Lieutenant Columbo, played by Peter Falk, remains the most original, best-written detective in television history. Other shows featuring private detectives (The Rockford Files) or policemen (Hill Street Blues) may contain more tongue-in-cheek humor or exciting action sequences, but when it comes to pure detection, brilliant plotting, and intricate clues, Columbo remains unsurpassed. Its uniqueness stems from the fact that it is one of the few "inverted" mysteries in television history. While other mysteries like Murder, She Wrote were whodunits, Columbo was a "how's-he-gonna-get-caught?" Whodunit was obvious because the audience witnessed the murder firsthand at the start of each episode—also making the show unique in that the star, Falk, was completely missing for the first quarter hour of most episodes. This inversion produced a more morally balanced universe; while the murderer in another show might spend 90 percent of its running time enjoying his freedom, only to be nabbed in the last few scenes, in Columbo the murderer's carefree lifestyle was short-lived, being replaced by a sick, sweaty angst as the rumpled detective moved closer and closer to the truth. The climatic twist at the end was merely the final nail in the coffin. The show was consistently riveting with no gunplay, no chase sequences, and virtually all dialogue. The inverted mystery is not new, having been devised by R. Austin Freeman for such books as The Singing Bone, but never has the form been better utilized.
Columbo sprang from the fertile minds of Richard Levinson and William Link, who met in junior high school and began writing mysteries together. They finally sold some to magazines, then to television, adapting one story they'd sold to Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine for television's The Chevy Mystery Show. When Bert Freed was selected to play the part of the detective in this mystery, called "Enough Rope," he became the first actor to play Lieutenant Columbo. Levinson later said the detective's fawning manner came from Petrovich in Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment, and his humbleness came from G. K. Chesterton's Father Brown. Deciding to dabble in theater, Levinson and Link adapted this story into the play Prescription: Murder, which opened in San Francisco starring Joseph Cotton, Agnes Moorehead, and Thomas Mitchell as Columbo. When made-for-TV movies became a popular form, the writers opened up their stagebound story to make it more cinematic, but they needed to cast a new actor as the detective because Mitchell had died since the play's closing. The authors wanted an older actor, suggesting Lee J. Cobb and Bing Crosby, but they were happy with Falk as the final choice once they saw his performance. The film aired in 1968 with Gene Barry as the murderer, and the show received excellent ratings and reviews. Three years later, when NBC was developing the NBC Mystery Movie, which was designed to have such series as McCloud and McMillan and Wife in rotation, the network asked Levinson and Link for a Columbo pilot. The writers thought that Prescription: Murder made a fine pilot, but the network wanted another—perhaps to make sure this "inverted" form was repeatable and sustainable—so "Ransom for a Dead Man" with Lee Grant as the murderer became the official pilot for the series. These two made-for-TV movies do not appear in syndication with the series' other forty-three episodes, though they frequently appear on local stations.
NBC Mystery Movie premiered in September 1971, and the talent the show attracted was phenomenal. That very first episode, "Murder by the Book," was written by Steven Bochco (Hill Street Blues, NYPD Blue) and was directed by Steven Spielberg. The series also employed the directorial talents of Jonathan Demme, Ben Gazzara, Norman Lloyd, Hy Averback, Boris Sagal, and Falk himself, among others. Acting talents such as Ray Milland, Patrick McGoohan, John Cassavetes, Roddy McDowell, Laurence Harvey, Martin Landau, Ida Lupino, Martin Sheen, and Janet Leigh contributed greatly to the series, though what made it a true classic was Falk's Emmy-winning portrayal of the rumpled detective. The raincoat, the unseen wife, the dog named Dog, the ragtop Peugeot, the forgetful-ness—much of this was in the writing, but Falk added a great deal and made it all distinctly his own. Levinson said, "We put in a servile quality, but Peter added the enormous politeness. He stuck in sirs and ma'ams all over the place." He said another of the lieutenant's quirks evolved from laziness on the writers' part. When writing the play Prescription: Murder, there was a scene that was too short, and Columbo had already made his exit. "We were too lazy to retype the scene, so we had him come back and say, "Oh, just one more thing." On the show, the disheveled, disorganized quality invariably put the murderers off their guard, and once their defenses were lowered, Columbo moved in for the kill. Much of the fun came from the show's subtle subversive attack on the American class system, with a working-class hero, totally out of his element, triumphing over the conceited, effete, wealthy murderer finally done in by his or her own hubris.
The final NBC episode aired in May 1978, when Falk tired of the series. Ten years later, Falk returned to the role when ABC revived Columbo, first in rotation and then as a series of specials, with at least twenty new episodes airing throughout the 1990s. Levinson and Link wrote other projects, and Falk played other roles, but as Levinson once said, referring to himself and Link, "If we're remembered for anything, it may say Columbo on our gravestones."
Conquest, John. Trouble Is Their Business: Private Eyes in Fiction, Film, and Television, 1927-1988. New York, Garland Publishing, 1990.
Dawidziak, Mark. The Columbo Phile: A Casebook. New York, The Mysterious Press, 1989.
De Andrea, William L. Encyclopedia Mysteriosa. New York, Prentice Hall General Reference, 1994.
Levinson, Richard, and William Link. Stay Tuned: An Inside Look at the Making of Prime-Time Television. New York, St. Martin's Press, 1981.