Behind the scenes

The Columbo episodes that never were

I’m sure every Columbo fan has at some point wished that a load of never-before-seen episodes were to be found in the archives and made available for viewing for the very first time.

Given Columbo‘s high profile and importance to the networks, though, this is very much wishful thinking. However, what many fans don’t realise is that some Columbo episodes were written and intended for transmission, but never quite made it.

I know of two: one in the 1970s and one in the 2000s. There may be others that will at some point be revealed. But for now here’s a glimpse into the background of the two Columbo episodes that never were…

1. Brian De Palma and Columbo: the one that got away

De Palma

Brian De Palma and Columbo? Close but no cigar

Amazing as it seems to us today, Brian De Palma was at one point very interested in getting a slice of Columbo on his directorial resume – and he even went as far as filing an on spec script for an episode in 1973.

I don’t pretend to be a student of De Palma’s techniques and backstory, but I sure know his body of work (indeed The Untouchables is one of the my all-time favourite films), and I’m aware that TV was a medium he had little regard for. Just shows what sort of impact Columbo had on the collective psyche of the day.

De Palma co-wrote a script for an episode entitled Shooting Script, which was submitted in July 1973, suggesting it was mooted for Columbo Season 3. The co-writer was credited as being Joesph P. Gillis – not to be mistaken for Columbo regular Jackson Gillis. As it turns out, JP Gillis was actually a pseudonym for TIME magazine fim critic Jay Cocks, a close friend of De Palma, and between them they cooked up an excellent yarn.

Without going into intricate detail, the chief protagonist is Quentin Lee – an erudite crime documentary maker whose plan of creating the perfect murder goes a step further than most in that he films it himself on a video camera.

“The chief protagonist is an erudite crime documentary maker whose plan of creating the perfect murder goes a step further than most.”

His victim is talk show host Duane Downs – a victim that Lee selects at random by throwing a dart at a list of celebrity tenants who share his swanky apartment block. Lee is happy to kill Downs, because Lee himself, mirroring De Palma, has nothing but disdain for the medium of television – despite regular guest appearances on Downs’ show.

Lee’s arrogance is such that he films the crime as a documentary and essentially keeps the tape in plain sight in his home. He naturally underestimates Lieutenant Columbo, believing the police force ‘has no subtlety at all’, and makes him an unwitting star of the documentary.

College 10

Years before Columbo Goes to College, the Lieutenant was hanging with students in ‘Shooting Script’

Columbo, meanwhile, is being tailed throughout by three film students, who have been given approval by the department to create a field study of the Lieutenant, who, they say, has an extremely ‘high arrest percentile’. In a nice nod to Murder by the Book, one of the students is named Spielberg. Columbo even admits that ‘What he can do with a camera is just incredible’.

Despite his intention of immortalising a perfect killing on celluloid, Lee’s mistakes catch him up. For one thing, there was a witness to the crime, who Lee spots on film while watching his handiwork back, and who he later has to bump off as well. When filming, Lee gets a distinctive ring around his eye, which Columbo notices at their first meeting, and is enough to tip him off. Basically, all the little ingredients we’ve come to know and love about Columbo are here.

Would this have made a good episode? Certainly. Maybe not one of the very best, but it’s a more satisfying mystery than Lovely But Lethal and Mind Over Mayhem from the same season. It may well be that the ‘Spielberg’ character here was so enjoyed by producers that they decided to name the boy genius from Mayhem ‘Steven Spelberg’ as an homage.

“So if it was so good, why didn’t it get made? That’s the $64,000 question.”

There are similarities, too, between the help Columbo gets from the film students, and the way he  harnesses the ideas of the student body in the much later Columbo Goes to College. Who knows if it was any sort of influence, but thematically it’s pretty close.

Riley Greenleaf Publish or Perish

Jack Cassidy was born to play Quentin Lee

So if it was so good, why didn’t it get made? That’s the $64,000 question. A writer’s strike in 1973 had held up production of Season 3. Only two episodes were complete by the time De Palma’s script came in. The rush to get the other approved stories filmed swiftly may be one reason why De Palma’s on spec offer was declined.

