Way back in the innocent summer of 2015 I flung open a poll to invite Columbo fans to essentially choose their favourite child and vote for their single most-loved episode.
It’s no easy feat, I know. There are so many fabulous episodes to choose from that placing one ahead of the pack was a conundrum too big for some. I received emails / tweets / social media comments from folk who missed their own weddings, dream holiday flights, job interviews, heart bypass operations and more due to the time spent deliberating.
Despite that, thousands of votes have been cast, giving an excellent representative sample. So for your viewing pleasure (can I get a drum roll please), here are the top 10 Columbo episodes as voted for by the fans, as of July 2017 (this article will be updated annually).
“Folk missed their own weddings, dream holiday flights, and heart bypass operations due to the time spent deliberating on their favourite Columbo…”
10. A Friend in Deed (last year = 7th)
An episode apart in many ways, A Friend in Deed (directed by Ben Gazzara) is a very different type of Columbo – and its contrast to the norm makes it extremely memorable. A dark tale of police corruption, moral bankruptcy and greed, with very little humour, the good cop / bad cop battle between the Lieutenant and his superior is riveting stuff. And the gotcha moment? SEN-SAY-SHUN-UL!
“The good cop / bad cop battle between the Lieutenant and his superior is riveting stuff.”
9. Try & Catch Me – NEW ENTRY!
Surprisingly just missed out on the top 10 in 2016, taking 11th place, but the perennial crowd-pleaser is surely now where it belongs.
Try & Catch Me succeeds because the interplay between Ruth Gordan’s cheeky Abigail Mitchell (at 85 the oldest Columbo killer by a mile) and the Lieutenant is so enjoyable throughout. One can almost hope the old dear gets away with it, but there’s no sentimentality from Columbo. In one of the episode highlights, Abigail coos about what a nice man Columbo is. “Don’t count on that, Miss Mitchell,” he warns. “Don’t count on it.”
8. Troubled Waters (last year = 9th)
An absolute blast from start to finish, Troubled Waters (also directed by Falk’s old buddy Ben Gazzara) sees Columbo revert back to old-skool sleuthing techniques to bring down Robert Vaughn’s crooked car salesman on the high seas.
It’s so entertaining that the massive plot holes – and almost endless version of Volare – can be easily ignored. Just sit back and enjoy the ride, not to mention the sight of Vaughn pimpin’ it up like few other Columbo killers.
7. Swan Song (last year = 4th)
When a man as loved as Johnny Cash appears in an episode of Columbo, you can bet your bottom dollar it’s going to end up somewhere near the top of the heap when fans cast their vote. So it proves. Although Swan Song isn’t a great personal fave, the honest warmth Cash brings to the role of troubled gospel singer Tommy Brown is captivating. Seeing him belt out a rendition of Sunday Morning Coming Down is pretty sweet, too.
Of course, the episode’s chief take-out is I Saw the Light. So here it is, guaranteed to be in your head for approx 6 weeks after every listen. You’re welcome…
6. Publish or Perish – NEW ENTRY!
Racing into the top 10 from outside the top 20 last year, Jack Cassidy’s often overlooked and underappreciated second outing is the big mover in the fans’ standings.
Overshadowed by his genre-defining turn in Murder by the Book and his hugely enjoyable magical romp in Now You See Him, Publish is nevertheless is fantastic piece of television, which arguably features Jack’s very best Columbo performance as sleazy book publisher Riley Greenleaf.
From his shambling faux-drunk antics early on to his bored ‘hooray’ late in the day as Columbo details his case, Cassidy is a joy to behold. It helps that this is also a brilliantly plotted episode, with excellent twists and a truly satisfying gotcha. If you ask me, this more than earns its place amongst the top episodes.
5. The Bye-Bye Sky High IQ Murder Case (non-mover)
It’s my absolute favourite, so I’m pleased to see that many other viewers share my enjoyment. Although there are some highly improbable moments and some plot holes you could sail the Titanic through, it’s really got it where it counts: some wonderful humour, half of dozen of the series’ genuinely great moments and a fine turn by Theo Bikel as tortured genius Oliver Brandt. Bye-Bye also features that rarest of beasts – the Lieutenant actually telling us something real about his methods and motivations.
4. A Stitch in Crime – NEW ENTRY!
Another one that just missed out in 2016 (12th in the list then), Stitch in Crime deservedly races up the standings. This is a magnificent tale of ambition and ruthlessness, as Leonard Nimoy’s superbly cool Dr Barry Mayfield attempts to kill his research partner and mentor through use of dissolving suture, and kills two others who stand in his way – including an entirely innocent, troubled war veteran, who never knew what hit him.
