A major part of the success and longevity of Columbo was the calibre of its guest star murderers. For the most part they were a delightfully loathsome bunch combining a sky-high opinion of themselves with a contemptuous attitude towards the Lieutenant. And, of course, that helped make their inevitable downfall all the more satisfying.
But every so often we’d encounter a killer who we could associate with on some level. We might understand why they were driven to murder. We might even like them. And in the rarest situations, we might just find ourselves rooting for them and hoping that, just this once, Columbo might let ’em get away with it.
I’ve compiled a list of Columbo killers that viewers can and do sympathise with, as well as my thoughts on how worthy they are of our compassion. I hope you enjoy…
10. Tommy Brown – Swan Song
My personal jury’s out on this one. I rather suspect the average viewer sympathises with Tommy Brown because they love Johnny Cash. But does ol’ Tommy really deserve our sympathy after committing the double homicide of his wife and a young choir girl? Let’s weigh up the evidence. Sure, his wife’s a blackmailing old harpy who seems to make his life Hell, but she did raise him up from the gutter and he was fooling around with a 16-year-old girl. And it’s the latter that is most troubling. Tommy seems perfectly willing to enjoy the sins of the flesh with teen groupies outside his dressing room, and to rock out with bikini-clad scorchers at extravagant pool parties. His motives for committing murder seem to be limited to: I want to get rich and I want to get laid.
Such intent hardly makes him sympathetic in my eyes. Still, Columbo seems to think he’s a decent guy at heart and he’s an excellent judge of character, so Tommy just about sneaks in.
9. Ward Fowler – Fade In To Murder
Similar to the above, the viewer’s natural inclination to LOVE WILLIAM SHATNER perhaps skews their perspective on this one. Ward Fowler was certainly being used and abused by his greedy producer and lover, who was scooping a significant cut of his wage, but perhaps there are better ways of remedying the situation than, you know, a bullet through her heart? This after pistol-whipping an innocent shopkeeper into unconsciousness, of course. Not to mention plying a formerly alcohol-dependent gofer with booze and pills to establish an alibi.
Still, Fowler does for the most part treat Columbo in a comradely fashion, which helps his case. But ultimately, although he may believe he played a sympathetic role in this particular mystery, I tend to think otherwise. Having said that, based on Shatner’s absolutely unreal performance, Fowler may well have been certifiably insane with a split personality disorder. If so, yeah, we can feel a bit bad for him.
8. Ruth Lytton – Old Fashioned Murder
Poor Ruth. Lumbered with siblings that would test the patience of a Saint, and facing the imminent closure of the family museum that has been her life’s work, she doesn’t have a lot going for her.
As a middle-aged spinster, whose sister stole her one chance at love many years before, we can pity Ruth’s situation, although for an intelligent woman she handles things badly. The one person in her life that means anything to her – niece Janie (or is it her illegitimate daughter?) – she frames for a double murder. It’s an unforgivable act, and one that erases most of the compassion we might otherwise feel for her.
Luckily for Ruth, Columbo lets her off the hook (to an extent), meaning Janie is freed and Ruth retains the love and respect of her niece as she’s carted off to the police station. A sad conclusion to a sad life awaits, but I still personally feel most sorrow for Ruth because her histrionic, fainting sister Phyllis is such an idiot…
7. Beth Chadwick – Lady in Waiting
The Beth Chadwick we meet at the start of this episode is so oppressed and disrespected by her elder brother Bryce (and evidently their late father before him) that we’re instantly on her side. He has far too much sway over her, is trying to control her love life, and has been diminishing her for years, both at home and in the family-owned advertising agency. When she bumps him off we understand why. We feel even more pity for Beth when her beastly mother arrives and we can see that a lifetime of being told she wasn’t good enough has left her a shell of a woman.
But this is an episode – and a killer – of two halves. Beth loses our sympathy as power and freedom go to her head, and she metamorphasises from downtrodden Plain Jane to fiery fashionista and business bitch from Hell. Even the one true love from her earlier existence finally abandons her, and at episode’s end Beth is so far off the right path that she’s a whisker away from killing Columbo in cold blood. Yikes!
6. Colonel Lyle C. Rumford – By Dawn’s Early Light
In his first of four outings as a Columbo killer, Patrick McGoohan brings such dignity to the role of Colonel Rumford that we’re able to retain a vestige of sympathy for him throughout – despite a total lack of remorse, and his attempts to frame a bad boy cadet for the murder of the man that represented a clear and present danger to Rumford’s way of life. He’s doubtless cut from the same cloth as Jack Nicholson’s character in A Few Good Men (albeit much more likable): someone who will put the interests of US national security first, and everything else second.
5. Oliver Brandt – The Bye-Bye Sky High IQ Murder Case
Just to set the record straight, I am under no illusions that Oliver Brandt is anything other than a pompous and arrogant man who has used his intelligence to fleece unsuspecting clients and who was, at times, a horrible bully, taking delight in publically humiliating his long-time friend and business partner, Bertie Hastings.
That’s the worst of Brandt. But underneath the bluster lies a sensitive and troubled soul who has gained little pleasure from life. His shallow wife neither loves or understands him. She’s more interested in clothes and holidays than getting to know her husband. After killing Bertie, Brandt has no one. And while he’s never openly remorseful, his actions betray him. He’s jumpy and irritable as guilt and an increasing realisation that he’s now truly alone start to weigh him down.
