One of the reasons Columbo has such enduring appeal is because the quality of the guest star murderers was so completely out of the top drawer.
Names like Ruth Gordon, Dick Van Dyke, John Cassavetes and Janet Leigh still grab attention today. The audiences of the 1970s, then, must have been giddy with joy to see such stellar names pitting wits against the doughty Lieutenant Columbo on such a regular basis.
“Even an ‘average’ episode can be salvaged by a stunning guest star turn, and that can be immensely rewarding for the viewer.”
But it’s not only the killers that have helped give Columbo such a long shelf-life. The calibre of the supporting guest stars is just as good – often even better. Many of the support cast were household names in their own right, or were on their way to mega-stardom. Their ability to make an impact on screen, and to genuinely enhance the episodes they grace, is another vital ingredient in the show’s success.
Even an ‘average’ episode can be salvaged by a stunning guest star turn, and that can be immensely rewarding for the viewer. This article is a tribute to the greatest performances put in by the supporting cast. There are no killers here, and some of them may have only had a few minutes’ of screen time, but all have left an indelible mark on the series.
These are my personal favourites, in no particular order except for the top 3. Now, read on!
Joanne Linville – Vicky Hayward, Candidate for Crime (1973)
Although just one of many alcoholic housewives in Columbo canon, Vicky Hayward may be the saddest of the bunch – in no small measure due to the magnificent efforts of Joanne Linville.
Locked in a loveless relationship with a politician who has one eye on the Senate and other on a shapely young stunner, Vicky desperately seeks crumbs of love from husband Nelson, but is more often left to her own devices in the soothing company of many a scotch on rocks.
The constant need to put on a brave public face for the sake of her philandering husband makes Vicky’s plight particularly disheartening. Her nobility goes unrewarded. That’s why she pips the likes of Diane Baker’s Joanna Clay (Last Salute to the Commodore) and Collin Willcox’s Ruth Stafford (An Exercise in Fatality) to a place on this list.
Don Ameche – Frank Simpson, Suitable for Framing (1971)
Future Oscar winner Don Ameche showed what a class act he was with an intriguing turn as lawyer Frank Simpson in Suitable for Framing. Ameche brings an unknowable quality to a small role. What could have been a black and white interpretation is instead superbly sketched out in shades of grey.
Is he a good guy or bad guy? Is he corrupt or straight? Does he really care a fig for Aunt Edna’s plight? Does he think Dale Kingston can be trusted? It could go either way with this guy, making him one of the most interesting bit-part players in the Columbo universe.
Suzanne Pleshette – Helen Stewart, Dead Weight (1971)
In the role of downtrodden divorcee Helen Stewart, Suzanne Pleshette pulls off the not inconsiderable feat of making a support character much more interesting than the killer.
Battling inner demons, and her bullying mother, Pleshette ranges between melancholy and defiant as she struggles to get her act together. Her performance is the highlight of an otherwise forgettable episode.
Robert Culp – Jordan Rowe, Columbo Goes to College (1990)
How good was it to see Culp back as a bad guy – if not a killer – in this satisfying romp from 1990? In short, very, very good!
‘New’ Columbo was rather hit and miss, but with a seething Culp back, almost validating the reincarnation of the show, all seemed right with the world. As menacing and short-tempered as ever, Culp stole the show here, while reminding long-term fans of Columbo‘s awesome heritage.
Gena Rowlands – Elizabeth Van Wick, Playback (1975)
A long-time friend and co-conspirator of Falk’s, Rowlands was always likely to slip easily into the Columbo world, and her performance as wheelchair-bound Elizabeth Van Wick certainly hits the expected heights.
She ably portrays the vulnerability of the character, while filling Elizabeth with a natural warmth the viewer – and the Lieutenant – cannot help but respond to. Her silent, tearful reaction to husband Harold’s arrest remains one of the series’ most poignant moments.
Leslie Nielsen – Peter Hamilton, Lady in Waiting (1971)
Seeing Nielsen playing it straight takes quite some getting used to for an audience more used to his capering antics in Police Squad and Airplane! Yet he’s really very good in his two Columbo outings – particularly this one.
Nielsen nicely portrays the confusion and discomfort brought about by girlfriend Beth Chadwick’s character transformation, showing the emotional toil it’s taking on him, and the inner conflict he faces up to.
The natural comic talent still shines through, though. His cheerful response of “No, I hate you with a passion,” to Beth’s early-episode plea for him to confirm his love could have come straight out of Naked Gun…
Ray Milland – Arthur Kennicut, Death Lends a Hand (1971)
Milland is sensationally good as Arthur Kennicut. Cast as a media mogul, it would have been easy to fall into a one-dimensional braying and adversarial performance. Not a bit of it. Milland gives depth and subtlety, as befits an Oscar-winning actor.
He succeeds in portraying Kennicut’s grieving, sorrowful side as effectively as he does the stern man of action. The dignified vulnerability he displays really touches the heart. Indeed, he delivers everything his performance as killer Jarvis Goodland in Greenhouse Jungle lacks.
