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Episode review: Columbo Swan Song

Columbo Swan Song

Following on from the underwhelming future shock of Mind Over Mayhem, Columbo returned to safer territory on 4 March 1974 in the musical form of Swan Song.

Casting legendary country singer Johnny Cash in the role of legendary country singer Tommy Brown was a revelation. But does the episode live up to its star billing? Let’s tune up our guitars, get our tabernacle donations ready and put a pot of squirrel chili on to cook as we find out…

Columbo Swan Song cast

Dramatis personae

Lieutenant Columbo: Peter Falk
Tommy Brown: Johnny Cash
Edna Brown: Ida Lupino
Maryann Cobb: Bonnie Van Dyke
Luke Basket: Bill McKinney
Roland Pangborn: John Dehner
Mr Grindell: Vito Scotti
JJ Stringer: Sorrell Booke
Tina: Janit Baldwin
The Colonel: John Randolph
Directed by: Nicholas Colasanto
Written by: David Rayfiel (from a story by Stanley Ralph Ross)
Score by: Dick De Benedictis

Episode synopsis: Columbo Swan Song

Biblical crooners Tommy Brown & The Lost Soul Crusaders are playing to a packed house in Bakersfield, California – just another leg on a mammoth touring circuit designed to raise funds in order to build a $5 million tabernacle to prove how much they love the Lord.

This is not a shared goal, though. Lead singer Tommy (Johnny Cash) wants to have some fun with the money he’s earning. It’s his harpy-ish wife, Edna (Ida Lupino) that has her heart set on the tabernacle – and she’s blackmailing Tommy to ensure she gets her way.

Columbo Edna Brown
Edna’s kind heart and sunny disposition always came shining through!

Former jailbird Tommy, you see, has been a very naughty boy. He’d been romping with one of his back-up singers, Maryann, since she was 16. Even though she was a willing participant, that’s still statutory rape and if Tommy won’t give his all to the tabernacle cause, Edna will blow the whistle and our mate Tommy will be back behind bars before you can say: ‘You’re a sanctimonious hypocrite of a Bible-spouting blackmailer and I’ve given you your last chance to be fair!’

Tommy cooks up a high-risk plan to rid himself of both Edna and Maryann and puts it into action immediately after the Bakersfield show. Knowingly piloting a light aircraft into heavy weather over the mountains to LA, Tommy drugs the pair with spiked coffee, then bails out of the plane using a home-made parachute that was hidden in his navigation kit box.

As the plane crashes to fiery oblivion, Tommy lands nearby, breaking his ankle while landing before hiding the tell-tale parachute in a hollow log. He then drags himself painfully to the crash site and lies face down near the wreckage to be discovered by the first passers-by on the scene, looking for all the world as if he’s enjoyed a truly miraculous escape.

“Former jailbird Tommy has been romping with one of his back-up singers, Maryann, since she was 16.”

While Tommy is recovering in hospital, one Lieutenant Columbo has driven out to the mountains to investigate the scene of the accident because the LAPD have received word from Edna’s brother, Luke, that Tommy has deliberately staged the crash to free himself from whatever hold she had over him.

Disrupting a TV interview, Columbo bends the ear of specialist aircraft accident investigator Roland Pangborn, who is able to explain to both the Lieutenant and us some of the supposed particulars of the incident.

According to Tommy’s statement, the plane’s electrics shorted out. Exacerbated by the poor weather conditions, Tommy made a simple error of judgement that resulted in the accident. Pangborn admits Tommy was very lucky to be alive, but that such survival stories are not unheard of. He also explains that Tommy’s blood test came up negative for drugs or booze.

Columbo continues to snoop around the site, shrewdly noticing things that his more experienced counterparts have missed. The rear passenger seat belt buckles were still done up, but Tommy’s wasn’t. That must be how he was thrown clear of the plane. Upon finding the navigation kit, he wonders why there are no ashes from the maps and charts that should have been within it. The little things are already starting to bother him.

The detective’s next stop is at the funeral home, where he waits for an interview for the anguished Luke, who is spoiling for a fight with Tommy. Luke convinces Columbo to go and question the singer there and then ‘to see what kind of person he is’. Because despite his wife barely being under the ground, Tommy is cavorting with scantily clad stunners at a pool party at his newly rented luxury pad!

Columbo Johnny Cash
Squirrel chilli, booze and bikini-clad scorchers helped Tommy bounce back from the grievous loss of his dear wife

Despite the Lieutenant’s best efforts to rein him in, a furious Luke is soon getting punchy with Tommy, delivering some southern-style chin music to the bewildered musician, while publicly accusing him of murder. Tommy’s mood is not improved when Columbo waddles over and introduces himself as being from the Homicide Department. Indeed he looks about ready to commit murder again, but the wily Columbo manages to defuse the situation by stoking Tommy’s ego.

Now in control of his emotions, Tommy does what he can to assist with the Lieutenant’s enquiries. He admits that he and Edna regularly quarrelled over money, and that he’s been hankering for a higher standard of living, hence renting out the luxury pad.

Tommy also explains away some of the particulars of the plane crash. He unbuckled his seatbelt to reach a flashlight from the glove box after the plane’s electrics failed. That’s when he lost control of the plane. The maps and charts from the nav kit were sucked out of the plane window, which Tommy was forced to open to prevent the windscreen misting up after the heater packed in.

It’s all sounding measured and plausible, but Tommy drops the ball when he starts cooing over his guitar and claiming how much he loved it. He reveals that he sent the guitar to LA on the bus with Luke in case the changes in air pressure in the plane caused the glue holding it together to come unstuck. It was the very first time he’d sent the guitar off with Luke rather than take it with him personally. And there’s nothing that pricks up Columbo’s ears quite like suspects doing something they don’t normally do.

Columbo Swan Song
Nothing like a nice little flight, eh Lieutenant?

In fact Columbo’s suspicious enough to catch a flight to Bakersfield himself, where (once he’s recovered from a bout of airsickness) he grills airstrip maintenance man Jeff about Tommy’s ill-fated flight. Jeff had helped stow the luggage on the plane, you see, earning a $5 tip for his troubles. And while he never handled the nav kit, so can’t vouch for whether it was heavier than a standard nav kit, he does provide a nugget of new information: Tommy had a thermos of coffee with him. This may not sound like much, but it opens up a whole new line of enquiry for the Lieutenant.

