In his memorable monologue to the ladies’ lunch audience in Try and Catch Me, Columbo gives us a fascinating glimpse into his mindset and what he loves about his work. Rather than paraphrase, I’ll quote the dear Lieutenant verbatim.
“I like my job. Oh, I like it a lot. And I’m not depressed by it. And I don’t think the world is full of criminals and full of murderers because it isn’t. It’s full of nice people just like you. And if it wasn’t for my job I wouldn’t be getting to meet you like this.
“And I’ll tell you something else. Even with some of the murderers that I meet, I even like them too. Sometimes like them and even respect them. Not for what they did, certainly not for that. But for that part of them which is intelligent or funny or just nice. Because there’s niceness in everyone. A little bit anyhow. You can take a cop’s word for it.”
“We encounter plenty of dirt bags over the course of 69 episodes: people we wouldn’t spit on if they were on fire.”
It’s a really lovely scene. But is the Lieutenant being genuine with the audience? I dare say not quite. Indeed, in front of a gentle crowd like that I suspect he may have been sugar-coating things to an extent. We’ve certainly seen some likable and sympathetic killers in Columbo, but there are others that wouldn’t exactly be on his and Mrs Columbo’s Christmas card list.
In fact we encounter plenty of dirt bags over the course of 69 episodes: people we wouldn’t spit on if they were on fire. But who are the absolute lowest of the low lives? I’ve laid out my thoughts below. On arriving at these decisions, I’ve taken into account the motive for the crime, the severity of the act itself, and the behaviour of the killer towards Columbo and others around them.
Please note – these are in no particular order except for the top 3, which are the clear standouts. Now, read on!
Norman and Dexter Paris – Double Shock
Don’t let the joviality of TV chef Dexter Paris fool you. He’s a total low-life, as is his prim twin brother, Norman. Not content with bumping off their lovable uncle to claim his riches, they double up to deadly effect once again later in the episode. Although we don’t see it, their killing of the uncle’s distraught love interest, Lisa Chambers, by throwing her over a balcony is one of the cruellest murders the series ever cooks up.
Sean Brantley – Columbo Cries Wolf
So, tell us 90s’ ladies. What is is about multimillionaire magazine mogul Sean Brantley that so attracts you…? It’s certainly none of these things: his personality; his fashion sense; his Buick-sized mobile phone; his innate sleaziness; his murdering ways; or his treatment of a certain Lieutenant Columbo.
To the viewer, it’s the latter that is most damning. Brantley makes a monkey of the Lieutenant in the eyes of the world’s media, all the while wearing a goonish smirk that deserves to be slapped off his face. Combined with the aforementioned list of traits and you have a man that it’s impossible to feel an iota of warmth toward. Thank goodness, then, that Columbo has the last laugh…
Paul Hanlon – The Most Crucial Game
Robert Culp’s killers always had an edge to them, but it was at its sharpest here in the guise of furious football club manager Paul Hanlon. He’s just a very angry, nasty, impatient bully who seems to think nothing of trampling over – or murdering – anyone who dares to get in his way. Prone to combusting with rage at a moment’s notice, Hanlon easily rates as one of Columbo’s least likable and most dangerous adversaries.
Dr Eric Mason – How to Dial a Murder
Being torn to pieces by a pair of programmed Dobermans isn’t a fate you’d wish upon your own worst enemy – unless, of course, you’re Dr Eric Mason, who metes out just such a punishment to a long-time pal after discovering he’d been fooling around with Mason’s late wife.
A mind fiendish enough to first conceive and then realise such a gruesome crime is clearly a menace to society. And Columbo would have suffered the same fate at episode’s end if he hadn’t ingeniously figured out how to ‘reprogram’ the sweet pups to kiss him, not kill him, at the mention of code-word ‘Rosebud’.
Elliot Blake – Columbo Goes to the Guillotine
Yes, I know that he suffered privations during his time in a Ugandan prison camp that drove him to murder, but the man tries to cut Columbo’s head off with a guillotine. Need I say more?
Ken Franklin – Murder by the Book
A man so charming it’s hard to hold anything against him, Ken Franklin is nevertheless an absolute git – and a selfish one at that. Too idle and untalented to make an honest living after long-time friend and partner in crime writing Jim Ferris decides to go it alone, Franklin slays him in cold blood. His motive? To score a bumper insurance pay out that will allow him to keep living in the manner to which he’s become accustomed.
