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?