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Columbo: an origin story

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February 20 1968 is a red-letter day in the annals of TV history as the day Prescription: Murder first aired, bringing Lieutenant Columbo, as we mostly know and love him, to the collective consciousness of millions.

But what many casual fans don’t realise is that Columbo, the character, was created by William Link and Richard Levinson nearly a decade earlier and had already graced both the stage and screen long before Peter Falk assumed the beige raincoat and ever-lit cigar.

Levinson Link

Levinson and Link (pictured) were fresh young screen writers on the Hollywood scene when the now infamous Writers Guild strike of 1960 took place. The strike would go on for five months from January to June, leaving the dynamic duo at a loss at how to supplement their incomes.

Fortunately for the world they uncovered a loophole that allowed them to flex their creative muscles. Despite the strike action, it was still permissable for Guild members to write for live television. And so targeting the newly launched Chevy Mystery Show and its weekly one-hour live broadcasts, the two got to work on the script for a murder mystery entitled Enough Rope – the first official script featuring one Lieutenant Columbo.

“The Columbo character was based squarely on Porfiry Petrovich, the astute but meandering lead investigator in Dostoevsky’s Crime & Punishment.”

They based the character squarely on Porfiry Petrovich, the astute but meandering lead investigator in Dostoevsky’s Crime & Punishment – a book both had studied at college. How they settled on the name Columbo is a mystery even Link (the surviving member of the partnership following Levinson’s death in 1987) cannot solve.

Was it a tribute to Rocky Marciano’s legendary trainer Allie Colombo? Or an adaption of Philadelphia nightclub Palumbo’s that both men used to frequent? Link just can’t recall, giving us a pleasant little mystery at the heart of the formation of one of TV’s finest creations.

Link talks entertainingly about the creation of Columbo below in an interview from 2002. Have a watch if you can, and then we’ll push on to Enough Rope itself…

Columbo in the flesh – on screen and stage

The honour of first portraying Columbo went to Bert Freed, who took up the mantle in the aforementioned live-to-air murder mystery Enough Rope, which aired on 31 July 1960 as part of the Chevy Mystery Show drama anthology.


Anyone remember this?

Running for just an hour, Enough Rope would nevertheless be easily recognised by the Columbo viewer of today as an embryonic version of Prescription: Murder. The chief protagonist was psychologist Dr Roy Fleming, who murders his unloved wife by strangulation and establishes an alibi by having his young lover dress up as Mrs Fleming and flounce off a parked plane – just like in Prescription: Murder.

Several other scenes would ring bells with by today’s Columbo afficionados, including the Lieutenant being in the Flemings’ apartment when Roy returns home from his solo vacation; the false murder confession by a young upstart; Columbo’s dogged pursuit of Mrs Fleming’s missing dress and gloves; and his curiosity about Dr Fleming’s lighter luggage on his return.

“Running for just an hour, Enough Rope would be easily recognised by today’s Columbo fans  as an embryonic version of Prescription: Murder.”

There are key differences, though. Columbo never gets heavy with Dr Fleming’s young love interest (here named Susan Hudson, not Joan); Mrs Fleming doesn’t cling on to life in a coma; the two leads don’t share a hypothetical chat over bourbons; and the ending is very different to the ingenious ‘dead girlfriend’ bait-and-switch Columbo plays in the 1968 outing.

Instead Fleming’s lighter luggage proves to be his undoing. Columbo pretends he’s uncovered the items from the Flemings’ home said to have been stolen after the murder by dredging the lake where Roy has been vacationing in Canada. Dr Fleming doesn’t fall for it, forcing Columbo to admit it’s all his stuff. The Susan walks in and says ‘Where did you find it?’ to blow Ray’s cover.

Reportedly the episode ends with Columbo saying words to the effect of: “We ain’t found the real stuff yet, but we’re sure gonna now!” as credits roll, which sounds moderately anti-climactic to me.

