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.
Read my tribute to the late Robert Vaughn here.
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.
Read my tribute to Theo Bikel here.
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.
Read my full episode review here.
“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.
Read my full episode review here.
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.
My 2 favorites are Robert Conrad as Milo Janis
and of course Jack Cassidy whom David looks so much like.
Mariette Hartley was incredibly beautiful in her Columbo turns.
Not surprised to see fade in to murder never gets a mention it seems to slip my mind a bit as its an episode that wouldn’t trouble my top 30 and is fair to say far from the columbo gold club William Shatner in a white suit saying sir all the time sometimes comes up on other blogs as one of the worst of the 70s that’s being harsh , dagger of the mind , lovely but lethal and matter of honour and last salute were poorer I find old fashioned murder wasn’t very good either and a case of immunity but Id still prefer them and fade in top murder than any of the previous 4 mentioned (this is excluding new episodes)
identity crisis is also a very good episode
There are so many sensational ones that I would probably come up with a different top 10 if I reviewed them all each year. I certainly had all of those in this 2016 list very highly rated, as you can see if you check my reviews of each episode of the series on PrimeWire.cx. The only one I would never consider putting in the top 10 is Troubled Waters, simply because I hated Robert Vaughn, who I thought was one of the worst acting killers ever on Columbo, with so little subtlety to his acting, and everything so monotonous. On the other hand, I always thought each of Cassidy’s 3 Columbos were super, in large part because of how sensational he was as an actor. I thought the same of all 3 McGoohan’s roles, though Identity Crisis suffered from an overdone CIA angle. I would definitely consider the first 2 pre-series episodes, as well as Mind Over Mayhem, A Case of Immunity, and The Conspirators for the top-10 over some of these choices, as they each had ALL the ingredients for greatness in Columbo: a great killer, a great murder plot, great detective work to figure it out, great cat and mouse between Columbo and the killer, and conflicting psychological feelings regarding the murderer (in the latter 3).Also, how could Last Salute to the Commodore not come in first by a country mile in the worst ever of the early Columbos category? Finally, I disagree on Sky High. It is definitely one of the greatest endings, Bikel is superb, and the direction and music is great. But not much really happens for most of the show to keep you riveted to the screen.
Kind of shocked that “Candidate for crime” and “how to dial murder” aren’t higher. Candidate for crime is my absolute favorite, but “how to dial murder” is pretty good too. I love the endings of both episodes especially.
one additional note identity crisis is a brilliant episode and should be there instead of murder by the book , by dawns early light should be there instead of now you see him as now you see hims ending dosent actually have any clues and i would swap negative rteaction with a friend in deed as its funnier along with good clues.
For me it has to be the bye bye sky high case, thanks to a superb Theodore Bikel and a terrific Columbo ending.
I don’t agree with any old port in a storm being top I don t paticulary like it, negative reaction , the bye bye , try and catch me are my tpop columbos and would get top spot ,playback identity crisis& prescription murder and by dawns early light should be intere instead of any old port ,now you see him and a stich in crime,. but they were all good
Yeah, my all time favorite episode doesn’t seem to be on any list – it’s Negative Reaction. I loved seeing Dick Van Dyke as a murderer, and it has two (count ’em, two!) of the best scenes – the scene where Columbo goes to the homeless shelter and the nun thinks he’s one of the homeless men, and the scene with Larry Storch as the Driving instructor. PLUS, the gotcha at the end was priceless. All around, just a gem from start to finish.
Try and catch me is the best episode in my opinion. It’s classic Columbo and great fun throughout. I’m glad to see it on this list but believe it should have ranked higher. I’m surprised not to see the pilots on here prescription murder and the Lee Grant episode are also 2 of the best! I also like forgotten lady and as it’s the only one where he lets the murder “off” in a way, I think it pretty cool.
By Dawn’s Early Light is a superb episode. A killer whose motive is sympathetic to the viewer and to Columbo. And it marks the start of a 25 year collaboration of Peter with his close friend the brilliant Patrick McGoohan. McGoohan and Columbo both won
Emmys for ‘Dawn’.
Playback every time for me. Great denouement. Wonderfully downbeat ending. No-one wins
Great list, and pretty close to mine. In the end there are many things that influence us. “Murder by the Book” is certainly my fav, and A Stitch in Crime is terrific. But I am really attached to some so so (and later)
episodes like “Columbo goes to College” and “Ashes to Ashes”.
