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.