It can’t be the only reason, though, as Stephen J. Cannell also submitted an on spec script during the writers strike, and this one was filmed and included in Season 3 in the form of the wonderful Double Exposure, starring Robert Culp. Admittedly, Exposure is a superior story, but it seems rough justice that Shooting Script never saw the light of day. Inclusion in Season 4, as a Jack Cassidy vehicle, would have ROCKED.

If you’d like to find out more, please read this excellent, informative article, which was written by my Twitter pal @Dene71, and which first turned my attention to the De Palma Columbo script. I was lucky enough to get a copy of the script on eBay, and if you’d like to read the whole thing yourself, you might find a copy too.

2. The sad story of Columbo’s Last Case

Nightlife 6

The Lieutenant’s final curtain call came in 2003’s Columbo Likes the Nightlife, set against the backdrop of LA’s rave and club scene. While the story’s not as bad as it sounds, seeing a garlanded Columbo being jigged at by hoardes of drunk 20-somethings isn’t perhaps the best send-off a show with such a rich history deserved.

Peter Falk must have thought so himself, as he was desperate to complete ‘just one more’ episode and sign off on his own terms. Universal certainly took their star’s demands seriously. In 2007 they created a script for an episode originally entitled Hear No Evil, which was eventually changed to Columbo’s Last Case.

It would have been the Lieutenant’s 70th and final case, and would most likely have been released in early 2008 – the 40th anniversary of his first outing in Prescription: Murder. Allegedly a ‘darn good script with a really clever twist ending’, at least according to NBC Universal’s Charles Engel, Columbo’s Last Case nevertheless never saw the light of day with Falk’s age cited as a key concern.

“None of the networks wanted to pick up a TV movie with an 80-year-old lead star.”

Put simply, none of the networks wanted to pick up a TV movie with an 80-year-old lead star (which Falk would have turned in September 2007). Even for a character beloved the world over, an octogenarian lead was considered too big a risk for the episode to have any takers. Universal purportedly even went seeking foreign investment to soften the financial impact on US networks. Still no takers.

News of this Columbo non-starter had a mixed reception with fans. Many believed Columbo and Peter Falk deserved better, and that a genuine farewell to one of TV’s iconic characters would have been fitting. Personally I think it’s just as well.

Nightlife 4

The Columbo of the late 90s and early 2000s was a far cry from the Lieutenant we first encountered from 1968-78. The characterisation seemed laboured at times, even veering towards pastiche. Even if the script was a belter, I think the networks made a good call.

I’d go a step further and say that they should have called time on Columbo after 1998’s Ashes to Ashes. It had several compelling reasons why it should have been the last. Patrick McGoohan made his 4th and final appearance as a murderer. It was 30 years since Prescription: Murder aired. And the funereal theme was in keeping with a show making its last bow. Murder With Too Many Notes and Columbo Likes the Nightlife would follow, but neither will stand the test of time.

We also mustn’t forget that Falk’s health was in decline at this time. Indeed, in 2008 Peter’s daughter, Catherine, reported that his Alzheimer’s was so severe that he couldn’t even remember he had played Columbo. There’s no way he’d have been in shape to pull on the crumpled mac one last time. And that’s the saddest part of the whole untold saga of Columbo’s Last Case.

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45 thoughts on “The Columbo episodes that never were

  1. Columbo Likes the Nightlife wasn’t a murder! It was Manslaughter. Murder requires forethought in the act of killing, the intention to take a life, Vanessa pushed Tony way causing him to fall on the table ,it was the fall that killed him. Tony buried a dead man. The involvement of The Mob complicated the issue otherwise Vanessa could have of just reported the matter to the police as self defence. But ,hey it’s Columbo and I love Columbo, the above is just for interest.

  2. I have to object to your depiction of Columbo’s final outing as “seeing a garlanded Columbo being jigged at by hoards of drunk 20-somethings.” The garland did look a bit silly on him, but it was no big deal, and it was a small forgettable scene in the middle of the episode. And he wasn’t being jigged at by hoards of drunk 20-somethings. He was in a loud night club, and was an older man in a suit, just passing through. The crowd did what they would do in real life, which was to just go about their business and let him pass. One girl interacted with him, with some “friendly flirting” that seemed genuinely affectionate, and not mocking, and put the garland around his shoulders.