Nimoy is so heartless in this that even Columbo can’t take it, leading to a rare display of genuine anger from the usually polite detective after Mayfield laughs in his face. The power of that emotional outburst makes it extra sweet when Columbo takes him down at episode’s end.
“Stitch in Crime is a magnificent tale of ambition and ruthlessness.”
3. Now You See Him (non-mover)
It’s no surprise for me to see this take its place on the rostrum, as it has so many ingredients that make it memorable for both die-hards and casual fans. The magic cabaret setting is unique for starters, and Jack Cassidy is typically inspired as the villainous Santini. Throw in a hated new coat for Columbo, the return of Sergeant Wilson and the Lieutenant indulging in a Sherlockian reveal at episode’s end, and you have 90 minutes of TV to treasure.
“The magic cabaret setting is unique, and Jack Cassidy is typically inspired as the villainous Santini.”
2. Murder by the Book (non-mover)
It’s one of the most important TV episodes ever to air, and Murder by the Book still has the capacity to mesmerise more than 45 years on. With Spielberg at the helm capturing some spell-binding shots of the action, and Jack Cassidy establishing himself straight away as the archetypal Columbo baddie, there’s nothing here not to like. Billy Goldenberg’s iconic score adds further gloss. It’s nigh-on perfect, with only the slightly unconvincing ‘gotcha’ not matching all that comes before it.
This also means that all Jack Cassidy’s episodes take their place in the top 10. Strong evidence of how highly esteemed Jack is by fans the world over.
1. Any Old Port in a Storm (non-mover)
“An exciting meal has been ruined by the presence of this LIQUID FILTH!“
While the above line may not single-handedly be the reason why Any Old Port in a Storm continues to top the standings by a mile, it may be the stand-out example in what was a lesson in line delivery from Donald Pleasence throughout. His pompous Adrian Carsini is the beneficiary of a truly vintage script, which affords him countless opportunities to put his clipped British accent to exceptional use.
Any Old Port is certainly an aural treat, but it’s perhaps the final scene that hits home most with viewers. The mutually respectful exchange in Columbo’s car, as he drives Carsini away from his winery to a life behind bars, is a beautiful thing. Two perfectionists, from completely different sides of the tracks, have found a common ground. It’s the sort of TV moment that almost doesn’t exist any more, and it’s all the more poignant because of it.
“The mutually respectful exchange in Columbo’s car, as he drives Carsini away from his winery to a life behind bars, is a beautiful TV moment.”
So there we have it: the fans’ favourites as voted for by you. And you! Aaaaaaand you! If you want to see how they square up against my own personal top 10, click here immediately!
But before I head off, I thought it would be nice to give you an overview of some of the other key findings from the poll.
The episodes dropping out
With three new entries this year, it necessarily equates to three legendary episodes dropping out. In this case Suitable for Framing, Etude in Black and Double Exposure make way. Exposure drops from 10th to 14th place. Eighth last year, Framing drops to 11th. The biggest drop was Etude, which ‘plummeted’ from 6th place to 12th. With all still in touching distance of the top 10, though, a return to the dizzy heights in future years seems likely.
The lack of Robert Culp and Patrick McGoohan representation in the top 10 is interesting. Culp’s Double Exposure was there last year, but Death Lends a Hand, which I consider his best episode, only ranks 25th. McGoohan’s highest-placed episode is By Dawn’s Early Light in 13th, while Identity Crisis also makes the top 20 (in 19th). Also dropping from 12th to 17th is the superb Negative Reaction, which comfortably makes my own top 10.
Best of a bad bunch?
Regular readers will know that I’m not entirely enamoured with the ‘new’ Columbo episodes that ran from 1989-2003 (read more here), although there are certainly a handful I consider top notch. It looks like pollsters agree, with two of my faves from the new run, Columbo Goes to College and Rest in Peace Mrs Columbo, filling positions 16 and 21 in the list. There’s only one more in the to 40 – Columbo Cries Wolf, tying for 37th.
Propping up the rest?
There are no big fat zeroes with voters, but it’ll come as no surprise to purists to learn that the lower echelons of the standings are packed with ‘new’ episodes. Only two of the 10 lowest-polling episodes are from the 1970s’ run (Old Fashioned Murder and Matter of Honor), while the least loved of all are Grand Deceptions, No Time to Die and Strange Bedfellows – all three tying for last place.
A HUGE THANKS to all who voted, and even if you haven’t you can go and skew the above findings straight away by casting your vote here.