Wednesday, September 15, 2021

Half a Century of Columbo’s Brilliance

TV Guide’s September 11-17, 1971, Fall Preview edition included a double-page ad for its new Wednesday prime-time offerings, including the NBC Mystery Movie debut of Columbo.

What long-ago couch potato could have guessed, while paging curiously through the September 1971 Fall Preview edition of TV Guide, that folks would still be talking in 2021 about one of that season’s breakout hits, Columbo? But sure enough, Peter Falk’s quirky and brilliant crime drama—originally part of the NBC Mystery Moviewheel series”—remains a lively topic of conversation among lovers of vintage TV programming. It has even generated a fresh “behind the scenes” study, David Koenig’s Shooting Columbo: The Lives and Deaths of TV’s Rumpled Detective, which reached print this week. Skeptics who doubted that Falk could hold an audience, after the swift cancellation of his first small-screen series, The Trials of O’Brien (1965-1966), should still be tasting their own words upon their tongues.

Falk initially portrayed his Los Angeles policeman, Lieutenant Columbo (no first name ever given), in Prescription: Murder, a tailored-for-TV flick that premiered on NBC on February 20, 1968. Co-written by William Link and Richard Levinson, it found Columbo probing a murder perpetrated by a wealthy, devious psychiatrist Dr. Ray Flemming (Gene Barry), who believes—mistakenly, of course—that he can outwit the deceptively humble lieutenant. That telefilm was so popular, NBC wanted to turn it into a weekly series. But Falk balked at the notion, and it wasn’t until three years later that he finally agreed to reprise his Columbo role in Ransom for a Dead Man (originally shown on March 1, 1971), an honest-to-goodness pilot for what would be a limited annual number of 90-minute or two-hour Columbo episodes.

The first of those installments, “Murder by the Book,” aired 50 years ago tonight, on another Wednesday—September 15, 1971. Guest starring Jack Cassidy, Adam-12’s Martin Milner, and Rosemary Forsyth, “it remains one of the most compelling pieces of episodic television ever made,” to quote from a new post in The Columbophile.

Murder by the Book” was shot from a script produced by Steven Bochco, which was apparently based on a story concept by “future cult film-maker” Larry Cohen. Steven Spielberg directed the episode, which imagined mystery writer Ken Franklin (Cassidy) offing his less-greedy co-author, Jim Ferris (Milner), in order to prevent the latter from abandoning their best-selling partnership. Columbo is one of the cops summoned to sort out these grisly circumstances, and he doesn’t waste any time in establishing his command of both the case and every scene in which he appears. The Columbophile opines:
Although still finding his way in the role, Peter Falk’s Lieutenant Columbo already feels authentically lived in, while disguising an intellect that is steel trap sharp. The range he provides between the warm, human cop who cooks an omelette for a traumatised Joanna Ferris [Forsyth] and the shrewd investigator who bursts Franklin’s aura of invincibility by noticing he’d opened his bills right after finding his dead partner on his front lawn represents an actor at the top of his game.

However, what most makes ‘Murder by the Book’ sing is the presence of Jack Cassidy as the ultimate foil to the scruffy Columbo. His Ken Franklin is urbane, stylish, arrogant, extroverted—and utterly heartless. Yet being a double murderer never seemed such fun given Cassidy’s gleeful wickedness that makes him one of the series’ most cherished guest stars.
Cassidy, the father of singer-actor David Cassidy, went on to play the guest killer in two additional Columbo eps, “Publish or Perish” (1973) and “Now You See Him” (1976). He died in a West Hollywood penthouse blaze in December 1976.

Just two days subsequent to “Murder by the Book” being broadcast, NBC introduced another of its Mystery Movie segments with Once Upon a Dead Man, the two-hour pilot for McMillan & Wife, starring Rock Hudson and Susan Saint James; regular entries in that series began rolling out on Wednesday, September 29, a week after Dennis Weaver’s McCloud (which had previously been part of a one-hour rotating NBC series titled Four in One) joined the Mystery Movie lineup.

And the rest, as it’s said, was (very entertaining) history.

If you would like the opportunity to revisit “Murder by the Book”—or perhaps watch that episode for the first time (lucky you!)—The Columbophile provides it in its entirety here.

READ MORE:The 50th Anniversary of Columbo,” by Terence Towles Canote (A Shroud of Thoughts); “Why the World Still Loves 1970s Detective Show Columbo,” by Shaun Curran (


David S. said...

Funny you mentioned Martin Milner, he is pictured above right next to Falk.

pattinase (abbott) said...

I didn't even know where they were available until this. Went back and watched the first one with Jack Cassidy and it held up so well. Of course, its creators made a difference.