Brian De Palma’s lost Columbo, and the Lieutenant’s unfilmed final case


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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