Dashing back to LA, Columbo crashes the invite-only SLEAZE PARTY that Tommy was hoping to have with teen backing singer Tina in order to question him about the thermos. Having to pick his mind up from the gutter, Tommy is struggling to comprehend why the location of a thermos can matter, but over the course of a brief conversation Columbo cleverly learns that Tommy learnt to fly in the air force, washed out of cadets, and did a stint in the Korean War.

This leads the Lieutenant to Tommy’s buffoonish former military commander, Colonel Mayehoff. The air force veteran is as loopy as a stunt pilot, but he is able to provide some vital intel: after washing out as a cadet, Tommy served as a parachute rigger. Connecting this with the empty nav kit and the missing thermos, Columbo is starting to build a genuine case – so much so that he orders an autopsy on Edna and Maryann.

The autopsy reveals evidence of that classic 70s’ drugs staple barbiturates in the dead women’s systems and Columbo uses this to infer that someone might have been trying to drug Tommy and cause him to crash the plane. Tommy laughs this off, but now the Lieutenant has the scent he’s not letting go and is finding more and more reasons why Tommy is his prime suspect.

The final clincher comes when he interviews a dotty old seamstress from the Lost Soul Crusade’s costume department. She’s certain that she ordered three extra bolts of white nylon – 45 square yards of fabric – but they have strangely gone missing from her secret stash. A visit to Pangborn only hardens Columbo’s suspicions further when he is shown that a properly folded parachute will easily squeeze into a nav kit.

And even if the amount of fabric missing is less than is required to make an optimum-sized chute (60 square yards), Columbo is told that an experienced jumper should still be able to survive a faster landing OK – although they might suffer a broken leg or pelvis as a result. But even if this is the case with Tommy, who could ever hope to find a hidden parachute on a mountain, Pangborn asks. Just one person, Columbo responds: the man who hid it.

Columbo now needs to force Tommy’s hand, so puts him under 24-hour police guard until a pack of boy scouts finds the missing thermos on the mountain so they can test the contents and run it for prints. The search will begin the next morning at dawn. But Tommy has a surprise in store for the Lieutenant, telling him he’s leaving town that afternoon to begin a new tour which will last for months.

Swan 11
Columbo knew. Then he didn’t know. Then he knew when Tommy took his rental car keys through the airport security gate

The disbelieving Lieutenant tails Tommy to the airport, certain that he won’t get on a plane. He even chases Tommy all the way to the departure gate, where the jovial singer spots him and bids a cheerful farewell. Yes folks, it looks for all the world like Tommy will get away with murder. That’s until Columbo has a brainwave after noticing that Tommy had taken his rental car keys with him through airport security rather than turning them in.

We cut now to Tommy driving said rental car along a twisting mountain road in the dead of night. Leaving the car parked, he scrambles into the undergrowth and recovers the parachute where he’d left it in the hollow log. He’s hopping back to the car with the parachute in his arms when his car lights are turned on full, illuminating him and catching him with the reddest of red hands.

It’s Lieutenant Columbo, of course, who had been waiting on the mountain pass for hours after banking on the fact that Tommy would show up sooner or later to retrieve the parachute. With no room left to manoeuver, Tommy accepts defeat and slides into the passenger seat of his car to be driven downtown – to accompaniment of one of his own songs on the radio.

Swan 21

After admitting he’s glad it’s all over, Tommy receives some words of comfort from Columbo who states: “Any man who can sing like that can’t be all bad,” as credits roll…

Swan Song‘s best moment: the blazing row

There’s plenty of good scenes to choose from, but my personal favourite is the blazing row between Edna and Tommy right after their Bakersfield show. Full of vitriol, it tells us all we need to know about both characters.

40-something Tommy lusts after teeny boppers – much to wife Edna’s disgust

First we see that Tommy is susceptible to sins of the flesh with teenage groupies and backing singers, and begrudges having to live on a shoe-string when his sell-out concerts are netting $30,000 per night.

We learn that Edna is a ruthless, blackmailing old witch. Despite raising Tommy out of the gutter when she assisted in his release from jail, she essentially treats him as slave labour, milking his talent to fund her tabernacle cause. And despite knowing that Tommy committed statutory rape with young Maryann, she keeps the girl close for blackmailing reasons, not to do anything humanitarian, such as helping her, or anything crazy like that.

Yes, Edna is as godless as they come, so we have the scene set for a delightfully wicked tussle between two arch-sinners, knowing only one can come out on top.

My opinion on Swan Song

Whenever I engage with fellow fans on the subject of their favourite episode, Swan Song regularly crops up near the top of the heap. I think that’s for a couple of reasons. Firstly, it’s a strong episode in its own right. But secondly, and more importantly (I suspect), it’s more memorable than most because of the presence of Johnny Cash.

And that’s fair enough. I mean, who doesn’t love Johnny Cash? I do myself. But I believe the average viewer’s positive attitude towards the Man in Black might contribute to them seeing this episode through rose-tinted spectacles. Because while this is certainly cracking entertainment, in my opinion it falls some way short of making the series’ greatest hits list.

Columbo Tommy Brown
Falk and Cash were right at home in each other’s company

Before I risk enraging and alienating a high percentage of readers, please rest assured that this is nothing to do with Johnny Cash’s performance. I think he’s excellent in this, a very pleasant surprise, giving us an earthy antagonist who, for once, isn’t from society’s elite.

Instead we have a working class baddie who’s been raised the hard way and has done his time behind bars before finding redemption (of sorts) on the stage. Cash is entirely believable in that role and it’s a nice novelty to have Lieutenant Columbo face off against an opponent with whom he shares more common ground.

“Cash is excellent in this, giving us an earthy antagonist who, for once, isn’t from society’s elite.”

Cash delivers both the musical bad boy elements required of the role as well as country affability without airs and graces. I can see why so many people find Tommy Brown a likeable rogue, and sympathise with him throughout – up to a point. For while few viewers could begrudge Tommy bumping off that old battleaxe Edna, I find it harder to sympathise with his motivations because Tommy is essentially only after money and sex – the latter, it seems, with girls in their teens.

