Amidst an ocean of talent, three Columbo guest star killers loom large above all others: the great triumvirate of Jack Cassidy, Robert Culp and Patrick McGoohan.Between them they clocked up 10 appearances as Columbo killers, leaving 13 victims in their wake. And, deliciously, they all offered something very different from each other in terms of what they brought the series, and how they interacted with the Lieutenant.
But when push comes to shove, who stands tallest of all? It’s an almighty question, and one which I’m seeking your assistance on. Most Columbo fans have a cut-and-dried favourite. They respect the work put in by the other two actors, but they love one above all others. Maybe you’re the same? I know I am… But without wanting to influence your thinking, here I set out the pros and cons of the ‘Big 3 Columbo killers’ (in alphabetical order – again no attempt to influence), and invite you to vote for your single favourite. Now’s the time to stand up and be counted. Now’s the time to nail your colours to Cassidy, Culp or McGoohan mast forever…
“Most Columbo fans have a cut-and-dried favourite. They respect the work put in by the other two actors, but they love one above all others.”
Guest star appearances
- Ken Franklin in Murder by the Book (1971)
- Riley Greenleaf in Publish or Perish (1973)
- The Great Santini in Now You See Him (1975)
- Jim Ferris and Lily La Sanka – Murder by the Book
- Eddie Kane (directly) and Alan Mallory (via hitman Eddie Kane) – Publish or Perish
- Jesse Jerome – Now You See Him
CharacteristicsSmooth, charming, intelligent, stylish and witty, a Jack Cassidy killer is the sort of guy you’d want to hang out with – even if you knew you were top of their hit list! And he was the absolute opposite of the scruffy Lieutenant Columbo. Jack knew how to live in real life, and his on-screen appearances in Columbo absolutely epitomise his zest for life. He made being a bad guy seem really fun!
Any weaknesses?One could argue that Jack’s characters were all shades of the same colour. He essentially played the same character in different guises in each outing. When it’s so ruddy enjoyable to watch, though, you could consider that a strength. One has to assume that Jack would’ve had a fourth bite at the killer cherry were it not for his untimely and tragic death in 1976.
Guest star appearances
- Investigator Brimmer in Death Lends a Hand (1971)
- Paul Hanlon in The Most Crucial Game (1972)
- Dr Bart Keppell in Double Exposure (1973)
- Jordan Rowe in Columbo Goes to College (1990) – NOT A KILLER
- Lenore Kennicut – Death Lends a Hand
- Eric Wagner – The Most Crucial Game
- Vic Norris and Roger White – Double Exposure
CharacteristicsProfessional, brooding, calculating, intelligent and angry, a Robert Culp Columbo killer was always an extremely dangerous foe. No one did barely controlled rage better than Culp and he never seemed far from the edge. His contrast to the affability and fun of Cassidy have helped ensure his legacy will live forever amongst Columbo fans.
Any weaknesses?Similar to Cassidy, you always knew what you were getting with a Culp bad guy: brooding menace and simmering rage. Again, those characteristics are so loved by viewers that it’s hard to consider them chinks in the armour.
Guest star appearances
- Colonel Rumford in By Dawn’s Early Light (1974)
- Nelson Brenner in Identity Crisis (1975)
- Oscar Finch in Agenda for Murder (1990)
- Eric Prince in Ashes to Ashes (1990)
- William Haynes – By Dawn’s Early Light
- ‘Geronimo’ / AJ Henderson – Identity Crisis
- Frank Staplin – Agenda for Murder
- Verity Chandler – Ashes to Ashes
CharacteristicsNo one played a Columbo killer more times than McGoohan – 4 times in total, but he was much less easy to pigeonhole than Cassidy and Culp. Consider the noble dignity he brought to By Dawn’s Early Light – a role that nabbed him an Emmy Award. Compare that to the bonkers role he played in Identity Crisis, and the power and confidence he showed in Agenda for Murder and here is a man who will not be typecast. His elocution and pronunciation made for delicious line delivery, never more so than in the below example.
