Columbo” himself. His reminiscences are featured below in their entirety.

* * *

Being asked if I’d like to present a documentary about Columbo was as close as you could get to a no-brainer for me. I’ve been a huge fan of the show, and of star Peter Falk in particular, for as long as I can remember. Fortunately for me, I mentioned that fact once in an interview, and a producer from BBC Radio 4 got in touch.

The original idea involved all sorts of worthy notions, including the debt the NBC show owes to Crime and Punishment and the inverted mysteries of R. Austin Freeman. Although these things are mentioned in the finished program, there simply isn’t time in 30 minutes to go into such things in any depth. Instead, we have a documentary which, while looking at how Columbo came about, concentrates on celebrating it, on asking why it has become so iconic and endured so long.

Most people are familiar with the show’s groundbreaking format, the fact that it turned the traditional whodunit upside down; and for me and many others the joy of watching Columbo is in observing the beautifully choreographed dance of death between the cop and the killer. The viewer becomes the fascinated voyeur, relishing each step or misstep, enjoying every moment as the tension is ratcheted up, until that final “pop” when the murderer makes his or her one mistake and Columbo pounces. These “pops” were meticulously researched and Falk himself became obsessive about them. He tells a story involving everyone on the Universal Studios lot being asked to remove their trousers, just to check which hand most people used and which leg they stepped out of first. Falk had plenty of stories …

Fewer people outside the industry might be aware that the show was a breeding ground for some of the most innovative talents to emerge in film and TV over the last 30 years. Dick Levinson and Bill Link, the show’s creators, brought in a young writer and story editor named Steven Bochco. Steven Spielberg directed the first episode in season one. Later, Jonathan Demme, after the failure of his first feature, was called in to direct a fantastic episode called “Murder Under Glass” with the wonderfully louche Louis Jourdan as a murderous restaurant critic. Bochco and Demme both raved about Columbo when we spoke to them. Demme tells a fabulous story about how, while traveling with Jimmy Carter for a documentary he was making, he was constantly introduced by the ex-president as the “man who directed Columbo,” rather than the man who directed The Silence of the Lambs or Philadelphia. Carter, it seems, is a real Columbo nut! Bochco talked very openly about some of the frustrations of working on Columbo, but is most fascinating when he starts to analyze it and reveals his theory that class warfare is at the very heart of the show. Columbo himself is the working stiff, fatally underestimated by the rich and powerful villains he is pursuing.

Falk, of course, completely disagrees ...

So, we talked to Bochco, Demme, and at length to Bill Link, the surviving half of the team that started it all. It would have been nice to talk to a few more of the “guest murderers,” but even if we could have got hold of more (Leonard Nimoy didn’t respond, William Shatner said no, Faye Dunaway wanted far too much money), there simply would not have been time to fit them all in. As it is, we did get the wonderful Robert Vaughn, who of course was both killer and victim. Others who were interviewed and didn’t make the final broadcast included Ben Gazzara (who together with Falk and John Cassavetes were something of a ’70s “Rat Pack”) and acclaimed UK TV writer Jimmy McGovern, who acknowledges his debt to the show in his creation of Cracker.

But we did get some fantastic interviewees and of course, we got Falk himself. It wasn’t the easiest interview to set up and was arranged and canceled a number of times before we finally got to talk. However, it was worth the wait. Plenty of people had talked about how “difficult” Peter could be. He was famously barred from the Universal lot on one occasion and was certainly a perfectionist. But all those we interviewed spoke about him with enormous warmth, and of course acknowledged his tremendous gifts as a performer. As it turned out, he was an utter joy to talk to, giving us two hours of his time and a host of wonderful stories to choose from. We found out about the coat, and the car, and the wife we never saw. We discovered where that “unofficial theme tune” came from, and that same story reveals just how much of a perfectionist and stickler for detail Falk really was. And when I asked him about the lieutenant’s mysterious first name ... well, his response just about makes the whole program for me. Falk turns 80 years old on September 16, but remains a consummate performer with an unmatched sense of comic timing. To think, we could have been stuck with Bing Crosby. Bill Link reveals that were it not for a golf game, he would have been Columbo!

So happy birthday, Peter, and I hope those who listen to the show enjoy it. My favorite episode of Columbo? Well I’m fond of “Étude in Black” with Cassavetes, and “By Dawn’s Early Light” with Patrick McGoohan. But of course, I’ve got a soft-spot for “Swan Song” from season three, with Johnny Cash as blackmailed country star Tommy Brown. If only we’d made this show a few years ago, I might have had the chance to talk with him as well ...

BONUS QUESTION: In which episode of Columbo does the lieutenant utter the line we’ve used as the headline on this post?

POSTSCRIPT: Although BBC Radio 4 no longer invites people to tune in for Mark Billingham’s radio documentary about Columbo, the show remains available online, in three parts. I have embedded those segments below for your listening pleasure. And what a pleasure it is.


Anonymous said...

The title quote was used in the Columbo movie "Murder By The Book" when Columbo was introducing himself to the murder victim's wife, played by Rosemary Forsyth.


J. Kingston Pierce said...

Very good. I'm glad that someone FINALLY came up with the right answer to my bonus question.