As Edna herself puts it, “you’re a lustful sinner, Tommy!” He certainly is. Regardless of whether or not Maryann was a willing partner, 40-something Tommy was only too happy to leap into bed with a 16-year-old after signing into motels with her as father and daughter. That’s pretty creepy.

And there’s nothing to indicate that Tommy has learnt his lessons from that. He’s on the cusp of ‘pashing’ with the teen groupie outside his dressing room after the Bakersfield show, and is clearly grooming Tina, another teen singer from his backing group, later in the episode, inviting her to “make a big, long list of things you’d like me to do for being so nice to Tommy Brown.” Run, Tina! RUN!

Columbo Swan Song
Tommy creeping on young Tina makes for uncomfortable viewing

This is pretty unsettling stuff (especially to a modern audience with the #metoo campaign fresh in memory), and probably ought to make the viewer consider afresh whether he’s worthy of our sympathies. Personally, I think the writers erred by not making Tommy seem further along the path to redemption earlier in the episode. It’s as if the writers were unclear on who Tommy Brown was meant to be. Saint or sinner? A guy who’s truly seen the light? It’s a confusing portrayal.

Perhaps during his fiery altercation with Edna at the start of proceedings he could have been give a throwaway line such as: “She told me she was 20 years old, and in any case I’ve never looked at another woman since, etc etc.” He could even have suggested that Edna induced Maryann to seduce Tommy. Although other aspects of the episode would have needed to change slightly, this way Edna could still have had a claim over Tommy but we could genuinely side with a guy trying to put his past behind him.

Better yet, what about having Tommy overtly rejecting young Tina’s advances? That would send a clear message that he’s learned the error of his ways. Instead Tommy is portrayed as a predator throughout. He’s not a good guy, no matter how much we might like Johnny Cash.

Columbo Swan Song Johnny Cash
Elvis lives!

All this, to me at least, takes the edge off what could have been another moving closing scene. Columbo clearly likes what he’s seen of Tommy from their interactions and is happy to vouch for his character, suggesting that  a man who sings like Tommy “can’t be all bad.” I can’t believe he’d have said that if he’d known more about Tommy’s lusting after girls young enough to be his daughter, though.

Tommy says the crime has been eating him up and that he’s ‘glad it’s over’. What rot! There has been zero evidence of remorse in any of his actions throughout the episode. Why should we believe it’s surfacing now?

The ending itself also loses marks due its derivative nature. We’ve seen it done before, and better. The ending is highly reminiscent of the exchange between Adrian Carsini and Columbo at the conclusion of Any Old Port in a Storm, but less affecting. Plus we’ve seen the old ‘caught-in-the-headlights’ trick twice before now in Death Lends a Hand and Blueprint for Murder, so the power of Swan Song‘s ‘gotcha’ moment is diluted.

That notwithstanding, there’s loads here to enjoy and a rich vein of humour. Columbo’s encounter with the chilli at Tommy’s pool party is a great example. The detective is initially delighted with his find – until he’s told it was made with squirrel meat. Falk’s expression is an absolute picture!

Columbo squirrel chilli
Mmmm-mmmm, squirrel chilli anyone?

Tommy’s earthy language throws up some delights, too. Notably around  him threatening to ‘bust’ things (his enemy Luke’s neck amongst them) and his enraged, disbelieving shout of “HARMICIIIDE?” when first being introduced to Columbo.

The Lieutenant has a few gems in the script, too, during his conversations with Tommy. The singer wants to know why someone might want to kill him. Columbo’s response is GOLD. “Mr Brown, I don’t know,” he says. “But you are a celebrity and there are a lot of crackpots in the world and there’s just no accounting for people’s reactions. I mean, sometimes I even wonder about my wife. Not that she’s a crackpot…” This exchange leaves a broad grin on Tommy’s face, and, I suspect, a large portion of the audience.

Sorrell Booke has a bonkers cameo as Tommy’s manager, JJ Stringer, at the music studio and there’s another scene to cherish starring Vito Scotti (making his third rib-tickling appearance in four episodes) as funeral parlour director Mr Grindell, who tries to sell Columbo a funeral plan.

The abashed detective rebuffs all advances, saying this is the sort of subject he could never raise with Mrs Columbo because “she cries easily. She even cries when she loses at bowling!” Maybe she is a crackpot after all…

Columbo Sorrell Booke
Sorrell Booke’s cameo defies conventional description

Some of the gags miss the mark, though. The scene where Columbo questions the hard-of-hearing Colonel is tediously drawn out, as is the one where the Lieutenant interviews the loopy seamstress. Both are examples of the malaise that often creeps into episodes with a longer running time (of which Swan Song is another), where scenes are stretched far beyond their welcome to produce some clue or other that could have been reached much less laboriously.

Still, as this is a continual criticism I have of the ‘longer’ episodes, I’ll leave it at that before regular readers roll their eyes and chirp: “Change the (best-selling) record, mate.”

Instead let’s shift focus to the murder itself, which must rank as one the series’ most far-fetched and high-risk crimes. I’ll give Tommy the props he deserves, because deliberately crashing a plane after drugging his passengers and parachuting to ankle-breaking freedom is one hell of a creative way to rid himself of his problems. Some viewers have issues with crimes as audacious as this (and the subliminal cuts from Double Exposure), but I say just sit back and applaud!

“Ida Lupino gives us a victim we can really despise in Edna Brown.”

The strength of the ensemble cast is also to be cherished. As is the case with most of the best episodes, everyone here is on sparkling form whether in a large or small role, all the way up from gum-chewing Jeff, the happy-go-lucky airport technician, to the top billed actors.

Special praise must be reserved for Ida Lupino. She’s great in pretty much everything, but really gives us a victim to despise in Edna Brown. Lupino previously guest starred in season 1’s Short Fuse in a nothing role. She might only have a few minutes’ screen time here, but it’s high impact all the way and she’s such a hag that we can really cheer at her demise.

Columbo Edna Brown
How to curdle milk in 10 easy lessons. Part 1: the withering stare

Several other recurring actors pop up. Sorrell Booke and Vito Scottti were mentioned above, but John Dehner (Pangborn here) returned two seasons later as the sour-faced titular mariner in Last Salute to the Commodore. Mike Lally even gets his customary bit-part, so there’s plenty here for the purists to look out for.

