Take one intricately plotted, perfectly executed murder where the identity of the killer is known to the viewing audience from the very outset, add one shabbily attired, vaguely exasperatingly disorganised LA homicide Lieutenant, modelled on no less a character as Petrovitch in Dostoevski's literary masterpiece Crime and Punishment, whose demeanour disguise's a brilliantly insightful mind. The result...a consistently entertaining series of cat and mouse battles of wits where the central question wasn't "whodunit?", but rather "how's he going to prove it?"
Now universally known for his definitive interpretation of the character, Peter Falk was actually the third actor to assume the role. Bert Freed first played Columbo on television in a live 1961 broadcast of an episode of The Chevy Mystery Show called Enough Rope, which was later adapted for the Broadway stage by Levinson and Link as "Prescription: Murder", starring 'Gone With The Wind's' Thomas Mitchell as the Lieutenant. Sometime later "Prescription Murder" itself was reworked as a one-off TV Movie, where for the only time in the shows run we heard Columbo referred to by his first name -Phillip. The legendary Bing Crosby was originally offered the Columbo role, as was Lee J. Cobb, but both actors refused, paving the way for Falk's triumphant debut.
Although well received by the viewers, a series wasn't immediately forthcoming because neither Columbo's creators nor the star felt that the format could be sustained on a weekly hour-long series basis. The problem was solved with NBC's creation of the "Wheel", an alternating cycle of feature length episodes of such series as McCloud, McMillan and Wife, and Banacek. Even then Columbo wasn't initially ensured a rotation on the Wheel, as it was feared that the proposed show's format had already reached its zenith with Prescription Murder. Ultimately however a new pilot, Ransom for a Dead Man was commissioned and from that point on Columbo soared.
So successful was the series that a spin-off, Mrs. Columbo was made in the mid-eighties. With its constant stream of high profile guest stars allied to Falk's consummate interpretation of the central character, Columbo continued past its original 1971-78 run, to become an irregular treat for viewers world-wide, on it's way picking up eight Emmy's, two for guest star Patrick McGoohan, and four awarded to Falk himself. The show also gave the opportunity to a new man to cut his directorial teeth-Steven Spielberg. The once innovative format has now become as comfortable and familiar to the audience as a favourite pair of slippers or well-worn cardigan. But like the crumpled, rumpled detective himself, it's one which is deceptively brilliant in its simplicity.
Published on December 5th, 2018. Written by Laurence Marcus & SRH (2000) for Television Heaven.