Murder mystery movies have a fine line when it comes to casting. When a big name is attached to the movie and isn’t the investigator, chances are that the person is the murderer, spoiling the reveal during the opening credits. There are ways around the problem. One is to have the big name be the murder victim, but that means spending a large chunk of budget on a role that appears for the first act. Another approach, the one used by Columbo, is to show the murder. The dynamic changes. The drama comes from wanting to see how the detective solves the crime.
The character of Columbo was created by Richard Levinson and William Link, originally for the anthology series, The Chevy Mystery Show, in 1960, adapted from a short story the creators wrote for Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine Levinson and Link then adapted the episode for stage in 1962. The Detective Lieutenant Columbo people are familiar with reappeared on television in 1968 with Prescription Murder, based on the stage play. Peter Falk, who played Detective Lieutenant Columbo in every movie since then, was not the first choice to play the role, but he convinced the creators he could be the character.
Prescription Murder did well enough as a one-off movie that NBC requested a pilot for a potential TV series. The resulting movie, Ransom for a Dead Man, was also successful. Columbo became part of the rotating NBC Mystery Movie line up along with McCloud, MacMillan and Wife, and Hec Ramsey The rotation allowed each part of the line up to spend the time needed without rushing, adding to the quality of each show. Falk won an Emmy for his portrayal of Columbo in the show’s first season, showing the benefit of the extra time.
Columbo ran until 1979 on NBC, then was revived on ABC as part of the ABC Mystery Movie line up in 1989, running until 2003. Peter Falk’s health prevented a 2007 Columbo movie from being made. Over the course of the series, most episodes followed a set format. The first act showed the murder and the murderer. Once the body was discovered and the police called in, Columbo would investigate the crime scene, looking at it at different angles, trying to find that one clue. The rest of the episode followed Columbo’s investigation, including his persistant questioning of his main suspect. The questioning was always done in a friendly manner, and never was directly about the murder. Instead, Columbo would ask about details about daily routines, about the victim, about the suspect’s job. Eventually, Columbo would find that one tidbit that would confirm beyond a doubt that his suspect was the murderer. The writers also played fair; all the details would be available and shown on screen. There was never a hidden clue pulled out from nowhere.
The heart of the series was always Peter Falk’s portrayal of Columbo. Falk provided much of Columbo’s wardrobe and ad libbed many of the detective-lieutenant’s mannerisms, including feeling through his rumpled raincoat for a pencil. Columbo is a friendly, unassuming man with an eye for detail and a quick mind. He loves his wife and his adopted Bassett hound and owns a one-of-a-kind car* that is much like him. At the same time, Columbo has no problem with misleading a subject, though never to the point of creating evidence. Staging a bicycle accident or using subliminal images to find the last piece of the puzzle, however, are just some of Columbo’s tactics. Columbo also went against the grain compared to other investigators of the era; with three exceptions, he never carried a gun. Two of the exceptions, No Time to Die and Undercover, were based on stories by Ed McBain. The third exception, and the only time Columbo has been seen shooting a gun, was Troubled Waters, where he fired a gun into a mattress for ballistics testing.
As mentioned, the special guest starts were usually the murderer. The interaction between Falk as Columbo and the guest stars resulted in many memorable scenes. Among the guest stars were Faye Dunaway, William Shatner (twice), Jack Cassidy (three times), Patrick McGoohan (four appearances and directed five episodes), and Robert Culp (four appearances, three times as the murderer). Identity Crisis, which not only featured McGoohan’s second guest appearance but also had him directing, was the closest to being a Columbo/The Prisoner cross-over**, with Lt. Columbo and Number Six trying to outwit each other.
In 1979, Fred Silverman was looking for a replacement movie in the Myster Movie line up. Silverman commissioned the spin-off Mrs. Columbo despite protests coming from Columbo creators Levinson and Link and from Falk. Silverman wanted to keep the Columbo name, if not the rest of the show. The opening credits formed the connection to Columbo, showing the Columbo’s distinctive car and distinctive dog along with ashtrays filled with cigar ash. The episodes, though, never showed Columbo, focusing on Mrs. Columbo, played by Kate Mulgrew, who would go on to play Captain Kathryn Janeway on Star Trek: Voyager.
Mrs. Columbo lasted one season and went through several name changes over thirteen episode. The series became Kate Columbo, then Kate the Detective, and, finally, Kate Loves a Mystery. Along the way, Kate’s last name became Callahan, explained as the character having gone through a divorce. The series followed the same format as Columbo, having well known guest stars as the murderer and showing the murder at the beginning. Kate worked at a small weekly newspaper as a columnist, which would lead her to getting involved in several mysteries. The first regular episode, “Murder is a Parlor Game”, guest starring Donald Pleasence (Blofeld, You Only Live Twice) and Ian Abercrombie (voice of Palpatine, Star Wars: The Clone Wars, among many other roles) had Kate get involved after she met retired Scotland Yard investigator Morly (Pleasence).
Mrs. Columbo, as a series, suffered from being a spin-off, an unpopular one to boot. While Mrs. Columbo was never seen in any episode of Columbo, the lieutenant spoke often and fondly of her. Kate Mulgrew was far too young to play Columbo’s wife; other details in Mrs. Columbo contradicted what was revealed by Lieutenant Columbo. The expectations that were set by being a Columbo spin-off were too high to be met. Mrs. Columbo was an obvious attempt to cash in on a familiar name and could have thrived without being attached to the earlier series. However, executive meddling by Fred Silverman set up the connection. The cast and crew did what they could. By the time the series found its feet, it was too late.
What Mrs. Columbo did show was that the approach to murder mysteries that Columbo took could work with other characters. A series that did use the approach would have to ensure that the investigator was his or her own person and not an attempt to mimic Falk’s character. Mrs. Columbo did have the advantage of flipping the investigator’s gender. In short, the series was handicapped by the connection and would have been better served by being its own entity instead of a spin-off.
Just one more thing. Some time back, I mentioned that Columbo would be a series that could never be remade. Without Peter Falk, it just wouldn’t be Columbo. He created so much of what endeared the detective to the audience through his ad libs that anyone else would be a pale imitation. Mrs. Columbo tried to bottle that lightning by riding the rumpled coattails, but there are spiritual successors. The Mentalist and Monk are both contenders. With a bit of effort, Mrs. Columbo could have been one, too.
* Columbo’s car is a 1959 Peugeot 403 Cabriolet two-door convertible. Only five hundred and four were made by that year. Peter Falk found the car that would become Columbo’s on the Universal back lot and decided it would be ideal. The car is as much a classic as Columbo.
** Also guest starring was Leslie Nielsen as the murder victim. Detective Lieutenant Columbo, meet Sergeant Frank Drebin, Detective Lieutenant, Police Squad