10 episodes that show why Columbo is the most iconic TV detective of all time

10 episodes that show why Columbo is the most iconic TV detective of all time

With so many new series popping up on streaming services and DVD, it gets harder and harder to keep up with new shows, much less the all-time classics. With TV Club 10, we point you toward the 10 episodes that best represent a TV series, classic or modern. If you watch these 10, you’ll have a better idea of what that series was about, without having to watch the whole thing. These are not meant to be the 10 best episodes, but rather the 10 most representative episodes.

Richard Levinson and William Link met in junior high, kicking off a writing partnership that lasted until Levinson’s death in 1987. The two put their stamp on a variety of ’70s detective programs (Mannix, Ellery Queen), continuing on into the ’80s (Murder, She Wrote). But one of their creations stands out above all: Lieutenant Columbo, as played by Peter Falk.

Columbo began as a secondary character in Levinson and Link’s play, Prescription: Murder; the Broadway run starred Joseph Cotten as a murderous husband and Agnes Moorehead as his wife and victim. With that marquee talent in the lead roles, the playwrights were astounded to discover that the character who riveted the audience most of all was the disheveled, disarming detective who cracks the case almost apologetically. A filmed version of Prescription: Murder in 1968 became the first Columbo pilot, with New York actor Peter Falk taking on (and owning) the sleuth’s role.

Prescription: Murder set up the Columbo template: After a drawn-out, elaborate murder scheme—carried out by one of the biggest stars of the day—Columbo stumbles in 20 minutes later to solve the case. The show offered a genius twist on the tired “whodunit” schemes so common in Agatha Christie mysteries, as the viewer began every Columbo episode already knowing the identity of the culprit. In their book Stay Tuned: An Inside Look At The Making Of Prime-Time Television, Levinson and Link credit the Columbo method to the “inverted mystery form” of R. Austin Freeman, who asked, “Would it be possible to write a detective story in which the reader was made an actual witness of the crime and furnished with every fact that could possibly be used in its detection?” Apparently it was, leading to 68 episodes and four Emmys for Falk. The trick was in watching how the detective would outsmart these murderers, who were usually brilliant (and conceited) artists, creators, or moguls at the top of their respective fields.

As Columbo explains it to the murderous psychiatrist in Prescription: Murder as they discuss the case “hypothetically”:

“Cops, we’re not the brightest guys in the world. ’Course, we got one thing going for us: We’re professionals. I mean, you take our friend here, the murderer. He’s very smart, but he’s an amateur. I mean he’s got just one time to learn, just one. With us, well, with us it’s a business. You see, we do this 100 times a year. I tell you, Doc: That’s a lot of practice.”

Falk made the detective’s underdog appeal unforgettable. So much credit must be given to the way he completely inhabited the character; within an episode or two, viewers learned Columbo’s every idiosyncrasy. Not just his trenchcoat, his cigar, and his car, but his stooped posture, his gestures, his tendency to pull random objects out of his pockets, and his unfailing politeness, even when speaking to a party he knows is guilty. Unlike gritty cops of the era, he didn’t even carry a gun. Falk described the character in his 2007 autobiography (Just One More Thing, the title adapted from Columbo’s personal catchphrase) as “a guy with a mind like Einstein who sounded like the box boy at Food Giant.” Falk hand-selected Columbo’s permanent wardrobe—including the legendary raincoat as well a tie and shoes from his own closet—and picked out the beat-up 1959 Peugeot 403 convertible right out of the lot. All of these elements fleshed out this original character in a wholly three-dimensional way, creating an irrepressible, relatable everyman.

Which made the show’s tendency to pitch Columbo against titans of industry and the arts so satisfying to witness. Who isn’t envious of maestros and TV producers and famous food critics and their palatial estates? Who wouldn’t want to see insufferably self-important people taken down by a polite, self-deprecating detective with a Sherlock Holmes-like attention to detail? Levinson and Link point out: “Given the persona of Falk as an actor, it would have been foolish to play him against a similar type, a Jack Klugman, for example, or a Martin Balsam. Much more fun could be had if he were confronted by someone like Noël Coward.”

