For many Columbo fans, 21 July 2015 will go down as a very sad day as that’s the day we lost a fine man and marvellous actor in Theo Bikel, who died aged 91.
There are many excellent and detailed tributes to Theo that have been released in the short time since his death that are far more eloquent and informed than anything I could put together.
But while I’m aware of his many accomplishments as a star of stage and screen (including legendary turns in The Sound of Music and Fiddler on the Roof) it was his performance as Oliver Brandt in the incomparable Columbo mystery The Bye-Bye Sky High IQ Murder Case from 1977 that resonates most with me. Why? Because he may well be more responsible than anyone for my love of the show.
My earliest memories of Columbo date back to the late 1980s, where I vividly remember watching Bye-Bye with my grandfather at his house. I would’ve been about 10 years old at the time, and it wasn’t Peter Falk that mesmerised me – it was the performance of Theo Bikel. His Oliver Brandt, with his massive frame, full beard and booming voice was really something to behold. For some reason I was drawn to his character, and I was rooting for him to get away with it. I was nervous for him as Columbo closed in, and felt a genuine sadness at his downfall.
“Theo Bikel may well be more responsible than anyone for my love of the show.”
Bikel brought a vulnerability and sense of isolation to Brandt that became more apparent the older I became. Despite his pomposity and lack of regard for his fellow man, Brandt was deeply lonely and a troubled soul.
His exchanges with Columbo near the end of the episode, when both reveal elements of their past lives and character, are among the series’ finest, and helped make Brandt a character we could really sympathise with. Hate the sin, sure, but love the sinner.
And when Bikel was required to boom and bark, he did it with aplomb. The scene where he berates young accountant Alvin, nearly reducing him to tears, is a terrific moment. And as he worked himself into a frenzy in the outstanding build-up to the episode’s climax, Bikel brought a desperate energy to Brandt that takes the breath away. Little wonder, perhaps, that Bye-Bye has always been my favourite episode, and brings me great pleasure time and time again.
So while in the bigger picture of his career Bikel’s Columbo role was tiny, it continues to mean a great deal to me and, I suspect, many other fans.
Thank you, Theo, for the memories.
This is one of my favourite episodes ever & possibly because of the performance of Theo Bikel. Like you, I wanted him to get away with it. I have seen that episode so many times by now but still enjoy it immensely.
Theodore Bikel was marvelous. I think he got an Academy Award for his performance in “I Want to Live”. He was also a terrific folk singer. He is missed.
Nice tribute. Bikel was indeed a good actor and a definite presence. He even elevates what is (for me) a rare Twilight Zone dud: Season 3’s “Four O’Clock”. I definitely recall him making this episode of Columbo a memorable one. I’ll have to break out my DVDs and watch it again!
Bikel deserves equal applause for his performance in the first scene of the episode. The self-congratulatory glee with which he sets up his murder-illusion contraption. Look at the right-hand picture of Bikel at the top of this page. It’s from this scene. You can see the expression of giddiness on his face. In this scene, I also like the fact that, although we clearly see the red magic marker, first in the attache case and next as Oliver Brandt lays it next to the turntable, Brandt’s body obscures what happens next, so we never see how it figures into Brandt’s plot (until the end of the episode). The next we see it, it is on the floor next to the dictionary.
There is one huge plot hole in this scene, however. With the room’s main door closed, Brandt opens the window, measuring it with a book, and then opens the back door. When he leaves the room, he opens the main door. According to his scheme, when you open this door, with the window open just so, the back door slams shut. But when Brandt opens the main door to leave the room, nothing happens to the back door. It’s a flaw you won’t catch the first time you see the episode, because you don’t yet know about the slamming back door.
Theodore Bikal is one my favorite murders on the show. When I watch an episode I often look through all the actors and read trivia about them. Turns out Mr Bikal was the co founder of the Newport Folk Festival in 1959. That means he also had close ties to some of my favorite musicians that appeared there over the years. He is a big loss for the world but a great gain for heaven.
Bikel certainly made his mark on the Columbo canon with his boisterous, intelligent performance on the show. The climax of this episode is like no other. Thanks LT for the memories! I may watch this again soon.