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 getting rich and getting 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.
I think it’s impossible not to have huge sympathy with Grace.
So how do my thoughts on the most sympathetic Columbo killers tally with yours? Are there any lovable killers overlooked here? 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.
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What about Vanessa Farrow? Admittedly, she was not too bright to have gotten herself involved with the guys she did – but the original death was accidental / self defense, and she felt cornered by the threat of the Mob.
I might add to the list Jose Ferrer as Dr Cahill in Mind Over Mayhem. The episode was pretty poor overall, and his acting doesn’t let you warm up to him. But as far as I remember, he was the only murderer in the original 70s run that killed to protect someone else (his son). This was made even more poignant by his realizing that he bullied and browbeat his son, creating the need for him to plagiarize in the first place. He also was the only killer to confess to prevent someone else from taking the blame for the crime.
For that matter, Roddy McDowall in Short Fuse is a complete ass, but talk about being backed into a corner. His victim was arranging for him to lose his birthright, his professional degree, and make him leave America. Doing that to someone whose parents died in a mysterious explosion is really just begging to be murdered.
A very compelling take on the inner contradiction of Marshall Cahill. It’s too bad that such a rich father-son relationship was wasted on so poor a mystery.
Very good point, Richard. Although that is one of my least favorite
episodes. Ferer is a wonderful actor, though. I really like him in Woody Allen’s A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy. Very droll.
As far as sympathetic Columbo killers, I would have to say Patrick McGoohan in Identity Crisis. Worldly, intelligent, speaks Mandarin, has an incredible home, art collection and a taste for the best things in life in general. I feel that the lieutenant had a genuine soft spot and almost an envy of him. Underrated episode to boot. I can watch and enjoy it immensely, anytime.
I’m glad you didn’t have Kay Freestone on this list.
While Kay is definitely up against it as a woman operating in a still pretty patriarchal world in the 1970s, that isn’t her undoing at all.
Her undoing is, in fact, her own failings as a neophyte TV producer. This is what makes this episode so brilliant. It would have been far, far too easy to make her *better* at her job than her male victim/lover. In fact, a modern TV show would have fallen into this trap.
Instead, it brilliantly frames it so that the victim’s criticism of Kay is actually dead on: she overly relies on her instincts and reacts to situations in-the-moment: this works great for putting out quick fires, but can lead to disastrous decisions such as the airing of the expensive made-for-TV movie to substitute for the failed musical.
The tragedy of that episode is that her victim was completely right. Instead of killing him and assuming his role, she should have done exactly what he suggested: learn the ropes. It really is a brilliant episode.
Kay is still sympathetic because of her difficult background and the implied subtext that her relationship with her victim was done to advance her career because she thought that was necessary (it seemed a little cold or transactional). But that is only slight sympathy and puts her far outside the top ten.
Carsini columbo friend he was best snd columbo was more like friend of him
Uh, Tommy Brown was a child rapist. He shouldn’t be anywhere near this list.
Brimmer is this for me. There are qualities to the character and episode that raise him above every other killer to grace the series.
1. The death was accidental. I will not give him a pass for the circumstances leading to it (attempting to blackmail Lenore) or his actions, as no man should raise his hand to a woman, in anger or otherwise, but the actual death itself was a complete accident, and it’s apparent based on the shocked look on Brimmer’s face. He NEVER wanted this to happen.
2. After that initial killing of Lenore, he STOPS. Truly this elevates him above every killer on this list, even the ones that committed an accidental murder as well. Because in every other case, I.E. Nicholas Frame and Mark Collier, as examples, after being involved in an accidental murder (or manslaughter) they only get more guilty, by staging another, this time, premeditated murder, in order to silence a blackmailer, or frame someone else, etc. Frame and Collier both murder, and frame, someone else for their own crime. Brimmer never does this, which puts him leagues ahead of every other killer. He retains some of his morality by not adding to his initial, horrible act.
3. He never attempts to ruin anyone else’s life in order to save his own arse. He never actively attempts to frame anyone for Lenore’s death, nor does he attempt to plant any evidence to try and take the heat off of himself and put it on the man that Lenore was having an affair with. He;s perfectly content to drag his feet and snowball Columbo on their joint investigation, seemingly hoping that Columbo will tire and accept the scenario Brimmer is trying for: Lenore was the victim of a random mugging and the killers, sadly, will never be caught.
