Peter Falk and the gaggle of world-class guest star killers who graced the show for so many years will forever loom large over every aspect of Columbo.
They left a quite amazing legacy; one so strong that Columbo remains as compelling viewing now as it did in its 70s hey-day. But strength-in-depth was another of the show’s characteristics. And that includes a range of semi-regular character actors who helped add great richness, humour and variety to the greatest TV program of all time.
I’ve identified six great character actors, who clocked up 60 Columbo appearances between them. They weren’t the biggest names, they were often under the radar – even unnoticed, at times, by casual viewers. But all brought a sense of familiarity to keen fans and doubtless helped bring the best out of Peter Falk by their very presence.
So here’s a heart-felt tribute to the ‘Super Six’ Columbo regulars, all of whom are deserving of our great admiration, and listed here in reverse order of how many appearances they made.
1. Val Avery
Episode count: 4
Born on July 14, 1924 in Philadelphia (as Sebouh Der Abrahamian), Val Avery was a veteran of more than 100 motion pictures and more than 300 TV appearances. He died in December 2009 in Manhattan, aged 85.
Often cast as a character of low moral fibre (i.e. thug or heavy), some of his credits include The Magnificent Seven, Papillon and Donnie Brasco. Avery was also part of John Cassavetes’ circle of trust, starring several of his films including Too Late Blues, Faces, Minnie and Moskowitz and Gloria. Peter Falk being a central figure in Cassavetes’ life was perhaps a contributing factor behind Avery’s regular castings in Columbo.
Val Avery Columbo roles
- Dead Weight (1971) – Harry Barnes
- The Most Crucial Game (1972) – Ralph Dobbs
- A Friend in Deed (1974) – Artie Jessup
Identity Crisis (1975) – Louie the Barman
Columbo highlight: After debuting in a cameo in Season 1’s Dead Weight, Avery’s Columbo career upped a notch in Season 2 as he played shady private eye Ralph Dobbs in The Most Crucial Game. His highlight, however, was being cast as jewel thief Artie Jessup (pictured) in A Friend in Deed, the dark tale of police corruption from Season 3. A major role, making the most of Avery’s convincing ability to play a low-life, his Artie Jessup played an integral role in bringing down Commissioner Halperin.
2. Vito Scotti
Episode count: 6
An Italian-American character actor par excellence, Vito Scotti was born in January 1918. A stage actor from the 1930s, he progressed to TV and film in the 1940s. In a 50-year career, he racked up more than 200 screen appearances in shows as varied as Batman, Gilligan’s Island, Hogan’s Heroes, Ironside and The Monkees. He also starred as Nazorine in The Godfather. Scotti died of lung cancer in 1996, aged 78.
Adored by Columbo fans the world over, Vito Scotti’s half-dozen appearances managed to cram in a huge amount of humour, warmth and character variety. From the simpering Maitre’d in Any Old Port in a Storm, to the officious tailor in Candidate for Crime and the affable Salvatore in Identity Crisis who plies Columbo with grapes, his scenes were guaranteed to raise a smile.
“Adored by Columbo fans the world over, Vito Scotti’s half-dozen appearances managed to cram in a huge amount of humour, warmth and character variety.”
A fine comic actor, who bounced off Falk with consummate ease, his every appearance is to be treasured. And of all those who appear in this article, I’d wager that it’s Vito that has won the most hearts. His popularity may be one reason why he returned to the show during its comeback Season on ABC in 1989 – playing a character named Vito in Murder, A Self Portrait. Bless…
Vito Scotti Columbo roles
- Any Old Port in a Storm (1973) – Maitre d’
- Candidate for Crime (1973) – Chadwick
- Swan Song (1974) – Mr. Grindell
- Negative Reaction (1974) – Thomas Dolan
- Identity Crisis (1975) – Salvatore Defonte
- Murder, a Self Portrait (1989) – Vito
Columbo highlight: It’s a tough call, but my personal favourite was Vito’s turn as the noble drunk Thomas Dolan in Negative Reaction. He’s as close as anyone gets to witnessing the crime at the junkyard, but, alas, when Columbo tracks him down the next day at the homeless mission, Dolan cannot remember a thing about the incident, but does engage in witty banter about the quality of the beef stew! Scotti’s great success is in making Dolan so different from his other Columbo characters that for years I didn’t even realise it was him.
3. Fred Draper
Episode count: 6
Fred Draper was born on September 2, 1923 in Pennsylvania and died just before the new millennium on December 26, 1999 in San Bernardino, California – allegedly due to medical malpractice’ (somebody call in Lieutenant Columbo!)
