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.