About Columbo / Lieutenant Columbo / Opinion

Was Lieutenant Columbo’s first name really Frank?

Portrait 1
What’s in a name…?

Columbo’s first name was a closely guarded secret throughout the series’ 35-year lifespan. Indeed, whenever he was asked by a guest star killer if he had a first name, Columbo would inevitably reply: ‘Lieutenant.’

But most readers will have doubtless seen freeze-frame close-ups of Columbo’s police ID, most notably in Season 1’s Dead Weight, that suggest his name is Frank. And while the name ‘Frank’ is certainly there for the world to see, the bigger question remains: is it canonical?

Lieutenant Columbo first name
Lieutenant Frank Columbo, LAPD…

In the opinion of show creators Richard Levinson and William Link, that’s an unequivocal ‘no’. The Lieutenant was never given a first name by them, nor did they ever wish him to have one. Columbo is Columbo, as simple as that. They even insisted that a first name given to Columbo in the script of a Season 1 episode be removed.

The identity of this particular episode has never been revealed, nor has the name that was scripted, but if we assume that the episode in question was Dead Weight (which was the first episode of Season 1 that had Columbo interacting with fellow officers from the LAPD), then we could be on the path to an explanation.

“The intention was not for viewers to zoom in on the badge and identify that  ‘Frank’ was scrawled there.”

Perhaps an excitable fella from the props department had gotten wind of the first name revelation and had mocked up the police ID badge accordingly? Perhaps they plucked a name out of their head at random simply to fill a gap on the badge?

We may never know, but the intention was certainly not for viewers to zoom in on the badge and identify that  ‘Frank’ was scrawled there. VCRs weren’t mainstream for several years after Dead Weight came out, so no one was hitting pause to study the badge. Even though viewers and critics were interested to find out the elusive name, ‘Frank’ wasn’t on anybody’s lips.

The name is similarly visible in 1975’s Matter of Honor (along with his badge number 416), but the displays of the ID were never too overt and the first name conundrum thankfully didn’t became a gimmick. Indeed it wasn’t until the 1980s that the issue of Columbo’s first name really became an issue at all. And that was because of a legal case in which the makers of board game Trivial Pursuit were sued by a fellow trivia kingpin Fred L. Worth – all over the christian name of Lieutenant Columbo.

Exhibit A: Lieutenant ‘Philip’ Columbo

Keen to safeguard the integrity of his trivia encyclopedia books, Worth secreted within them false facts. If they subsequently appeared elsewhere, he could sue for copyright infringement. Or so he thought. The acid test came in 1984, when Worth found one of his false facts in the latest edition of Trivial Pursuit. And the supposed ‘fact’ was that Columbo’s first name was Philip.

I’ve even played this version of the game myself years later, and was always mystified by that particular answer because, as far as I knew, Columbo didn’t have a first name. But Fred Worth wasn’t mystified – he was mad. He believed Trivial Pursuit had plagiarised more than 1500 of the facts that appeared in his trivia encyclopedias – but the one that proved it was Columbo’s first name because Worth simply made it up. In October 1984 he therefore filed a lawsuit against the creators and distributors of Trivial Pursuit demanding $300 million in compensation.

The case never made it to court, though. Judges denied Worth’s claim and his appeal was also quashed. You see, Trivial Pursuit never denied using Worth’s encyclopedia as research. They used resources like that whenever they could to get as many questions as possible. So even though they evidently never found another source to verify what Columbo’s first name was (or wasn’t), they were in the clear.

Car 2
Allegedly Peugeot once claimed Lt Philip Columbo was their most famous driver. I DEMAND PROOF!

As an aside, I have read that a Peugeot print advertisement (no date specified) claims that the most famous Peugeot driver was Lieutenant Philip Columbo. I have Googled extensively and can find no evidence of this ad. If anyone can verify this, please fire me a note in the comments below! It would be most interesting to see, although whether this supposedly came after the trivia clash of the titans or before is a complete mystery.

So, back to Frank…

We can eliminate Philip as a first name contender, which I think is a good thing. ‘Philip’ feels like a bad fit for Columbo. This leads us back to ‘Frank’ once again. It’s certainly a more plausible name, and it’s one that was much more openly attached to the Lieutenant in more recent years.

For one thing, the name ‘Lieutenant Frank Columbo’ is written legibly enough on this evidence bag in Grand Deceptions from Columbo‘s comeback season in 1989. The show was more knowing in those days, so this could conceivably be an Easter Egg for fans, a meta-gag or an attempt at continuity from the earlier seasons.

Frank Columbo Grand Deceptions

I’m reliably informed that when Columbo is dubbed into German, he is occasionally referred to us ‘Frank’ by fellow officers, but again I can’t confirm this so if you can please SING OUT! (NB. Since writing this, a German-based fan has disputed this claim – see comments below!)