Another member of the Cassavetes’ crowd, he appeared in five of JC’s films including Husbands and A Woman Under the Influence – both of which also starred Peter Falk.
Despite a relatively modest acting career, Draper appeared in several episodes of Peyton Place, as well as roles in Perry Mason and The Alfred Hitchcock Hour. He is best known for his Columbo work, though, which included 4 cameos and two larger roles. One of the cameos was in A Deadly State of Mind, when he fools Dr Collier into believing he’s a blind man – sealing the doctor’s fate in one of the series’ best-ever gotcha scenes.
Fred Draper Columbo roles
- Lady in Waiting (1971) – Cab driver (uncredited)
- Lovely But Lethal (1973) – Dr Murcheson
- Negative Reaction (1974) – Crime lab guy (uncredited)
- A Deadly State of Mind (1975) – David Morris
- Last Salute to the Commodore (1976) – Swanny Swanson
- Fade in to Murder (1976) – Joseph
Columbo highlight: Draper achieved what no other Columbo bit-part played did by being cast as the killer! His moment to shine came in Last Salute to the Commodore in 1976 in the role of ‘Swanny’ Swanson – the whacky brother of the titular sourpuss Commodore.
Given that fans would have known him for his minor starring roles, it was a major curve-ball for Draper to be revealed as the killer in this bizarre episode directed by Patrick McGoohan that featured a genuine ‘whodunnit’ and a parlour room reveal.
4. Bruce Kirby
Episode count: 9
Happily still with us, Bruce Kirby was born on April 24, 1928 in New York City and was active in TV and film from the 1950s to 2009. His TV credits include some of the best-loved shows ever to air: Bonanza, Ironside, The Rockford Files, M*A*S*H*, Hill Street Blues, L.A. Law, Murder, She Wrote and Chicago Hope, The Sopranos, Scrubs and The West Wing. Awesome!
On the big screen, meanwhile, he popped up in efforts such as The Muppet Movie, Stand By Me and Throwing Mama from the Train.
“In Sergeant Kramer, Kirby has the distinct honour of being the single most-recurring character of the entire series, excluding Columbo and Dog.”
Of course, this is all about Columbo, where Kirby played roles from 1973-1995. He’s best known as the lovable but not-too-sharp Sergeant Kramer in six episodes, giving Kirby the distinct honour of being the single most-recurring character of the entire series, excluding Columbo and Dog.
Bruce Kirby Columbo roles
- Lovely But Lethal (1973) – Lab attendant
- By Dawn’s Early Light (1974) – Sergeant George Kramer
- A Deadly State of Mind (1975) – Sergeant George Kramer
- Identity Crisis (1975) – Sergeant George Kramer
- Last Salute to the Commodore (1976) – Sergeant George Kramer
- Make Me a Perfect Murder (1978) – TV repairman
- Columbo Cries Wolf (1990) – Sergeant George Kramer
- Agenda for Murder (1990) – Sergeant George Kramer
- Strange Bedfellows (1995) – Sergeant Phil Brindle
Columbo highlight: Like Fred Draper, Kirby’s biggest role occurred in Last Salute to the Commodore where Sergeant Kramer assumed full-on sidekick status – albeit a bungling sidekick who didn’t exactly come across as a credit to the LAPD.
Perhaps more notable for the actor himself was his first outing as Kramer in By Dawn’s Early Light in 1974. Although seeming to be mildly irritated by Columbo’s roundabout policing methods, Kirby did have the fatherly pleasure of being cast alongside his son, the late Bruno Kirby (pictured), who played a small role as a cadet, and who would find fame in such films as City Slickers and When Harry Met Sally. Good onya Kirby boys!
5. John Finnegan
Episode count: 12
A very familiar face to Columbo fans, John Finnegan was born on August 18, 1926, in New York. He passed away in California in July 2012, aged 85, due to complications caused by pneumonia.
Another member of Cassavetes’ cool club (can you see a theme developing here?), Finnegan had roles in A Woman Under the Influence (alongside Peter Falk and Fred Draper), Gloria (alongside Val Avery) and Big Trouble (alongside Falk again). Other notable big screen roles came in Oliver Stone’s JFK and as the voice of main villain ‘Warren T. Rat’ in animated adventure An American Tail.
Finnegan first graced Columbo in Season 1’s Blueprint for Murder, where he was Elliot Markham’s man in charge at the construction site. He would appear 11 more time over more than 30 years, fittingly appearing in the final episode, Columbo Likes the Nightlife, in 2003.
