Peter Falk did something no one ever did before. He made inverted mysteries a popular entertainment force on a show with little violence, no sex appeal in the lead actor, only one recurring actor, and he did it with his own talent and charisma. On paper, Columbo should not have been a hit. But it was-and it still is even after his death.
My Favourite Columbo Episodes
Peter Falk starred in 68 episodes of Columbo. These inverted mysteries starred movie and television stars as the killers and we loved watching Falk nail the murderer.
Beloved TV Detective
Falk Was Recognized as Lt. Columbo World-Wide
When Peter Falk died at the age of 83 on June 23rd, 2011, the world lost a great actor. We also said goodbye to one of the most popular characters in television history.
Falk stopped acting in 2009. The book was officially closed on the career of Homicide detective Lt. Columbo-first name unknown-that spanned from 1971-2003 in sixty-eight entertaining murder mysteries. Each mystery was tightly written, wonderfully acted, and thoroughly entertaining. The closest the show came to having a theme song was Columbo whistling "This Old Man." He had a wife-unseen and unnamed-and a dog he never named except to call him "Dog." He wore this yellow raincoat in the hot sun of L.A. year round, loved cigars, pretended he was bumbling, and drove the killers crazy with his interjection "Just One More Thing."
Here is a list of my favourite Columbo mysteries. You will notice that these are all from the 1970s and not from the recurring TV movies. This is a reflection on my love for old time actors, not a reference to the quality of acting. All Columbos are fun. I say favourite, because there is no way to choose a best list as I couldn't narrow it down to ten, let alone the number I list here. But if I focus on my favourites, then it's a reference to subjective choices which are easier to narrow down. I will say first that I have written a special section on Patrick McGoohan who appeared in Columbo four times as the guest starring murderer-the most of anyone, although several people appeared in two or three- as I couldn't decide which of his was my favourite and I wanted to choose one episode per guest star.
In alphabetical order of the Guest Star, here are my favourite Columbo episodes:
Johnny Cash-Swan Song
The Man in Black starred as, well, a famous Country singer in black who sang with his wife and a young woman as back-up. Ida Lupino starred as his wife who is a thorn in his side and must be eliminated. He decides to murder her in a seemingly accidental plane crash where he is injured himself and then attempts to prove he is unconcerned about investigators searching the crime scene for new evidence-while he is apparently on board a commercial flight with a water-tight alibi during the time he plans to retrieve the evidence. But why did Cash alter the arrangement of songs from an alto arrangement that suits his wife, to a soprano arrangement that suits his new love if he didn't know ahead of time that Lupino wouldn't be able to perform?
Robert Conrad- An Exercise in Fatality
Conrad is exercise guru Milo Janus of a sucessful chain of health clubs who is threatened by the owner of one of his franchise clubs with fraud exposure. He murders him at the club and tries to make it seem as if the victim was alone and working at the gym when he died. Meanwhile, Janus is apparently hosting a party at his home at the time of the so-called accidental death. Columbo sees several holes in this theory. Why are there scuff marks on the gym floor? How and when did Conrad burn his wrist? And why is the light burnt out on the suspect's home phone that should light up when someone is using the second line?
Janet Leigh-Forgotten Lady
I love it when actors and actresses are able to play ficticious artists and use their real life movies as part of their characters' careers. Two examples of this on the big screen are Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard and Joan Crawford in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? In Forgotten Lady, Janet Leigh is a movie and stage star who wants desperately to return to the stage and star in a musical -but her doctor husband will not approve the financing or declare her medically fit. She lives in a dream world where her fictional characters are real people and in the past when she was young. She thinks her husband is just being obstinate and uses the cover of Johhny Carson and The Tonight Show as an alibi. But there was a good reason she couldn't revive her career-she's dying.
Leonard Nimoy-A Stitch in Crime
Nimoy is Dr. Mayfield, a surgeon who needs to murder his partner and fellow doctor. When his partner needs heart surgery, Nimoy grabs his opportunity and hides the fact that he is using temporary sutures by dying them the proper colour. Unfortunately, nurse Anne Francis picks up left over suture on the ground and it feels wrong. Before she can prove her suspicions and tell them to the authorities, Nimoy murders her. But he is not safe from Columbo.
