Although they were in the minority when it comes to the line-up of killers, Columbo as a show treated women very well, offering sumptuous and interesting roles to women of all ages.
But, as was pointed out to me in an online exchange with my Twitter pal @ianjohoey, who had been discussing the matter with his own wife, Columbo was notable for showcasing the skills of so-called ‘mature women’ – a demographic all too often overlooked and underrepresented on the small and large screen.
“Columbo was notable for showcasing the skills of mature women – a demographic all too often overlooked.”
And by Jove it’s true! Scan through the list of Columbo guest stars over the years and you’ll quickly spy that it’s packed with awesome roles for experienced female actors. So I’ve selected a baker’s dozen of those roles to chronicle here, knowing that the list could have been a whole lot longer.
Defining ‘mature’ is a matter of opinion. In Hollywood terms (disgracefully) it could easily be anyone older than 40! I’ve made the age cut-off to appear in this article at 45, which means that ‘fresh young things’ Lee Grant (44) and Joyce Van Patten (42) aren’t included despite stellar turns in Ransom for a Dead Man and Old Fashioned Murder respectively. Now, read on!
Ruth Gordon, 81 – Abigail Mitchell in Try & Catch Me
We’ll start with the most obvious, shall we? At the age of 81 at the time of airing, Ruth Gordon’s Abigail Mitchell was the oldest Columbo killer by a stretch – but she’s also one of the most memorable and popular from the entire series.
Gordon really delivered here, giving us charm, fun, mischief and cold-bloodedness in equal measure. Her harmless grandma act endears her to the audience and also to Lieutenant Columbo, giving us a killer we can really root for throughout.
Honor Blackman, 47 – Lily Stanhope in Dagger of the Mind
This episode may be an actual stinker, and I’m on record saying that I don’t rate Blackman’s performance in it. Nevertheless, I recognise that it would be a hugely enjoyable role to play and the former Bond Girl certainly can’t be accused of not fully committing to the nonsense going on around her.
Janis Paige, 49 – Goldie in Blueprint for Murder
A brilliant character, superbly played by Janis Paige, Goldie is a larger-than-life, sass-filled force of nature, who dominates every scene she appears in. Despite having been ‘traded in’ for a younger, insipid wife by boisterous ex-husband Bo, Goldie remains absolutely confident in who she is and what she has to offer.
She’s the best part of Blueprint for Murder and one of the very best Columbo guest stars ever.
Faye Dunaway, 52 – Lauren Staton in It’s All in the Game
Faye Dunaway absolutely rocked the role of Lauren Staton, giving us an antagonist we can get behind – even if her flirtatiousness towards Lieutenant Columbo is all an (unsuccessful) act to drop his guard.
In killing a man who has two-timed her and has roughed up and threatened to kill her daughter, Staton has more cause than most to commit murder. But it is her good characteristics that Dunaway deals with best, and in doing all she can to protect her daughter, both from harm and a jail term, she gives us one of the most grounded, human killers of all.
Jeanette Nolan, 62 – Mrs Peck in Double Shock
A truly brilliant and hilarious performance, Nolan’s howling and highly strung Mrs Peck easily earns the crown as Columbo’s most fearsome adversary.
Protective of her home and proud of her immaculate house-keeping skillz, Mrs Peck gives the Lieutenant short shrift throughout the episode, causing Columbo to walk on egg shells throughout. Even their temporary truce over milk and health cookies is soon forgotten as Columbo breaks Mrs Peck’s TV set, triggering yet another bout of PECK RAGE!
Nolan would reappear in a matriarchal role in The Conspirators five years later, but it can’t hold a candle to her unforgettable turn here.
Myrna Loy, 67 – Lizzy Fielding in Etude in Black
It may only be a fleeting appearance in a handful of scenes, but silver screen icon Myrna Loy more than earns her place in this list because of the raw power she projects throughout.
She never loses her cool, but her soft-spoken sternness makes it abundantly clear – even to murderous Maestro Alex Benedict – that she is the one in charge at all times. It’s all class from Loy.
Anne Baxter, 50 – Nora Chandler in Requiem for a Falling Star
Well cast as the much-loved-but-past-her-peak-actress Nora Chandler, Anne Baxter excels here giving us a killer who is self-serving, fabulously stylish and well-versed in the shallowness and skulduggery of the movie-making scene.