The show’s shift of the mystery question from “who” to “how” was brilliant, as audiences reveled in Columbo’s every unraveling of the villains’ artificial innocence. Although many of these solutions involved Columbo baiting traps that would have a hard time standing as actual evidence in any court of law, that didn’t make them any less enjoyable to witness. And there was so much in these plots to unravel: The immediate draw for the viewer involved wondering about the significance of Roddy McDowall’s uncle’s cigar box, or why Theodore Bikel had to set up a magic marker so precisely next to a phonograph.

In a throwback to golden age of television anthologies like Playhouse 90, NBC created a revolving Mystery Movie of the week in 1971. After the success of Prescription: Murder, Columbo joined the Mystery Movie lineup on Sunday nights (featuring a suspenseful theme song by Henry Mancini), alongside shows like McCloud and McMillan & Wife, which paled by comparison. Due to Falk’s winning portrayal and the celebrity power of his various guest stars—most of whom jumped at the chance to play against Falk as killers—the show had no other regular cast members. Although a familiar LAPD detective (like the one played by Bruce Kirby) might pop up occasionally, Falk’s ability to spark and have chemistry with nearly all of his guest murderers eliminated the need for any further cast.

The rotating schedule of the NBC Mystery Movie meant that Columbo episodes were a bit longer than average—more like a TV movie, and less frequent—with fewer than 10 episodes over a season. This meant that Levinson and Link had time to focus on the show’s high quality while attracting the best creators in the business, many of whom were in the early stages of their careers: The show’s first regular episode was directed by a twentysomething Steven Spielberg. Jonathan Demme took a hand at season seven’s “Murder Under Glass.” Actors like The Prisoner’s Patrick McGoohan, Nicholas Colasanto (Coach from Cheers), Ben Gazzara, and Falk himself took turns behind the camera. Writers included future Hill Street Blues and NYPD Blue creator Steven Bochco (who also served as a story editor), and the prolific Stephen J. Cannell (21 Jump Street, The A-Team, Wiseguy).

When the NBC Mystery Movie ended after seven seasons, Columbo lay stagnant for over a decade. Then the character improbably jumped networks when ABC started its own weekly Mystery Movie, with Columbo appearing alongside such favorites as Kojak. Columbo appeared on the network in a series of ABC TV movies from 1989 to 2003. These newer episodes lacked the perfect, unvarnished chemistry of the ’70s episodes, but still featured a few great star turns (William Shatner) along with some embarrassing ones (Fisher Stevens). And Falk’s portrayal of Columbo never faltered as the detective grew older.

These 10 episodes exemplify why Columbo is the first character that comes to mind upon hearing the words “TV detective”:

Prescription: Murder (pilot): The initial Columbo pilot features the basic “inverted mystery” premise that made the show so riveting, but is also interesting for its slightly different, early version of the titular character: Peter Falk here is decidedly less mussed, and a bit more stern with suspects and reluctant witnesses. He inaugurates his method of politely pestering the suspect with seemingly meaningless questions, and his signature inability to leave a room without turning around and asking about “one more thing.” Columbo also had a sly way of tipping off the audience that he knows what’s up. In this instance, the villainous doctor silently returns to his apartment (where he previously left his murdered wife), only to find Columbo instead. The detective comments, “You know, it’s funny. When I get home from a trip, the first thing I do is say, ‘Honey, you here?’”

“Murder By The Book” (season one, episode one): Columbo’s premiere episode enlisted the kind of exemplary TV talent that would define the series: Directed by Steven Spielberg, written by Steven Bochco, and guest-starring Jack Cassidy in his first of three superlative appearances as the icy villain. The plot features the dissolution of a mystery-writing team not unlike Levinson and Link themselves (one of the writing duo’s books is called Prescription Murder). Cassidy and Falk could not be more different, so it’s fun to see the two string each other along until the murderer stumbles enough to get caught. Columbo even compliments Cassidy as he finally takes him down: “You know what, Ken? I’m gonna tell you the truth. For awhile there I never thought I was going to get you. Believe me, you had me going in such circles, I couldn’t figure it out!”

“Blueprint For Murder” (season one, episode seven): Columbo ended its first season with the only episode Peter Falk ever directed, and one of the series’ few offscreen murders. Columbo chases a Howard Roark-esque architect who has offed the husband of his benefactor, but the body remains hidden for the entire episode. Columbo then hatches an elaborate trap to get the architect to reveal the body. This episode contains one of the many instances in which Columbo refers to one of his offscreen family members, like his attorney brother-in-law who discovers that the architect would lose his funding if the benefactor’s husband’s body is found. The architect dryly comments, “That’s some attorney, your brother-in-law,” and Columbo simply shrugs, “Yeah, we’re all pretty proud of him.”

