In Special Guest Star, Gwen Ihnat takes a look at a standout turn by a performer in a TV series, noting what effect the appearance had on the actor, the series, and the TV landscape overall.
Columbo, “Étude In Black,” season two, episode one (1972)
When I was a kid, every Sunday my family would faithfully cluster around the TV to watch the NBC Mystery Movie of the week. It was a revolving anthology series, anchored by a haunting but intriguing synth-led theme song. Back in those times of old, we didn’t know which of the detectives in regular rotation we’d be watching that night: McMillan And Wife with Rock Hudson and Susan St. James was usually fun, Dennis Weaver’s McCloud was a snore. But when the theme song ended with the announcer firmly stating: “Tonight…Columbo,” we all thought we’d won the TV lottery for the week.
Columbo is a seminal series from my childhood that I have never shaken. The series differed from most mystery programs by working backward: It always started with the murder, then the fun would unfurl in watching that week’s arrogant killer (usually a TV or film star relishing the chance to play against type, like Dick Van Dyke or Janet Leigh) get disarmingly dismantled by the unassuming, rumpled detective. Watching with my family, we would play the game of, “When do you think he knows they did it? Does he know now?” Watching later with my friends in college or as a twentysomething, I realized that game was bullshit. He’s Columbo. He always knows. When I was on bedrest while pregnant with my twins—which sounds restful but was actually quite terrifying—only the daily double Columbo reruns on A&E (enjoyed while eating pints of Ben & Jerry’s and Stouffer’s frozen dinners, as I was eating for three) could sooth me.
I’ve written about Columbo for this site before, in a 2014 TV Club 10, but since this is my final byline for The A.V. Club, I hope you’ll indulge me. Also, that was a long time ago, before I was even a staff member at the site. Then as now, it amazed me that my lifetime of absorbing pop culture had finally turned into an actual job: that writing about a certain TV series could become a weekly assignment, that my encyclopedic knowledge of The Monkees could come in handy, that I’d be able to talk to people I’d only seen onscreen, like Alice Cooper and Margaret O’Brien. I truly, truly loved it, and never stopped feeling incredibly lucky that I worked here over nearly a decade and literally thousands of bylines. Well, until recently.
So when I thought about my final piece, it’s not surprising that I would go back to my brief column for the site and my favorite episode of TV of all time—still comforted by the familiar appearance of the kind man in the wrinkled brown raincoat with the unlit cigar. And while there are many, many spectacular Columbo episodes and guest stars—like Patrick McGoohan, Ruth Gordon, and Donald Pleasance—for sheer enjoyment value, I can never get enough of Peter Falk facing off against his real-life close friend John Cassavetes in the season two opener, “Étude In Black.”
For a pop-culture fanatic, this episode literally has everything: Directed by Nicholas Colasanto, a.k.a. Coach from Cheers! Co-starring Blythe Danner, who was pregnant with Gwyneth at the time! Golden age of Hollywood legend Myrna Loy! The first (hilarious) appearance of Columbo’s basset hound! The juxtaposition of Columbo’s decrepit car against the villain’s mansion, later seen in The Prince Of Bel-Air!
But mostly, as always in Columbo, the secret to the episode is in the chemistry between the lieutenant and his suspect. (As I mentioned in my first essay on this series, such was the off-kilter charisma of the Columbo character that Falk didn’t even need a supporting cast, just occasional recurring characters.) And that never was more evident than when Falk and Cassavetes faced off. Falk appeared in six of Cassavetes’ films, and while Falk apparently had some initial reservations about his looser approach to direction, he eventually took to it, becoming one of’ the director’s most enduring cast members as well as a close friend. (Cassavetes cast Falk as the husband of his own wife, Gena Rowlands, in 1974’s A Woman Under The Influence, for example.) Their unique bond (until Cassavetes’ death in 1989) was readily evident onscreen, like when the pair tore up the talk show circuit with their pal Ben Gazzara to promote Husbands in 1970, torturing Dick Cavett in the process.
Just a few year after Husbands, Cassavetes guest-starred on Columbo to kick off its second season. He plays maestro Alex Benedict, an egotistical musical genius who might even be more of a jerk than Rosemary’s Baby’s Guy Woodhouse (soon after we first meet him, he’s berating the staff at the Hollywood Bowl before his televised concert that same night). Alex is married to the sweet Janice (Danner) whose mother (Loy), has all the money. So when his latest mistress, Jennifer, threatens to expose their affair, which will cause Alex to lose everything, he kills her, staging it as a suicide by gas. He’s such an asshole, he subsequently also kills her bird into the bargain.
Colasanto’s direction (possibly aided by Cassavetes and Falk, according to rumors) is masterful throughout: The unsettling squawking of the bird as Alex stages the suicide, the juxtaposition of the police arriving at Jennifer’s house while the dramatic concerto from the concert plays in the background. But as I said, the main game here is the Falk-Cassavetes standoff. Like so many of the Columbo killers, Alex immediately dismisses this unassuming detective as no match for his own brilliance, until Columbo doggedly and carefully unravels all the clues to the case. Every one-on-one scene is a master class in surface politeness laid over a diabolical chess game.
At some point during the production, likely due to this dynamite chemistry or the fact that it was the season opener, the decision was made to extend this 90-minute Columbo episode into a two-hour one. While you can spy the stretched-out seams at times, we must be grateful for scenes like the one where Columbo asks Alex how much he makes. I’m guessing that it’s one of the add-ons because Cassavetes’ hair is shorter than in other scenes; nevertheless, it is an out-and-out delight. Columbo is, conceivably, trying to figure out how wealthy Alex really is, looking for some sort of motive, asking questions like how much taxes he pays on his palatial property and then quickly computing the home’s worth. Alex becomes increasingly flustered as Columbo zeroes in with his questioning, eventually just coming out and asking the maestro how much he makes for a living. Throughout the scene, you can see Cassavetes hiding a not-so-tiny grin as he sees his friend embody the character that would make him famous, and doing it so, so well.
There’s another stellar moment when Columbo heads to Alex’s mechanic, (invading the maestro’s expensive foreign car in the process) to tell Alex that he believes Jennifer’s suicide was actually a murder. The two walk together, and Columbo relays how he’s been up all night about the case, laying his arm on Alex’s jacket. Cassavetes then immediately proceeds to wipe his jacket sleeve off, subtly but firmly. This all leads to the beautiful scene in which Columbo confronts Alex with his suspicions, right on the Hollywood Bowl stage, then zaps him with a “Just one more thing” for the ages: the fact that Jennifer’s death is now a murder case, and he’s a homicide detective.
In the end, Alex is felled by a carnation boutonnière that he leaves at the crime scene, then picks up later; in fact, it’s Columbo himself who sees him re-attach the flower at the scene of the crime. That and the fact that the televised Hollywood Bowl concert showed Alex without it is enough to damn him. After a heart-wrenching moment when Janice switches to Columbo’s side, Alex finally has to bow to Columbo’s superiority at the end, calling him “genius” with one last bow of his baton.
Because I’m an old, I can state this with agency: Even with the eleventy-billion series currently available for viewing, they just don’t make them like that anymore. Just like they don’t make sites like this one anymore. I like to think it’s appropriate that this look at Columbo would be my “Just one more thing…” on The A.V Club. I remain eternally grateful to anyone who ever read one of those above-mentioned bylines, and/or left a comment, over the past nine years. To say that it’s been an honor doesn’t really do this whole experience justice, but it is the absolute truth.