The arguments for and against a Columbo reboot

Columbo reboot

Mark Ruffalo is the leading candidate to breathe new life into the Columbo character. But could he win the hearts and minds of fans?

Back in the middle of 2014, the internet was awash with rumours that a big screen reboot of Columbo was on the cards, with Hollywood ace Mark Ruffalo the most likely candidate to fill the rumpled raincoat. The #RuffaColumbo hashtag was even trending on Twitter as every man and his Basset Hound weighed in with an opinion.

More than just having perfectly Peter Falk-esque hair, and having done a very passable imitation of the Columbo character in the movie Zodiac, Ruffalo admitted on Twitter that he had been scoped out by renowned writer/producer Ed Solomon about taking on the role of Lieutenant Columbo in a film version. This was clout behind the hype. Ruffalo even expressed a definite interest in the project, although he stopped well short of saying it was a done deal.

Public reaction seemed to fall into one of two camps: either it would be the best thing ever that needed to happen right now; or that it was the worst idea in the history of entertainment. There was almost no halfway house. And I fell firmly into the latter camp along with many other vociferous fans. As the rumours faded away, we virtually high-fived and confidently told each other that the reboot would never happen. Now I’m not so sure.

Columbo reboot resurfaces in 2015

What’s happened to shake that belief? Well a year after the rumours quietened down, film writer Gary Whitta revealed that the idea was still alive, and that he and Fantastic Four director Josh Trank (both massive Columbo fans) and Ruffalo were all still keen to rekindle the idea.

Whitta’s ambition seems to be to create a “limited event series” for TV, and he has previously said that he’d be open to a big screen version paving the way for a series, which seems to work for Ruffalo, too. And while there’s still no firm evidence that anything could happen soon (not least due to Ruffalo’s hectic schedule), the fact remains that there’s still significant high-level interest and the will to turn the idea into a reality.

So how do I feel about that possibility? Well, I still firmly believe there’s no need to reboot Columbo. Why? I can best sum that up in two words: Peter Falk. He is such an intrinsic part of the character and dominates every discussion about the show. Falk was beyond merely being perfect for the role of Lieutenant Columbo: he was born to it like no other actor could be. What could anyone add to the role that would improve on what Falk brought to it? Heck, even Falk himself couldn’t do it as well when the show came back in the ’80s and ’90s, so what chance would other mere mortals have?

“Peter Falk was beyond merely being perfect for the role of Lieutenant Columbo: he was born to it like no other actor could be.”

True, others have played the part. Falk was the third actor to portray Lieutenant Columbo, and Dirk Benedict is said to have been excellent in the stage version of Prescription: Murder that toured the USA and UK in 2010-11 (sadly I never got a ticket, but I read good stuff). But Falk is the very essence of Columbo, and the 70s episodes, in particular, remain such great viewing that it’s hard to imagine that anything created today could compare to them, let alone top them.

But beyond that, I have a mistrust of reboots in general, which so often disappoint. Perhaps I even feel that Columbo deserves better than to be just another gem from the past updated for no good reason. Even if it was a labour of love (and I have nothing but respect for Mr Whitta, who has a genuine passion for Columbo, and has always been extremely supportive of my endeavours on social media and with this blog), I worry that a reboot would tarnish the legacy of what, to me, is the greatest TV show of all time.

The silver lining?

Of course, there are bigger problems in the world than rebooting classic TV shows, and I must be honest and say that if it does happen I won’t lose too much sleep over it. Mark Ruffalo is a fine actor, who seems to be a genuinely likeable chap, and if anyone in the world were going to be cast in the role of Columbo I couldn’t think of a better candidate. Poor casting would absolutely doom the enterprise. I’ve even seen David Tennant’s name linked to a reboot! Fine in Dr Who. Can’t picture him as Columbo in a million years…

“A reboot couldn’t help but introduce a new audience to the Columbo character and the original series. That could never be a bad thing.”

But even as someone who doesn’t think the show needs a remake, it would be naive of me to completely overlook the benefits. A reboot couldn’t help but introduce a new audience to the Columbo character, and would undoubtedly lead to legions of viewers discovering the original series, and developing a love for everything that Peter Falk brought to the role. That could never be a bad thing.

So if we assume that at some point the Columbo reboot will happen, I’d urge its creators to consider the following points:

  • Please set it in the 70s. This is where Columbo belongs and where the show worked best. We’ve already seen Columbo in the 80s, 90s and 2000s – generally far less successfully. Approach it as a period piece, and really have some fun in that upmarket 70s’ setting.
  • Pack it with A List guest stars. The original 70s series was notable for the calibre of its supporting cast. The ‘new’ episodes from ’89-’03 far less so. Fortunately, the appeal of TV today is as high as it was in the show’s 70s heyday, so Oscar winning actors and quality, household names galore ought to be queuing up to appear. Give us Richard Dreyfus, George Clooney, Jodie Foster, Don Cheadle, Kate Winslet, Helen Mirren, Ernie Hudson and Stephen Fry.
  • Don’t just do a movie. It takes time to get to know Columbo and all his nuances. Falk only really perfected the role in Season 2. We’d need a decent length series. A one-off wouldn’t work, although a movie version (perhaps a remake of Prescription: Murder with George Clooney as Ray Fleming?) that led into a series could do the trick.
  • Stick with one actor as Columbo. An idea I’ve read a few times (including in this article by Mallory Ortberg) is that the Columbo character could be played by different actors from episode to episode, or from season to season. I totally disagree. Having multiple actors playing Columbo would diminish the character. I suspect it would be jarring for the viewer, too. The idea itself isn’t a new one. It was originally mooted in the 1970s when relations between studio and star were at a low ebb, and producers wondered whether a couple of Falk episodes could bookend a season with other actors playing the role in the middle. Thank goodness they never had to do this. It’s an idea that’s wrong on so many levels the very thought leaves me feeling giddy.
  • Treat the show with respect. This goes without saying, but Columbo is so loved and was so well executed that anything other than total respect for the original series, and what Peter Falk brought to the role, would be a sacrilege. What does hearten me is that those who have expressed their interests in rekindling the show are fine talents who are self-confessed Columbo nuts. If we are going to get a reboot, I’d much rather it were in the hands of those who’ll treat the character well.
Prescription: Murder reboot?

George Clooney as Dr Ray Fleming in a remake of Prescription: Murder? I could buy into that…

Naturally, I’d also be delighted to consult on any reboot! You’ll know where to find me, guys. Will work for cigars and chilli…

I would love to hear your thoughts on this. How would you feel about a reboot? Would Ruffalo be a good choice to pull on the raincoat? If not, who else could you imagine in the role? Or should we all just get hold of the full Columbo box set and marvel at how perfect the original series still is?

Thanks, as ever, for reading.