And now the top 3…
3. John Payne – Ned Diamond, Forgotten Lady (1975)
The endlessly patient, protective and loyal Ned Diamond is something of a knight in shining armour to Janet Leigh’s fading film icon Grace Wheeler in this heart-rending episode.
It’s clear early on that he is the best friend a girl can have. He looks out for Grace, advises her and keeps those he suspects may be trying to hurt her at a firm arm’s length.
It’s a fine, understated performance by John Payne, who provides all the noble qualities the circumstances demand. Ned’s taking the rap for a terminally ill Grace is as convincing an act of real love as you’ll ever see on the small screen.
2. Jeanette Nolan – Mrs Peck, Double Shock (1973)
The Lieutenant’s most fearsome adversary wasn’t Milo Janus, Paul Hanlon or Ken Franklin. It was crotchety old crone Mrs Peck, the hot-tempered housekeeper of the Paris residence in Double Shock.
A woman so fearsome she’d have had the hardest-hearted killer running for cover, Mrs Peck makes mincemeat of Columbo’s sloppiness and mess-making abilities several times. The bravest confrontation of the Lieutenant’s career came after she berated him for dabbing cigar ash into an antique silver platter, ending in an unforgettable temporary truce over milk and health cookies.
1. Janis Paige – ‘Goldie’, Blueprint for Murder (1972)
You want impact? You got it with Goldie, whose sass, style, and straight talking illuminate every scene she graces. Coming from an era when girl power as we know it was a distant prospect (Charlie’s Angels wouldn’t hit screens for another 5 years), she’s a welcome breath of fresh air, and quite unlike any Columbo character we’ve ever met.
She’s confident and cocky without ever being unlikable, winning the hearts of viewers and the Lieutenant in the process. Her best moment? Undoubtedly when she asks a bashful Columbo to look away as she dresses because she “doesn’t want to corrupt” him. The world would be a more interesting place with more Goldies in it.
There are so many other great support star performances that my conscience won’t allow me to stop there, so just prior to going to press I’ve added these honorable mentions…
Mariette Hartley – Veronica, Try and Catch Me (1978)
As the scheming and duplicitous PA to Ruth Gordon’s Abigail Mitchell, one can only wonder at how good Hartley would have been in the role of a Columbo killer. Very good if you ask me…
Larry Storch – Negative Reaction (1974)
A side-splitting cameo as the on-edge driving instructor. Storch is on screen for 4 minutes. It’s the best 4 minutes of one of the very best Columbo episodes.
Vito Scotti – Thomas Dolan, Negative Reaction (1974)
Six-time guest star Scotti makes background characters fascinating – never more so than this turn as noble drunk Thomas Dolan. Scotti’s great success is in making Dolan so different from his other characters that for years I didn’t even realise it was him!
Myrna Loy – Lizzy Fielding, Etude in Black (1972)
A small part, but there’s no escaping the gravitas and authority Loy brings to proceedings. No wonder Alex Benedict was running scared of her! A real touch of class.
Bob Dishy – Greenhouse Jungle (1973); Now You See Him (1976)
A lovably naive sidekick to Columbo, Dishy brought such simple charm to the role of Sergeant Wilson in Greenhouse Jungle that he was brought back for more of the same three years later.
“This strength in depth is another reason why Columbo is the greatest freakin’ TV show of all time!”
And that’s not even including other great turns form Mary Wickes, Vincent Price, Julie Newmar, Barbara Colby, James McEachin, Blythe Danner, and many more. It just shows what quality and strength in depth was available and is another reason why Columbo is the greatest freakin’ TV show of all time!
Please let me know your thoughts on this article, and who you would have included, below. Thanks, as ever, for reading and for continuing to keep the Columbo legacy alive.
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Vito Scotti in any of his superb appearances………and of course Larry Storch in negative reaction.
Hot Janis Paige kept referring to Columbo as “lover”…he should have followed up that “lead!”
Goldie is so great. She is like the ultimate personification of the strong, spicy, bright, warm-hearted yet somewhat (healthily!) cynical lady that will take no bullshit from anyone, but will also embrace people of all kinds without prejudice – except, of course, Elliot Markham! And rightfully so!
She makes that episode.
I’m glad John Payne is on this list. It was his last part and it brought him full circle to his earlier days as a dancer. In the later part of his career he played more dramatic roles, particularly in noir classics like 99 River Street and Kansas City Confidential. He brings a style and grace of the old Hollywood which suits the role well. While he was never a big star he certainly shows his acting was on par with Janet Leigh’s, a tall order, and made their having been partners believable.
Michael Powell, director of such classics as the Red Shoes and A Matter of Life and Death, once said, “There are no small parts, only short ones.” Columbo’s roster of terrific supporting players has as much importance to its high standards as that of the more well-known guest stars in leading parts.