He then bludgeons to death poor, crazy Lily La Sanka to keep his secret safe, never once having a guilty thought. Adorable dimples or not, he’s a bad, bad man who deserves everything that’s coming to him.
Dale Kingston – Suitable for Framing
All credit to Ross Martin, who managed to portray art critic Dale Kingston as the human personification of slimy pomposity. He doesn’t just commit crimes against his fellow man (a double murder and attempted framing of his kooky aunt Edna); he also commits crimes against comedy (including laughing uproariously at his own dire jokes); and crimes against fashion (don’t start me on the velvet tux and bow tie the size of Spain).
To top it off, he’s exceptionally mean-spirited and condescending to Columbo. In fact his utter vileness is a big reason why seeing him taken down in the series’ best ever gotcha moment is so satisfying, time after time.
Vivian Dimitri – Rest in Peace, Mrs Columbo
Driven by that most destructive of pursuits, revenge, Vivian Dimitri is a whirling dervish of Columbo hate masquerading as a friendly girl-next-door type. After her husband dies in jail, Vivian is driven by a desire to punish Columbo for his part in her husband being behind bars in the first place. Her preferred method for this is by presenting the Lieutenant with a jar of poisoned marmalade.
Naturally Columbo is wise to Dimitri’s deranged tricks and comprehensively outflanks her, first faking Mrs Columbo’s death then pretending that he himself has consumed the deadly spread in front of her very eyes. Although caught out, Vivian does at least have the satisfaction of delivering a formidable slap to the Lieutenant’s leathery cheek as her zesty bid to kill off two Columbos thankfully comes to naught.
And the Big 3…
3. Paul Gerard – Murder Under Glass
Playing a Bond super-villain was a good warm-up for Louis Jourdan, who brought a delightful Gallic beastliness to the role of food critic Paul Gerard. Make no bones about it: Gerard is a manipulative worm of a man, who has got the culinary community of LA eating out of his blackmailing hands. When one of them, furious Vittorio, stands up to Gerard, he is swiftly despatched through ingenious application of Japanese blowfish poison.
His unpleasantness doesn’t go unnoticed by Columbo and the two develop a mutual dislike that results in Gerard attempting to dispose of the Lieutenant in the same way he killed Vittorio. The confrontation results in an unusual level of frankness between the two leads, as both reveal how unpalatable they find the other.
“You’re a very able man, Lieutenant. I respect that, but I really don’t care for you very much,” says Gerard.
“You know, sir, I was thinking the same thing about you,” responds Columbo. “I respect your talent, but I don’t like anything else about you.”
2. Milo Janus – An Exercise in Fatality
By series’ standards, Milo Janus’s wrong-doings don’t seem that bad. He has just one murder to his name (albeit an unusually violent one) and, to be honest, victim Gene Stafford isn’t a very sympathetic chap himself.
But where Milo scores more highly than most is in the antagonism stakes. Columbo really hates this guy and isn’t afraid to show it – especially after Milo’s callous antics towards Gene’s widow, Ruth, cause her to make an attempt on her own life in a pills-and-booze frenzy. Embittered by that, the Lieutenant drops all pretence of civility in a very public clash at the hospital. Columbo’s inherent unknowability falls by the wayside in a prolonged tirade against Janus that humanises him in a way we almost never see. It’s a very powerful scene – made more so by the fact that such emotional outbursts from him are so rare.
Columbo even appears to enjoy busting Janus at the end, taking a grim satisfaction in knowing he’s putting this trash away for a long, long time. He may have a slammin’ bod, but the only slamming Milo’s going to be hearing for the next few years is the cell door.
1. Dr Barry Mayfield – A Stitch in Crime
Casting Spock, err… Leonard Nimoy as Dr Barry Mayfield was an inspired choice. He’s as emotion-free as his cherished Vulcan alter ego, as mean spirited as a Klingon warrior and as single-minded in achieving his goals as the Borg (the Trek references end here, you’ll be delighted to hear).