Columbo Goes to College is a terrific episode. Close to my own top 10.
I watched Any Old Port… yesterday and, well, I don’t think it will ever be my personal best. Knowing it was the fans’ number one on this site, I was expecting a blast – and it was certainly good, but to me it had a different feeling to it than the previous episodes. It was less about action, crime and confrontations with Columbo, and more about conversations, manners and the specific atmosphere. Like a slow food meal, so to speak. The staged bottle/supper idea was brilliant on Columbo’s part, but I certainly don’t sympathize with the killer just because of his ability to match Columbo’s level. Leaving Eric dying in a cellar for two days was as gloomy as Dr. Mayfield’s attempt to kill the older doctor gradually with the use of dissolving sutures. Baddies like Ken Franklin and Paul Hanlon at least killed their victims immediately. To sum up – a very good, respectful episode (like all Columbos to me thus far), but not the best one to me. Thanks as always for your writing!
And just one more thing – I’ll never understand what’s in the brains of people (in Columbo they seem to be mainly women) who want a relationship with a murderer (Murder by the Book, Suitable for Framing, Any Old Port) and therefore either blackmail him or cooperate with him. How can they hope that someone who kills one person will not take their lives next?! How can they be attracted to a killer?… While Lilly La Sanka and Dale Kingston’s student arouse some kind of compassion, Carsini’s secretary is really weird in her surprising reveal of intentions.
Personally two of my favourites are Ransom for a Dead Man and Prescription: Murder. As you tell, I like the early ones…
I agree on the first position, mostly because Pleasence was an extraordinary actor, imho the only one in the entire series who was on the same, sky high level as Falk.
As for the others, I would have also put in the top 10 Blueprint for Murder and The Most Crucial Game, they are both particularly brilliant for the way Columbo incrimininates the murderers. And by the way Culp was another very fine actor.
You’re missing some great episodes like: A stitch in crime, Blueprint for murder, Death lends a hand,By dawn’s early night, Try and catch me, How to dial a murder and The conspirators.
The people have spoken! Try & Catch Me and Stitch in Crime were next two on the list. Death Lends a Hand surprisingly an also ran, although it comfortably makes my top 10.
Love this site! So glad to have found a place to share my obsessions!
I’m delighted to hear this, thanks very much.
I thought ‘Short Fuse’ was a top 5 cert. When so many classics fail to make the top ten, I think it says a lot about the sheer quality of Seventies Columbo
I’ve just discovered this wonderful site! I think Try and Catch Me is very good but perhaps doesn’t last long enough – one of the few episodes that could do with a bit more padding rather than less, if only to see more of wonderful Ruth Gordon’s interaction with Falk.
Agree. It’s one of my favs!
Great site; and great list… My personal favorites:
1. Swan Song &
2. Murder by the Book
Surprised not to see Candidate for a Crime and By Dawn’s Early Light…
I think Early Light is admired rather than loved by many. Doubtless appears in many fans’ personal top 10 without ever quite topping the lists.
Great list! I was surprised that Patrick McGoohan’s episodes didn’t do better. One of my favourites, By Dawn’s Early Light, was only #19… and Agenda for Murder (which I really enjoyed) was ranked very low.
One of those tricky things from such a vote. Probably lots of people would rate those episodes in their personal top 10s, but not quite their single favourites. But doing a multiple choice poll is logistically difficult.
I was about to write: it would be great to have a multiple choice poll, and see how the rankings change. I do understand the difficulty, though. Still exciting stuff. So happy to have found this site to share my Columbo obsession…
I’m pleased you’re enjoying it so far! Plenty of good content in the pipeline, too!
I love them all, but the top ten r the greatest
That list makes very interesting reading. I don’t sense any huge surprises in the top episodes, although for me Troubled Waters and Etude in Black are ranked very slightly higher than I would have expected. It’s nice to note Try and Catch Me, A Stitch in Crime, Negative Reaction and Forgotten Lady are ranked only just below the Top 10 as I’m sure they feature in many people’s Top 10. With so many great episodes to choose from I doubt there are 2 fans out there who would rank all 69 episodes in the exactly same way.