Guest star / Tribute

The tragic real-life fate of three Columbo stars

Columbo remains such comforting viewing that it can be hard to imagine any of its stars suffering from untimely ends – no matter what happened to their characters on-screen.

However, not all were lucky enough to live to a ripe old age. And today I’m examining the tragic real-life fates of three Columbo guest stars – including one of the best loved of all, Jack Cassidy.

Be warned, these are genuinely sad stories so if you are feeling in any way heavy-hearted, please consider reading at another time.

Jack Cassidy

Appeared in Murder by the Book (1971); Publish or Perish (1973 – pictured below); Now You See Him (1976)

Columbo Riley Greenleaf

The greatest of all Columbo killers, in this correspondent’s opinion at least, Jack Cassidy’s tragic demise still wrenches the heartstrings over 40 years since it took place.

“Cassidy’s legacy is such that all other Columbo killers are compared to him.”

In the early hours of 12 December 1976, after a night on the town, Jack returned to his luxury penthouse in West Hollywood. By all accounts he poured himself a drink and settled back on his sofa with a cigarette before dropping into a drunken slumber. It was the act that doomed him.

Columbo Jack CassidyA couple of hours later, firefighters were called in to tackle a ferocious blaze at Cassidy HQ. Although they were able to quell the flames, help arrived too late to save Jack. His remains were found in the front hall near his front door, burned beyond recognition. An investigation found that he’d tried to crawl to safety only to suffocate through lack of oxygen.

So a truly tragic end to the colourful life of Jack Cassidy, who was taken from us at the age of only 49. His death came less than 10 months after his final Columbo appearance in Now You See Him, which aired on 29 February 1976.

Who knows if he’d have appeared as a guest star in a future episode, but Cassidy’s legacy is such that all other Columbo killers are compared to him. We can only hope that Jack and Peter are having a blast together wherever they are now. I rather think they would be…

Barbara Colby

Appeared as Lilly La Sanka in Murder by the Book (1971)

Columbo Barbara Colby

Barbara Colby’s well-meaning but naive widow, Lilly La Sanka, suffered a terrible demise in Murder by the Book at Jack Cassidy’s hands. Barbara’s real-life fate is far sadder.

“Colby’s killing remains unsolved to this day. She was 36 at the time of her murder.”

On the night of 24 July 1975, Barbara had finished teaching an acting class in Venice, LA, and was returning to her car in a parking lot with fellow actor James Kiernan. There the pair were approached by two men in a van, and both were shot.

Columbo Lilly La Sanka

When police arrived at the scene they found Kiernan clinging to life, but it was too late for Barbara. A bullet had entered her left lung through her arm and chest and she was dead at the scene. Before he, too, died in hospital a short time later, Kiernan was able to provide police with brief details of their attackers, who were said to be two black men in a light-coloured van.

Neither Barbara nor her companion were robbed, highlighting the senselessness of the attack. Sadder still, although several arrests were made none were ever connected to Colby’s killing. Her case remains unsolved to this day and she was just 36 years old at the time of her murder.

Read more details of this tragic case here.

Sal Mineo

Appeared as Rachman Habib in A Case of Immunity (1975)

Columbo Sal Mineo

Beautiful Sal Mineo’s career was long past its peak by the time he starred as murder victim Rachman Habib in A Case of Immunity in 1975, but his murder the following year still sent shock waves across America. Little wonder, perhaps, given that Mineo was a two-time Oscar nominee who had been one of the world’s biggest rising stars after his breakthrough role as a 17-year-old in 1955’s Rebel Without a Cause.

“Witnesses report that Mineo cried out for help before dying through loss of blood.”

Columbo Sal MineoOn 12 February 1976 – four months to the day that Case of Immunity first aired –  Mineo returned home following a play rehearsal. After parking up below his West Hollywood apartment, he was attacked in his garage and stabbed in the heart. Witnesses report that he cried out for help before dying through loss of blood. He was 37 years of age.

Police chased a wide variety of leads and the crime was assumed to have a ‘homosexual motivation’ before it was ultimately cracked. Pizza deliveryman Lionel Ray Williams was convicted of the crime in March 1979, revealing it was a botched robbery attempt, and sentenced to 57 years in jail. He was paroled in the early 1990s.

Read more about Mineo’s death in the New York Times archive here.

The above trio aren’t the only Columbo guest stars to meet an untimely end. Patricia Mattick (Margaret in Ransom for a Dead Man); Laurence Harvey (Emmett Clayton in The Most Dangerous Match); and Heidi Bruhl (Linda Robinson, also from The Most Dangerous Match) were all taken by cancer far too soon, at the ages of 52, 45 and 49 respectively. There are probably many other examples not immediately coming to mind, too.

“We can only thank them for the contribution they made to Columbo, and hope they found peace wherever they ended up.”

However, the the needlessness of the deaths of Cassidy, Colby and Mineo set them apart. We can only thank them for the contribution they made to Columbo, and hope they found peace wherever they ended up.