What puts him to the top of the list is that his ice-heartedness knows no bounds. Check out the evidence: in order to take credit for a revolutionary drug he’s been developing with his (utterly adorable) senior surgeon Dr Heideman, he tries to put the latter out of the way through use of dissolving suture after an operation. He then brains the nurse who figures it out with a tyre iron. And later he slays a reformed-drug-addict-turned-petting-zoo employee to frame him for the nurse killing. Oh, and he also laughs at and shoves Columbo in two separate incidents of barbarism…
Where would he stop? Even cuddly puppies and fluffy bunnies would seem targets for this ice-cold individual. He’s the first killer who elicits a genuine flash of anger and dislike from the normally placid Columbo – a sure-fire sign that he’s bad to the bone.
What puts Mayfield to the top of the list is that his ice-heartedness knows no bounds.
So there we have, them. The baddest of the bad – in this man’s opinion at least. Let me know your thoughts, and who else might have been included. There was certainly no shortage of contenders with Drs Ray Flemming and Mark Collier, The Great Santini, Leslie Williams, Alex Benedict, Commissioner Halperin, Justin & Coop, Dr Bart Kepple and Riley Greenleaf all having strong cases for inclusion, so shoot me a comment below!
Thank you for reading, It is very much appreciated.
If you enjoyed this article, consider donating to the upkeep of this site – from just $3
My list is a little different. In no specific order:
Dale Kingston (Suitable for Framing)
Jarvis Goodland (The Greenhouse Jungle)
Barry Mayfield (A Stitch in Crime)
Viveca Scott (Lovely But Lethal)
Nelson Hayward (Candidate for Crime)
Milo Janus (An Exercise in Fatality)
Mark Collier (A Deadly State of Mind)
Eric Mason (How to Dial a Murder)
Max Barsini (Murder, a Self-Portrait)
Sean Brantley (Columbo Cries Wolf)
Justin Rowe and Cooper Redman (Columbo Goes to College)
Leon Lamarr (Death Hits the Jackpot)
This is a great list! Spock is definitely one of the scummiest, I’d argue that Santini is probably the most dastardly villain given his Nazi past. Totally agree about Culp, the dude knows how to play a good villain! I’m surprised Dick Van Dyke’s character wasn’t included, very cold blooded and a double murderer! Love the site man, best wishes.
Ok, I’ll just throw it out here: on all columbo sites I found so far everyone seems to support abigail mitchell; I don ‘t and don’t even like the episode, and abigail would definitely fit into this article, I hate her.
I’m not even sure edmund is guilty, there’s a bit of proof of his innocence and guilt across the episode and in any case abigail’s murderer is despicable, it’s one of those that gives the most satisfaction when they’re caught to me.
I agree with you. I don’t care for that episode very much either. And I definitely wouldn’t want to watch it on a full stomach. Way too many tight close-ups on a woman who past her prime several decades before…….I accept all superlatives.” ……yuck!
I agree with you. Personally, I rate dear old Abigail as my most detested Columbo killer. I don’t think that Edmund was guilty, and neither did the law, who did investigate her niece’s death. I’ve known too many “Monster-in-Law” types who hate the spouses that married into their family, and who judge who is right and who is wrong by their blood relationships. Besides, Abigail cruelly lured Edmund in with smiles and promises of acceptance. Damned liar! And the death she arranged for him is in my mind the most horrific in the whole series, as he was literally buried alive and fully conscious of his fate. It is beyond me why anybody- let alone the majority- support this lady.
Ironically, one of my favorite killers, the plucky Donald Pleasence, commits his murder in a way no too far off from Edmund’s demise, to the point he’s confusingly not eaten for several days prior to his death. Although, it may blunt the blow that the brother Pleasence kills is pretty detestable himself.
I would rate Dale Kingston as the most slimey baddie and the gotcha moment with him is easily the most satisfying.
I agree. What really makes him bad is when he kills that poor sweet lady. But man he’s a stone-cold killer when he shoots his uncle without even flinching. Also he’s a serious snob.
Blake the psychic is the ultimate Columbo scumbag.
Yes, Mayfield is cruel, cold, calculating, the closest Columbo saw to an extremely efficient, self-controlled psychopath of real life, but Blake is *worse*. He had been a monster *all his life*. He’s a parasite who has been sucking people’s blood all his existence, a tick who has been feeding on false hopes, lies, manipulation, domination, control. He’s a Columbo version of every televeangelist, every psychic… and you know the real ones are just like he is, or worse.