  3. Thanks to Peacock TV, where Columbo episodes are still free for at least a week more, I had an opportunity to watch “Murder With Too Many Notes” and “Columbo Likes the Nightlife.” I’d agree that “Notes” doesn’t stand the test of time. But “Nightlife” certainly does. In fact, it’s a well written, acted, and thoroughly entertaining episode. Plus, for those of us who have spent many hours dancing in such discos with the heavy beat techno music, it’s also a wonderful trip down memory lane.

  4. it would have been great for Columbo’s retirement to have been marked in Nightlife His colleagues asking him what his plans with Mrs C were, giving him a nice send off etc. . I also love Inspector Morse and we KNEW it was the end with him although I am not sure I’d have l liked Columbo killed off in the same way just as he solved he case but I will admit to not being able to watch the death of Morse without welling up and I’d have been in bits if the Lieutenant had carked it on Justin’s dance floor after he nicked him. What do you think ?

    • I think it would have been heart-breaking to kill the Lieutenant off. He’s a warmer, more fun and more lovable character than Morse, and the show was generally more light-hearted than Morse, so I think killing Columbo off would have been highly dissatisfying for the vast majority of viewers.

  5. Agree that the series should have ended with the excellent ‘Ashes to Ashes’. However, ‘Columbo Likes the Nightlife’ wasn’t as bad as I first feared and actually starts as well as any. It’s certainly better than the likes of ‘It’s a Matter of Honour’

    But you could already see with that and the abysmal ‘Murder With Too Many Note’ that Columbo’s acting was losing it’s sheen

  6. I LOVE Peter Falk…my Mum and I considered Columbo required watching!!
    In 1985 I was a student at NYU working at the American Stanhope Hotel (81st and 5th) in Manhattan…Mr. Falk was appearing off Broadway, and was staying w/us at the Hotel.
    I worked as a Sous Chef, dinner service, Mr. Falk always ate in our bar (typical ‘80’s bar, very dark, burgundy leather upholstery, smoking encouraged 😫) because he did, in fact, smoke cigars.
    The bartender asked me to come talk w/a table about their meal (usually not a good sign!😫)… I came out, he led me to Mr. Falk whom I recognized immediately… as it turned out, he loved his meal (rare lamb chops, salsify, and pomme nicoise😃)…I was so distracted by the raincoat draped over the chair next to him I nearly squealed!! I asked, because who WOULD’NT and yes fans….it WAS THE ACTUAL COAT!!! Lovely man…RIP Peter🙏🏻

  7. Pingback: The proof that Mrs Columbo really exists | THE COLUMBOPHILE

  8. I sure wish the 70th episode would’ve materialized, but with Falk’s questionable health I can understand why investors would’ve thought it was too risky to back.

    But I disagree that the series should’ve stopped with “Ashes to Ashes” in 1998, as the last two episodes are strong installments in the series:

    There are many things to appreciate about “Murder with Too Many Notes” (2001), like the believable and creative set-up: The apprentice practicing on the roof of the theater, the long dormant elevator and the conductor’s motive, which isn’t just envy, but the threat of ruin and mass embarrassment. The episode is also an interesting window into the behind-the-scenes activity surrounding the scores to major films.

    Some viewers complain that Columbo’s amusing slow drive home with the conductor is filler material. But the rumpled detective already sniffed him out as the murderer and needed to spend time with him to accumulate evidence and start wearing the suspect down in order to eventually break him. Columbo knows that when people get seriously aggravated they start saying & doing things they never intended to; and thus reveal evidence against them.

    As for the muddled ending, so you have to scratch your head a bit, so what? It’s dishonest to say there is “no evidence” once you read between the lines and put the pieces of the puzzle together.

    As for the final shot episode, “Columbo Likes the Nightlife” (2003), the murder sequence is one of the best murders in the show’s history, being intense, realistic and creative. The installment rightfully contains the tried-and-true Columbo formula but with an edgier, more modern style of filmmaking and techno music throughout (which some people can’t stand). I think these items are a nice change for one segment and makes it distinctive. The interesting paparazzi angle is also something new.

    • Yes I wish there are load of never-before-seen episodes were to be found in the archives and made available for columbo fans,

  9. Read a rumor printed in TV in the late 1970’s that Redford and Newman considered making a joint appearing on the show in its prime in the early 70’s. Reportedly, one would have killed the other. Always thought this could have been the most brilliant episode they ever could have done.