Bert Freed 2Roy Fleming (played by Richard Carlson) was very much the centre of attention throughout, relegating Columbo to a largely secondary role. As for Freed’s portrayal, I can only report from other sources that say many of the characteristics familiar to Columbo fans were there (the forgetfulness, the increasingly insistent questioning, the little things that bother him), but that Freed and Falk were poles apart in how they delivered the lines, as well as their physical stature (Freed, pictured, being a large, physically intimidating sort).

However, I’ve never seen Enough Rope, nor have ever seen it available to buy. If you have and can make more informed comment then please be my guest!

Two years later and a lengthened version of the story was produced by Levinson and Link for the stage. This time actually entitled Prescription: Murder, the play starred the suave Joseph Cotten as Roy Fleming and veteran actor Thomas Mitchell – then aged 70 – as Columbo.

The character had evolved to become more like the version we meet in Falk’s 1968 debut. Shabbier, obsequious, more confused. Indeed, the original script described Columbo as being: “A rumpled police detective of indeterminate age. He seems to be bumbling and vague, with an overly apologetic, almost deferential manner. This masks an innate shrewdness, however, a foxy knowledge of human nature.” How reassuringly familiar!

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Fleming and Columbo V2

The stage version plays out very similarly to the 1968 screen version, a notable difference again being the ending. Perhaps realising that the luggage-related denouement in Enough Rope was a bit of a dud, the ending here was beefed up to enhance its emotional impact.

Columbo does stage a fake suicide scene to draw Dr Fleming out, but this time Susan (still not Joan) isn’t hiding in a corner to hear Roy wax lyrical about how he never really cared for her. Instead Roy really was in love with Susan and is so choked up about her supposed death that he insists on confessing to the murder there and then.

This emphasis on the killer’s regret and partial redemption is indicative of the belief that the main star of the production was very much Cotten’s Dr Fleming. Mitchell, the first man to win the legendary trifecta of Oscar, Emmy and Tony Awards, and who had graced legendary motion pictures Gone With the Wind, StagecoachHigh Noon and It’s a Wonderful Life, was, like Freed before him, to play second fiddle to Fleming. Yet if the rumours are true, audiences responded so favourably to the Columbo character that it became clear that the disheveled detective had star power in his own right.

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Columbo first rattled Ms Hudson in 1962

The play toured the US and Canada from early January to late May of 1962, but never made it to Broadway. Sadly it marked Thomas Mitchell’s final acting role, as he died from cancer that December.

It wasn’t, of course, the end of Lieutenant Columbo. It became a case of third time lucky for Levinson and Link (and the Lieutenant) when they heard Universal were on the lookout for good mystery scripts in 1967. The Prescription: Murder teleplay was duly picked up by the studio, but who to cast as Columbo – a character more pivotal to the story than originally intended?

Lee J. Cobb, then in his 50s, is said to have been the first choice, but his schedule was too full to allow it. Bing Crosby was famously offered the role but turned it down as he was enjoying retirement (and the lure of the golf links) too much. Instead, and despite reservations about him being ‘too young’, Levinson and Link turned to Peter Falk, who had just turned 40. Filming wrapped up in late 1967. The rest, as they say, is history.

PM 4Dare we speculate on what might have happened if someone other than Falk had got the role in 1967? It’s always impossible to tell. Lee J. Cobb could actually have been superb (his Lieutenant Kinderman in The Exorcist was entirely Columbo-esque), although I can’t imagine Bing  in the role in a million years.

No, it’s safe to say that Falk was so wonderful, so perfect in the role of Columbo, that he and he alone could have turned the character – and the show – into one of the best, most enduring, most respected and most loved of all time.

Indeed it’s a testament to Falk, and the creative powers of Levinson and Link, that Columbo is likely to be as highly regarded in another 50 years as it is today.

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What are your memories of your first encounter with Lieutenant Columbo? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.

Read my review of Prescription: Murder here.

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35 thoughts on “Columbo: an origin story

  1. In 1974, after a long week at work, watching Columbo was ‘my not-to-be-disturbed time.’ A warm bath, a portable TV sitting on the toilet and my husband in charge of the kids.
    Once my four-year old answered the phone and told the caller I couldn’t talk because I was in the bathtub with Columbo!