Swan Song is highly memorable for its music, as well it should be when it stars such a legend as Cash. The musical interludes definitely live long in the memory. Hear I Saw the Light in this episode and it’ll be stuck in your head for the rest of the decade, whether you like it or not. It’s also a giddy thrill to hear Tommy doing a rendition of Sunday Morning Coming Down – one of Cash’s most-loved tunes. No wonder Mrs Columbo is a fan!

Both hits are effectively played out on screen, too. Footage of a real Cash concert was intercut into Tommy’s Bakersfield show, while his serenading of a bevvy of beauties round the poolside on the same day as Edna and Maryann’s funeral shows Tommy’s ‘don’t-give-a-damn’ rock star hedonism is to become his new norm.

Columbo Swan Song Tommy Brown
Footage from an actual Cash concert is nicely worked in to the show’s opening number

To conclude, Swan Song is an episode high on memorable moments, and boosted by a fine performance from Johnny Cash but the indecision on the big issue of Tommy’s morality leaves a hole at its heart. As it is, the lackadaisical attempt to show that Tommy really has seen the light at episode’s end rings a hollow note.

Did you know?

Nick Colasanto

This episode was directed by Nicholas Colasanto (pictured), better known to most viewers as Coach from Cheers.

The popular actor was also at the helm for Season 2 opener Etude in Black – although it is quietly rumoured that Falk and Cassavetes did the majority of direction on that episode themselves (something I’m dubious about).

Read about many more surprise Columbo contributors here.

How I rate ’em

Although full of fun and good performances, Swan Song doesn’t quite live up to the hype when under the microscope. It’s perfectly enjoyable, but only tucks into a mid-table position a third of the way through the episode run.

Read any of my past episode reviews via the links below.

  1. Suitable for Framing
  2. Publish or Perish
  3. Double Shock
  4. Murder by the Book
  5. Death Lends a Hand
  6. A Stitch in Crime
  7. Double Exposure
  8. Lady in Waiting
  9. Any Old Port in a Storm
  10. Prescription: Murder
  11. Swan Song
  12. The Most Crucial Game
  13. Etude in Black
  14. Candidate for Crime
  15. Greenhouse Jungle
  16. Requiem for a Falling Star
  17. Blueprint for Murder
  18. Ransom for a Dead Man
  19. Dead Weight
  20. The Most Dangerous Match
  21. Lovely but Lethal
  22. Short Fuse
  23. Mind Over Mayhem
  24. Dagger of the Mind

Where does Swan Song rank in your personal list of favourites? I’d love to know, so do leave a comment below.

Thanks, as always, for reading and check back in soon when we round out season 3 with the dark, brooding tale of cop-turned-bad corruption and murder, A Friend In Deed.

Read my top 5 episode highlights here.

Contribute to this site’s upkeep from just $3

And in case the above has made you hanker for Tommy Brown’s number one hit, let’s sing along with the below. Altogether now: Praise the looo-ooo-oooord, I saw the light…

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168 thoughts on “Episode review: Columbo Swan Song

  1. So many pros make this episode a delight. And to top it off, Johnny Cash singing. It ranks as a top 3 in my book.

  2. Edna is not worse than Tommy Brown. I think this review is trying to balance calling out Tommy’s predatory behaviour with finding him likeable as a villain and the result is that the former is somewhat downplayed. Tommy is a child predator and even though 16 is the age of legal consent here in the UK today’s audiences would be disgusted, especially in the wake of Jimmy Saville being an open pedophile for years without consequences until he died. It’s actually disturbing for me that Columbo walks in on a very suspicious scene with Tommy and Tina and says nothing of it despite being a lieutenant. I don’t know what the review means about it would have helped Tommy’s image to have shown him reject Tina’s advances. She didn’t make any, in fact she was clearly uncomfortable with him touching her. Sorry but you can’t have Tommy as a redeemable predator because he is played by Johnny Cash. And the anger seems to be transferred to Edna. Yes she was a blackmailer and choosing to use her knowledge of his crimes for her own “godly” intentions rather than turn him in shows was trash but she was not responsible for him being what he was. Also you say Maryann was a willing participant when we aren’t given these particulars and again it seems a bid to save his character.

    Rs the actual murder I agree that it was very high risk and far fetched, even taking into account Tommy’s training.

    • Hi Nke, You obviously feel very strongly about this, and it’s a serious subject, but with respect I think you might have slightly misread the situation in the scene with Tina.

      First of all, how old is Tina? She is clearly very young and Tommy must be more than twice her age, but is her age actually stated? I’m not trying to defend Tommy Brown’s behavior towards young girls, but If she is at least 18 then he is certainly taking advantage of her, but he might be trying to “play safe” by seducing a naive young girl who is just legally old enough to give her consent. (Of course if Tina is 16 or 17 it doesn’t matter if she does consent, it would still be statutory rape, just as it was with Maryann).

      At the start of the scene, Tina is playing the piano for Tommy and looking at him with wide eyed adoration. Then he puts his hand on her shoulder, and yes, she is uncomfortable. But this is not the first time it has happened, and it hasn’t changed her hero worship or attraction towards him. Tommy says that she keeps pulling away from him and asks “Are you afraid of me?” to which Tina replies “No, but I’m afraid of myself”. She then says that Edna has only just died, and when Tommy explains that he and Edna never loved each other, she replies “No! Don’t say that!”.

      Although Tina doesn’t exactly make “advances”, she does want a sexual relationship with Tommy. Yes, she becomes uncomfortable when he touches her, but it’s because he is rushing things. She feels that it is too soon after Edna’s death and, being a religious girl, presumably wants a decent period of mourning first. She becomes upset because Tommy tells her that he and Edna never loved each other, and she does not believe that Tommy would have a sexual relationship with someone that he didn’t love.

      When Columbo knocks on the door, Tommy says to come on in, it aint locked, and all that Columbo sees are two musicians sitting on the piano stool. He asks if he is interrupting anything (which could indicate that Tina is at least 18) and when Tommy reassures him that he isn’t, Tina leaves the room (without a word from anyone, which does seem a bit impolite). Columbo then says “Lovely girl” and Tommy replies, “Oh yeah, she’s beautiful” and when Columbo says that she clearly hero worships him, Tommy changes the subject.

