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!