The strongest support for Frank Columbo comes from Universal itself. The packaging of its Seasons 1-4 DVD box set, released in the 2000s, featured artwork including Columbo’s police ID. ‘Frank Columbo’ is shown both as a signature and typed name on this packaging. I haven’t seen this with my own eyes, but I have no reason to disbelieve it.

“If we’re seeking absolute, canonical evidence of Columbo’s first name, there’s none to be had.”

If it’s good enough for Universal, that should be good enough for us, right? Not necessarily. DVD artwork is just that. The name Frank was still never officially referenced by any other character in the show’s history – even at Columbo’s nephew’s wedding in No Time to Die. If ever there was going to be a first name given, it was going to be there in the company of his actual family.

No, if we’re looking for official confirmation of Columbo’s first name that can only ever come from Levinson and Link. They, along with Peter Falk, have always stated that the Lieutenant’s first name was never identified – regardless of name badge close-ups and DVD artwork. So if we’re seeking absolute, canonical evidence, there’s none to be had.

Will Frank suffice for most fans? Certainly. I even use it myself for my Facebook account as the little devils wouldn’t accept ‘Lieutenant’ as a first name (have they never watched the show?). But I’m just as happy being in the dark, because not knowing Columbo’s first name is as much a part of the show as never meeting his wife or never being sure whether his family anecdotes have any basis in reality.

As with most aspects of Columbo’s off-screen life, it’s nice to be able to make one’s own mind up on it. To be frank, I don’t give a hoot what his first name is or should be. He’ll always be Lieutenant Columbo to me…

Columbo first name
If I hold my name badge upside down no one will ever see the phony first name…

Where do you stand on the first name debate? Let me know in the comments section below, and thanks, as always, for reading!

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74 thoughts on “Was Lieutenant Columbo’s first name really Frank?

  1. Two things about his name: first, I had a copy of the play script for PRESCRIPTION: MURDER (the one that featured Thomas Mitchell as Columbo) and I’m not certain about this, but I could swear his name was listed as Lt. Philip Columbo, which may be where the whole “Philip” thing got started. A much better answer, though, was given by Peter Falk himself when he appeared on INSIDE THE ACTOR’S STUDIO. Asked about the first name, Falk’s opinion was that his character never used his first name because he really hated his first name. As an actor myself, I find that reason the most human (and the most amusing). Finally, as to “Frank” Columbo, I don’t put much stock in it. That could very well simply be the work of a prop master making out.a prop and putting a full name in – as was mentioned on this thread earlier, no one in the 1970s was able to study an ID that closely on television, in the days before VCRs and DVDs.

    • Jeff, I think you are right about Columbo not liking his first name. I’m repeating what I’ve said elsewhere on this thread, but in “By Dawn’s Early Light” the colonel, having never seen Columbo’s badge, asks him if he has a first name, to which he replies that he does, but his wife is the only person that uses it. (Maybe this is where Colin Dexter got the idea for Inspector Morse not liking or using his first name?). And also as I’ve said before, Columbo’s ID would have his first name on it, so the prop man had to put something on there, even if he had to make it up himself.

      • I missed the production of Prescription Murder (with Dirk Benedict) that toured here in the UK about 10 years back, but does anyone who saw it remember if Columbo’s first name is spoken on stage?

        It may well be that either the script or the programme for this version, or (as Jeff thinks) the original production with Thomas Mitchell) include “Lt Philip Columbo” or perhaps
        “Lt Frank Columbo” in the list of characters.

  2. While we are at it , does anyone know what Quincey’s first name was. Dr right lol. But as I stated earlier, it has to be Frank , since it was obviously used on multiple occasions. That evidence bag that says Frank Columbo in 1989 clearly clinches the name Frank as Cannon for me. But shoot , its just one more thing for people to argue about online right lol

  3. His first name is Frank , intended or not. If the only reference was the first time in ” Dead weight ” it would be one thing But the fact it was put in multiple episodes on multiple props its canon wether they intended to or not. On another note , did he have kids ??? I lean no, but he did mention kids in a few episodes , but we know he conflated “family” events.

    • I don’t think he had children, despite those references. I tend to think the references to children were ad libs he threw into conversations to unsettle the killers, or to give a reason why Mrs Columbo was absent.

      • ‘Kids’ can be any reference to farther relatives of him in his family tree, not just his own childrens.
        Lt. Columbo has many realtives (with quite various jobs and hobbies, hehe), and when he mentions ‘kids’ it can be easily interpreted as those relatives’ children.

        • In ‘Rest In Peace Mrs. Columbo’, he tells Vivian, the murderer, that he and Mrs Columbo never had children, but that they had each other. They were talking about Vivian’s husband who Columbo put there but the husband died in prison.