Collin Wilcox in “An Exercise in Fatality” was SO GOOD as Ruth Stafford, the widow of the murdered gym owner. She just had this sadness with a bit of alcoholism, but also an inner strength that stood up to Robert Conrad’s character. Columbo’s attack on Milo Janus while they sat in the hospital waiting room was an all-time great Columbo moment, but Ms. Wilcox carried her too few scenes. Interesting that she was also so good as Mayella Ewell in “To Kill a Mockingbird” in such a different and less sympathetic (but not entirely unsympathetic) role.
I also loved Tisha Sterling who played Nelson Hayward’s beautiful but naive lover in “Candidate for Crime” just because she brought such a gentle beauty to the role.
The afore mentioned Val Avery in A Friend in Deed and Barry Corbin A Trace of Murder would defnitely make my top 10, as would Wilfrid Hyde-White in Dagger of the Mind. He’s superb as the blackmailing butler Tanner.
Pedro Armendariz, Molly Hagan.
Both excellent parts!
Both excellent parts. I love the scene where Molly Hagan is about to leave and then quotes Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale: ‘Exit, pursued by a bear.’
I met the lovely and poised Diane Baker after a particularly rough flight we had shared from Kennedy NYC airport to Heathrow and later checked up on her career. She had to take on roles that I’m certain she would not have, except for working with the likes of Joan Crawford. I agree with many that she’s not always a standout on Columbo but was happy to see her recognized for a clearly good performance on (what seemed to be her fate in film and TV) a lesser episode of the series. Thank you Columbophile!
Don’t forget Faye Dunnaway. Oh and Joyce VanPatton.
Love your article Love Columbo for ever
I haven’t read many comments on sites like this that compel me to reply. There are mixed opinions on Joyce Van Patten and her museum. I find her portrayal and the character to be effective, moving, and sad. And this article on supporting actors is excellent!
This is the wrong page for Van Patten, but she was terrific.
If the posters mean van Patten’s performance in Negative Reaction (the “helpful” nun in the shelter who wants to give Columbo a new coat), I agree completely!
The original poster, I meant.
Famous names, tremendous performances….which in my opinion is why select episodes are simply great TV. In other words, the acting overall is of the highest level. The only factors that get in the way in some episodes are either weak scripts or on rare occasion, poor directing.
Tyne Daley was fantastic too in ‘A Bird in the Hand’. Even after all of these years, Columbo is compulsory viewing! My kids watch it now so it’s passed on through generations. Best TV cop ever.
She was magnetic but she’s another murderer.
Hillary Danner in Murder with Too Many Notes. In all the Columbo episodes of all time, she’s the only performer I can think of who shows how devastating a death can be to those left behind. Ray Milland suffered nobly in Death Lends a Hand, but Danner gives us a young woman whose life has been ruined.
For whatever reason, I’m fond of Joanne Linville, who plays Jackie Cooper’s tipsy, insecure, oddly appealing wife in “Candidate for Crime.” Her drunkenness was a little more subtle (how could it have been otherwise?) than Diane Baker’s in “Last Salute,” & I got more of a sense of how out to sea & trapped she was with that awful man…
I totally sympathized with her. She was so real throughout, her reactions so believable. Good pick.
Let’s not forget one of America’s finest stage actresses — Julie Harris (5 Tony awards; 10 Tony nominations) — in “Any Old Port in a Storm.” One of the great things about the original Colombo series is how it attracted huge names for relatively small parts.
Myrna Loy is next level in Etude. The only bone I’ll pick is the oversight of Mel Ferrer in Requiem. His is possibly the finest supporting performance in the entire series. Oh, and I love the old magician guy in Now You See Me, you know, whom Columbo talks to about hot plates. (Finest non-Peter Falk performance has to go to Patrick Mc in By The Dawn’s… Watched it last night, captivating…)
Thayer David, who also appeared in Rocky and Dark Shadows.
And was a fine Nero Wolfe just before he died.
A terrific character actor–as a Dark Shadows fan, I think he was the best actor on that series.
Oh, sorry, wrong person. The guy Columbo talks to about hot plates was played by Mike Lally, who was a member of the Columbo repertory company.
Loved this! It’s so great to see the non-murderers in the spotlight! What always stood out to me was when the victims were great actors — Martin Milner, Richard Anderson, Martin Sheen. Casting was such a strong point on Columbo.
Martin Milner gets my vote as the least deserving victim in the series.
Great article. Really enjoying this site. Here are some I would add.
Jack Kruschen The Most Dangerous Match
Val Avery A Friend in Deed
Barry Corbin A Trace of Murder
That’s all I can think of right now.
Some excellent calls there, thanks for sharing.
I know you are not a big fan of the newer seasons, but I have a special something for Barry Corbin (Clifford Calvert) in a trace of murder. I like his grumpy temper, and the relationship he has with Columbo in his episode. Even though it’s really not the best episode, I like it because of him … Except that, good call for this article !
I do like it when folk you wouldn’t expect to like or get on well with Columbo actually do so. This is an example of that, as is Arthur Kennicut / Ray Milland in Death Lends a Hand.
Pedro Armendariz, Molly Hagan.