Columbo at 50: How Peter Falk’s shambling detective became an enduring TV icon

Columbo at 50: How Peter Falk’s shambling detective became an enduring TV icon
It’s been half a century since beloved TV mystery series ‘Columbo’ premiered with an episode directed by a young Steven Spielberg. Kevin E G Perry talks to David Koenig, author of a new book on the show, about the rumpled sleuth’s continuing appeal

In 1960, up-and-coming screenwriters Richard Levinson and William Link were hard at work expanding a mystery script they’d written into a full-length stage play. The story, Enough Rope, featured a detective named Columbo, a dogged, unpretentious cop modelled after Porfiry Petrovich, the shrewd magistrate from Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment who patiently hounds the killer until he snaps and confesses. The pair had just finished typing out a scene where Columbo interrogates a suspect and then leaves his apartment, but it ran a little short. If Levinson and Link had been using a modern word processor they might have added to the middle of the scene, but on a typewriter, that would mean retyping the whole thing from the start. Feeling lazy, they decided it would be simpler to have Columbo stick his head back through the door and say: “Just one more thing…”

They didn’t know it then, but Levinson and Link had just given Columbo his catchphrase. After their play – retitled Prescription: Murder – became a hit, the pair parlayed its success into Columbo, the much-loved mystery series which premiered 50 years ago today on 15 September 1971. The show became a global phenomenon during its initial eight-season run from 1971-1978, before returning in fits and starts from 1989-2003. Almost two decades on from Columbo cracking his final case, the show has proved one of the surprise streaming hits of the pandemic era. Earlier this year, as protests over policing continued across America, the actor Julie Klausner joked: “I started hashtagging my posts #DefundThePolice #ExceptForColumbo.”

The mystery of why Columbo is perpetually popular is so straightforward, it wouldn’t trouble the great detective. First, there’s the appealingly unconventional structure: Columbo episodes are not traditional murder-mystery whodunits, rather they are “inverted mysteries” in which the audience sees exactly who the killer is and how they committed their crime within minutes of the opening titles. At first, the murder appears to have been ingeniously planned and covered up, but once Columbo arrives on the scene he slowly and methodically begins uncovering seemingly inconsequential inconsistencies and a string of clues that lead him to the show’s “gotcha” reveal, in which the murderer’s carefully laid plans are finally unravelled. The show’s star Peter Falk liked to call this moment the “pop”.

Columbo’s other greatest asset was Falk himself. David Koenig, author of the comprehensive new book Shooting Columbo: The Lives and Deaths of TV’s Rumpled Detective, remembers watching the show with his mother in the Seventies and noticing how Falk’s performance set him apart from traditional hard-nosed TV gumshoes. “If you watch him in the very first pilot, Prescription: Murder, Falk is just sort of acting the stage play without a whole lot of himself in the role,” says Koenig. “It comes across as interesting, but nowhere near as engaging as it quickly became when he realised: ‘This is a series, not a one shot. I’ve got to make myself memorable and quirky and likeable.’ He did that in spades by imbuing the character with so much of himself.”

Falk wasn’t the first to play Columbo. In the original TV production of Enough Rope, the detective was played by character actor Bert Freed, while in the stage production of Prescription: Murder he was played by Oscar-winner Thomas Mitchell. Levinson and Link’s first choices to play Columbo on a longer-term basis were 12 Angry Men’s Lee J Cobb and Bing Crosby, who liked the script but declined the role on the basis that it would require too much time away from his beloved golf course. Falk wasn’t even approached, but ran across the script by chance. “I probably picked it up on somebody’s desk, and I fell in love with the character,” Falk later recalled. “I really wanted to play that part, and I went after it. They said I was too young and was not right. There aren’t many parts that I really want.”

After winning the role, at least in part through sheer persistence, Falk set about making the character – and the show – his own. He gave Columbo a rain jacket from his own wardrobe, a tan trench coat he’d bought a couple of years earlier when a sudden rainstorm compelled him to duck into a shop on 57th Street in Manhattan. He also ad libbed his lines so often that Levinson eventually instructed the show’s writing team to underwrite Columbo’s discursive dialogue and just let Falk do his thing. “Peter Falk IS Columbo,” noted Levinson. “You don’t have to write all that stuff, because that’s Peter. You don’t have to write Peter, because Peter’s Peter. If you write that stuff and then Peter does that, on top of being Peter, it’s over the top.”