“Étude In Black” (season two, episode one): Falk faces off against his real-life best friend, director John Cassavetes, playing an arrogant maestro. The actors clearly have such a deep regard for each other, evident in the way Cassavetes calls Columbo “genius,” or his bemused smile at his friend’s portrayal of this iconic character. Bonus cameos by screen legend Myrna Loy and Blythe Danner, the latter of whom is unfortunately best known these days as Gwyneth Paltrow’s mother.

“A Friend In Need” (season three, episode eight): Man Of La Mancha’s Richard Kiley stars as the murderer this time, with a unique wrinkle: He’s Columbo’s boss. This episode, directed by Ben Gazzara, showcases Columbo’s unflagging belief in his own detective work: He spends his time fighting factual inconsistencies (Why is there soap in the lungs of a woman who supposedly drowned in a swimming pool? Why are there no fingerprints on a phone that a wife supposedly used to call her husband?) while standing off against the entire police force, led by the Deputy Commissioner (Kiley). Columbo faces the loss of his job and his badge, so again has to fabricate a complicated trap to catch the killer.

“Identity Crisis” (season five, episode three): Another of Falk’s friends, Patrick McGoohan (whom he once called “the most underrated, under-appreciated talent out there”), appeared as the villain more times than anyone else (four), and won two Emmys for his efforts. In this episode, McGoohan (who also directed) is a double agent who offs Leslie Nielsen, and Columbo stumbles right into the middle of the CIA, which is implausibly headed by Bewitched’s Larry Tate (David White).

“The Bye-Bye Sky High I.Q. Murder Case” (season six, episode three): Sure, Columbo is smart, but can he really trip up the head of a Mensa-like private club? Villain Theodore Bikel, who concocts a Rube Goldberg-like murder plot, doubts it. But Columbo reveals here what makes him so effective, as he recalls his days in the police academy: “When I first joined the force, sir, they had some very clever people there. And I could tell right away it wasn’t going to 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.”

“Try And Catch Me” (season seven, episode one): The premiere episode of Columbo’s final regular season features Ruth Gordon as a mystery novelist who murders her nephew-in-law because she discovered that he killed her niece. While most of Columbo’s murderers are selfish egotists, here Gordon is in full-on Harold And Maude mode, making for one of the most sympathetic killers the show ever produced. This episode showcases the greatest instance in which Columbo has an unrestrained affection for the murderer, but still has to do his job.

“Columbo Goes To The Guillotine” (season eight, episode one): After a 12-year hiatus and a network switch, Columbo returned with this entertaining jaunt into the world of magic (both Levinson and Link were amateur magicians, so they liked to occasionally feature this theme in their shows). Brideshead Revisited’s Anthony Andrews portrays a charming magician and con artist who actually uses the titular device as a murder weapon, while Columbo tries to figure out all the various illusions.

“Butterfly In Shades Of Grey” (season 12, episode two): This later effort offers the opportunity to see William Shatner absolutely devour the scenery in his second Columbo appearance as the guilty party. There’s rarely been a Columbo takedown so gratifying, as the obnoxious Shatner gets caught in a snag provided by those troublesome new communication devices called cell phones.

Don’t miss these murderous guest stars: “Suitable For Framing” (season one, episode four, with Ross Martin), “Double Exposure” (season three, episode four, with Robert Culp), “Swan Song” (season three, episode seven, with Johnny Cash), “Negative Reaction” (season four, episode two, with Dick Van Dyke), “Forgotten Lady” (season five, episode one, with Janet Leigh), “Now You See Me” (season five, episode five, with Jack Cassidy), “Murder Under Glass” (season seven, episode two, with Louis Jourdan), “Make Me A Perfect Murder” (season seven, episode three, with Trish Van Devere), “Columbo Goes To College” (season 10, episode one, with Stephen Caffrey and Gary Hershberger), and “Death Hits The Jackpot” (season 11, episode one, with Rip Torn).

Availability: Seasons one through seven are available on Netflix and Amazon Prime; DVD collections of later seasons are also available.

Next time: Sonia Saraiya takes a look at broadcast TV’s best ongoing network drama, The Good Wife.

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