Fielding Chase!….kills his step daughters good friend and has her listen to the murder on the answering machine….that dude was kinda cool.
Another cold, calculated fiend is Patrick Kinsley (A Trace of Murder). It was chilling the way he disposed of Howard Seltzer and the subsequent calm calculated way he carried himself throughout the investigation. Trace is a very very good episode.
Patrick is as cold as Mayfield.
Great list, I agree with all of them. Three more possible candidates for me:
Justin and Coop (Columbo goes to college), I REALLY wanted those guys caught. They openly made fun of Columbo and I hated them for it.
Findlay Crawford (Murder with too many notes). What a scumbag, to kill out of jealousy, having lived a lie for years
And Murder in Malibu may nog be a great episode (though not as bad as some here have said), Wayne Jennings shares first place with Sean Brantley for me. Both those men have not the slightest hint of a sympathetic quality in them whatsoever. Where Columbo actually admits to Paul Gerard that he doesn’t like him, he can still respect his talents. I’m certain that Columbo couldn’t bring himself to acknowledge any talent in those men. Both episodes are not among the best, but the undoing of those killers was very satisfying.
Thank you for writing, this site is very much appreciated.
My top three Columbo killers would be as follows:
1. Dale Kingston (Suitable For Framing)
2. Paul Gerard (Murder Under Glass)
3. Alex Brady (Murder, Smoke and Shadows)
Paul Gerard would be in my top three, too, but Max Barsini would be right up there. His first wife was lovely, and her murder, while not one of the most tragic in the series, was upsetting, especially when she was so close to being free of him.
What was Hanlon’s game, anyway? Culp my favorite villain, but his characters’ schemes always seemed so flimsy.
Hanlon’s motives are very unclear. He seemed to have the power he needed. Some think he was after Wagner’s wife, but there’s nothing in the episode that overtly suggests that to me.
It’s very telling that in his review, Columbophile considers Paul Hanlon one of the first among the Columbo killers that might be able to walk after the episode is over. He never establishes a clear motive, there are plausible explanations to the lack of the clock chime, and while Hanlon appears rattled at the end, he says absolutely nothing, just drinks, smokes, and plays with his tie.
I’m shocked no mention of Paul Galesko played by the nice guy Dick Van Dyke. Not so much for killing his nasty wife though murder is wrong period but more so for framing and murdering a man who was trying to reform from prison and making him think he was helping him and his arrogant shouting at Columbo
That was a very good episode. Paul Glasco was one cold fish. 2 point blank emotionless killings in the same episode. But I could see why you did it when he was trying to get ahold of those legs of his secretaries. She probably had the best legs on TV at the time. Except maybe for the broad who is seen in the opening of Banacek. I like when he says “bye” to the prison guy during the lakeside scene. And his voice sounds so cold. You know he’s going to whack that dude.
Love your #1. I agree completely, though I would have Halperin on my list.
Agree with #1 and then Justin Rowe (who loves the very idea of killing someone) and Dr. Ray Flemming (who feels nothing about getting his wife excited about a fictional vacation as long as it works)
Yes definitely, Justin, Coop, Ray Fleming and Commissioner Halprin were definitely the most heartless and unlikable killers. Hell I’d put Dabney Coleman from columbo and the murder of a rock star and Mark Collier as well. Real arrogant dirt bags
Great choices though i definotely think Justin and Coop and Dr. Fleming were way more evil and sociopathic than some of the ones on the list. Justin and Coop were everything everyone hates: rich, entitled, reckless brats who thought they were above everyone and everything and worst crime is the endless mocking and snotty laughing at Columbo
Agreed! They were truly brats.
This is a good list, especially that Sean Brantley and Dale Kingston are on it.
It will take awhile for a review of the episode Murder Under Glass, so I’d like to put a link here, as you spoke about Louis Jourdan. He appeared on the show What’s My Line? in 1954. Twenty five years later he looked almost the same on Columbo. This is the link to the show, he appears from minute 16:00, very relaxed and jovial.
No, the correct video didn’t showing up. Hopefully, this is it.
Columbophile, I hope you can delete this clutter of posts and incorrect URLs. Somehow the link to the video with Louis Jordan is not showing up.