Falk, however, didn’t make things easy for Levinson and Link, their producers at Universal Studios, or the show’s network NBC. He was known to become embroiled in long arguments about the script and slow down filming with his desire to constantly re-shoot scenes. He even faked an illness that held up production in a bid to give himself more leverage over the studio.

Koenig points out there are two opposing views over whether Falk’s behaviour was justified. “Do you want Peter Falk’s answer, or do you want Universal Studios’ answer?” he asks with a laugh. “To Universal, Falk’s intransigence was some deliberate attempt to sabotage their gold mine. In Peter Falk’s mind, he wanted every episode to be like little perfect movies… and that’s not how weekly network television works! In a sense, he was playing the part of Columbo, this down-to-earth, humble, polite, seemingly shambling fellow battling the giant production studio and the giant television network, to try to achieve what he thought was best.”

Columbo’s David and Goliath dynamic is another intriguing aspect of the show’s appeal. When Levinson and Link set out the structural rules that Columbo episodes follow, they made it clear that the stories should be drawing-room mysteries more akin to Agatha Christie than your average American cop show. They take place in a dreamlike version of Los Angeles full of exquisitely decorated stately mansions and devoid of shoot-outs or car chases. Columbo doesn’t carry a gun and indeed greatly dislikes them. The killers are almost exclusively members of the wealthy elite, arrogant enough to believe they can quite literally get away with murder. “They intentionally created the dynamic of the big guy being taken down by the little guy,” says Koenig.

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‘Columbo: It’s All In The Game’, from 1993, starring Faye Dunaway and Peter Falk

One thing that Levinson and Link did agree with Falk about was that Columbo should feel more like a series of movies than a weekly television show. To that end, they sought out Hollywood’s most exciting young directors. The first episode of the first season was helmed by a then-24-year-old Steven Spielberg, who reflected on the experience in 2018. “I think, in a way, the freedom that I was able to exhibit on that Columbo episode came from Richard Levinson and William Link, the creators of Columbo, who encouraged me and later others to not make it look like a TV series, but to make it look like a feature film,” Spielberg told Empire. “They were the first producers who actually encouraged me to make choices that were weird and unconventional.”

Since Falk’s death in 2011, the idea of rebooting Columbo has been raised on numerous occasions, with Mark Ruffalo considered a leading candidate to don the fabled trench coat. “I think it’s inevitable that Universal at some point try to reboot the character,” says Koenig. “It’s too popular and valuable a character not to, but it will be difficult because 90 per cent of the success of the show is probably because of Peter Falk. So do you have somebody who does a Peter Falk impression? Or you could do something totally different where it’s not Peter Falk but, then, is it Columbo any more?”

It’s a dilemma that Knives Out director Rian Johnson seems to have pondered. A noted Columbo obsessive, he was rumoured to be planning to reboot the show with Natasha Lyonne as his lead. Instead, it was announced in March that the pair will be collaborating on their own original mystery-of-the-week show titled Poker Face. Around the same time, Johnson wrote about his love of Columbo – and its unique leading man – on Twitter. “I freakin love it and have seen every single [episode] but my enjoyment is 10 per cent from the mystery/thriller, 70 per cent hanging out with Peter Falk, 20 per cent interior design,” he wrote. “The weird secret of Columbo is it’s mostly a hang-out show.”

It seems, then, that Richard Levinson got it right all those decades ago: Peter Falk IS Columbo, and it’s next to impossible to imagine the show without him. Falk’s obsessiveness and drive for perfection may have pissed off his producers at the time, but half a century on, it’s still his dishevelled Columbo to whom audiences want to return again and again, as he wrong-foots the well-heeled villain with a perfectly-timed: “Just one more thing…”

‘Shooting Columbo: The Lives and Deaths of TV’s Rumpled Detective’ is available now

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