- Blueprint for Murder (1972) – Carl
- The Most Dangerous Match (1973) – Workman
- Lovely But Lethal (1973) – Sergeant
- A Friend in Deed (1974) – Lt. Duffy
- Last Salute to the Commodore (1976) – Guard
- Fade in to Murder (1976) – Assistant Director
- Columbo Cries Wolf (1990) – Police Chief
- Columbo and the Murder of a Rock Star (1991) – Chief Quentin Corbett
- It’s All in the Game (1993) – Barney
- Strange Bedfellows (1995) – Barney
- A Trace of Murder (1997) – Barney
- Columbo Likes the Nightlife (2003) – Sean Jarvis
Columbo highlight: They were all pretty small roles, but I particularly enjoy his turn as Columbo’s opposite number, Lieutenant Duffy, from the robbery section in A Friend in Deed. Other memorable outings included saving Dog from the trash compactor in The Most Dangerous Match, and witnessing Columbo wine and dine Faye Dunaway in It’s All in the Game – the first of three appearances of diner owner Barney in the 1990s.
6. Mike Lally
Episode count: 23
Ah, Mike Lally… The Columbo purist loves him with a passion and eagerly looks out for him in every episode. ‘Spot Mike Lally’ is even a drinking game for some excitable participants of the global #ColumboTV phenomenon. In short, he’s part of the very fabric of the show.
For the casual viewer, however, he’s pretty much an unknown quantity – despite the fact he appears in nearly half of all episodes from the 70s’ run. ‘Mike Lally – who’s he?’ they might ask. Well I’ll tell ya…
Born on June 1, 1900 in Manhattan, Lally never had an acting lesson but went on to become the King of Extras and a Founder of the Screen Extras Guild. He racked up nearly 450 film and TV appearances – almost all of them uncredited – including Calamity Jane, It’s a Wonderful Life and Citizen Kane.
“The Columbo purist loves Mike Lally with a passion and eagerly looks out for him in every episode.”
Lally’s officially listed as having 23 Columbo appearances, but may have been in many more. He claims to have been on the set of pretty much every day of Columbo filming in the 1970s, and was said to be have been a friend and confidante of Peter Falk’s – even at times when Falk’s run-ins with the studio were isolating him from other actors.
Mike sadly died in February 1985, several years before Columbo returned to the airwaves. Had he still been around, who could have bet against him adding yet more episodes to his roll of honour?
Mike Lally Columbo roles
I won’t list all of Lally’s appearances here, but here are a few for you to look out for next time you’re tuning into an episode:-
- In Blueprint for Murder he was in the queue behind Columbo as he lined up for permits
- He was playing chess in the Sigma Society in The Bye-Bye Sky High IQ Murder Case
- He was among detectives searching the crime scene in By Dawn’s Early Light
- He was a waiter on the cruise ship in Troubled Waters
- He gave Columbo directions to the Mission in Negative Reaction
- In Etude in Black he was the British mechanic’s assistant
- He tended the bar at Artie Jessup’s favourite hang-out in A Friend in Deed
- He was a cable car operator in Short Fuse
Mike Lally’s Columbo highlight: There’s only one serious contender – Lally’s appearance as former high-wire walker ‘Michael Lally’ in Now You See Him in 1976. Initially, Lally believed he’d just be another extra, this time at the Cabaret of Magic during Santini’s act. However, Falk and Cassidy schemed to make more of Lally’s role, and had Santini greet him fondly at the bar.
Better was yet to follow as an extended scene of Columbo interacting with Lally in his bedsit home was added some months after filming of the episode had ended. Allegedly directed by Falk himself, the scene is one of the best of the entire series, as Columbo puts the clearly down-on-his-luck Lally at ease about the situation he finds himself in. Not only that but Lally presents Columbo with some interesting evidence about Santini’s past.
According to Lally’s son, the scene was added by Falk as a means of saying ‘thank you’ to Lally for all he brought to the show – and to Falk himself – over many years. I hope that’s true.
You can read more about Mike Lally’s interesting past and his Columbo pedigree in an excellent interview with his son, also called Mike, on the Ultimate Columbo Site.
And I’d love to hear your views on your favourite Columbo stalwart, and your favourite episodes or scenes starring these six fine actors, who brought so much to the show, and who continue to delight fans today.
Until next time, adieu. I’m off to the tailor’s to pick up a new camel jacket for ‘an affair’ with my wife at the bowling club this weekend. Wish me luck…