      In defense of Lt Columbo, I think he knows that Tina is legally an adult, so that’s why he says nothing of it, but he is suspicious because one of the victims was a young girl, and trying to conceal his interest in young girls could be a motive for Tommy to stage an “accident”. Rushing into a new relationship so soon after Edna’s death is another clumsy giveaway, like throwing a garden party during the funeral.

      Please take another look at this scene and see if I have changed your perception of it. And if it is stated anywhere in the story that Tina is a minor, I’ll happily concede the point.

    • Just one more thing. When CP mentioned Tommy “rejecting Tina’s advances” this was meant as a possible alternative story-line, not that Tina actually made advances.

    • Tommy probably knew that he had to kill both Edna and Maryanne at the same time because even if he killed Edna Tommy knew he would still have Maryanne to deal with because it might not have taken Maryanne to figure out that Tommy killed Edna since she was a witness to their fight.Yes i agree that Tommy took a risk in how he decided to kill Edna and Maryanne but he might have figured that he would rather be dead than have Edna controlling him.

    • Zach, please do yourself a favor and don’t do it! I once tried squirrel and hated it, way too stringy and wild for my taste. I guess it’s a delicacy in the South but some folks even like to eat squirrel brains. Columbo made that face for a reason and it wasn’t because he liked it. Stick to good old fashion Wolf brand chili…hehe

      • Hi A.A. I think the gag is that Columbo does enjoy the chili until he finds out what it’s made from., and then he pulls a face. And I’ll take your word about not trying it. Sounds worse than grits.

        • Chris, you’re totally right! I bet Columbo liked the chili until he found out what it was made from. This was just another of one of his little idiosyncrasies that made him such an awesome character. By the way, give Wolf brand chili a shot. It especially tastes great on hot dogs. Woof!

  3. I love Columbo and have a full set of dvd’s of the shows. I watch them over and over but Swan song is one I don’t like very much even though I’m also a country music fan but only the older singers like Johnny and Merle Haggard

  4. It always bugs me how Columbo plays two versions of the song and Tommy explains that the newer one was made to replace Maryann (soprano) with Tina (conralto). But we can definitely hear that a high female voice (soprano) was added to the newer version, not removed from it.

  5. I wonder if Cash was cast in this after it was written, or if it was written specifically for him. Tommy Brown certainly has plenty of Cash’s own life story: Johnny was in the Air Force during the Korean War…however, he never trained as a pilot, much less washed out and became a parachute rigger. He had been trained as a morse code intelligence officer, and he monitored Soviet messages (as legend goes, he was the American who first picked up the news that Joseph Stalin had died in 1953). And contrary to popular belief, Johhny never did prison time (although he was the overnight guest of various local police departments over the years for a variety of misdemeanors, such as public drunkenness). But because he often performed concerts in prisons, many people came to believe it was because he must have been an ex-con himself.

    And presumably, Cash never murdered anyone himself. 😉

  6. Swan Song is an episode I will never turn off if it comes on t.v., but I will definitely fast forward through some parts. Some of its extended scenes (it was a longer episode) are tedious. Some parts I now skip: the singing at the starting concert, the nagging of Ida Lupino’s character, the scene where Columbo visits the crash site, and the funeral scene with Vito. So…as you can see, these scenes are at the beginning.
    From the part where Falk first meets Cash to the end of the episode, I absolutely love. (The scenes with the guy from the Air Force and the lady who does the linen things…they are not too bad, because they are not long)

    Cash trips over his words a few times. but recovers nicely. I really like that he wasn’t a polished actor. He was very folksy and charming. (I know his character did some unspeakable things with young women….but he’s easy to “root” for, I guess) Imagine being married to a wife like Ida’s character?! I also liked the mechanic who received the $5 tip. The way he talks, looks at Falk, and chews his gum….great acting. Speaking of Falk, I thought he was outstanding in this…particularly the scene when he first interviews Cash in the pool house.

    While I think this episode would have benefitted from a slightly less running time, Swan Song gets fairly high marks from me.

    • Yes, I think it’s OK for an actor to (occasionally) trip over the words if the character is becoming emotional or trying to conceal something. Tommy Brown is not the usual arrogant, smooth talking Columbo killer.

  7. Just watched this last night on ME TV. It had been a couple years and was reminded of what a super entertaining episode it is. Cash was a natural, not stiff like a lot of musicians trying to act. Vito Scotti was gold as usual, badgering our beloved Lt. trying to sell him a funeral plot. This episode is #5 all time for me and also in my opinion in the best season (#3). This was Columbo in it’s prime.

    • I agree. Johnny Cash uses such a friendly and respectful tone to treat Columbo like a true friend, not like his enemy on the other side of the law. I got a feeling that “Swan Song” is the only Columbo episode in which Peter Falk plays second fiddle, because another man is the main character.
      Season 3 is my overall favourite season, too, if you don’t count the two pilot episodes as a season. Season 3 benefits from “Double Exposure”, “Swan Song”, “Publish or Perish”, “Any Old Port in a Storm”, “Candidate for Crime” and “Lovely but Lethal” in my Top Thirty.
      Season 7 would be my second best season thanks to “The Conspirators” and “Try and Catch Me” in the Top Ten.

    • To be honest I personally didn’t rate this episode. I enjoy watching columbo repeats particularly the 1970s episode which I find far better than the seemingly tired episodes of subsequent decades. In this one I found it frankly ridiculous that we’re expected to believe that Johnny Cashs is character, a parachute packer, is evil how to manufacture a DIY parachute! 🙄

  8. Today’s metro movement might be a shakey measure of Tommy’s morality. At least he is not an embezzler or has another violent crime in his background. I think Tommy seeing the light of Columbo’s car when he is caught, and hearing the tune in the car, at the time he agrees with Columbo that he would have confessed, was a neat touch. Given that song, it was fitting that he finally saw the light.

    • Nice observation Eric, about Tommy finally “seeing the light”. I’ve watched this episode a dozen times and never realised that.

      (Cue the moment Columbo finds out that Tommy was a trained parachute fitter).

      Mind you, it took me years to spot “I’ve been up to Missing Persons and there was nobody there.” in Any Old Port In A Storm.