  2. “What are your memories of your first encounter with Lieutenant Columbo?”

    I was on vacation in Barbados and an episode showed on TV. My jaw dropped at the plot and how he nailed the guy. It was “Columbo Cries Wolf”. I’d like to name that episode my top pick just because it was the one that introduced me to the show, although it isn’t my actual favourite, but it ranks highly.

  3. “…it’s safe to say that Falk was so wonderful, so perfect in the role of Columbo, that he and he alone could have turned the character – and the show – into one of the best, most enduring, most respected and most loved of all time.”

    Totally agree! He sculpted out the character and made it a great success. And he had the right voice for it. His voice was so distinctive, I think that the character would have been a bit different if he had an “ordinary” voice.

  4. Excellent blog thanks. I wonder if anyone has uncovered a connection between Columbo’s creators and the Golden Age crime writer Freeman Wills Crofts who was a pioneer of inverted crime fiction? His character Inspector French also bore some similarities to Columbo. I wonder if Link and/ or Levinson were fans of Crofts? Many thanks.

  5. Great blog thanks, so much great interesting content on here, big Columbo fan and find the episodes endlessly re watchable.
    I remember watching with my friend at about age 9, the earliest one I watched and remember is Columbo goes to the Guillotine in 1989. Have watched it all these years and got the dvd sets as they were released

  6. Great post. I saw many of the later Columbo’s growing up in the ’70s but only saw the very first episodes recently. I remember seeing episodes like “Murder by the Book” when I was young. This is a great site and I appreciate all the reviews and articles you’re writing. You should get an honorary PhD in Columbology.

  7. I know I probably saw other ones first, but Etude in Black comes to mind first as the first one I remember. The bird being upset is quite a scene in a young person’s mind. My mom loved Columbo so much.

  8. I have always loved the show, but didn’t always love the character of the often annoying Lieutenant. Does that mean that I have sided with the murderers or at least watched in their perspective as the shiw’s narration directs us in a way?

    However, Prescription Murder is among my favorites with the philosophical conversations about killer psychology and the ever satisfying take down of the psychological Dr. Flemming.

    I’m sorry to see that our Google art for the 50th Anniversary has not come to be. Nonetheless, Happy 50th Anniversary to all on Columbophile!

  9. Thank you for such an informative post! As with many things in history, a bit of luck and coincidence was needed for the series to become as we know it today… as well as for me to get sucked into it.
    I’m a horse lover and I first saw Columbo on short winter holidays I was spending at one of our national studs with my mum. I was a teenager then. One evening, my mum spotted Columbo aired on TV in our hotel room and she asked me if I wanted to watch it because it was a great detective story (my mum already was a fan). I agreed and we saw a few episodes those evenings. I vaguely remember that the first one was probably “Ransom for a Dead Man”. After that, I might have seen a few in my life, but it all gathered momentum… nearly twenty years later when I got married. My mum kept telling my husband how great Columbo was, so one evening we watched our first episode together. We decided to go from the beginning, but “Prescription: Murder” was too long – we only had time for the first shorter episode, which was… yes “Murder by the Book”. Of course, we got sucked into it and we are now already watching the new episodes. In the meantime, I soon began to read a bit about Columbo on the Internet and found this fantastic blog. And here I am!
    Greetings from Poland.

      • Yes, it does on one private channel, but rather rarely and randomly. My mum tries to watch it when she has time, but I and my husband have no TV (we don’t want one) and watch on the net.

      • I just remembered two other episodes I saw on those early Columbo days of my life: Last Salute and Troubled Waters. I’m sure because they seemed very familiar when I watched them again last year: I remembered the murderers and the gotchas. That’s why I kinda like Last Salute – it’s not great, but it brings back good memories and is set at the seaside (I love sea, too).

  10. I think one of the first Columbos I remember seeing as a kid was ‘Try And Catch Me’ which I still love today. The relationship between Ruth Gordon and Columbo was often funny and at other times very sad – if only he’d been the detective in the earlier case! As a kid I had no idea that so many of the guest stars were very famous people. I still love the series and get sucked in when one is on TV even though I have the dvds 🙂 Great article – very interesting to know how Columbo evolved into the Columbo we know now.