When it becomes more and more clear that Columbo is going to dog the case to the bitter end, Brimmer’s only action to keep the heat off of himself is to vainly bribe Columbo with a much higher-paying job so he can remove him from the investigation into Lenore’s death, and so he can get the case closed on lack of evidence. Again, this puts him leagues above every other killer to grace Columbo.
4. Culp delivers a masterclass performance of a man who is slowly being eaten alive by his actions. When Columbo finally paints him into a corner at the end of the episode, surely some of Brimmer’s sadness is the knowledge that his life, as he knows it, is over, but you can definitely see that Brimmer is completely ashamed over what he’s done. He liked Kennicutt, and can barely look the man in the eyes when he apologizes. He even sort of begs Kennicutt to understand that he never wanted to kill her, and that it was never his intention to.
My opinion to a ‘T’. Well said.
I submit that while Dick Van Dyke’s character in Negative Reaction was not really sympathetic himself (he wanted to run off with a younger woman), we were sympathetic with his desire to rid the world of his condescending and domineering wife. She was rotten to the very last breath, and we couldn’t wait to see her end.
He could have just left her rather than murder her though. This was one of many episodes where the motive for murder was weak.
Colonely Lyle is certainly the best one, followed closely by the singer Tommy. The actor Ward, Mensa’s Oliver, Adrian and the Mexican gladiator are tolerable. All the other criminals Columbo caught are trash that belongs in the Black Dolphin prison.
One character I have NO sympathy for is Abigail Mitchell. What repulses us most about Columbo’s killers? Their arrogance, and Abigail is full of it. I’m glad that Columbophile touched on this; she simply decides with no proof that her nephew-in-law is guilty. If she thinks so, it must be so. She’s prosecutor, judge, jury, and executioner. And yes, the fact that she’s spent her life writing about murder has undoubtedly twisted her judgement.
It’s interesting that 50% of your “most sympathetic killers” are women, especially considering that only 13 out of 69 episodes featured a central female killer. (There were also a few female accomplices.) I think that our society does tend to favor women in this regard, and that this prejudice is reflected in real-world court cases, convictions, and sentences.
Kay Freestone, should have been in here. I often think ‘Make Me A Perfect Murder’ is overlooked and often misunderstood
Basically, there’s a lot in this which shows just how second class women were treated, when they tried to get to the very top. Her errors, were a result of not been backed in the same way a man in her position would have been
And it was a dirty dumping by the lover that she killed
I’m with you. Not excusing the decision to kill; but extreme empathy for her downtrodden place in that world then.
Someone I didn’t feel sympathy for was Trish van devere as Kay Freestone. She seemed like an evil little woman who had no grounds for murdering anyone.
I am afraid I didn’t feel much sympathy for Beth Chadwick. Her brother did not speak to her unkindly. In fact, he was only trying to be a protective brother, and that is a good thing. He certainly didn’t deserve to be murdered. Beth Chadwick was a grown woman and could have continued to see her lover and could have married him. There was no law against her marrying her lover. I sense something twisted and evil in her. She may have led a sheltered life, but she could have come out of that shell without killing her brother. I mean, he was her brother, for goodness sake! He wasn’t a stranger trying to blackmail her! He was her brother, who was just trying to look out for her. Sure, he had the interests of the company to consider too, but that doesn’t mean he was a bad person. He was trying to protect both his family and his family business. I find it difficult to have sympathy for Beth Chadwick.
He wasn’t looking out for her, he was trying to control her and was repressing her by questioning her judgement in her taste of men and trying to enforce his will on her. He might claim this is brotherly love, but reading between the lines he’s following in his late father’s footsteps by treating Beth in a dismissive way as if her own feelings and opinions matter for naught. He’s not a good person.