  9. I’ve noticed that Johnny Cash fans don’t like to see him trying to seduce an underage girl, but are not bothered that Tommy Brown is also a murderer, and I think I am beginning to understand why.

    Of course, Tommy Brown has to be a murderer otherwise there is no story. And Tommy’s liking for young girls is part of why he commits the murders. But when we see Tommy kill two women, we know that Johnny Cash hasn’t really killed anybody.

    However, when we see Tommy trying to seduce the young girl in the piano scene, Johnny Cash really is talking to a pretty young girl, and the fact that they are only acting and the girl is probably a couple of years older than her character doesn’t change the fact that it comes across as creepy, which it’s supposed to.

    I think that old friend of this programme Patrick McGoohan felt like this in that he never did a love scene with any of his leading ladies, even if his character was meant to be happily married or a ladies man. I think the reason for this was that if he did a fight scene where he punched a man, we know that he didn’t really punch him, but if he had kissed a woman, he would really be kissing her, and it would have been like cheating on his wife.

    • I think it’s the conditioning and mental gymnastics we embrace to categorize people and their actions within the show. We’re so conditioned to murder with “Columbo” that it’s often the bending of social mores that garner our focus. Nothing is creepier to me, while it’s intended to be the opposite, then when Columbo tells the little girls at Travel Town in “Identity Crisis” that they’re pretty and asks if they have a dog. We know that it’s Columbo/Falk being folksy, and in 1976 was probably considered cute, but it’s still unnerving. Meanwhile, I could watch any of the murders without batting an eye. Relativity.

      • I know what you mean about the “Travel Town” scene, but I think the entirely innocent intention is confirmed by the mother of the little girls being right there, even though she doesn’t say anything. And we need to see Columbo being at his most folksy to contrast with him suddenly being immersed in the shadowy world of the CIA.

        (If the little girls had been on their own, Columbo would have identified himself as a policeman and helped them to find their mommy).

        There is an earlier scene in “Identity Crisis” at the fun fair, where the Patrick McGoohan character gives the giant panda toy “Archibald” to the young girl. This is deliberately creepy but in a different way, as we know that the girl is in no danger from him, and being charming is all part of his cover.

        • Indeed. There’s clearly no reason to believe Columbo is being untoward in the slightest when talking to the girls at Travel Town. It’s just the 21st-century optics of a shabby, unkempt man sloppily eating a hotdog while using Pedo 101 tactics to chat up the girls. Of course, WE know Columbo is above board and yes, the mother is there. Again, it’s just the optics from the lens of watching “Law & Order” for decades. That said, I’ve never taken issue with Columbo’s joke with Audrey in “Etude in Black” about her appeal being both her body and mind – it almost appears to be a Peter Falk adlib – and similarly the exchange with Caroline in “Bye-Bye Sky High…”.
          What gets me most about the Travel Town sequence is what a mess it is when working backwards from the production wanting to use the unique location. I live a couple of miles down the road from Travel Town and the filming appeal is evident. But to justify the location we’re lead to believe that Columbo frequents the kiddie park for burnt hotdogs on his breaks. Really? The seemingly stealthy CIA agents park ridiculously at 45-degree angles and pile out of their cars together. While David White’s casting clanked as the CIA Director – he would have been more suitable serving the burnt hotdog – his buffoonish nature made it easier to understand how Nelson Brenner could feel confident to double deal within the agency with White as his boss. When on the train White meets with Columbo while the other agents guard below, and yet a swarm of kids and their chaperone begin to climb aboard at one point, so what was the use of the agents being there? Silliness.

          • You make some very good points about Audrey and Caroline. The Audrey scene has never bothered me, as she knows that Columbo is just trying to flatter her to get her cooperation with his investigation.

            Caroline bothers me a little, but in the context of the scene, Columbo’s friendly compliment is exactly what she wants to hear. (Incidentally, the actress playing Caroline appears looking a year or two older in the Six Million Dollar Man episode “The Bionic Boy”).

            As to the Travel Town location being used in a spy story, this episode has references to McGoogan’s series “The Prisoner” where there were all sorts of devious goings on in the innocent looking “Village” and what could be more innocent than a kiddie’s playground?

            Yes, I think that Columbo would go there for lunch when he wants a break from chilli. It’s an innocent and fun place, that takes his mind off the evil side of life that he deals with, even if he does love his job. As we have agreed, his conversation with the little girls is entirely innocent, and also has nothing at all to do with solving the case. he’s just a nice man who likes talking to little kids, under parental supervision.

            Come to think of it, the swing scene with the small boy in “Death Lends a Hand” comes across as a little bit creepy. I’m sure that Columbo really is just having a good time with the boy, but is he also trying to unsettle the mother just a little to get her to talk about her PI husband’s work?

            • Every episode has its illogical moments, making the rough-around-the-edges aspect enjoyable. But under a microscope very few episodes embrace nuts-and-bolts reality, even by 1970’s standards.

              • Agreed. No matter how good Columbo is, it’s entertainment, not a documentary. As I’ve said before, I don’t think 1970’s LA was really full of good looking celebrities bumping each other off.

  10. I really found this to be a difficult episode to sit through with Tommy’s uncomfortably creepy attraction towards young girls throughout. I agree with Columbophile’s critique that his statement of remorse and “relief” that he no longer will have to hide the murder of his overbearing wife and concubine to ring especially hollow. Just an couple of hours before, he was gleefully singing at the airport security station and almost gloating at Columbo to “tell your wife I said hello!”. What a creep! I’m amazed that Johnny Cash agreed to play the role of this pervert. I also thought that the Air Force colonel character was too over the top, and his scene was foolish to me. For some reason military characters so often are made out as idiots on TV.

    On the positive side, I thought the squirrel chili scene was hilarious – shades of Beverly Hillbillies. And Vito Scotti’s funeral director provide great comic relief – he actually made Peter Falk smile and laugh.

    Question – Did Tommy Brown’s actions at the pool party remind anyone of the character Reverend Tim Tom from the sitcom “The Middle”? I believe Tommy Brown’s guitar-playing, religious song-singing character provided the inspiration for the funny Reverend Tim Tom character in that show.