William Shatner-Fade Into Murder
Shatner appeared twice on Columbo-this time as an actor who plays a detective on a popular TV show similar to Columbo. Imagine Columbo behind the scenes in a situation where Falk's agent was blackmailing him, and there you have the premise. Of course, this is just a fictional story. Ward Fowler is an actor with a secret and shameful past and his agent is blackmailing him. Shatner uses his real life lack of height as a plot line as part of his cover up. As always, Mrs. Columbo is a big fan of Lt. lucerne, but she doesn't get to meet her hero or make an appearance. Star Trek fans will note that Walter Koenig who played Chekhov on The Original Series makes a brief appearance as a detective first on the scene of the crime. The two Sci-Fi icons do not share a scene, however.
Robert Vaughn-Last Salute to the Commodore
Vaughn starred in two Columbo mysteries. This episode is unique in the annuls of Columbo and the inverted mystery paradigm. It is the only episode in which we do not know the true identity of the murderer or the way in which the murder was committed.And yet, it is still an inverted mystery in terms of the accomplice. Confused? Shortly after hearing him argue with his wife regarding money and wills, Vaughn comes across the body of his father-in-law, the Commodore of the title, and finds his wife's jewelry nearby. Convinced that his wife is guilty and wanting to shield her so that he can share in the inherited money, he starts an elaborate scheme to cover up the crime. When he realizes that his wife had been framed and suspects the identity of the real killer, Vaughn is murdered himself. From then on, the audience is totally in the dark.
Scenes from An Episode Starring Jose Ferrer and Robert Walker Jr.
Movie Stars Appearing on Columbo
Some Otherwise Never Appeared on Television
Some actors have acted both on the big screen and the small screen equally. Some switch mid-career. Others tends to stay in one medium. The only time some movie stars agree to appear on television is for award shows. However, Columbo and Falk were special. There were several movie stars and movie character actors who agreed to guest star on Columbo. Some examples are:
John Cassavetes-Falk's real life best friend, in Etude in Black
Jack Cassidy- Murder By the Book (first aired episode), Publish or Perish, and Now You See Him
George Hamilton-A Deadly State of Mind and Caution: Murder Can Be Hazardous to your Health
Wilfred Hyde-White-Dagger of the Mind and Last Salute to the Commodore
Louis Jourdan-Murder Under Glass
Janet Leigh-Forgotten Lady
Ida Lupino-Short Fuse and Swan Song
Roddy McDowell-Short Fuse
Ray Milland-Death Lends a Hand and The Greenhouse Jungle
Dean Stockwell-The Most Crucial Game and Troubled Waters
Patrick McGoohan-Four Times a Killer
McGoohan and Falk Had Great Chemistry Together
Patrick McGoohan loved portraying a killer on Columbo. He guest-starred on Columbo four times, playing four unique murderers. He also directed several episodes. He was by no means the only one to star in multiple Columbos, but he starred in the most episodes: By the Dawn's Early Light in 1974, Identity Crisis in 1975, Agenda for Murder in 1990, and Ashes to Ashes in 1998. He directed five episodes: the last three of his own acting episodes, as well as Last Salute to the Commodore starring Robert Vaughn and Murder With Too Many Notes starring Billy Connolly. I particularly love the two from the 1970s.
In By The Dawn's Early Light, McGoohan is in charge of a military academy. Col. Rumford is in danger of losing his command if the Chairman of the Board of the military academy convinces the board to fire him. Rumford murders his victim and secures his career only to become obsessed with the fact that the cadets are fermenting cider-a military infraction, for sure, but Rumford should really ignore this minor crime. The problem is that the only time he could have seen the offending cider in the window is by the dawn's early light-when only the murderer could have seen it.
In Identity Crisis, McGoohan is a CIA agent who murders Leslie Nielsen. There are plenty of references to McGoohan's popular spy TV series The Prisoner. Fans of both shows get a plethora of insider comments. Patrick's Nelson Brenner loves to play mahjong, and is an expert of Chinese culture. The episode is set during the time of the Olympics and China's decision to participate or withdraw -and Brenner's knowledge of this-will factor heavily in Columbo being able to disprove his alibi. This is the episode in which Columbo first addresses his dog simply as "Dog."
Columbo starring Peter Falk
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