Full of faux charm one minute and showing her true colours the next, Baxter’s Nora Chandler is exactly what I imagine a movie star has to be in real life – minus the heartless slaying of a long-time assistant, naturally…
Joanne Linville, 45 – Vicky Hayward in Candidate for Crime
The unloved Vicky Hayward is one of the series’ saddest housewives, and the sensitive portrayal by Joanne Linville makes Vicky an authentic presence throughout.
Linville succeeds in delivering a character who is noble and tragic in turn, a woman trapped in a loveless marriage solely to make her husband more electable. We can feel her pain and helplessness throughout – the great irony being that she’s much more interesting than the insipid Linda Johnson whom her husband is carrying on with behind her back.
Vera Miles, 45 – Viveca Scott in Lovely but Lethal
Viveca Scott had brains, confidence, beauty, grace and style on her side, so must have been a really enjoyable character to play. Vera Miles embraces these characteristics and goes all-in with her portrayal of the Beauty Industry Empress, chewing up the scenery with Vincent Price and committing two very different murderers in a bid to safeguard her business future.
In an interesting twist for the series, Viveca has both male and female admirers – but love isn’t on the agenda for this ice-cold femme fatale, who ruthlessly dispatches handsome Carl and crazy Shirley with equal aplomb.
Janet Leigh, 48 – Grace Wheeler in Forgotten Lady
Surprisingly, Leigh was only 48 at the time Forgotten Lady aired, as it’s clear that her Grace Wheeler character is meant to be a good deal older. But if this leading lady was bothered about being cast well older than her real age, it doesn’t show a bit.
Leigh gets to show off her full range, from schmoozing crowd favourite and ace dancer to rage-filled has-been and tree-leaping gymnast. Most importantly, though, is that the audience buys into her descent into mental illness from which there is no way back, so that we’re firmly in favour of his decision when Columbo decides to let her go free.
Kim Hunter, 49 – Aunt Edna in Suitable for Framing
Who doesn’t love Kim Hunter’s portrayal of kooky Aunt Edna – the kind-hearted innocent Dale Kingston does his best to frame for murder? Not many of you, I’m sure.
Hunter (like Janet Leigh, cast as a character much older than her real age) conveys a genuine charm and vulnerability to the role ensuring the audience is firmly on her side as the vile Kingston tries to sell her down the river.
Gena Rowlands, 45 – Elizabeth Van Wick in Playback
A remarkable talent that could see her convince in just about any role, Rowlands, one of Peter Falk’s best friends off-screen, is predictably good here as Elizabeth Van Wick.
It’s a softer side than we’ve often seen from her on the big screen, but she perfectly portrays the vulnerability of Elizabeth, as well as her despair at husband Harold’s betrayal and murderous ways. Indeed, her tear-stained face at episode’s end is one of the most poignant Columbo closing scenes.
Ida Lupino, 56 – Edna Brown in Swan Song
You want unsympathetic old crone who you’re desperate to see get her comeuppance? Then you got it right here with Lupino’s sublime turn as the ghastly Edna Brown.
The domineering wife of biblical singer Tommy Brown, Lupino succeeds entirely in making the audience long for her demise, as she chides and scolds Tommy relentlessy for his roaming eye. She even blackmails him by threatening to expose his statutory rape of angelic choir girl Maryann – rather than actually helping the girl.
Brown is so good in just a few scant minutes here that it seems a major oversight not to have ever cast her as a murderer in the series – or even a director given her trailblazing success in that field in the 1940s-50s.
“Lupino succeeds entirely in making the audience long for her demise, as she chides and scolds Tommy relentlessy for his roaming eye.”
That’s all for now. Do let me know what you make of the list and if your favourite isn’t included, please sing out in the comments section below. Certainly it would have been feasible to include the likes of Julie Harris, Tyne Daly, Louise Latham, Nina Foch and Mary Wickes in the list, but I gotta draw the line somewhere or the article will never be published.
Thanks for your time, and I hope to see you soon!
Hello. I’d like to add Jessie Royce Landis in “Lady in Waiting.” When she hauls off as slaps Susan Clark’s character “Beth Chadwick” who can’t help but love her?!! And she looks so chic!!
Agree about Jesse. And her “you there!” to Columbo on the ladder is priceless.
I agree with “sublime turn” for Ida Lupino. Confused why the episode review of “Short Fuse” says that she was “wasted as Aunt Doris.”
The Aunt Doris role was a bit of a nothing role, not much for Ida to sink her teeth into. Swan Song is a whole different matter. She’s given a great role to make the most of, which she does brilliantly.