    • Well, of course Johnny Cash agreed to play this creep. Tommy Brown commits a deliberate, cold blooded, pre-meditated double murder. He’s not a nice person. His only redemption is that he did give Edna a last chance to split the money 50/50 and go their separate ways.

      Johnny Cash also appeared in an episode of Little House on the Prairie, playing a conman posing as a priest collecting for charity. I know that a lot of people like Johnny Cash and don’t like to see him behaving badly, but he was acting!

      I agree with you about the colonel though. It’s a fine comic performance, but it would have been better suited to a sitcom.

  11. I like the episode, though agree with the commentary as to why it’s not ranked higher. I had a hard time believing that he could land via parachute close enough to the wreckage to get over to it, even without a busted leg. He jumped well before it crashed. Loved the gigantic glasses Sorrell Booke wore.

      • It’s not impossible that he would land so near the plane. It’s just _unlikely_. Which makes one question the murder _as a plan_.
        How fast was the plane going when he jumped out? Surely 80 mph, minimum. At that would be airspeed, so the wind would push the plane as much as it pushed Tommy. If the plane kept flying only 30 seconds after he jumped, one would expect it to be at least a half mile away.

        There is some wiggle room, as the plane goes into a dive pretty quickly and thus the horizontal speed might drop. But still, as a plan, it’s rather far fetched. Maybe Tommy thought he’d have more time to find the plane? He had bad luck with the couple that just happened to be driving by getting to the wreckage so quickly.

        • Come to think of it, Tommy doesn’t know that he’s going to find that hollow tree stump to hide the parachute in either. I think his plan is one part cool preparation and one part desperate improvisation, right down to the fact that he will probably be injured when he lands, but he doesn’t know how badly.

  12. So many questions here. Was Tommy and Edna’s marriage a secret? He’s a celebrity, and their relationships are usually public, so no matter how popular he is, it seems unlikely there’d be so many groupies following him when they know his wife is right there IN THE CHORUS.

    Maybe I missed the details, but I wonder what the timeline was on their relationship. Did she discover him as a singer after he got out of jail and somehow manipulate him into marrying her, passing it off as a business arrangement?

    That airplane mechanic had to have been pushing 30, but they wrote him as if he’s a 12 year old boy meeting Babe Ruth for the first time. “Gee golly Mr. Brown! I’ve got all your records!” And gushing that much over $5…

    • Well, $5 would have been a pretty decent tip in the mid 1970’s. And I don’t think it matters how old the mechanic was if he was a real fan meeting his hero. It’s no secret that Tommy is married to Edna, as that is the respectable cover for the control she has over him, blackmailing him over his sexual relationship with an underage girl. And I don’t think 1970’s groupie girls would care if Tommy was married, or if his wife was standing right there. Even the most ardent fan is only asking for a kiss.

      • If I’d been given $5 of Johnny’s cash in 1974, I’d have spent it on comic books. At 20c each, I could have bought 25. That’s a lot of comic books.

  13. The reporter at the crash scene is referred to as Hal Fisher. Could this be an inside reference referring to the late KTLA news anchor Hal Fishman who was a lifelong plane pilot himself?

      • I would love to hear the backstory of “Swan Song”. I have a theory which would explain Tommy’s out-of-the-blue statement that the crime was eating him up inside. Did Johnny Cash make a request that the murderer repent at the end, and did he make that request during production – possibly at the last moment?! It might sound unlikely, but it would explain why there is NO EVIDENCE in the script except at the very end that Tommy is in any way sorry for what he did. To me, it sounds like a request that Johnny Cash might have made, and he might have made it at the last minute.

        • I think the evidence of Tommy’s guilt is that he’s openly celebrating his new found freedom and enjoying it while he can. Instead of going to the funeral, he’s throwing a garden party with bikini clad beauties, and then starts chatting up an new underage girl, but he can’t keep it up for long. He feels guilty (maybe not about Edna, but certainly about Maryann) and knows that he doesn’t deserve to get away with murder.

  14. Just watching this now on 5USA. John Dehner is very good in this as Mr Pangborn, and I like the mutual friendly professional respect that he soon strikes up with Columbo, just like with Inspector Durk and the police chief in Mexico. John Dehner usually played nasty or grumpy characters, such as the Commodore, so it’s good to see him play a nice character for a change.

    • I really liked when Columbo and Pangorn started simultaneously making notes in their little black books. Birds of a feather!

  15. Dear Columbophile,
    Am I the only one finding a Hitchcockian quality to the beginning of the episode? I feel like I am with them in the tiny airplane, the young innocent girl falling asleep on the shoulder of evil Ida, bodies bathed in ominous red light…
    By the way, have you already made a list of the collateral victims in Columbo? This Maryann would be one of them, as well as well as the bird in Etude in Black, both really heartbreaking if you think of them too long. It is one of the reasons these murderers are particularly despicable in my opinion, in spite of their talents.
    Anyway, I like Swan Song a lot, even if I agree that committing a murder this way is practically impossible for many reasons.

    • I can’t see why Maryann would be a collateral victim. She is a has-to-be-victim like Edna. Tommy Brown has to get rid of Maryann as well, because she knows too much about him being the object of Edna’s selfish crusade against Tommy; she has witnessed it and even seems to support it. If Columbo could talk to Maryann, she would be the first to give away Tommy’s motive. As it is, Columbo only has the shaky statement of Edna’s brother Luke.

  16. I’ve seen all episodes at least twice, and Swan Song is easily among the top. There’re a couple of illogical things (NTSB wouldn’t let Columbo hamper with the crash site, not in a million years), but it’s actually one of the most believable episodes, along with the plot and yes – along with Johnny Cash’s character. I thought Johnny did great as an actor, since he’s a musician. Couple of weird faces and forced lines here and there, but all in all – really strong performance for a musician. What’s more – character of Tommy is one of, if not, THE most believable killer of all – throughout the episode, he remains his composure, doesn’t fall easily into traps, and doesn’t say stupid things nor act foolishly like most killers do. He just acts normal. I don’t know if it’s because of the script, or Johnny Cash itself, but I feel like he’s not “acting” much in this one – he IS the character. And all reactions from him seem like they were filmed on the spot, and possibly improvised by Johnny, the way he felt natural. Johnny doesn’t explain to Columbo things he shouldn’t be explaining like most killers do, unless specifically asked for a opinion, and even then, he’s not trying to be a smart ass. That gives this episode head and shoulder over the majority of others.

