Tuesday, September 27, 2011

NBC’s “Mystery Movie” Turns 40: “Columbo”

(The first entry in our long-running succession of posts highlighting shows featured in the 1971-1977 NBC Mystery Movie “wheel series.”)

Title: Columbo

Starring: Peter Falk

Original Run: 1971-1978 (43 episodes, plus two pilots), NBC-TV; 1989-2003 (24 episodes), ABC-TV

Premise: Rumpled, stogie-chomping, and unassuming Lieutenant Columbo of the Los Angeles Police Department matches wits with prominent, devious, and generally prosperous murderers. And through a combination of professional smarts, subtlety, and persistence (“Just one more thing ...”), he finds a weakness in the criminals’ meticulous planning that finally brings them down. The series’ creators acknowledged that Columbo was based on Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Porfiry Petrovich, the investigator in Crime and Punishment (1866).

Background: Undoubtedly the best-remembered and most celebrated of the 14 shows introduced under the Mystery Movie umbrella, Columbo was the brainchild of childhood friends and longtime writing partners Richard Levinson and William Link. They had previously created Mannix, and boasted scripting credits from such notable TV series as The Fugitive, Honey West, Arrest and Trial, The Name of the Game, and The Bold Ones.

Levinson and Link initially developed the character of LAPD Lieutenant Columbo (no given name, despite some evidence to the contrary) as a secondary player in “Enough Rope,” an episode they penned for The Chevy Mystery Show, an hour-long NBC anthology series that served in 1960 as a summer replacement for The Dinah Shore Chevy Show. (In that episode, Columbo was portrayed by actor Bert Freed.) Not long after that, they turned their small-screen drama into a stage play, Prescription: Murder, which enjoyed a year-and-a-half run starring Gone with the Wind’s Thomas Mitchell as the deceptively brilliant homicide detective. Then, in 1968 Levinson and Link took Prescription: Murder to Universal Studios as a TV series pilot.

Their plan was to hire Bing Crosby as Columbo, but the aging crooner-actor kindly passed on the role. Subsequently, a younger performer from New York named Peter Falk contacted Levinson and Link, saying, “I’ll kill to play that cop,” and he quickly won them over with his offbeat sense of humor and Everyman persona. Although Falk’s Prescription: Murder failed to spawn a series, its impressive audience ratings convinced the writers to give their concept another shot. And in March 1971, their second Columbo pilot, the even-better Ransom for a Dead Man (featuring Lee Grant as a clever, self-controlled killer), was broadcast, convincing NBC at last that Columbo should become a regular series.

“The problem was, though, Falk didn’t want to do another series,” Link recalls. “He’d done a show called The Trials of O’Brien [1965-1966], and that was a disaster. He wanted to do movies, instead.” Finally resolving this dilemma was Jennings Lang, a talent agent turned producer, who’d become the head of Universal’s television department. Link credits Lang with proposing that Columbo be part of a new “wheel series,” rotating with other shows in a 90-minute slot. That way, Falk would be committed to only half a dozen shows each year, leaving him time enough for feature-film assignments.

And thus was born the NBC Mystery Movie.

From the outset, Columbo was really the spoke that drove the rest of this wheel series. It was the biggest audience draw, the big award winner, and even the inspiration for a succession of paperback novels. Viewers loved the program’s “inverted detective story” format, which revealed the perpetrator’s identity at the beginning but then left it up to the lieutenant to gather proof of his or her crimes. They were still fonder of Falk’s portrayal of Columbo as an ostensibly bumbling and slow-witted Italian-American sleuth--a man who drives a beat-up old Peugeot, evidently owns only ill-fitting suits and one shabby raincoat, is obviously fond of his wife (though she’s never seen on the show) and indulgent of his pet Basset hound, but on the surface looks quite outmatched when it comes to collaring sophisticated slayers. As British novelist Mark Billingham wrote several years ago in The Rap Sheet:
[F]or 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.*
Columbo became illustrious in part simply for the caliber of villains Falk faced, everyone from Robert Vaughn and George Hamilton, to Robert Culp, Patrick McGoohan, Ruth Gordon, John Cassavetes, Leonard Nimoy, and Dick Van Dyke. (The series was almost as renowned for its various directors, including Jonathan Demme, Leo Penn, Ben Gazzara, and the aforementioned McGoohan.)