Maybe she’s not the most sympathetic victim, but I still appreciate Antoinette Bower’s Frances Galesko. She’s beautiful and she moves well, giving her character lots of interest, while she can! Her assessment of the ranch (barn?)is actually funny. I think she seems to care about her husband when she warns him that “they’ll know you did it!” (you idiot!)
Awesome- very interesting list of the 45 plus ladies in Columbo- amazing as always, Columbophile!
How about one for the ones aged 19 to 44? Going through the list – youngest were Patricia-Pattye- Mattick (19 at the time Ransom for a Dead Man aired), Kim Cattrall (21 when How to Dial a Murder aired), Carol Jones (22 when The Bye-Bye Sky High Aired), Jamie Lee Curtis (only 18 when The Bye-Bye aired) and Katey Sagal (19 when Candidate for Crime aired) know that the last 2 played minor characters….. just an idea……
Be safe, you all! Best regards,
Ed from Miami 👍
While I understand your motivation…being a young woman and getting a good role isn’t exactly innovative. Columbo going against the “Hollywood Machinery” against the “societal” mainstream by casting older woman was unique and for that time period remains unique. It made a HUGE difference then but also now. A “middle-aged” woman can hope to get a role now without too, too much work. But past 45? Meh…not so much. Ya have to be Helen Mirren or Dame Judy Dench. I just bet each of these ladies was thrilled thinking to be offered a role “I never thought I’d get another role.” Honestly, name a few older woman actresses nowadays and then add 20 to 40 younger woman actresses to compare her with and you can see what difficulty the “mature” actress has in obtaining a role EVEN NOW! And that is NOW. Back then things were so geared towards “stereotype”…so while your point is awesome. It is material for a different article. Perhaps entitled “celebrities before they became stars” but I want to bring your focus back. Because someday (if not already now) you’ll be of a “certain” age and though you won’t feel a bit differently you’ll notice you are not getting “jobs” or “work” and people start to glance over you…to opt for a more younger and attractive model. And THAT WOULD be the point. If you’ve already experienced that then perhaps you might join me by staying on the topic of roles for “mature woman?” Peace…nice comment by the way…I think the same thing often.
Thank you for your comment, Ramblin Rose. I agree with most of your statement. To me Columbo was interesting and different because it presented a different “cast of characters” and a “whole new ball game” – at least partially. The detective that was from a working class background investigating and catching the rich and powerful that committed crimes, such as doctors, politicians, lawyers (the lady lawyer) and so many others. And the awesome writers presented women- older women- as independent women that could also commit crimes and be as sneaky as any men. No “who dunnitt” here…. such an innovative show, for its time.
Wish I had seen its original run- mostly watched it as a teenager in the 80s for the first time- I was 2 when “Ransom” aired in 1971.
I’ll finally close saying that Columbo is Tv history- so much better than all the current reality baloney they broadcast everyday. And Ransom is Columbo history- where we really met the cool Columbo for the first time- with all his homey anecdotes, his idiosyncrasies-(such a great word- one of the best!) of course his chili habit, and the magical scene in Barney’s Beanery- Pattye Mattick was present in a vital moment of Columbo history. Whatever people may say of the Margaret Williams character- it will always be part of Columbo and tv history.
Ed the Librarian from Florida 👋
I really appreciate this article. I appreciate all your Columbo articles. Even when I was a young woman, I noticed that older women did not often get very good roles. It did not escape my attention, even back then, that mature women were being given roles in Columbo- the scripts were written with respect for the acting abilities of these women.
I nominate Julie Harris in “Any Old Port in a Storm”. Hers is a great role and she acts it brilliantly. Re-mark-able.
The “old battleaxe” or naive ingenue were dumb cliches in the 60s and 70s. There are a few of those on Columbo, but as a series it showed great respect for women, and created great roles for women actors These women, young and old, good and bad, are nuanced and well written. Congratulations on this article.
I know it’s a bit of a hammy performance but I do have a fondness for Celeste Holm in Old Fashioned Murder. Like a cross between Blanche Dubois and Blanche from Golden Girls I love how her melodramatics provides a comic undertone to the darkness of an aunt who’d happily see her niece/daughter end up in the clink.
“She won’t faint again, will she?”
Yes, well said!
Forgot all about that gem!
You came up (again !!!) with a good idea for an article. I enjoy so much reading your blog.