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55 thoughts on “The tragic real-life fate of three Columbo stars

  1. Jack Cassidy’s death was frighteningly similar to the death of a former neighbor of mine, less than a month before his, in a city apartment to which she & her 4-year-old daughter had moved recently. She wasn’t drinking, to my knowledge, but she fell asleep w/ a lit cigarette, and it started a fire which killed her, her daughter, and the man living in the apartment across the hall from her.

    Barbara Colby had recently begun a regular role on PHYLLIS, the MTM spinoff which starred Cloris Leachman, as Phyllis’ boss, the owner of a photography studio. She’d only appeared in 3 episodes filmed summer 1975 before her tragic murder. Liz Torres replaced her in the role but probably didn’t fit the role as well as Ms. Colby had.

  2. I would of liked to see Elvis Presley as a villain, don’t know what kind , hard to imagine, that’s what would of made him a great choice; but Colonel Parker had his hands around the boys neck.

  3. Jack Cassidy was always my favourite killer in the classic Columbo’s. I’ve just rewatched Murder by the Book and it’s one of my favourite episodes. It’s very Chandler-esque in places. Barbara Colby really lights up the screen in her scenes and I was sad to learn of her early real-life death. The plot of this episode is a bit implausible but it’s one of the very best Columbo’s. RIP Peter Falk – a great actor and my favourite detective.

  4. Sorry Colombophile. But your very opinionated assessment of Jack Cassidy being “the greatest of all Colombo killers” and that “all other Colombo killers are compared to him” is just pure nonsense. I too, am a Colombo fan and have all episodes on DVD. There IS no “greatest of all Colombo killers.” Some may stand out more than others. But effeminate and over-rated Jack Cassidy certainly isn’t one of them. How can you write such blather?

        • No, but I have interacted with thousands of fans over many years, in person and online, and you’re currently the only one to describe Jack in these terms. He’s held in almost universally high regard by fans (and was by Peter Falk himself), and all three of his killers rated very highly in the fans’ favourite killer poll on this website, which has had thousands of votes cast.

          • Yikes, calm down Vern….opinions should be respected agree or disagree. In my opinion for instance, I believe that the Jack Cassidy and Robert Culp episodes are by far the pinnacle of the Columbo series. All 6 episodes are terrific. Just relax and enjoy.

          • Jack is the exact opposite of effeminate in my opinion. If anything he may have been the first metro sexual. He is suave, snarky, charming, menacing, sexy. He appears to smell delicious. I love many episodes but he is my favorite villain. He was also a great comedic actor-his two bewitched episodes are hilarious. I have been an admirer of his since I was ten years old…..Dare We?

          • I hereby declare officially that in my opinion ROBERT CULP was the very very very greatest of all Columbo-killers.
            Not any other killer has the self-confidence, the self-complacency, the self-satisfaction and the haughtiness ROBERT CULP succeeded to give to the killers he played.
            The characters were strong, ROBERT CULP made them stronger than strong, and the directors made them the strongst.

          • I agree that Cassidy is a fantastic villain. I personally can’t decide which one is better, Cassidy or Culp. Both provide perfect arrogant foils for Columbo.

      • Jack Cassidy was bisexual. His own son, David Cassidy, said his father was bisexual citing personal accounts & reports, both anecdotal & published, of his father’s same sex affairs. Something he nor his siblings knew anything about, until after his fathers death. In her 2013 memoir, Shirley Jones wrote that Cassidy had many same sex affairs, including one with Cole Porter. His abusive relationship with Cole Porter speaks volumes as to the type of man Jack Cassidy truly was in reality. Shirley also revealed Jack was bipolar.

    • The way they shot the scene with Colby screaming but nothing coming out was a flaw I didn’t care for. Very amateurish for a Hollywood production of this caliber.

      • Almost none of
        the murders on
        the show were depicted graphically.
        Almost all were stylized or suggested
        for the show, was a mystery series at
        heart, not a blood and guts cop show.

        There were exceptions, such as Milo
        Janus strangling his victim. But even
        those scenes were not drawn out to
        a more realistic duration.

    • Lol! I never saw that in Jack until you mentioned it but yes I do see that trait bright and fancy lol! He was offered the Ted Baxter role in Mary Tyler Moore, but turned it down thought it was a loosing career move. Lol! He later said it was one of the worst decisions he ever made professionally.

      • Wow, he would’ve been fantastic as Ted Baxter, but probably would have stolen the show from the other actors.

      • While he didn’t play Ted Baxter, Jack Cassidy did play Ted’s brother in an early episode which showed how competitive they were.

      • In fact Cassidy played
        Ted’s brother on at least
        one episode of Mary Tyler Moore.
        Presumably as his twin, as the
        two looked amazingly alike
        when beside each other.

    • There is something VERY wrong with you. How dare you tell Columbophile he’s not allowed to think Jack Cassidy was the best killer on all of Columbo! It’s his OPINION and he’s more than entitled to it. You may not agree-and that’s fine. To each, his own. But by no means is he wrong for feeling the way he does just because you don’t agree. You think FAR too highly of yourself. Talk about someone ‘blathering’. The only blather here is the nonsense YOU are spewing.

