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
Bruce Kirby was born on April 24, 1925 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. He passed away on January 24, 2021, at the age of 95.
“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…
I love this post! I’ve been watching Columbo since its first episode in 1968. With the late, great Gene Barry. My favorite is, Vito Scotti. And the soundtrack’s were, terrific. Especially the opening track in, “Dead Weight.” And Shera Danese is one of the most beautiful women I’ve ever seen: she’s got that, “It!” Bruce Kirby is, second and Val Avery is third. And my favorite episode is too many to rank. I love, Frank “Columbo!” Long live Columbo!
..,and that Mylo Janus was a real, creep!😀
I’m new here & am not sure is the correct place to post trivia or goof comments. In Murder in Malibu, Columbo gets into the driver’s seat of the E-Type Jaguar & says “I’ve never sat in one of these beauties before”. IIRC he did sit in Alex Benedict’s E-Type Jag in Etude in Black.
Does Mike Lally appear twice in ‘A Stitch in Crime’ playing different roles?
We obviously see him as a cop at the first crime scene, however during the initial meeting between Columbo and Mayfield, a hospital porter wheeling a patient passes them in the corridor. We only see him from behind but it certainly looks to be the bold Mike yet again!
Btw, love the site and appreciate all the work you put into it.
OMG! Now I have to go and dig out that episode and view it once again to find Michael Lally! This site has enriched my ‘Colombo’ life for sure, thank you so much for sharing!
Loved this, but I think I’m confused about one thing. Who is the actor — I didn’t see him here, unless I just didn’t recognize him — who played Columba’s somewhat dim-witted but affable asst in, among other episodes, ‘The Great Santini’? His one major contribution to solving the crime is knowing the innovative ‘letter ball’ on an electric typewriter.
That was Bob Dishy, who played Sergeant Wilson in Greenhouse Jungle and Now You See Him. He wasn’t included here as he falls into a different category.
Love this post ❤
What about Joyce van Patton ? once a murderer and best as the sympathetic nun in “Negative Reaction” also with the great Vito Scoti
Richard stahl appeared 3 times.
I just watched one of the episodes with Vito Scotti. What a talent. He played mainly bit parts, but those bit parts were often more memorable than the star of the show. In that way he reminds me of Bernard Fox, another Columbo alumni. They both elevated their parts to memorable glory. I miss them both. RIP guys.
I was thinking about this article just now when rewatching An Exercise in Fatality. I haven’t googled it yet but am I right in spotting two familiar actors from other shows?
I’m thinking that in the Tri-Con Industries scene, the guard who tells Columbo he can’t smoke…isn’t he the pit boss who helps Columbo put together a timeline?
And then the woman in charge of the computer. She turns to one of her colleagues who looks familiar albeit from the back. Wasn’t he the travel agent in The Most Crucial Game?
Obscure I know but then as the lieutenant would no doubt agree, it’s the little details that we have to notice! 🙂
Sorry meant to say the pit boss in Bird in the Hand! Gee, I always forget something! 😉
Another one of mike lallys roles was in One of my favorites Make Me a perfect murder 1978 , During the famous murder scene he plays a security guard who on his rounds delays kay,s trip back to the projection booth by stopping to Browse at a near nude women from a fashion magazine a very memorable , I only found out the other day , surprised columbopohile didn’t mention it.
Coluumbophile has made a mistake in the picture of the dog next to the rubbish Grinder it says saved dog from certain death in 1974 . this was from The most dangerous match which i believed to be 1973.
You forgot to mention that Bruce Kirby was in Godfather 2, played young Clemenza
That was his son, Bruno.
I could’ve sworn the wonderful Vito Scotti was in one more episode, again playing a maitre’d or a waiter. No? Perhaps I’m thinking of someone else. We love Columbo and already suspected that Falk and Scotti were friends in real life; it shines through in their performances.
Loved reading through this, and love this website. So good to see another TRUE Columbophile! (plenty of times I see people claim to love Columbo, before they rip into one of the episodes telling how much they absolutely hated this or that episode, bah humbug, if you’re a true Columbo-fan you could never truly hate any episode, not even the one where he goes undercover….) Best wishes from Norway!
There’s something to love in every Columbo. Undercover is one of my least favorites, but I watched it again Sunday. Some highlights:
Irving Krutch(Begley) referring to himself in 3rd person
Columbo can use his own clothes undercover
Columbo wears someone else’s nice suit
Burt Young, Tyne Daly, beautiful Kristin Bauer
Robert Donner-saw him in the Six Million Dollar Man, 1975? same night
Used to have a transparent white and gold blouse similar to Geri’s in 1986
Date with Dog at the end
And so goes every episode…Love Columbo!