  10. I’m (by principle) against episodes like “The last case” after being taken aback with Poirot. I guess there’s no really fitting scenerio which would sum-up Columbo. Columbo is timeless. And it’s not a career of single policeman I love there, I think, it’s not a biography. Crucial Columbo virtues (of the character and of the series formula) are what makes it very awesomly wonderful. The quality of any given episode is up to how-harmonic work was done (scenerio, actors play, etc.) and (more importantly) if it doesn’t loose the Columbo essentia. I guess Mr Falk could have played the final time and be happy to, it’s a bit sad he was not allowed to.
    Good movies are wonderfull, and Columbo is just brilliant!

  11. I agree too that it ran long enough, almost too long. Would have been cute, though, if they wrapped up with a finale showing his wife coming in at the end and calling him by his first name, which we’ve heard was “Frank”.
    My faves (due to the concept, script, the villains’ ability to make me hate them, that satisfying “gotcha” moment at the end, and the music, which was different each episode):
    1. Make me the Perfect Murder (Columbo was
    kinda sexy in that & loved killer’s
    determination. Enjoyed the music too.
    George C. Scott had bit part as his real
    time wife played the lead.)
    2. RIP Mrs Columbo (concept & gotcha)
    3. A Trace of Murder (note Falk’s wife had
    bit parts in about 5 shows but this one
    she was a main character.)
    Rexmaining (7) faves:
    It’s All in the Game (Dunaway’s
    character almost brings me to tears at
    the end), Sex & the married Detective,
    Troubled Waters, Try & Catch Me (love
    Ruth Gordon in everything), Swan Song,
    Now you See him, Fade in to Murder,
    Uneasy Lies the Crown

    Least favorites: Undercover, No time to Die (it needed a surprise villain or something)

    Thanks for this informative article.

  12. Once gain I thought the acting by the co stars was very good. Matthew Rhys and Jennifer Sky don’t seem to be going through the motions. Also, I tend to think you can find criticisms if you are looking for them. The murder scene looks like an open and shut case, but Columbo has his doubts right away. Just the mouthwash on the murder victim tells him something is afoul. I think they should of portrayed Columbo as a Police consultant by this point to add plausibility. Otherwise I’m OK with this episode.

    • I’m pretty sure I’ve watched all the columbo films but would like to know if there is any unseen episodes, I’m a great fan of columbo

  13. I’ve always thought that “Columbo Likes the Nightlife” as a good sendoff, particularly because it returned Columbo back from the abyss of being so tongue-in-cheek and just doing good detective work. Matter of fact, it reminded me more closely of the very first episode “Prescription Murder”.

    I overanalyze, but what has made that episode more intriguing is the constant references of a changing world while Columbo remains the same. From the rave parties to the funky shirt to the computer for the suicide note, the theme “time marches on” is on constant display. Except Columbo. Instead, Columbo looks for the little things in his old classic way; he happens to smell the breath of the dead guy as sees all the signs of a guy looking for some action. The uses a pencil to shade out the writing on the date pad. The fact that some keys have the fingerprints wiped off, as if continual typing by someone with gloves wipes it off. The final reveal at The Bait is not as much about the technology but the confirmation of what Columbo figured out without technology.

    The final walkout is timeless; Columbo is inpenetratable, even the mob guy can’t corrupt him. No, I think “Columbo Likes the Nightlife” is a good way for Columbo to end.

    • I totally agree, while another Columbo would have been nice, I thought Nightlife was a great return to vintage Columbo with a great solve. I thought the prior two episodes were so bad, I can’t hardly get through them and it seemed in those last two that Columbo did not seem same. I thought Nightlife was a return to form and what always is the best Columbo moments for me is a great gotcha solve, and Nightlife certainly had that.

  14. I’ve been watching the show for some time and got the DVDs a couple of years ago. I finally finished the last few episodes and agree – Ashes to Ashes would have worked as a good send off, particularly with Patrick McGooha’s involvement. You’re also right that the last one was better than it sounds. I actually thought that the “new” (1989 onward) episodes got better over time. Not sure if I would call any particularly great, but still entertaining.

  15. As great as Jack Cassidy would be in “Shooting Script”, the first actor I imagined in that role was Patrick McGoohan, with the “talking to self” maybe changed to physical acting.

  16. Hello.

    I am planning an art show in London commencing on September the 16th of my paintings of ‘The Women of Columbo’.

