Okay, I admit this is something of a click-bait headline, and I apologise for reducing Columbo to these scurrilous depths.
For most readers of this particular Columbo blog, the names that appear below will not come as a surprise at all. You may even scoff and growl: “Well obviously I knew such and such was in Columbo! Doesn’t everyone…?”
But no! Not everyone who reads this blog knows Columbo inside out as you do. For the more casual fan, who may even be encountering this blog for the first time, a voyage of discovery can await in every Columbo episode, as the face of youthful household name of today enjoys their screen debut, or a well-known TV or film star of the 80s/90s pops up in a cameo.
“For the more casual fan, a voyage of discovery can await in every Columbo episode, as the face of a youthful household name of today enjoys their screen debut.”
If that sounds familiar, then this article is dedicated to you! I’ve left out the actual big-name killers (Johnny Cash, Leonard Nimoy et al) and instead focused on those who were behind the cameras, or on the fringes of episodes, perhaps on screen for just a few moments, but who would either become stars in their own right, or were already legendary figures in some capacity.
For the more discerning Columbo nut, who already knows all of these, do put your thinking caps on and let me know who I might have missed!
NB – use of term ‘megastars’ in headline open to interpretation.
May as well start with the very biggest of the big, right? Yes, that Steven Spielberg directed the legendary Murder by the Book from Columbo‘s first season – an episode rarely bettered in the show’s long history.
Although an almost unknown mid-20 something at the time, Peter Falk has admitted that Spielberg was ‘too good’ for Columbo, and the director’s roll of honour since rather backs up Falk’s faith.
I often notice on Twitter a splurge of excitement from random individuals when they notice that Spielberg played his part in Columbo heritage, and why not? It’s something to be celebrated. Even Tom Hanks was thrilled to hear about it when he interviewed Spielberg as part of the promo work for Bridge of Spies in 2015. Read more about that here. If Tom Hanks can get excited about Spielberg’s Columbo involvement, then anyone can…
Jamie Lee Curtis
A year before Halloween made her famous, and five years before that topless scene in Trading Places, Jamie Lee Curtis was making her presence felt as a surly waitress in the Bye-Bye Sky High IQ Murder Case in 1977.
In a small but memorable cameo, she first confiscated Columbo’s doughnut in a cafe before looking at him like thunder when he re-ordered another one after dithering over the menu.
Lest we forget, her mama, Janet Leigh, starred in the previous season’s Forgotten Lady. Perhaps Janet gave the show’s producers a playful dig in the ribs to open the door to her daughter’s talents. From then on there was no stopping her.
Immortalised as ‘Al’ in Quantum Leap, and also an Oscar nominee for his turn in 1988’s Married to the Mob, Dean Stockwell popped up in two memorable Columbo episodes alongside two of the show’s iconic baddies. He was brained by Robert Culp’s ice block as millionaire playboy Eric Wagner in Most Crucial Game; and reappeared as the sympathetic – and terribly coiffed – band player Lloyd in Troubled Waters, who Robert Vaughn tries to frame.
True Blood‘s finest – Kristin Bauer van Straten
She may have the dubious honour of appearing in one of the very worst Columbo episodes ever made – the dire Undercover from 1994 – but Kristin Bauer can’t be accused of letting that stunt her professional development. She bounced back in some style, playing sexy vampiress Pamela Swynford De Beaufort in hit HBO show True Blood, and has now been a central character for several seasons. Can her Columbo experience have pushed her so totally to the dark side? We can only speculate…
Mr Miyagi AKA Pat Morita
Nearly a decade before he achieved movie idolatory as Mr Miyagi in Karate Kid, the unknown Pat Morita was cast in the bonkers role as ‘The House Boy’ in Columbo Season 2 episode Etude in Black.
His role involved little more than letting Columbo in to chief suspect Alex Benedict’s house, then galloping up a staircase to alert his master (played by John Cassavetes) to the news, bellowing ‘Mistah Benedict! Mistah Benediiiict!’ Like I said, bonkers…
Mama Fratelli AKA Anne Ramsey
One of the movie world’s worst mother figures cropped up in Columbo 11 years before The Goonies became a hit. Anne Ramsey was bizarrely cast as a masseuse at Viveca Scott’s exclusive fat farm in Lovely But Lethal in 1973. I’m not quite sure she’d be my perfect choice as a masseuse (I rather suspect she has the touch of a blacksmith), but, hey, each to their own…
The King of Horror was sinfully under-utilised in his one Columbo outing, playing beauty industry (!) kingpin David Lang in 1973’s Lovely But Lethal.