About Dorothea Mc Nally, i prefered her in A bird in the hand (even though it’s one of the worst episodes). I always thought she gave a good performance, and was pretty much the only reason to watch the episode !
Thanks so much for your post. If I!m not mistaken Ms. Dunaway as one of only 3 actors (the others being Falk and McGoohan} to win an Emmy for their Colombo performance.
I love Anne Baxter, she’s my favorite female Columbo villain. She is beautiful and believable as her desperation drives to more extreme lengths. I always remember her longing for Moses(Charleton!) on the Ten Commandments…and failed seduction.
Thanks for all the Columbo blogs. They’re always entertaining and fascinating.
Is that a Zombie Ken Franklin complaining above?
Yes! “Moses”! Love beautiful Anne Baxter and her turn as Nora Chandler. Along with her fellow Ten Commandments “Columni” Nina Foch and Vincent Price (Carol Flemming and David Lang).
This may interest
you. Baxter and
Price were paired together again as
villains in the same episodes of the
60s Batman series.
Baxter was Olga, Queen of the Cossacks,
and Price was Egghead. Quite a step
down from Moses and CB DeMille.
And yes, DeMille did say her Irish nose
stays (the way it was) in the picture.
Baxter was also the villainous Zelda the
Great, making her one of the few
actors to play two villains in the Batman
I would say her three Batman and Columbo
villains is the record.
Lee Grant was in her 40’s when “Ransom For A Deadman” was filmed/released. She just didn’t look like it..
She was 44, so just below the cut-off mark for this article. I had planned to include her. Although there is some mystery about the actual year of Lee’s birth, so who knows?
Shout out to Celeste Holm as Phyllis Brandt in “Old Fashioned Murder”. What do you think of that Lt…Columbus!
Oh Celeste! I actually HATED her character and performance in that one. Terribly unfunny and what a waste of Oscar-winning talent…
I agree with you on so much, we can disagree on one thing once in a while.
Amen to that!
I am on record elsewhere about how disappointing I found Myrna Loy’s and Ida Lupino’s performances in Columbo, such a waste of their considerable talents. While Celeste Holm’s performance was every bit as bad as you say, I was not in the least upset by it. Holm was never a top tier actress. I had no expectations.
I disagree that Holm was “never a top-tier actress.” She won an Oscar for “Gentleman’s Agreement” and was nominated for “Come to the Stable” and “All About Eve.” She was also the narrator in “A Letter to Three Wives.”
A great idea to acknowledge mature women, contrary to what the world usually does. Thanks a lot. I certainly prefer aunt Edna to the Undercover lady, but I guess that’s my only objection. By the way, some other reader and I suggested under one of your posts (can’t remember which one) that you could write articles about top ten cars and top ten places. We hope you’ll give it a try. All the best!
These aren’t necessarily my own favourites, just a good cross-section of roles across the series. I adore Aunt Edna! I know she’s not to everyone’s tastes (too kooky) but she’s a sweet old thing!
I thought I’d replied to the previous comment about cars and locations? Locations I could do, but I don’t know enough about cars to try my hand at that.
Oh, I’m sorry for repeating the suggestions if you had replied. I subscribe to the posts which I comment to be up to date – maybe I forgot that time? Anyway, I’m on the locations bandwagon more than cars. I’d like to know more about Bo Williamson’s ranch, for example – if it was a real place or just a set. I love horses, you see, and that’s, AFAIK, the only episode featuring a real horse (if only for a short time).
Locations would be wonderful! Love and appreciate all you do, Columbophile. Many thanks.
Love the locations aspect very much. Especially Callahan Film Ranch, where Dr. Mason gets the baby spotlight and trains Laurel and Hardy. We live in Toluca Lake, California. I get on the freeway to work each morning 10 feet from the restaurant (former location) where Dudek and Clayton play chess (across the street from Lakeside Car Wash, seen in the background when they’re driving to the restaurant).
If you want some more information about cars in Columbo, may be you can read what I wrote (in French) about (European) cars, i.e. Mercedes driven by murderers: https://www.moskenes.be/wp-content/uploads/2015/01/150117-the_murderer_drives_a_mercedes1.pdf
(the title is in English, the text is in French; but the images are in… Columbo)
Eleonora, i agree with your proposition of an article on locations. That would be nice to read
At the moment Kim Hunter as Aunt Edna is my favorite. She’s so fun to watch in suitable for framing. Coming in second is Kate Reid as Mrs Walters , poor Helen’s overbearing mother. Wonderful. Oh, and the gallery owner in Suitable for Framing played by Joan Shawlee and, of course, Mary Wickes as Tracy’s landlady, also in Suitable.