His conversation with Columbo at the end of the episode, where they both give away something of their life journey, is what humanises Brandt. As a boy genius, he had to hide his gifts from fellow children, always playing a role as an imitation adult. He describes them as ‘painful, lonely years.’ He may have made a name for himself professionally, and had a successful career and trophy wife, but none of it has brought him happiness. In the end this vulnerability and sadness (brought superbly to life by actor Theo Bikel) make him a sympathetic figure to many viewers.
4. Abigail Mitchell – Try and Catch Me
As murder mystery writer extraordinaire Abigail Mitchell (Ruth Gordon, aged 81 at the time) is so teeny and cute and cheeky that it’s impossible not to warm to her – even after she slams her nephew-in-law Edmund in her walk-in safe, leaving him to die a presumably lingering and miserable death in the dark as his oxygen supply depleted. She metes out this punishment in the belief that Edmund caused the death of her beloved niece, Phyllis – who had been Abi’s only living relative – in a boating accident.
If true, perhaps Edmund had it coming. But I always ask: what if he didn’t have anything to do with Phyllis’s death, and Abi is just harbouring a grudge because she sees villainy in every act due to years of murder mystery writing? The whole dynamic of the episode would change. That this theme is never explored (indeed the writers make it very obvious that Columbo can see that Edmund and Phyllis had a poor relationship) ensures Abi is given the benefit of the doubt and remains a sympathetic – and lovable – figure to the end.
3. Adrian Carsini – Any Old Port in a Storm
There’s a lot wrong with Adrian Carsini. He’s a terrible snob, and is almost totally oblivious to normal human emotions and ways of treating and interacting with people (unless they’re fellow members of the wine cognoscenti, naturally). He makes a split-second, calculated decision to incapacitate his brother Ric, before leaving him to perish in misery in the wine cellar – a horrid way to go, And at the end of all this, he admits to having no remorse for his actions. So why do we warm to him so?
Well, in killing his brother, Adrian is driven to protect what he most loves. In this case it’s the family winery rather than a human soul, but Adrian has put his whole being into shaping it into an extension of his personality, which mirrors his high standards and expectations. Ric is a classless meathead, a short-term hedonist looking for quick cash and good times and is perfectly willing to destroy his brother’s life’s work to achieve that. What other course of action did Adrian have available to him?
What seals Carsini’s inclusion in the high echelons of the list of most sympathetic Columbo killers is the quite beautiful exchange between the two leads in the Lieutenant’s car at the end of the episode. For all his faults, Adrian has encountered in Columbo someone who he can respect, and who is as meticulous in his own methods as Carsini is in his. The sharing of a fine dessert wine before Carsini is driven downtown is a supremely magnanimous gesture by Columbo, and one which shows his complete understanding of the man and his human needs at that critical moment. Absolutely wonderful stuff.
2. Lauren Staton – It’s All in the Game
I suspect a straw poll of fans wouldn’t see Lauren Staton (Faye Dunaway looking ravishing at the age of 52) ranking terribly highly in a list of most sympathetic Columbo killers – doubtless because of her attempts to distract the Lieutenant during his investigations through use of her considerable feminine charms. That would be to do her a great disservice, as Staton’s motives are probably more relatable to us than any other murderer in the show’s entire run.
As an individual, she’s been used and abused by charming, young Italian gigolo, Nick, who is out for her money and nothing else. If that’s not bad enough, Nick is a two-timer who other love interest is… Staton’s own daughter. And worst of all, he physically abused the daughter and threatened to kill her if she revealed the situation to Staton herself – and we have little reason to doubt he would have carried out his threat. So the two wronged women combine to put him out of the picture permanently, with Staton pulling the trigger.
In assessing how much empathy we have for Staton, it all boils down to what you’d be willing to do to protect your child. I’d argue that any parent could sympathise with her choices – even if the sight of her planting a smacker on Columbo makes us shake our fists at the screen. And if you compare her case to Adrian Carsini’s, there’s no comparison as to who has suffered the greater wrongs.
1. Grace Wheeler – Forgotten Lady
Who else could it be at the top of this list than poor, dear Grace Wheeler? A fading film icon, she kills her husband Henry for refusing to fund her movie comeback, but in truth Grace’s dreams of a return to the silver screen are but a fantasy that could never be realised due to the swift decline of her faculties.
As Columbo uncovers via her husband’s medical notes, Grace has an inoperable brain aneurism, which she isn’t even aware of. This is causing her progressive memory loss and, in all likelihood, she can’t even remember killing her husband. Experts predict she has a month left to live, perhaps two at most.
I think it’s impossible not to have huge sympathy with Grace, and, as she sits dewy-eyed in front of her home cinema screen at the emotional conclusion, her plight absolutely wrenches at the heart strings. It’s the only case in which Columbo lets the killer go – and that says it all.
So how do my thoughts on the most sympathetic Columbo killers tally with yours? Do let me know in the comments section below and if you’d care to share this story to stimulate wider debate I’d be delighted.
Thank you so much for reading.