How Mark Halperin avoids this list, I’ll never know…
As much as I love Jack Cassidy, Robert Culp will always hold an edge for me as the best of the bad. I actually kind of think Mr..er….Doctor Bart Keppel could replace Paul Hanlon on this list. Unlike other episodes, Columbo is not only onto Keppel early, he’s practically accusing him very early on in the episode, which hardly ever happens in other episodes.
Another reason I’d give him the edge you mentioned in your review. He makes the mistake of underestimating Columbo in the beginning, but he very quickly recognizes how big of a mistake that is and Columbo is playing catch-up until the bitter end. He knows Keppel did it, and Keppel knows he knows, but knows Columbo is powerless. Keppel doesn’t commit the best of murders. Other killers have fared a lot better in their premeditation, but it doesn’t matter. He’s eliminated the evidence so well that he comes the closest of any Columbo murderer in the series to actually getting away with it. If Columbo’s last-ditch throw of the dice to use subliminal messages hadn’t worked, Keppel would have gotten away clean, rare for a Columbo murderer.
Keppel is as vicious as Dale Kingston, in that he kills two people and frames a third, and like Kingston, has nary a second thought about offing either of them. From the minute White attempts to blackmail Keppel, we can see on Culp’s face he has no intention of ever paying White that money. He’s already dead.
Another distinction that puts Culp at the top of my list is that, while other killers have caused an accidental death, to the letter, all of them carry out a completely premeditated murder. As Brimmer, Culp’s character offs Ray Milland’s wife, but that’s the only death he is responsible for.
Late to this post:
The only number 1 for me as well; Dr. Mayfield was the ultimate cold-blooded hated killer, a man so disgusting that cool-headed Columbo loses his temper for a full moment and releases his fury.
Although often overlooked, here’s a couple from the “new” Columbo that deserve some mention:
Justin Rowe and Cooper Redman of “Columbo Goes to College”; granted; Justin is a creep partially because of an insanely pushing dad (our man Robert Culp), but they both kill their teacher “because they can”, and expected to get away with it.
Leon Lamarr in “Death hits the Jackpot”. Some real sickies in this group. Leon kills his nephew because he wants to get the lottery winnings of his nephew, who doesn’t want to share it with his still-legally-married-wife (who was playing around with Uncle Leon….eww), when his nephew was going to share the earnings with his Uncle. He kills him by hitting him on the head, then drowning the poor wretch after he wakes up in the bathtub.
Matter of fact they might as well called this episode Columbo, meet Jerry Springer!
Great column; and yes they are nasty people for sure. I do like Adrian Carsini for his love of wine, and hate him for leaving his brother to die over 2 days in a superheated wine cellar. And Dick Van Dyke, killing his (albeit bitchy) wife, but more for shooting an ex-con who was just trying to reform in Negative Reaction. And while I’m at it – Johnny Cash killing a teenager he seduced; I don’t care if he can sing; that’s crappy too.
After watching it again recently, I’d put Joe Devlin (“The Conspirators”) on the list. The jovial, amiable poor poet is a cold blooded terrorist. I’m was so glad when he was brought down along with the McConnell’s that little twirp Kerry who hung out with them.
Fair point. He is rather annoying, plus, as you say, a terrorist.
I know the McConnells aren’t the killers (thus don’t really deserve to be on this list, so I’m not going to try to convince you otherwise), bit I tend to have less sympathy for them than I do Devlin. Taking my cue from Columbo himself, I can understand why Devlin does what he does. I don’t like what he did (i.e. he IS a terrorist after all), but I can understand how growing up in the midst of all those emotions could lead him to think the way he does. The McConnells, however, seem to be dilettantes who have this romantic notion of helping this great cause without any understanding of the consequences of their actions. If that makes sense. I’m in Canada, and North Americans tend to have this idealized view of the European “homeland” that has no basis in reality.
Prescription Murder should be up there. He promises his wife a vacation and then cowardly strangles her from behind while she’s reveling in her getaway with her beloved husband. Sick bastard.
With you on that one; she was trying to rebuild the marriage.
I dont know why Adrian Carsini hasnt got a mention, he was absolutelly brilliant as the snobby, insufferable, condescending vineyard owner and himself and Columbo got on so well, there was a sense of mutual respect between the pair. In fact Columbo was very fond of this guy indeed, there was a palpable rapport between them.