The pattern for this show was firmly established with its very first episode, “Murder by the Book,” which also introduced the NBC Mystery Movie on September 15, 1971. “Murder by the Book” featured Jack Cassidy (later to appear in two additional Columbo installments) as Ken Franklin, the handsome but ruthless, and less-talented of two mystery writers, who shoots his partner (played by Adam-12’s Martin Milner) before the latter can dissolve their lucrative affiliation.

When I ask him about “Murder by the Book,” the now 77-year-old Link explains that “Jack Cassidy was one of our favorite villains, because he had the proper amused contempt for the cop character.” Yet what was equally interesting about that earliest regular Columbo episode is that it featured “this young brilliant director named Steven Speilberg,” who was still at the beginning of his career, having worked on Marcus Welby, M.D., Night Gallery, and an unusual episode of The Name of the Game. “He was only in his early 20s,” remembers Link, “but he could stage things within the [camera] frame using techniques that stage directors used when they moved over to making movies--and yet [Spielberg] had never directed for the stage.”

Below I have embedded a video trailer for “Murder by the Book.”

Here’s a delightful collection of clips (borrowed from YouTube’s Columbo channel) in which the lieutenant asks his murder suspects “just one more thing”—ultimately to their detriment.

And here’s the closing scene from the Season 4 episode “An Exercise in Fatality,” in which Columbo finally drops his well-crafted net around killer and fitness expert Milo Janus (played by Robert Conrad).

Despite its continuing popularity, Columbo--the last vestige of the NBC Mystery Movie--was finally cancelled in 1978. By that time, Peter Falk had reportedly turned his best-known dramatic role into a pot of gold, pulling down $2 million a year for work on only four two-hour episodes. He’d begun racking up prominent parts in big-screen pictures such as Murder by Death, The Cheap Detective, and The Brink’s Job, and wasn’t inclined to invest more time in his series protagonist. He even once quit the show, at least temporarily.

“I love Columbo,” Falk was quoted as saying at the time, “but there’s only so much you can do with it. I love pork chops, too. It’s just that I don’t want to eat pork chops every day for the rest of my life.”

Additional Notes: Columbo was one of only two NBC Mystery Movie components to outlast that wheel series, the other being Jack Klugman’s medical-examiner drama, Quincy, M.E. In 1989, 11 years after it concluded its original run, Columbo was revived as part of a new wheel, this time on a competing network and a different night (first Monday, later moved to Saturday). It was reintroduced on February 6, 1989, as one of three shows broadcast under the banner of The ABC Mystery Movie. (The other programs were B.L. Stryker, with Burt Reynolds as a houseboat-living Miami private eye, and Gideon Oliver, based loosely on Aaron Elkins’ novels and starring Louis Gossett Jr. as a Columbia University anthropologist-cum-detective. In Season 2, Telly Savalas’ Kojak was revived as part of this wheel, and a new Jaclyn Smith series, Christine Cromwell, was added.)

William Link explains that it was no easy matter getting Falk back into Columbo’s wrinkled raincoat. “Peter was doing feature motion-picture work in New York at the time, and I used to fly back and forth every weekend [from Los Angeles] and meet with him at his hotel ...,” says Link. “Finally I got him to say that if I could get him half-a-dozen well-worked-out scripts, all with that final ‘pop’ we liked so much, he’d look at them. So I went back to Hollywood and called in some good mystery writers who could handle scripts for Columbo. It was very tough finding writers who could handle these stories, because they were basically about one person circling another for 90 minutes, or later two hours. But of course I did get the scripts, and Peter said yes. I think at the back of his mind he always wanted to do Columbo again. It was the hit that made him so popular all over the world. Why not experience that some more?”

(Left) TV Guide’s October 1, 1988, reintroduction of Columbo, now as part of The ABC Mystery Movie. Click to enlarge.

Although The ABC Mystery Movie (eventually relocated to Monday nights) was cancelled during the summer of 1990, Columbo lived on in a string of occasional ABC movies of the week, beginning with Columbo Goes to College (December 9, 1990) and concluding with Columbo Likes the Nightlife (January 30, 2003). By that stage, however, William Link--whose writing and producing partner, Richard Levinson, died of a heart attack in March 1987--was no longer associated with the crime drama he’d created and done so much to make famous. Falk engineered his removal as the show’s executive producer after the first six Columbos ran on The ABC Mystery Movie. “It wasn’t exactly a ‘firing,’” Link points out. “I was told that I’d done great work on the series, but Peter would like to do them on his own from now on.”