  5. I agree with Columbopbile: Jack Cassidy is the GOAT among the Columbo murderers! Suave yet sinister at the same time… I’ll bet that Peter loved working with him. I was always amazed to see Jack as a panelist on a game show such as Password… jovial, warm. Like a light switch could Jack flip-on debonair and deadly!

    • Cold hearted killer in his fake news Hollywood life , I wonder how close to the image the man really was? Not a killer fur sure but cold hearted to boot. Ask David ! Jack impressed me as being sour on his own career success while being jealous of David’s.

  6. Jack Cassidy was the voice of Bob Cratchet in Mr Magoo s Christmas Carol, the very first animated tv Christmas special of the early 1960’s

  7. Pingback: Episode review: Columbo A Case of Immunity | The Columbophile

  8. I’m a big fan of Colombo, especially the 1970s episodes.
    It’s really tragic about the deaths of the actors mentioned. I have great respect also for the roles played by Patrick McGoogan. Colombo was one of the best tv shows ever made. I still watch them every Sunday on Sky tv.

  9. Who is the actual person that is The Columbophile writer? I and my husband think it is Peter Falk’s surviving wife Shera Danese . She would have such knowledge of Peter and his show,wasn’t she an actress that stared in many of the episodes like say six?

  10. Pingback: What were Peter Falk’s favourite Columbo episodes? | The columbophile

  11. I was aware of these stars and their tragic deaths as I like to know what and how the stars of Colombo are going these days, lets say, four decades on. It always fills me with sadness to know of real life tragedy, after admiring them so very much in the not so real world of cinema. Thank you for this post. NB. I often place a virtual flower at their memorial sites available through eg for Jack Cassidy it is this link
    for Sal Mineo this is the link
    and for my favourite gal of them all Barbara Colby, this is the link
    and of course, the Great Lieutenant, Peter Falk, his link is this
    Living forever in our memory.

  12. Pingback: 10 great booze-fuelled Columbo moments | The columbophile

  13. A footnote about Sal Mineo: Just 18 days before his death, Mineo appeared in an episode of “Ellery Queen” (“The Adventure of the Wary Witness,” aired Jan. 25, 1976), another Link & Levinson creation.

  14. If you are including Columbo stars who died at a tragically young age of natural causes, then Laurence Harvey should be added as well. He died at 45 of stomach cancer (on November 25, 1973) only eight months after “The Most Dangerous Match” aired (on March 4, 1973).

    • Laurence is mentioned here, towards the end along with some other stars who succumbed to cancer. The focus was on the main three tragedies. I’m sure there are many more examples of those lost to natural causes that I didn’t include here.

  15. I’d like to mention Barry Robbins (the King from A Case of Immunity), who died from an AIDS-related illness in 1986, being only 41. I really liked his role in Columbo and was sad when I learned his end after watching the episode (I like to browse the net afterwards and learn something about the actors). Are there any more episodes like Murder by the Book and A Case of Immunity, with two actors meeting a tragic real-life fate? Oh, and how about Peter Falk himself? Paul says “It seems particularly ironic that a Columbo star would suffer an unsolved murder”. That’s very true. I view Falk’s Alzheimer-related death in a similar way: an extremely intelligent Columbo character ended up not even remembering his role… As always, thanks for the post.

    • I agree , I did enjoy his performance but also saw a bit of that effeminate trait that Jack had. Doesn’t mean their homo, queer, or gay ….that’s just a sign toward that direction. Look at Rock!

      • I find his effeminacy very intriguing! You’re not really sure who is he. A ladies’ man or wannabe? A villain or a gentleman? All part of his sinister charm!

  16. Thank you for this great but sad post. I was aware of the three, i read about Jack Cassidy’s death on Findadeath, watching him playing with a Dupont flaminaire on a television set before his death is absolutely chilling knowing how he died. He’s my ALL TIME FAVORITE. Gone way too soon, unfortunately. Thank you Columbophile

    • I agree with you -Jack Cassidy was my absolute favorite villain , and my next favorite one was Robert Vaughn -they both were excellent in their roles -they played them so effortlessly. I am watching Jack right now in the episode titled Publish or Perish .

      • I would of liked to have seen more guest stars and more episodes rather than just a Sunday special once a month.

  17. All three tragedies resonated with me & their stellar appearances on Columbo are always laced with poignance. Jack Cassidy playing with fire in his final appearance is so prescient & haunting. Thanks for a wonderful article honoring yhese 3 great losses…

  18. I was aware of Cassidy’s death and its tragic circumstances, but not Mineo or Colby. How sad that they, and the others you mentioned, didn’t live to a ripe old age. It seems particularly ironic that a Columbo star would suffer an unsolved murder; if only there were a Columbo to discover who killed Colby. May they all Rest In Peace.


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