Any weaknesses?Arguably his penchant for eccentricity reared its head a few times too often, and that he was more interested in pushing the Columbo character out of his normal confines than was really good for the show (McGoohan also directed several episodes, see). But in terms of delivery, he rarely put a foot wrong.
Who’s da greatest?All three actors can reasonably stake a claim to be the best, and the most quintessential killer of them all. But only one can carry the fans’ vote. So who’s your number one? Vote below! And rest assured, I haven’t forgotten the sky-high calibre of the other killers. I’ll run a future poll about who is the single most popular guest star killer of them all, and I’ve also run past articles that may be of interest:
- The top 10 most sympathetic Columbo killers
- The Columbo killers we love to loathe
- Who should have played a Columbo killer?
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I voted for Patrick.
All together now……….. I Knooooooooooooooow!!!
To any Columbo addict (guilty) this is a really good subject. All three had a tremendous impact on this fantastic series. I’ll start off by saying McGoohan had the extra presence in that he was also a Director, and also was in 2 later years episodes. That is very impressive and he was awesome in what he did. Now let’s talk entertainment value, that’s where it comes down to Culp and Cassidy, i just think their episodes were slightly superior to McGoohans. Double Exposure is my favorite and Death Lends A Hand and The most Crucial Game all in my top 15. Murder By The Book and Now You See Him are both in my top ten. sooooo Culp #1 Cassidy #2 McGoohan #3……and let’s get this straight, no one else is close!
I picked Culp. Keppel (And Double Exposure) are my favorite murderer and episode.
I honestly would rate Cassidy third. Don’t get me wrong. He’s a fantastic killer, and I am not knocking any of his appearances. Santini is definitely his slimiest outing. I rate him lowest of the three mainly because, aside from the change in character names, Jack is basically just being Jack. Jack is definitely fantastic at being Jack, but there’s just not a huge differentiation in the characters he’s playing. Santini is a bit more different than Ken Franklin or Riley Greenleaf, but his first two appearances are basically the same character. They even have backgrounds in the publishing industry.
So it comes down to Culp and McGoohan. I would give the edge on playing different characters just slightly to McGoohan, but Culp also effortlessly portrayed three very different characters. When I was watching him be Paul Hanlon, I was never reminded of Investigator Brimmer. When he was Keppel, I definitely never saw parallels between Keppel and Hanlon or Brimmer.
Culp is my favorite though, as his episodes i enjoy watching more than McGoohan’s. His commandant in “By Dawn’s Early Light” is an acting showcase, but the episode doesn’t grab me. I haven’t watched the newer episodes enough to rate them. Nelson Brenner is my favorite of his appearances, but if it’s a choice to rewatch that or any of the Culp episodes, and I’m picking the Culp outings.
I have harped on it before, but another thing that puts him over the edge is that fantastic cat-and-mouse between Culp as Keppel and Columbo in “Double Exposure.” I have watched the episode countless times, and could watch it countless more.
And I have to give McGoohan a point off for one very important reason. He murdered Leslie Nielsen. What a jerk.
Lest I forget Mr Phile & Co. .. Sorry everyone but Columbo is ours!! He was an Orangeman – here in Syracuse ! He went to Syracuse University –
Here goes my list of favorite performances by each
1 ) Dr keppell Double exposure
2) investigator brimmer Death lends a Hand
3) Paul Hanlon The most crucial game
1) Riley greenleaf Publish or perish
2) ken Franklin murder by the book
3) the great santini Now you see him
Patrick mc goohan
1) nelson brenner Identity Crisis
2) Oscar Finch Agenda for murder
3) Colonel kyle rumford By dawns early light
4) Eric prince Ashes to Ashes
Robert Culp as Paul Hanlon is my favourite character in the whole of Columbo. Never tire is seeing him.
Robert Culp is my fav. The others are very close!
I’m plumping for Cassidy, simply because all of his episodes are 5 star efforts for me.
I’m fond of Death Lends a Hand, and The Most Crucial Games, but Culp’s final effort Double Exposure is a little lacking.