    • That’s a thoughtful observation. I believe it came down to the kind, folksy, seen-it-all nature of Johnny Cash imbuing Tommy’s character. I think there are lines that when delivered by Cash came across as friendly. For instance, “Now, Columbo, you’re not going to let me do anything for you,” after Columbo declined offered beverages. Jack Cassidy might have sounded peevish, even if it was under the umbrella of politeness. That same line reading by Robert Culp could have sounded dismissive or brusque. So yeah, I think you’re on to something…

    • Yes, one thing I like about this episode is that Tommy doesn’t feel the need to try to answer all of Columbo’s questions.

      “Where do you think the Thermos went?”

      “I don’t know.”

      He doesn’t contrive an elaborate story explaining the Thermos’s fate. He just knows that it’s such a minor detail that it would not stand up by itself to mean anything.

      In reality, the debris from a plane crash would be far more spread out than it was on this TV set. Not finding a small object in a forest on a mountain would not count as anything.

  17. Another Columbophile “review” I wished I hadn’t read.
    I really enjoyed this episode. Saw it for the first time today. 25th of July, 2020 and absolutely loved it. Cash is superb.
    The final scene. Cash ain’t glad it’s over – he’s gutted he was caught. Falk will keep stroking his ego, all the way to his prison cell though.
    They are both PLAYING each other.
    TOTALLY TOTALLY, different to the Carsini end scene.
    Tommy is a wrong un and Columbo knows.

    • I think the echoes of ‘Any Old Port’ are unmistakable in this scene. There are subtle hints earlier in the episode too that Columbo has a genuine affection for Brown’s talents and wishes he wasn’t a murderer (scene in the house when Columbo uses the phone and Tommy is strumming the guitar).

      • Right on point. When JC is strumming the guitar and Columbo is on the phone, unquestionably an affection for his talents (if not the person). To me, that expression (no words) on Columbo’s face is simply great acting by Peter Falk.

        Also, I think Cash did a nice job acting in this episode. Tommy Brown was Johnny Cash. Do wish the storyline moved away from him preying on teenagers (piano scene is uncomfortable).

        • I take your point about the piano scene, which I assume is more uncomfortable to US viewers, than to British ones, as the age of consent in the UK is 16. To us, Tommy’s behaviour is creepy, but would not be illegal in the UK. It is necessary in the story as the reason for Edna’s hold over Tommy, and as a way for Tommy to give himself away by getting up to his old tricks. For me though, the significance is that I can sympathise with Tommy wanting to do away with Edna, but not with the killing of Maryann. (Although, come to think of it, did Edna set Tommy up? Was Maryann a honeytrap?).

          What I do find creepy is when Columbo touches a female character. Of course in the time and context it was made, Columbo is just a nice man offering comfort and support to someone in distress, and nothing else is ever implied, but today it looks odd. I think the best example of this is in “How To Dial A Murder”, where he puts his hand on the young woman’s neck. It took me years to realise that this innocent gesture is meant to contrast with her having nearly been strangled just minutes earlier, a murder that Columbo prevents by accident.

          • Btw-I am one of the last people to take offense to something on tv/movies. Indeed, it takes a lot for me to say hmmm…, not where I would have gone. Perhaps because it is Johnny Cash, I took some exception to it (we believe we know him and his family—therefore don’t want him to go in that direction). Like others, if as the character in the show, he truly regretted what he had done, the piano scene would have been done differently—perhaps more as a father, than someone grooming an admirer.

            That said, I need to watch how to dial a murder for your insights. I always find Peter Falk’s portrayal of Columbo as someone a bit shy around attractive women. Boyish, awkward perhaps.

            • I think we are meant to suspend our disbelief about Johnny Cash portraying a dirty old man in the same way that he is also portraying a double murderer.

              I agree with your comment about Columbo being shy around attractive women. This might be because (although he is happily married) he got married to his high school sweetheart and may not have had any romantic experiences with other women.

              The young woman in How To Dial a Murder is portrayed by a very young and attractive Kim Cattrall. The character is child like in some ways and seems to be in search of a father figure. Although I have said that I find it a bit creepy when Columbo touches her neck, I accept that in the context of the story he is just expressing a genuine fatherly concern for her welfare.

              I know that Peter Falk liked to take his fellow actors by surprise with his ad libbing, but I would assume that any instance of Columbo touching a woman would be in the script or worked out in rehearsal.

              • I had to laugh at myself with you (kindly) dressing me down. I absolutely agree with your last statement. Apparently, no problem with Cash committing a double murder, but problems sitting at the piano? Good call on your part.

          • Opinions are fine, but I need to correct my own factual inaccuracy here: I’ve just seen How To Dial a Murder for the first time in a while, and the scene where Columbo puts his hand on the girl Jo’s neck occurs early in the episode, when he first meets her. On their second meeting, he shows his appreciation for her revisiting the murder scene with him by putting a friendly hand briefly on her right shoulder. It is much later in the episode (and some time after the murder) that Jo is nearly strangled and Columbo unwittingly saves her. I still think there is meant to be a contrast with Columbo’s genuinely friendly “hands on” approach (which Jo appreciates) and the killer’s seeming caress ending up with his thumbs on her windpipe, just before Columbo appears.

          • We don’t really know how innocent Mary Ann really is. There are conniving ,awful women who will call foul, making it difficult for genuine assault victims to come forward. Edna could have set her up or she could have been a groupie like rest. We don’t know. But then, Tommy did not sound like he put up much of a fight either.. If it was a setup, he walked right into it.

  18. I didn’t think this was a great episode. It was pretty dull throughout.

    Johnny Cash was a great singer but he just couldn’t act at all and THAT song… ‘I saw the light…’ is DREADFUL!

    And can you imagine teenage groupies going to gospel music concerts????

    No chance.

    • Well….to each his own but I am not a big Johnny Cash fan but i absolutely love him singing this song. It does stick with ya and this episode showed in my humble opinion that he held his own against some real heavyweight actors (Falk and Lupino). Personally, I really enjoyed this episode of Columbo. Not every famous singer can act but Johnny showed us how it’s done. Very memorable performances.


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