The shabby coat. The creased suit. The worn out shoes. The crumpled shirt and ancient tie. The unkempt hair. The car. The hallmarks of one of TV’s most famous detectives. Lieutenant Columbo, who always wanted one more thing, etched his way into people’s minds in such a way that his cases are now familiar to generations long after he first debuted.
Peter Falk played the eponymous Los Angeles policeman for 35 years, imbuing him with many of his own traits, changing him greatly from the hard nosed, brusque, clean cut detective in 1968’s Prescription: Murder, to the dishevelled crime solver we came to know and love.
Falk, though, was not the first man to play Columbo. He’d already appeared as a character in the television-anthology series The Chevy Mystery Show in 1960, played by the stocky Bert Freed, and then on stage in a theatre adaptation of Prescription: Murder in 1962, written by Columbo’s creator William Link. On this occasion he was played by the 70-year-old actor Thomas Mitchell, in what was to be his last role. It was six years later when Falk went head to head with Gene Barry’s ruthless psychiatrist in a two hour television play based on Link’s theatre script.
Not so much a “whodunit”, Columbo flipped the detective story on its head, instead showing the murderer commit the deadly deed, then backtracking from there as Columbo would piece together the clues to ultimately incriminate the guilty party, while throwing them off balance with his unassuming nature and friendly demeanour.
Therein lay the success both of the character and the structure of his stories. Most of them start establishing the killer’s character and that of their victim, before moving on to their usually elaborate murder scheme.
Then, with the deed done, Columbo arrives on the scene, often mistaken by the killer themselves as an intruder at the crime scene because of his appearance. He then goes on to win their trust and confidence, sometimes even deferring to their perceived superior knowledge. It’s all a ruse though, as he gently chips away at their confidence, picking holes in their story, finding pieces of their alibi that just don’t fit, and then most of the time tricking them into sealing their own fate.
A key part of Columbo’s charm was Falk’s approach to the character himself. He intentionally played him as an unassuming everyman, who came from a working class Italian family. Happily married to the never seen Mrs. Columbo, with a large clan of nephews, nieces and in-laws, Columbo wasn’t the suave Thomas Magnum or the all-action Banacek. He was a lowly man who had made his way through the force on hard work, a point explicitly made by the man himself in the exotcially named “The Bye Bye Sky High l.Q. Murder Case”:
“All my life I kept running into smart people. I don’t just mean smart like you and the people in this house. You know what I mean. In school, there were lots of smarter kids. And when I first joined the force, sir, they had some very clever people there. And I could tell right away that it wasn’t gonna be easy making detective as long as they were around. But I figured, if I worked harder than they did, put in more time, read the books, kept my eyes open, maybe I could make it happen. And I did. And I really love my work, sir.”
Falk was a renowned perfectionist on set, mirroring his character’s tenacity, but perhaps the greatest contribution he made to the role, was the look of Columbo. In his autobiography, Just One More Thing, Falk revealed the detective’s clothes, were his own, including the high-topped shoes and the shabby raincoat which made its first appearance in Prescription: Murder. The 1959 Peugeot 403 convertible that Columbo drove in virtually every episode though, wasn’t his. He did though, select it personally from the Universal Studios lot. By the time the series concluded in 2003, the car had passed into private ownership, and had to be loaned to the studio for Columbo to arrive in “style” at every murder scene.
Falk though, didn’t approve of the addition of “Dog”, his amiable, slack-jawed companion for around six episodes. Feeling that there were enough gimmicks connected to the character, Falk wasn’t keen on having a canine companion, but when he was introduced to the low-bellied, four-legged friend, he reportedly mellowed. The original “Dog” is also said to have died Medway through a series of episodes, and was replaced with an equally, shambling, passive mutt that was several years younger, but his lethargy more than made up for his youth.
Falk would also often ad lib his character’s idiosyncrasies (fumbling through his pockets for a piece of evidence and discovering a grocery list, asking to borrow a pencil, becoming distracted by something irrelevant in the room at a dramatic point in a conversation with a suspect, etc.), inserting these into his performance as a way to keep his fellow actors off-balance. He felt it helped to make their confused and impatient reactions to Columbo’s antics more genuine.
And some of those he confused and bewildered were Hollywood greats. We’ve already mentioned Gene Barry as the murderous Dr. Flemming in the pilot episode, but others who fell foul of his powers of deduction included Janet Leigh, William Shatner, Robert Culp, Leonard Nimoy, Martin Landau, Jack Cassidy, Faye Dunaway, George Hamilton, Ida Lupino, Ray Milland, Robert Vaughn and, lastly, Falk’s friend Patrick McGoohan. He directed five episodes as well as starring in four of them, each time ending up on the wrong side of Columbo’s intellect. Not forgetting Falk’s wife Shera Danese, who appeared in six episodes herself and even sang on the soundtrack of the episode “Columbo and the Murder of a Rock Star.”
And we can’t go without addressing, well, just one more thing. Only fellow curmudgeon Endeavour Morse has so closely protected his first name, and indeed, Columbo’s moniker is never explicitly revealed in print or on screen. When asked, he normally answers “Lieutenant”, and when pressed, says the only person who calls him by his first name is his wife.
But as ever with any Columbo story, it’s a matter of piecing together the clues. Take a look at his badge and identity card in the episode “Dead Weight”, which bears a signature that looks like the name “Frank”. The name also popped up in subsequent stories “A Matter of Honor” and “Death Hits the Jackpot”, and was included in a recreation of Columbo’s ID card in a DVD boxset. There was a brief dalliance with the name “Philip”, but that turned out, as in many Columbo adventures, to be a red herring.
When Peter Falk passed away in it marked the end of a stage and screen career marked by its longevity, but also by a character who essentially became an extension of Falk’s personality. Far from typecasting, it ensured that “This Old Man” will live on long after that coat was folded away, for the final time.
Editor’s note: Some information from this page comes from the excellent “Ultimate Columbo Site”, where you can find out more about episodes, guest stars, directors and trivia at this link: The Ultimate Columbo Site