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Top 10 most sympathetic Columbo killers

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.

Tommy Brown

Perhaps Tommy will finally “see the light” in jail…

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.

Ward Fowler

Ward Fowler’s toupee certainly played a sympathetic role in proceedings

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…

Ruth Lytton

Poor Ruth (left), encumbered by possibly the most annoying sister is televisual history

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!

Beth Chadwick

Bookish Beth (pictured) became Bunny Boiler Beth over the course of the episode

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.

Colonel Rumford

The hounding of boodle boys aside, Colonel Rumford is a man the audience can quietly respect

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.

Oliver Brandt

“Painful, lonely years” in childhood turned Oliver Brandt into a man who would ultimately commit murder

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.

Abigail Mitchell

Come on Lieutenant, just give her a cuddle and let her off the hook…

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.

Adrian Carsini

The final exchange in Any Old Port easily ranks amongst the series best ever scenes

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.

Lauren Staton

Lauren Staton: driven to kill by a mother’s need to protect her daughter

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.

Grace Wheeler's plight fairly yanks at the heart strings

Grace Wheeler’s plight fairly yanks at the heart strings

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.

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110 thoughts on “Top 10 most sympathetic Columbo killers

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. Pingback: The Columbo kill count: who died, how? | THE COLUMBOPHILE

  4. 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

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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.

    • 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.

      • 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.


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