Yes, I can see what you’re saying. But Beth seemed pretty bold and confident even when she spoke to her brother. And from the way she spoke to her mother, it seemed like she had never had a problem standing up for herself. She didn’t seem repressed to me. If she had sat there at the breakfast table, saying very little and looking like she had a profound inner sadness, I would think she was repressed. Instead, she looked bold and confident to me from the beginning. As for her brother, it clearly pained him to suggest that her lover was only interested in her because of her wealth, but it was still a point worth raising for someone in his position. He looked genuinely concerned for Beth’s feelings when he could see that he might have upset her. He didn’t deserve to be murdered. And Beth didn’t show any remorse for what she had done either. No, I don’t feel sympathy for Beth Chadwick.
I would feel sympathy for someone who is repressed, but from the acting, the Beth character did not seem repressed to me.
I must admit, I felt sympathy for Carl Brimmer in Death Lends a Hand. Although he attempts to blackmail Mrs Kennicut, he does not sound unreasonable whilst doing so. Then Mrs Kennicut, feeling guilty about her own infidelity on her faithful good husband, projects all her guilt onto Brimmer as if he is somehow to blame for her own cheating behaviour. There was no need for her to threaten Brimmer in the way that she did. Brimmer had no interest in hurting her, and he didn’t mean to kill her. I felt sorry for him. He did have a problem with his temper, but I felt sorry for him. You could sense that, deep down, he was a good man. He didn’t mean to hurt anyone, and he felt remorse about what had happened.
I would put him on my list of top 10 sympathetic Columbo killers.
While I agree Brimmer was an intriguing character, you’re pretty much blaming Mrs. Kennicut for her own
Murder. Brimmed was blackmailing her, remember? Maybe he didn’t “mean” to kill her, but he did.
Yes, I realise Brimmer was trying to blackmail Mrs Kennicut. He made a mistake to try that, but this tactic appeared to have worked for him before or he wouldn’t be trying it with Mrs Kennicut. It would have been better if Brimmer and Mrs Kennicut had tried to reach some kind of understanding that didn’t harm either of them. But it’s hard to see how things could have happened differently. It all seems very unfortunate. The murder scene is one of the most shocking in all of Columbo. Brimmer clearly felt remorse and seemed like a broken man at the end, and I couldn’t help but feel sorry for him. He didn’t seem like such a bad guy. I would put him on my list of top 10 most sympathetic killers.
I totally get what you’re saying. I think he is an interesting character—but I think why I like him is partly because of the actor playing him. And really, aren’t all the killers (or at least most) in Columbo at least somewhat sympathetic?
Yes, I agree with both of your points. I really enjoyed Robert Culp’s performances in Columbo. And apart from the slimey Dale Kingston in Suitable for Framing and the cheating college students in Columbo Goes to College and maybe one or two others, I think I had at least a little bit of sympathy for most of the Columbo baddies.
I wouldn’t say we’re blaming Lenore for her own murder, as she didn’t go to Brimmer’s beach house to get murdered, and Brimmer didn’t go to his house planning to murder her. In most other instances the situation ends with her ruining his reputation and filing assault charges. In this instance however, because of the way she fell, it killed her.
As I’ve stated in other threads, I view Brimmer as more sympathetic than most, despite his circumstances, due to the purely accidental nature of his crime, his lack of any effort to try to pin the blame on an innocent victim (instead trying to pass off her death as at the hands of unknown muggers) and because he’s the only Columbo killer who doesn’t further exacerbate his situation by killing someone as part of a frame, or murdering a blackmailer, or whatever. He commits one accidental crime, then quits.
He’s a bit smarmy, but others are smarmier, and when he’s caught out, Culp portrays genuine shame and guilt in Brimmer for what he’s done. He doesn’t confess arrogantly, he can barely look Arthur Kennicutt in the eyes when he admits he killed her on accident.
Anyone who strikes a woman because he’s angry at what she is SAYING deserves no sympathy whatsoever.
I get the feeling that we are unlikely to agree on many things, so I shall simply say that your opinion is valuable and highly respected.
Where did you get ‘Carl’ as his first name from? He’s only ever known as Brimmer, or Investigator Brimmer as far as I’m aware.
The wikipedia article “Columbo (season 1)” states that the name is Carl Brimmer. I do not know if this is correct or not, but that is where I got his name from.