The tragic real-life fate of three Columbo stars

Tragic 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); 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.

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.

A 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.

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

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.

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.

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.

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

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.

Columbo Sal Mineo

On 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.

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

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.

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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Columbo Jack Cassidy
This is how I always want to remember Jack Cassidy: full of life, mischief and champagne
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