I think the reason that Carsini is not mentioned is he comes off as sympathetic in the end. His murder was not premeditated number one. Number to his Playboy brother was pulling the rug out from under him. Number three his love sick secretary had him by his manly parts. And she was putting on The Squeeze. It seems even Colombo felt bad for the poor guy. He wasn’t a good killer, he was bumbling and inept.
Although he was a snob there was a sympathetic quality about him that resonated through the show for me at least.
The list is of the despicable killers, and Carsini wasn’t THAT despicable. On;y one murder and of a jerk at that. Although, his method of dispatching his diabolical brother is pretty sociopathic, jet setting off to the big city for a week why his brother slowly asphyxiates or dies of dehydration in his wine cellar. It’s odd though, because of the way the series is done, you don’t think about it until much later. But when Carsini returns, the corpse is much the way he left him when he was still living despite the fact that his brother would be in much rougher shape being tied up and locked away from a bathroom.
Yes, Dr. Mayfield, but shoving Columbo was not an act of barbarism, it was a ploy to conceal the incriminating evidence by planting it on Columbo.
Yes, I know, just attempting to be light-hearted in my writing.
Mayfield a great choice, but I would definitely include Riley Greenleaf.
I’m a bit surprised that Patrick McGoohan didn’t make this list. His character’s dispatch of a mobster threatening blackmail for past sins is even colder and more deliberate, in my opinion, than Nimoy’s doctor in Stitch In Crime. I think my wife and I cheered when the good lieutenant dispatched him…
Which episode are you referring to?
I think It’s agenda for murder
Dr. Mayfield has to be the worst for a number of reasons:
1) He’s the only murderer who would have killed 3 people within a single episode. In fact, Columbo’s burst of anger and disclosure was probably what saved Dr. Heideman.
2) His motive was clearly selfish.
3) His victims were all likeable people.
4) The fact that he was a doctor, i.e. someone who was supposed to save lives rather than take them.
Good points. Also his character was unlikable. He was cocky condescending and rude. But you’re right he was on his way to killing three no problem.
How about an article about “The Columbo victims we love to hate”, in many cases we love the murderer more than the one he/she killed.
That’s a very good idea! Yes, lots of good options for that one.
I nominate Edna Brown in “Swan Song” (played by Ida Lupino).
Yeah, her and Mrs Galesko can join Bryce Chadwick and the Commodore at the top table.
Alex Brady from Murder, Smoke, and Shadows was a vile human being. He tries to make a fool of Columbo. Columbo says at the end of that episode, “And my biggest pleasure is charging you with murder”. And Alex Brady’s face is priceless.
Good shout with Ken Franklin. Real scumbag, but love the actor.
Me too, he’s my favourite guest star.
I could not resist commenting. Exceptionally well written!|
Thanks for your kind words – and sorry for not replaying much sooner!
I love Beth Chadwick in “Lady in Waiting”.
So do i. I’ll watch that episode any time. Susan Clark is lovely. Both pre, and post transformation. All her wardrobe was delightful. Her accent was high class, and her hair was luscious. The music is slightly recycled from other episodes but is still great. I also really like Oscar Goldman. ( Bryce). Leslie Nielsen is very handsome and when he doesn’t eat his hamburger it’s great! Also the scene at the drive in burger joint gives us a nice glimpse of 1970’s San Fernando Valley. Probably Reseda Blvd. This and Make me a perfect murder are my go to episodes. Mostly because of the very beautiful actresses ( not excluding Katherine Justice who would probably give me a heart attack if she even breathed on me) but also the wardrobes. The interiors of those two episodes are sumptuous. The patrician splendor of the Chadwicks home, ( old money), and the period perfect mid 70’s network offices and clothing ( classic secretary blouses) of Make me a perfect Murder. One incredible woman that was overlooked was the secretary in Lady in Waiting that introduced Peter Hamilton into the waiting office during his business trip. She was tall, blond and impeccably classy. But for best legs in series, it has to go to Mr. Galeskos secretary.
I beg to differ. The woman was horrible, not attractive at all and far from “classy” (but then, I’m not American). Her change of personality isn’t credible either.
Another great one. Wouldn’t have thought of Dr. Mayfield, but you make a strong case. Might have to do up my own list! Love the site.
Thanks Travis, I’m really pleased you’re enjoying the site!
These are awesome choices. And Columbo agrees with you on Stitch in Crime.