The arch-nemesis of leading lady Viveca Scott (Vera Miles), ol’ Vincenzo was given some nice, acerbic one-liners, and a simply MASSIVE office, but he disappeared halfway through the episode, never to be seen again, leaving his appearance feeling slightly anticlimactic.
What we saw of him was pure gold, though.
Cat Woman – Julie Newmar
Many a 60s’ male lusted after the catsuit-clad Julie Newmar as she played the feline foil to Adam West’s uber camp Bat-Man – and she was still turning heads in 1973’s Columbo Double Shock. However, despite her heart of gold, the yoga-loving leotard wearer still met a grisly demise at the hands of identical twins, Norman and Dexter Paris.
It’s a role so small it doesn’t even count as a cameo, but Big Jeff was definitely there as an extra in the protesting crowd scenes in Case of Immunity in 1975. How cool is that?
The star of blockbusters including Scarface, Independence Day, An Officer and a Gentleman and Big, guest-starred as the harried and occasionally surly Cabaret of Magic manager Harry Blandford in the joyous Now You See Him, alongside Jack Cassidy. Sadly Loggia passed away on 4 December 2015.
Robert Loggia’s Independence Day co-star Judd Hirsch also popped up in Columbo – albeit in much more of a ‘blink-and-you’ll-miss-it fashion.
According to a few sources, Hirsch appeared in an uncredited role as a Make-Up Artist in the Shatner-tastic Fade In To Murder in 1976. You realise what this means don’t you? It means that father-and-son ID4 team Julius and David Levinson (Jeff Goldblum) both graced Columbo. Outstanding…
Al Swearengen AKA Ian McShane
Deadwood ace McShane seems to fit into rogueish roles as easily as a murderer’s hand slips into a talced surgical glove. A Golden Globe winner for his portrayal of Deadwood‘s Al Swearengen in 2005, Columbo fans know him for the small part he played as Leland St John in the above-average ‘new’ episode from 1990, Rest in Peace Mrs Columbo, where he provides an alibi for psycho killer Vivian Dimitri.
Old skool Brit viewers, of course, will forever associate him with rascally antiques dealer Lovejoy from the BBC drama of the same name. From East Anglia to the Wild West via LA, old Ian did pretty well for himself…
The Oscar-winning director of Silence of the Lambs, Philadelphia and The Manchurian Candidate was just cutting his directorial teeth in the 1970s when a chance to shine in Columbo was handed to him on a plate (if you’ll excuse the culinary pun).
Demme helmed Murder Under Glass from Columbo’s 7th season in 1978, a delicious concoction of an episode pitting Louis Jourdan’s dastardly food critic Paul Gerard against the doughty Lieutenant. Notable for the sight of Columbo cooking up a storm, it would be nice to think a little of Gerard’s food snobbery rubbed off on Demme’s direction of Hannibal Lecter a decade later.
The smooth-skinned singer made a madcap, some might say entirely unnecessary, cameo as himself in 1991’s Columbo And the Murder of a Rock Star. I, and millions of others, still have no idea why Little Richard was worked into the plot. I can only think that it was to use him in TV spots for the episode to give the impression that he might be the eponymous rock star victim? He wasn’t. Given that this is one of those new episodes I’d rather boil my own stomach than watch, I’ll have to leave it at that.
Boss Hogg AKA Sorrell Booke
Booke’s portrayal of the bungling, greedy Hazzard County commissioner in the wildly popular 80s series The Dukes of Hazzard was a million miles removed from the bullied yet sensitive soul, Bertie Hastings (the victim in Bye-Bye Sky High IQ Murder Case) as he’s best known to as Columbo fans. Booke also had a very small part in Swan Song from Columbo Season 4, when he played Johnny Cash’s weirdo manager, JJ Stringer. The role defies conventional description.
Sex & The City was a mere twinkle in the eye of TV producers when Kim Cattrall made the biggest appearance of her career to date as Joanne Nicholls in Columbo Season 7 outing How to Dial a Murder.
She’s a love interest here, but that’s where the similarities to Sex & The City‘s Samantha Jones end. Cattrall here is a much less confident, and more troubled, figure than the one she grew into in the role that would define her. Still, Cattrall herself has referenced how big a break this was for her, and paid tribute to Peter Falk on her Twitter account here, which was lovely to see.
Handsome young Martin’s Karl Lessing character caught the eye of Viveca Scott in 1973’s Lovely But Lethal, from Columbo Season 3, and he ended up getting a microscope to the temple for his troubles. The cocky upstart in evidence here was a far cry from the man of gravitas he would become, with iconic roles in Apocalypse Now and as US President Jed Bartlet in West Wing gracing his CV.