McGoohan was a fascinating actor; fond on strange line delivery and eccentricities. Curiously, despite it being one of the final entires, I found Ashes to Ashes to be his strongest episode. I think he was sorely lacking a truly great entry in the series, though.
I also picked Cassidy, but Double Exposure is my favorite Culp episode and By Dawn’s Early Light for McGoohan; definitely not the ‘new’ episode, Ashes to Ashes.
i like all of them but i have to give it to mcgoohan , he seems to be full of himself and constantly mimics columbo with his smart ass remarks . however i am not a fan of ashes to ashes , he was at his best for me in identity crisis and by dawns early light.
I have Robert Culp significantly ahead of the other two, but I’m a long-time huge fan of his work. [Columbo devotees may enjoy an altogether different version of him from the same era in the 1971 TV movie “See The Man Run”; it can be viewed in its entirety on YouTube.] IMO even though Jack Cassidy is unconvincing as a magician or a womanizer or an ex-Nazi, his sinisterness still comes through enough to elevate “Now You See Him”. On the other hand I think “Identity Crisis” is a horrible mess of an episode, so I have to put Patrick McGoohan (who is fabulous in “By Dawn’s Early Light”) in third.
I’d have to rate Jack Cassidy as marginally better than Robert Culp as I’d rate The Most Dangerous Game below Cassidy’s ‘worst’ episode, and two of McGoohan’s episodes are from the new version which are definitely inferior.
You mean The Most Crucial* Game. Perhaps you’re confusing titles with The Most Dangerous Match, which had none of the above mentioned actors.
Yes, The Most Crucial Game, I was going from memory. As I stated in another post, if I can’t remember the episode, based on the title, it is not so good. The Most Dangerous Game (1932) was a film in which a villain lured people to his island in order to hunt them. According to the movie Zodiac, that was an inspiration for the Zodiac killer.
I don’t think your (lack of) memory is any reference to the quality of an episode. The Most Crucial Game was excellent, in my opinion (despite the somewhat flawed gotcha).
Of course, that’s just a ‘rule of thumb’ that applies more to the new episodes. But as I said originally, I consider The Most Crucial Game to be the ‘worst’ of the Culp episodes and inferior to all three Cassidy episodes. However, I think that the ‘gotcha’ is an excellent example of Columbo’s attention to detail.
McGoohan, no question. The best actor of the three by light years; he also directed 5 episodes and, according to Peter Falk, did a lot of the writing on his episodes.
Cassidy is charming, and Culp is OK, but there is no real comparison to be made – McGoohan is just too much more accomplished than the other two.
Cassiday was a natural to me, while McGoohan’s performances always seemed a bit forced, though still better than Culp, who always seemed like a stiff. Cassiday was the closest you had to a Rat Packer playing a Columbo villain.
Culp seems like the most authentic of the three: Cassidy always seems to be playing a part — it’s a *good* part, but it’s odd and mannered — and McGoohan seems to be doing The Military Officer role or The Quirky Eccentric or whatever. Which, again, is *enjoyable*, but it’s a little off-putting; he never seems relaxed, it’s like he’s always putting on an act the way Cassidy is always putting on a show. If I met someone like that in real life — which I haven’t —I’d keep wondering, “hey, what’s going on under the surface with this guy?”
Culp, though? He comes across businesslike, but with a real thing about getting irritated; or he’s just straightforwardly confident, and playful about it; or it’s like he’s thinking something over, and you can see it dawning on him.
(Plus, nothing beats his “nice try, though.”)
Jack Cassidy is the best with Robert Culp being a close second. Publish or Perish and Death Lends a Hand are Hall of Fame good.
This is off-topic, and, you probably have written about this elsewhere, but I’ve been watching Season Five, and I’m finding Columbo’s acting very peculiarly in several of these episodes, including ‘Last Salute to the Commodore’. He seems to be doing a parody of the character. Why would the director want this. What was the other episode, specifically..was it ‘A Case of Immunity’? Columbo seems absolutely stoned. I wonder if I should pursue episodes past Season Five if his character deviates so much.
Er, just one more thing.
