Over the past year of hibernation, many viewers have rediscovered the joy of watching Columbo. The landmark 1970s TV mystery series starred Peter Falk in his multiple-Emmy-winning role as a raincoat-wearing, cigar-smoking detective who always had just one more question. The show was also popular in the time of its original airing, where it rotated on the NBC Mystery Movie schedule and featured an array of dazzling murderous guest stars like Janet Leigh, Leonard Nimoy, and John Cassavetes.
Columbo’s reach even stretched to other countries: The people of Romania, for example, were huge fans. So much so that in 1974, when the Columbo episodes for that season ran out, the populace protested, and the Romanian government reached out to Falk himself to try to stem the uprising. This week, Twitter user John Frankensteiner dug up a 1989 Chicago Tribune article relaying the incident. Many on Reddit have called bullshit—but Falk told the story himself in his memoir Just One More Thing, and also during a 1995 David Letterman appearance.
The confusion, as Falk explains, came from the fact that the Romanian government had a quota on how much American television could be viewed in the country. With Columbo averaging less than 10 shows per season, the people of Romania were convinced that the government was keeping more episodes from them, stoking fears of a massive protest. So the U.S. State Department invited Falk to a meeting in a New York hotel room with a representative from Romania. In his memoir, Falk describes that he was understandably flummoxed, and asked, “[P]lease excuse the language, but what the fuck do I know about the Romanian government?” He was informed that the show had swept the country—that “Columbo is Romania’s Elvis Presley”—and was persuaded to deliver a phonetically spelled-out speech in Romanian to assure the populace that Columbo would in fact be returning the next TV season. For doubters, a transcript of the speech is available on WikiLeaks.
Falk unbelievably asks Letterman, “Was that a good story?” and the host and the audience enthusiastically assure him that it’s one of the greats. While the perennially humble Falk still seems overwhelmed by the rumpled detective’s popularity, having watched several seasons of the show ourselves over these past insular months, we totally get Romania’s passion for the program. Fortunately for current Columbo fans, seven full seasons are available for streaming on Amazon Prime, with 10 on Peacock.