Falk had long wanted to take complete control of Columbo’s reins, says Link, “but the problem was, he was very bright and was obsessed with the character and the show ... but he didn’t know how to work with writers. Dick and I were writers, and even we found it hard to hire people who could tackle the Columbo format. But Peter wasn’t that accustomed to working with writers, and the episodes after I left were weaker and less clever. I just don’t think those Columbos were really up to par.”

My own memory of the later Columbo movie specials was that they sometimes made their cop protagonist a caricature of himself, and were rather flabby in their plotting.

But even lesser Columbos usually had much to commend them. And the brand remained sturdy. In 1999, TV Guide listed Lieutenant Columbo in the No. 7 spot on its rundown of the “50 Greatest TV Characters of All Time.” A Sleuth Channel poll of its viewers in 2006 ranked the LAPD detective as the second-most-popular TV or movie sleuth of all time, right between Thomas Magnum (No. 1) and Jim Rockford (No. 3). And a subsequent online survey, this one conducted by The Rap Sheet, picked Columbo as the “Best TV Police Detective in History.”

Recognizing the enduring interest in his character’s exploits, in 2007--the year he turned 80 years old--Falk proclaimed, according to Wikipedia, that
he had chosen a script for one last Columbo episode, Columbo: Hear No Evil. The script was renamed Columbo’s Last Case. ABC, the network that aired the more recent Columbo series (beginning in 1989), declined the project. In response, producers for the series announced that they were attempting to shop the project to foreign production companies. However, Falk’s involvement in the project was put into doubt after he was diagnosed with dementia in late 2007, following a dental procedure. During a 2009 court trial over Falk’s care, Dr Stephen Read stated that the actor’s condition had deteriorated to the point where he could no longer remember the character of Columbo.
Peter Falk died on June 23, 2011. But Lieutenant Columbo lives on in a collection of short stories William Link published last year, in DVD releases of the series, and certainly in the hearts of ever viewer who, like yours truly, followed that stoop-shouldered sleuth through years of twisty TV investigations, confident that sooner or later he’d find the key piece of evidence he needed to apprehend his overconfident quarry.

Next up: McCloud

* Actually, the murderers on Columbo don’t make their mistakes near the end of the show, but rather earlier. It is at the end, however, when the lieutenant makes it clear to his adversary that he’s discovered the damning mistake.

READ MORE:Bringing Columbo to the Printed Page,” by J. Kingston Pierce (The Rap Sheet); “‘Just One More Thing’ About Falk, TV’s Columbo (Terry Gross, Fresh Air); “In Praise of ... Columbo,” by Cavershamragu (Tipping My Fedora); “Peter Falk’s First Case as Columbo” (Classic TV Film and TV Café); “Episode Rankings” (The Columbophile); “Comfort Viewing: 3 Reasons I Love Columbo,” by Elisabeth Vincentelli (The New York Times).


le0pard13 said...

Great piece, Kingston. I remember the Columbo series and movies fondly. It's a rare thing to have a unique lead character, entertaining stories, and fun villains last as long as it did. Thanks for this.

p.s., I'm sorry we missed each other in St. Louis and B'con.

Robin said...

Wonderful post, Kingston. Really made me want to go back to see one of the shows. And what a shame Peter Falk recently moved on. Cheers!

AndyDecker said...

Still watch the episodes when they are on. Colombo is so much fun. But those McBain adaptions? A weird choice and not so good.

Matt said...

I followed your name-link here. Thanks for this great break in my workday. I watched all 8 minutes and 49 seconds of Colombo puttin' the squeeze on Mr. Conrad, enjoyed it as much as the first time!

devis said...

The Columbo movies were really good. They make me feel so nostalgic

Unknown said...

I really enjoy columbo.. Can watch everyday..getting others into it lol

Unknown said...

I've lived a rather sad life as an unattractive person, but i could always lose myself for a couple of hours watching the great Peter Falk playing Columbo.