Some excellent selections there, I agree. Mary Wickes’ cameo is hilarious!
Another great article and thanks for the namecheck. Janet Leigh only being 48 in Forgotten Lady is a fact that amazed me.
Any Old Port In A Storm probably merits yet another mention thanks to the beautifully stated performance of Julie Harris as Adrian Carsini’s helpful but overly obsessed secretary Karen Fielding.
Instead of these silly posts (along with those “five best moment things,” which should just be incorporated into each episode’s overall review), why don’t you just keep plowing through the series episode-by-episode, something that has reached a snail’s pace (at best)?
That’s is a rather mean-spirited comment, but I’ll address your points nevertheless.
1.) These ‘silly posts’ are part of a varied content mix to give readers long reads, quick reads and lots of variety. Columbo as a show has a lot more discussion points than just the episodes themselves.
2.) The reviews are quite long enough without shoe-horning the ‘5 best moments’ list into them as well. Also the ‘5 best moments’ offer a bite-sized overview of the episode rather than in-depth analysis, which suits many readers.
3.) The actual reviews require the most time commitment from me to watch, take notes, draft, review, re-write, source, edit and crop imagery etc. Each one would take many, many hours of my time from start to finish and with a full-time job and two ‘young Columbos’ to raise, finding time to actually sit down and watch an episode is a rare treat.
4.) It may surprise you to learn that the episode reviews are not always the most-read articles on the site. From nearly 250,000 page views this year, no episode reviews feature in the top 10 most-read articles, whereas several ‘top 10’ articles do. Murder by the Book is the most-read episode review of 2017 at 11th place in the annual standings.
5.) Double Exposure is next up in the list of episode reviews. This is likely to be posted this month, and will very likely be the last review to air in 2017.
Dear Columbophile, the assortment of interesting, well-written commentary you provide on a variety of Columbo-related topics is more than we, your fellow fans, deserve. Your subject matter selection, insight, and writing expertise have expanded my appreciation of this brilliant series by light-years. This is a good reminder to thank you for your generous and, apparently, unappreciated work.
You are LOVELY, thank you!
We enjoy everything you post, Columbophile. You’ve brought us many hours of enjoyment. Many, many thanks.
My goodness, Columbophile; keep doing what you are doing! You are one of the best things on the web and I ( and many others) am/are grateful!
I love everything on this site, and I don’t find these “asides” silly at all. I’m addicted to Columbophile!
Here’s another idea, Bob. Why don’t you create your own Columbo website? Then you can post, or not post, whatever strikes your fancy. And then maybe you can appreciate the enormous amount of work that goes into maintaining fresh content on a site like this.
For myself, I find these other posts entertaining and informative. How else would I learned about next year’ Columbo Con? Moreover, if Columbophile posted nothing but episode reviews — each of which takes many weeks to write — there would be overly long stretches with no new content posted. Who wants that?
Thanks Richard! And thanks also for the high quality contributions you’ve made to the site, both in article format and your regular, very informed comments.
Geez, Dude. That’s the lousiest comment I’ve ever seen on this site. What are you doing here, anyway?
I love these side-trips from the full episode reviews. They aren’t “silly” at all. Please keep them coming. “Women Over 45” was one of the best. The real Bob Mitchum would agree.
Greetings from rainy Florida. I nominate the lady lawyer- Leslie Williams Esq. for the over 45 ladies group. Smart, manipulative, cunning, had no scruples- hands down the winner. Killed her husband and would have left the stepdaughter without a penny- poor Margaret. 👩🏻🦰👓
😮 Ed 👋
I agree that Lee Grant’s was one of the best-ever Columbo performances ( I especially love her response to Columbo’s concern about how the little soaps stick together –“It’s a problem”) but there’s some dispute about her birth date. October 31, 1927, seems to be accepted most often, which would have made her 43 when the episode was broadcast in March 1971.
Hi! I read somewhere she was born in 1925- just a couple of years difference-so she was the same age as Peter Falk when they filmed the episode. She is a legend, a timeless actress- so awesome! 👋
Thank you so much for this. I hadn’t really thought about it but Columbo was a good place for mature actresses to show what they were capable of.