Friday, June 09, 2006

A Couple of Loose Ends to Tie Up

Here we go again. It seems that TV Guide blogger Michael Peck has finally answered that immortal question, “What was Lieutenant Columbo’s first name?” But Peck’s response is evidently incorrect. Replying to a reader’s query, he writes:
You’ve managed to hit upon one of the few mysteries never solved on the show, Chris (another being why the upper class seemed to view homicide as a pastime). Columbo, which rotated with Dennis Weaver’s McCloud and Rock Hudson and Susan Saint James’s McMillan and Wife to form the NBC Mystery Movie from September 1971 to September 1977 before showing up on ABC’s ABC Mystery Movie from February 1989 to February 1993, never quite said. Instead, the lovable, disheveled detective (Peter Falk), whose odd manner and dog-in-the-rain demeanor fooled many a murderer into underestimating him, was known simply as Lt. Columbo.

It wasn’t until February 1979, when NBC spun Columbo’s heretofore unseen wife into a series starring Kate Mulgrew (
Star Trek: Voyager), that Columbo’s name was uttered: Philip. Unfortunately, that was the only thing worth noting about the show, which debuted as Kate Columbo before being called Kate the Detective and then Kate Loves a Mystery--that last one creating the new, truly baffling head-scratcher over what the heck the network was thinking. No matter. None of the changes worked--Kate’s last name was even changed to Callahan and all mentions of her hubby excised--but the audience didn’t love her anyway. Kate was gone by year’s end.
So, “Philip Columbo”? Not so fast.

It may well be that writers for Kate Columbo picked up the given name of Falk’s Los Angeles police lieutenant from The Trivia Encyclopedia, written by Fred L. Worth and first published in 1974. However, that particular bit of arcanum turns out to have been bogus, a deliberate invention by Worth to catch out violators of his copyright. And in fact, Worth later brought a $300 million lawsuit against distributors of the Trivial Pursuit board game for using his made-up “Philip Columbo” in a game question. (A judge eventually ruled in favor of Trivial Pursuit, agreeing with the defendants that their use of Worth’s information was simply the result of research, not copyright infringement.)

During the two network runs of Columbo, the rumpled sleuth never actually revealed his first name. When asked at one point to disclose the name, he innocently replied, “Lieutenant.” But resolute triviaphiles--benefiting both from the DVD release of Columbo’s early seasons and a practiced use of the “Pause” button--may finally have solved this mystery. Apparently, in a first-season episode entitled “Dead Weight” (originally broadcast on October 27, 1971), Columbo flashed his LAPD badge and identification at a Marine Corps general played by Eddie Albert. A close-up of the signature on that ID certainly seems to show it reading “Frank Columbo.” (See the vastly blown-up image here.)

So, does that finally close this case? Probably not. Until Falk or somebody else responsible for Columbo’s remarkable success comes forward to declare that the lieutenant shared his first name with Frank Cannon rather than Philip Marlowe, I’m sure the evidence here will continue to be disputed.

* * *

Just one more thing: Columbo’s other notable moniker mystery concerns the lieutenant’s beleaguered missus. The spin-off called her “Kate Columbo.” Yet the original series was as mute about her first name as it was about her husband’s. The only real clue might have come not from Columbo itself, but instead from a surprise appearance Peter Falk made during a 1970s Dean Martin Celebrity Roast of Frank Sinatra. According to the Ultimate Columbo Site, Falk, portraying his by then already famous TV character, asked Sinatra for an autograph to take back to his wife. When the crooner inquired about the appropriate wording of that inscription, Falk/Columbo told him to write “To Rose.”

SYDNEY, MEET THE LIEUTENANT: Do you think that maybe Columbo has finally dumped that old raincoat after all these years? Not according to this video clip made to help promote ABC-TV’s 50th anniversary three years back. It finds the L.A. cop dropping by to help out CIA agent Sydney Bristow and the rest of the gang from Alias.

READ MORE:Finding Columbo,” by Dan Lewis (Now I Know); “Was Columbo’s First Name Really Frank?” (Columbophile).


Jim Barker said...

I's always liked the idea that Columbo'sparents called him "loius Tennat" "Louis Tennant". So when he says hirs first name is "Lou Tennant" he actuallu IS telling the truth...

Leslie Juvin said...

That's my brother's name: Lou Tennant

Everyone loves it.

Unknown said...

Mine is Phil Pheltersnach!...I love it!

Art S said...

I had that encyclopedia. It was a red hardbound book. There was mention about a Broadway show about Columbo where the name Philip is used. I actually believe it was copyright trap but it would make more sense if the fact was authentic.