Columbo spies through key hole
Columbo finds a clue in the light bulb socket(also on Try and catch Me)
Columbo handles a gun..doesn’t shoot it though
OMG…enjoyed the trivia and reading the Columbo comments. I did NOT realize Mike Lally was in so many episodes and mind you, I tape them repeatedly, looking for items I may have missed along my 20-year Columbo journey. So glad to be among Columbo aficionados!
“One more thing…” (just paying homage) Does anyone know the artist singing the song “I’m so Lonesome I Could Cry” in the “Rest In Peace, Mrs. Columbo” episode? Please share if you do — I’ve searched high and low!
Did you ever find out who sang that song, btw?
I just watched the Dick Van Dyck episode (Reverse Negative) and Vito Scotti was brillaint. I almost didn’t recognize him, but the voice gave it away. That scene where Columbo meets him at the mission is priceless.
Mike Lally spotting is fun, but my wife and I (spot the influence there?) really enjoy Vito Scotti’s appearances – particularly as the opportunistic undertaker trying to sell Columbo a funeral plan in ‘Swan Song’.
“It’ll be a a treasure to pill you Mr Lucerne”
The added scene with Mike Lolly was not directed by Peter, but.
By me the producer, Everett Chambers.
How marvellous, thanks for clarifying and for taking the time to visit the site! I will amend the article accordingly.
Everett Chambers, your episodes were very well done. Always curious about your career especially your performance in Too Late Blues, you were just raw and amazing!
Hello Mr. Chambers – Do you happen to know the name of the artist who sang “I’m so lonesome I could cry” on the “Rest In Peace Mrs. Columbo” episode? Thank you!
An awesome post! I never knew Mike Lally’s name, only that I kept seeing that guy! 🙂
Val Avery is my favorite of the group (with John Finnigan and Vito Scotti very close seconds) and part of my favorite scene in Columbo, as Artie Jessup in the bar scene where Columbo asks for his help. Here is a man with no power (Artie), and for all circumstances someone who could be called a failure in life. Here is a man with enormous power (Columbo), talking to Artie not as a cop but as a man who needs his help. When Artie drops his voice and talks honestly about his fears, it’s the best that drama can deliver. Finally Columbo brings him into his confidence and asks for his help, you can see the man finding some personal dignity. Great stuff.
Once again, a very awesome list!
Cheers for that! I’m really pleased you enjoyed it.
I would add one name to your list: Shera Danese, featured in six Columbos over a 21-year period.
Fade in to Murder (1976) – Molly
Murder Under Glass (1978) – Eve Plummer
Murder, a Self Portrait (1989) – Vanessa Barsini
Columbo and the Murder of a Rock Star (1991) – Trish Fairbanks
Undercover (1994) – Geraldine Ferguson
A Trace of Murder (1997) – Cathleen Calvert
The fact that Shera is Peter Falk’s widow is an additional reason, in my view, to include her.
Her much higher profile as a result of being married to Peter is why I didn’t include her in this.
Such a great article, I really enjoyed reading it! My favourite is Vito Scotti, as he is so fun to watch in the various roles such as a tailor, etc. I never knew he played Thomas Dolan either!
I was interested to notice that 4 out of Bruno Kirby’s 6 appearances as Sgt Kramer were in episodes starring and/or directed by Patrick McGoohan.. quite a coincidence:
By Dawn’s Early Light (1974) – Sergeant George Kramer
Identity Crisis (1975) – Sergeant George Kramer
Last Salute to the Commodore (1976) – Sergeant George Kramer
Agenda for Murder (1990) – Sergeant George Kramer
Perhaps Patrick McGoohan was a big fan of Sgt Kramer too!
I hadn’t picked up on this! Nice work. And thanks very much for your kind comment. I’m really pleased you enjoyed the article.
Wow, I did not know Bruce Kirby was Bruno Kirby’s father. Thank you for that. And, of course, I love Vito! Val Avery is another favorite.
What an absolute joy to read this! & thank you for schooling this devoted Columbophile about Mike Lally. His frequent appearances were news to me, but I LOVED his extended scene.
Thank you very much, ma’am! I’m really pleased you enjoyed it.
So much fun reading and researching some of the links. I always enjoy! And now I’ll be watching with renewed interest for these recurring actors!!