Commandant Eric Lassard AKA George Gaynes
Columbo fans could be forgiven for not realising that Police Academy ace George Gaynes appeared in two episodes in the 1970s – not least because I didn’t realise it myself until he sadly died this February.
Known the world over as Commandant Eric Lassard in more Police Academy films than could ever really be justified, he was also excellent in a memorable role in Tootsie alongside Dustin Hoffman in 1982.
He had a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it-role as ‘Everett’ in Etude in Black in 1972, and also claimed one of the least convincing Frenchmen ever seen on celluloid roles when he had a bit-part in Any Old Port in a Storm in 1974, playing a wine expert who Columbo turned to for guidance.
Costume design GODDESS Edith Head
Chronicled very recently in my article about the amazing Oscars’ successes of Columbo stars, dear Edith’s cameo appearance as herself in Requiem for a Falling Star always amazes the knowledgeable first-time viewer, who truly appreciates a master at work. Several of Head’s Oscars even appear in the background. Peter Falk would present her with another Best Costume Design Oscar at the 1974 Academy Awards.
Ed Begley Jr
With hundreds of TV and film credits to his name, actor, director and producer Ed Begley Jr has been there, seen it and worn the t-shirt. He’s lucky enough to have two Columbo t-shirts, too.
As well as being killer Irving Krutch in aforementioned Undercover from 1994, a moustached, rounder-faced younger model also cropped up in a tiny role as ‘Officer Stein’ in 1978’s How to Dial a Murder.
Baseball big hitter Ron Cey
LA Dodgers legend Ron Cey hit 316 home runs in a 17-season pro baseball career, but his crowning glory was undoubtedly appearing as himself in Uneasy Lies the Crowd, a passable Columbo effort from 1990, which also featured actors Dick Sargent and Nancy Walker playing themselves. The all-star trio were involved in a poker game at killer dentist Wesley Corman’s house. That’s how the show rolled in the 1990s, see?
After his breakthrough appearance alongside James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause in 1955, heartthrob Sal seemingly had the world – and thousands of women – at his feet.
He was twice a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nominee by the age of 21, but his problems breaking away from ‘troubled teen’ typecasting, and subsequent controversy surrounding his open bisexuality, prevented him from landing the roles his talent deserved. After a couple of attempts to rekindle his career failed to bear fruit, Mineo became a bit-part player on the small screen, including his portrayal as murder victim Rachman Habib in Case of Immunity in 1975.
It would be one of his last roles, as Mineo was senselessly and tragically murdered in an alleyway behind his own home in Hollywood.
The Oscar-winning actor cropped up in Strange Bedfellows in 1995. In the role of a mafia capo, Steiger is actually pretty good. The same can’t be said of the quality of the episode, sadly, but that’s mid-90s Columbo for you…
The versatile star, with hits to her name including Married With Children, Futurama, Lost and Boston Legal, was helped on her way with a small role as one of Nelson Hayward’s secretarial team in 1973’s Candidate for Crime. There may have been a teeny bit of nepotism involved in her landing this particular role. The episode was directed by Katey’s father, Boris, who was also at the helm for Greenhouse Jungle from Columbo Season 2.
Pavel Chekov AKA Walter Koenig
In-jokes galore were the order of the day when William Shatner starred as nutty TV detective Ward Fowler in Fade In To Murder in 1976. Most of these jokes were at the expense of Peter Falk, as they aped his long-running clashes with the studio hierarchy while creating Columbo. But Star Trek fans can also take delight in a small role for Chekov, aka Walter Koenig, who starred as Sergeant Johnson at the crime scene (sporting a truly dire checked brown suit).
It was either that, or this was one of those crazy time-travelling Star Trek episodes that had the lead characters righting some wrongs from Earth’s dark past. You decide…
The side-splitting star of Airplane and Naked Gun excelled in two Columbo outings playing the straight man. He was particularly good as troubled lover Peter Hamilton in Lady in Waiting from Season 1, and was cast against type as something of a heavy in the slightly loopy Identity Crisis in 1975, where he was clubbed to death by Patrick McGoohan. Would Frank Drebin have cracked the case?
Ameche’s career was in something of a no-man’s land when appeared as lawyer Frank Simpson in Suitable for Framing in 1971. I’d like to think his fine turn here paved the way for his triumphant return to the A-List in classics such as Trading Places and his Oscar-winning outing in Cocoon. Love your work, Don!
The legendary actress, who had scores of movie credits to her name from the silent age through the golden era of cinema in the 1930s-40s, graced Etude in Black in 1972. Predictably, she owned every scene she was in!