Here’s how I calculated the sample size. After my first vote for Cassidy, I noted that Cassidy had 36.21% of the vote. Let us suppose that, after my first vote (but before my second vote, and assuming no one else voted between my first and second votes), there had been n votes in total, of which x had been for Cassidy.
I then made my second vote, and noted that the percentage for Cassidy had gone up to 36.26%.
Using the above information, we see that:
0.3621 = x/n
0.3626 = (x+1)/(n+1)
From the first equation, we see that x = 0.3621 n. Substituting this into the second equation gives:
0.3626 = (0.3621 n + 1)/(n + 1)
Rearranging the latter equation yields:
n = 1274.8.
Since n must be a whole number, it seems sensible to deduce that n = 1275.
In fact, our solution should have been a whole number. The reason that it wasn’t is because the percentages are rounded to two decimal places, i.e., they are not exact.
You know, Mrs Columbo, she does all the cooking, but there’s one thing I know how to make, and that’s an omelette. I might make an omelette now in fact.
Cassidy, Culp, McGoohan – I love them all. They are all brilliant Columbo villains.
But Cassidy is so smooth and charming that I had to vote for him. He is the most entertaining to watch. It’s also fun to see how he gets rattled when Columbo keeps pursuing him.
I also think that Cassidy shows more versatility than he is given credit for above. Think about how unpleasant (albeit smoothly unpleasant) he was when he pretended to get drunk in Publish or Perish. And he did funny accents in Now You See Him.
Now a Columbo episode with Cassidly, Culp, and McGoohan all in it would be great! If they were all enemies of each other, I wonder which one would end up as the last one alive!
Incidentally, Now You See Him is the greatest Columbo episode.
It’s a totally obscure point which obviously doesn’t have any bearing on the quality of the actor but something I discovered yesterday while watching Jack Cassidy in “Now You See Him”….
When he says at one point “A letter….” it activates my Alexa (of Amazon fame). Alas, it didn’t then lead to something suitably dastardly. Instead I was left dreaming of a time when with a proper pause, she might come back with a “One more thing….” :))
I can’t put McGoohan in the same category as Culp and Cassidy. He seems a bit more ruthless, but there’s that debonair quality that oozes from Culp and Cassidy that isn’t as prevalent (at all) in McGoo’s bad guy roles. Even Ross Martin (Mr Kingston) had it to some degree, but if I’m a bad guy, I gotta be Cassidy.
iliked all of them but something about mc goohans smart voice and some of the funny scenes he played with columbo were memorable, he did make 1 more thwn cassidy and culp but you have to say ashes toashes was far from a classic so they really are all equal
i likes cassidy in publish or perish as his best , culps best was double exposure and mcgoohans was for me dawns early light ,agenda for murder not so much identity cerisis but stilll good , should also mention george hamilton whos 2 appearances were good , however william shatner who is a good actor his 2 episodes were poor columbos in mpaticular the 90s shades of grey
Jack Cassidy was superb-his voice, that sly yet charming face and that ego(that was usually his undoing)-had he only recognized his own talent instead of belittling himself because(like so many)he couldn’t make it on the big screen- if he’d lived he could’ve been #1!
As it stands, I consider Mr McGoohan as the best! His subtle cunning and meticulous attention to detail(love watching his preparation even more than completion of the crime)! And in the later episodes, his sense of humor to the point of almost stepping out of character-one of my favorite lines”I was much prettier then!”
Robert Culp was good but he became too anxious too impatient!
And while Dick Van Dyke(outstanding in a complete change of pace), like many-including me sometimes- would lose their tempers, I believe Robert Conrad holds the title for getting Columbo to completely lose his temper!
Culp. Falk described Culp as “perfect.”
this is a tough one. i’d say culp wins, with cassidy being a close second.
I wouldn’t exactly say that every Culp villain was filled with simmering rage. Brimmer and Hanlon were, but Dr. Keppel is as smooth and charming as Jack Cassidy usually was. He doesn’t even really start to get pissed at Columbo until the episode is almost over, and then only when Columbo starts spoiling his golf game. (In fact, considering how suave Keppel is and how snappish Greenleaf gets in “Publish or Perish,” I kind of wonder if Culp and Cassidy switched scripts.)
