November 11, 2016 was a sad day for Columbo fans the world over, with the news that one of the show’s suavest and most stylish guest stars, Robert Vaughn, had died at the age of 83.
A veteran of more than 150 movies, notably Superman 3 and The Magnificent 7, and scores of TV shows including his iconic turn in The Man from UNCLE, and global hits Hustle, The A-Team and Coronation Street, Vaughn was as prolific as he was popular.
“Sporting some of the sharpest shirt collars and most confident cravats ever seen, Vaughn rocked looks that other actors couldn’t have dared to pull off.”
But Columbo fans know and love him for his two guest-star appearances in the show’s 70s hey-day: first as the villainous Hayden Danziger in Troubled Waters in 1975, which was followed a year later by the more enigmatic Charles Clay in Last Salute to the Commodore – both distinctly nautical adventures.
Of the two, Vaughn is best remembered in Columbo circles for Troubled Waters – a blast of an episode set on the high seas aboard a cruise ship, and filmed during an actual cruise.
Here, in an array of dazzling outfits, and sporting some of the sharpest shirt collars and most confident cravats ever seen, Vaughn rocked looks that other actors couldn’t have dared to pull off. Indeed he brought a sense of style to the show that even Jack Cassidy couldn’t match.
His hard-hearted car salesman killer also shared many of Cassidy’s archetypal Columbo baddie characteristics: charm allied with a distinct coolness; an over-helpfulness towards the Lieutenant; a love of money that he’d kill to keep his grubby mitts on.
Given that Troubled Waters is one of the most fun Columbo episodes of all, it’s little wonder that Vaughn’s contribution is cherished. He deserved another crack as a Columbo killer – and he very nearly got it.
Instead, for his second appearance in Last Salute to the Commodore, the producers used Vaughn in an epic bait-and-switch manoeuvre. It looked for all the world as if his surly Charles Clay slew the titular Commodore. Instead he ended up as the murder victim in the series’ first ever genuine whodunnit. The audience of the day must have been left reeling!
My own feelings towards this episode are much less enthusiastic than Troubled Waters. But no blame goes to Vaughn, who was excellent in a very interesting role. His talent was simply wasted here. Last Salute splits opinion with the fans, too, which is one reason why Vaughn’s outing here is much more under the radar.
But for what he brought to the show, Vaughn retains a place in the hearts of Columbo fans in perpetuity. Bon voyage, Robert. Thanks for sailing with us.