  11. Well this was good reading! I’ve managed to keep myself from searching too much about Columbo’s past and background to really know too much about the character’s going-ons before Prescription: Murder – which is odd, considering that I enjoy the series, maybe I’ve just been too busy, who knows.

    My first encounter with the Lieutenant wasn’t all too adoring at first. I didn’t hate the show or anything, but it was just something that they showed on TV late at night on some channel I rarely watch. Just so happened that I decided to watch it on sleepless nights.
    They mainly showed re-runs of the newer seasons.

    At first it was a joke (not the show, but the fact that someone like me is watching it), but then I began to expect it to be on every time I turn the TV on at night. But after some time, I find out that they don’t show Columbo on the channel anymore. I was actually really upset and I ended up buying all the DVD boxes with all the episodes.

    But now, it’s one of my favorite shows, if not *the* favorite. I’ve watched the series through about two times and these days I often just put it on to have something in the background to listen to. It’s a bit odd, sure, but I can multitask just fine, so I won’t miss anything that happens around and/or with the Lieutenant.

  12. Wonderfully done! Another enjoyable, insightful contribution!

    On a side note, last night I watched “The Conspirators” for the umpteenth time, but I viewed it with your review-to-be in mind. I guessed throughout what might be aspects that you’d appreciate as well as those you might frown upon. While I’m looking forward to your post reviewing “The Conspirators” I realize with requisite sobriety that it won’t be for a few years!

    • Thanks Tim! Crikey, yes, Conspirators seems eons away! As a spoiler I’m not a big fan of this one, but I haven’t watched it for years, so when I do go back it’ll be with fresh eyes.

      • I have “Conspirators” ranked around #35 out of the 45 episodes from 1968-78, but it has grown on me a little more as I most appreciate the ancillary villains: Jensen of Jensen RV’s and the trio of others who Devlin questions about available guns.

  13. The episode is available for viewing at the Paley Center for Media in NYC (the Museum of Television and Radio when I was a member there) and I would expect the LA branch to have it as well.

    I have one trivial tidbit to add: the production was live, so any mistakes, it was still “on with the show”.

    Lt. Columbo showed up at Dr. Flemming’s office for the first time and approached the receptionist. That’s when Bert Freed flubbed his introduction of himself: “I’m Doctor Columbo,” he tells her. The actress playing the receptionist (Mimi Walters) was caught off-guard and was not ready to improvise; she stuck to the script as written. So she uses the intercom to tell Dr. Fleming that Lt. Columbo was there to see him.

    My only explanation to cover the gaffe would be that Dr. Fleming might have told the receptionist earlier about his encounter with Lt. Columbo and so she knew that this must be the same man. And she was too polite to point out his error. Or… Columbo was trying to trick her into letting him see Fleming without revealing who he really was, but she was on to him (knowing who he was for the same reason as my first conjecture) and she wouldn’t let him get away with the ploy.

    • Hi Toby, thanks for that insight about the episode. I’ll check out the websites of those institutions and see if it’s viewable online. I’d love to review for the site.

  14. Fascinating post, thank you! I’ve never seen Enough Rope either, unfortunately; would be great to see and compare with Prescription if it can ever be found.

    I’ve got my Mum to thank for my first encounter with Columbo – she was an avid fan and introduced the three of us to him when she thought we were old enough!

    The first one I remember seeing was Make Me A Perfect Murder. It wouldn’t have been when it first aired (I was only 5 in 1978), so it must have been a repeat sometime in the 80s. I remember being captivated by the countdown as Kay tried to get back to the projection booth in time, and then the heart-stopping moment riding in the elevator with Columbo when she noticed the gun overhead. She’s one of the few killers I’ve found myself rooting for, and I remember being kind of disappointed when she was finally caught!

    Still watch them regularly of course, and waiting for the right time to introduce my 7-year-old to the delights of the Lieutenant!

  15. Pingback: Episode review – Columbo Prescription: Murder | The columbophile

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