    I wondered if you would be interested in attending or if you could perhaps feature something about it on your blog.

    Any questions please do not hesitate to ask.

    Thank you,






  17. I don’t think William Link’s 2007 stage play “Columbo Takes the Rap” originated as a teleplay, so perhaps it doesn’t qualify here — but I’d love to find a copy anyway. It was a new Columbo by one of the creators, after all.

    • I’d be interested in reading the script for that myself. The very little bit I read about that many moons ago sounded utterly dreadful, but it really only was a sentence or two.

  18. I’ve read the DePalma script. The problem with it is that it’s very internalized; there’s a lot of the murderer essentially talking to himself. The relationship between him and Columbo is not very strong. It certainly could have been rewritten, but Hargrove and Kibbee may not have seen the point when they had eight better shows that year.

    Has anyone read the script for that 70th episode? Or even a synopsis of it? I’ve heard about it for years, but I’m very curious as to what it was about.

      • Thank you, David!! I have never gotten even a hint of the subject of the mysterious 70th episode before, and I appreciate knowing part of the trick now. Falk did always like the clues that turned on new technology, so I’m sure he liked that idea as soon as it was proposed. Looking forward to listening to the interview. Thank you again.

  19. I was incredibly fortunate to see Peter Falk at the Hay-on-Wye festival in 2007 (the interview can be heard here He talked briefly about Hear No Evil which, reminiscent of How To Dial A Murder, involved a fatality via phone call. However this time the weapon was a killer sound wave rather than a killer film quote. Peter seemed really happy with the script so for that reason alone I’m sad we never got the chance to see his Colombo just one more time.

  20. Every time I see “Columbo goes to College”, I wonder why Robert Culp wasn’t there at the end to see his son Justin and friend Coop arrested because he was always belittling Columbo.

  21. Despite i have to say that i like the last episode (when i saw it for the first time years ago i hate it, but now on the contrary i don’t found it so awful, and it have a beautiful ending), i agree with you that MURDER WITH TOO MANY NOTES is just pure crap, im sorry to say that about Columbo, but that is probably one of the worst episodes, he can make a good fight with the commodore one as the worst episode, but at least in the commodore the cast was great (robert vaughn susan baker, wilfrid hyde-white, john dehner and off course fred draper !)

    I agree that Falk deserved a last episode, today there are hundres of actors in their 90’s and many also 100 year old or more, who still act and a lot and have sometimes also big roles in movies, so why not alloweed Falk a last run ? (from 2003 until 2007 there was all the time to make it, so i wonder why they wait so long), but anyway things have gone in that way, and i repeat the nightlife episodes (my opinion off course) was not a bad ending to the saga.

      • hello, i did mean between the years 2003-2007 in this time span Falk make 7 movies/tv movies, and the released in 2009 American Cowslip (i don’t know the year it was made), so since he did 7 movies, he was still abe to make at least a final columbo, this what i mean, before he was diagnosed.

  22. Well, regardless of when his last case should have been we fans have many shows to look back on. Im glad he returned in the 90’s as I am an 80’s baby. I love Peter Falk as Columbo as well as his movies. Anyone see Murder By Death?! Good one!

  23. An 80 year old would have been long forced to retire from the force so the idea that Lt. Columbo could have still been on the job at that age is a non-starter from the get go. Glad you mentioned, “Murder With Too Many Notes” as it’s thirty minutes of plot crammed into two hours. If I were writing a final episode it would be Lt. Columbo solving his last murder, make a routine simple case, followed by a depiction of his retirement party with other policemen giving testimonials and him receiving a high honor from the Mayor on behalf of the Police Force. Who knows, maybe we could meet his wife and kids, too 🙂

    • I think official retirement age for US cops is 63. Assuming Falk and Columbo share same age, he’d have reached that milestone in 1990. We could give him a few years’ good grace, but everything after It’s All in the Game should have been post-retirement!

      • There is no national law for police retirement age. That is a state by state and in fact city-by-city matter.

        And as it happens the LAPD does not have a mandatory retirement age. One could say that by 2003 Columbo looked way the hell too old to be a cop, but considering that he never even had a partner…

  24. Always interesting and thoughtful observations. I agree – Ashes to Ashes would have been the perfect ‘last call.’


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