I can’t answer the original question yet, since I’ve only watched the show halfway through Season 4, so the bulk of McGoohan’s work still lies ahead of me. Between Culp and Cassidy, however, I have to give the edge to Cassidy. I find it significant that my favorite performance from Culp (as Dr. Keppel) is the one where he plays it very similar to how Cassidy does. I guess that’s how I like my Columbo killers: cold and ruthless on the inside, genial on the outside.
Final verdict: Cassidy by a hair. McGoohan gave some really tremendous performances (he earned both his Emmys, and “Ashes to Ashes” would have been significantly less fun if basically any other actor had done the part), but Jack Cassidy is who I think of when I think of a Columbo killer.
to me it had to be jack cassidy even though McGoohan and Culp are great too, but there is something about Cassidy, the archetype of the icy cold killer with good manners and a good sense of humour (to a certain point though, ask miss La Sanka). i think, after one tv film and a great pilot with lee grant, cassidy and peter falk definitely help “Columbo” be genre-defining.
Based on who came closest to “defeating” Columbo in “Now You See Him”, Cassidy is #1. 1 Mistake. That was it.
In terms of Menace, Culp easily is #1.
In terms of depth, as Riley said, McGoohan easily is #1. “Identity Crisis” is gold.
Agreed. Excellent analysis.
I went for Cassidy, he had some character and humour about him compared to the others. Bob Culp was ruthless and Pat McGoohan was like a machine and had no charisma. Jack for me….also the fact his father was Irish! Actually McGoohan also had a close affiliation to Ireland too, spent a lot of time here as a child.
Goodness – which of your children do you love the most? But on balance I’d say Cassidy – all his episodes are classics and in different ways.
Culp had a dud episode in Most Dangerous Game and Ashes to Ashes was poor for McGoohan – though they were brilliant in the other episodes.
Have to go with Jack Cassidy for his gleeful malevolence but McGoohan was so good too.
For me, it would be Culp, Cassidy, and McGoohan.
Culp wins for me, there’s something delicious is seeing a character who thinks himself Columbo’s social and intellectual superior being brought down
He always felt very dangerous, too. A brooding menace!
And of course, Culp was always very lovely to look at!!
Culp was never silly, which can be nice in a villain, especially in a show like this. He was good at playing charming, skilled, and almost-but-not-quite controlled, and I can’t tell whether he’s my favorite because he’s good or he’s hot. He is the kind of actor who wouldn’t be that attractive if his performances sucked.
I also liked Culp’s diversity. McGoohan gets praised, and rightly so, for his very different portrayals of his killers, but Culp did a fantastic job at creating three very different characters and personalities. I never saw any trace of Brimmer in Hanlon or Keppel, or Hanlon in Brimmer or Keppel, etc. I did get a hoot out of the fact that he really liked that green blazer. He wore it once for all three of his episodes. Culp wins for me as well, largely because his performance as Bart Keppel is just wonderful.
What a difficult choice! They are my three favorite male killers. I could watch their episodes over and over! Thanks for all the effort you put in to making this so interesting and fun..
Thank YOU for those kind words. I have a lot of fun putting this site together.
But only certain ones he regretted when he arrested- e.g..
1- He shared wine with Carsini –
2- no cuffs for Eddie Albert
3-shared cigar with instit genius
4- rode back alone with Johnny Cash
McGoohan brought more depth and diversity to his roles, i especially loved his Colonel Rumford, who seemed to be such a brooding and troubled man.
But for sheer entertainment and charisma it has to be Cassidy for me.
I enjoy Culp too, particularly in Double exposure. That scene on the golf course is one of the highlights of the entire series
Could i suggest maybe a poll for favourite female killer? My vote on that would go to Kay Freestone!
Thanks Riley, and I agree about the golf course scene. It’s marvellous. I plan a few more polls in future and will add that one into the mix! Nice idea.
yrs should be apole for best female killer would be between abigail mitchell and kay freestone .