LA Lakers All-Stars
Not one, not two, not three, etc… but SIX LA Lakers sensations appeared briefly in The Most Crucial Game from Columbo‘s second season in 1972. Jim McMillan, Flynn Robinson, Pat Riley, Harold ‘Happy’ Hairston, LeRoy Ellis, and Keith Erickson were all seen on screen having a practice session watched by the good Lieutenant and Paul Hanlon. The Super Six were members of the LA Lakers team who earlier that same year won the World Championship for the first time.
“Coach” AKA Nick Colasanto
He’ll forever be associated with the role of barkeep ‘Coach’ from Cheers, but Colasanto also directed two of Columbo‘s finest hours: Etude in Black in 1972, and Swan Song in 1974.
Affected by heart conditions in the mid-1970s, Colasanto died of a heart attack in 1985 at the age of 61. His legacy lives on…
Edna Krabappel / Marcia Wallace
Bart Simpson’s long-time teacher was voiced by Marcia Wallace until her untimely death in 2013. Marcia was also credited in two episodes of Columbo: she had a small speaking role in Lady in Waiting (pictured), but was cut from Murder by the Book.
Was he or wasn’t he? George C Scott
One of the finest actors of his generation, both on stage and screen, Scott became the first actor to refuse the Academy Award for Best Actor (for Patton in 1970) on philosophical grounds, and was also nominated on three other occasions between 1959-1971.
As well as being married to Trish Van Devere, the femme fatale Kay Freestone from Make Me a Perfect Murder, Scott is also rumoured to have made a teeny, uncredited appearance in the same episode as a studio technician. No images seem to exist to back this claim up, so it’s probably not true – but it would be rad if it was. I discuss this in greater detail right here…
Robby the Robot
The star of Forbidden Planet, Robby the Robot has an enviable list of acting credits to his name, on both the big and small screen, including guest appearances in The Addams Family, Lost in Space, Gremlins, The Twilight Zone and Wonder Woman.
He amazed and delighted Columbo in 1974’s Mind Over Mayhem in the role of MM7, but was wickedly used by murderer Dr Marshall Cahill to establish an alibi. The fate of the robot following Cahill’s arrest is unknown, but we can only hope he avoided doing time for aiding and abetting a felony…
In fairness, I’m not sure how well known Trisha is at global level, but she was a teen pop sensation in Australia (as Patsy Anne Noble) in the 1960s before moving on to TV and silver screen roles in UK and Hollywood in the mid-60s and beyond – including in Buck Rogers in the 25th Century. Trisha had a small but eye-catching role in Playback from Columbo Season 4, and also notably played Padme Amidala’s mother in Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith.
Best known for his directing work from TV shows as far-reaching and popular as Lost, Alias, The Sopranos and Game of Thrones, a young Jack Bender also had his fair share of TV acting roles early in his career, including appearing in Publish or Perish alongside Jack Cassidy in 1973 from Columbo‘s excellent third season.
Although a mere accessory to the crime, playing a quivering young transcription service delivery boy known only as ‘Wolpert’, Bender did sport a truly marvelous white man’s afro in the episode, as indicated in the image here.
Gwyneth Paltrow/Blythe Danner
This is one that the Columbo know-all can’t wait to unveil to their lesser-knowing associates. It really helps set them apart as an aficionado of the show, after all. “Did you know that Oscar-winning actress Gwyneth Paltrow, no less, once appeared in an episode of Columbo?” they trill, while eyeing their target ferociously for any hint of weakness or flabbergast?
Doubtless meeting a blank-eyed expression, they push on. “Oh yes,” they roar (perhaps empowered by a brandy or two). “She was quite clearly visible as a bump in mother Blythe Danner’s prrrrregnant belly in Etude in Black.”
Cue guffaws,and laps of honour of whatever arena they happen to be in, offering a ‘knowledge high-five’ to their mystified pal, who presumably leaves them hanging…
So whilst it’s true that Blythe Danner, aka wronged wife Janice Benedict in Etude, was pregnant during the filming of the episode, for anyone to claim that Gwyneth actually appeared in the episode is pushing things just a shade too far…
“Gwyneth was quite clearly visible as a bump in mother Blythe Danner’s pregnant belly in Etude in Black,” the Columbo know-all trills.
So, anyway, that’s the list, and admittedly it is an impressive one. If I’ve missed out anyone you think worthy of mentioning, please feel free to disabuse me.
If you enjoyed this, you might also like my article about the stars who should have played Columbo killers, but, alas, never did. The likes of Lando Calrissian, James Bond, Bones McCoy and ol’ Blue Eyes pop up. Read that little gem here.
I’d like to thank you for reading, as always, and I look forward to encountering you here again in the not-too-distant…