  4. Well, it really is “Frank” Columbo. In spite of never saying or wanting to say, having that name put on the character’s id schimed it. That is to say … made it plain enough and stated fact. A bit of a good on someone’s part? Yes, but it does remain. As an author of many crime novels this is just one of those things. And no, I am not about to tell you my name or what books. That, dear reader, you will just have to find out for yourself!

    • Agreed 100%. It’s on his ID badge made by the studio prop dept specifically for the show. It’s canon, full stop.

      • But what if some joker, never imagining freeze-framing would become a reality, had put ‘Bum-face Columbo’ or some such nonsense? Would you consider that canon?

        • Nope, because then it would be obvious that it was just a goof that wasn’t intended to be seen by anyone. But that’s not the case. The badge has his photo and a perfectly fitting and legible name for him. It’s canon. If they weren’t concerned about the badge details being visible then they needn’t have bothered putting his actual photo on there either, but they did.

          • I’m just playing Devil’s advocate here, but you’ll have to take up the issue of canoninity with William Link! He’s always says there is no known first name REGARDLESS of what was put on props. But as with so many things about Columbo, it’s nice that the viewer can make up their own mind about it.

            • In the context of the story, Columbo’s first name would be on his police ID, so the prop department had to put something there. A lot of people, killers or otherwise, would see his full name when he shows them his badge.

              As I recall, he doesn’t show his ID to the colonel in “By Dawn’s Early Light”, instead being identified by Sgt Kramer. At the conclusion of the story, the colonel asks Columbo if he has a first name, and he replies that he does, but only his wife uses it.

              Perhaps it had been decided at the outset of the series that he would be “Frank” if a friend, colleague or relative had ever called him by his first name. In the event, this never happened on screen, the writers preferring to keep to the slight air of mystery about the character established in “Prescription Murder”.

      • And that same ID prop was used for Elliott Markham in “Prescription Murder.” As Columbophile pointed out, there’s no way that a film crew considered our ability to freeze-frame with HD clarity. The series is riddled with continuity errors.

  5. It’s on the badge in a Season One episode as Frank Columbo. It was captured by the camera, so it’s now canon, period. If the argument that “it was never intended to be zoomed in on” is going to be used, why did they bother using the character’s proper last name? The name on the character’s badge, alongside the character’s picture, is Frank Columbo. The character’s name is Frank Columbo, and it fits him perfectly.

    • He never said his first name, never. That badge was made by the props people of the show production team, and I guess they put a name just because it would look more real from afar. The props people are not the writers, nor the producers of the show. They never intended the ID to be legible in camera: freeze frames weren’t possible at that time on television, there were no videocassettes or TIVO, DVDs or anything like that. We can’t give credit to a prop that was not intended to be read in camera and does not reflect the nature of the show and the writers’ and producers’ will. I stick to what he always said when people asked him his name: “I’m Lt. Columbo” . And what’s your wife’s name? “Mrs. Columbo!

      • Doesn’t matter IMO, it’s still recorded for all time in the series, the detective obviously has a first name because he’s not Prince or Madonna (and even they have first names), and on his badge it says his first name, along with his last name and his picture.

  6. It’s a lazy Sunday afternoon, and I am wandering aimlessly around the bowels of the Columbophile site, so forgive the belated post.

    I don’t really care what Columbo’s first name is (but it IS Frank!).

    However, one thing that always bothered me about the writing in Columbo is that, on multiple occasions, our detective introduces himself with “My name is Lieutenant Columbo” or some almost identical phrasing. This has always seemed out of character for so informal a person. That’s his NAME? “Lieutenant… “?

    Who in the world would say such a thing? Could you imagine, “Hello. My name is Professor Einstein” or “Hello. My name is Senator Frothingschloss”? It’s almost as bad as putting “…, Ph.D.” or “…, M.A.” after one’s signature. It’s stilted in a way that does not suit the Columbo character.

    While this was clearly a deliberate stratagem by the writers to avoid giving away our hero’s first name, a more natural phrasing (at least in the US) would be “Hello. I’m Lieutenant Columbo, LAPD.”

    It’s not just my name; it’s not just my job title; but it’s all you need to know for the purposes of this interview.

    I’m a cop. I’m fairly high level. If you feel the need to report me (which happens all too often), you now have my last name.

    I myself would probably add my first name to the greeting, but I’m a genuinely friendly guy.

    I am. Ask my kids.

  7. Whilst I am a guy whose childhood was notably impacted by then-current series Columbo, McCloud, McMillan and Wife, Kojak, The Rookies, Adam 12, and boatloads of other greats; I am not as versed in minutiae as many of you. Frank does seem a fitting name for our inestimable detective, here, but it’s both a fun and appropriate bit of mystery as to the Lieutenant’s first name. Similarly, his aversion to carrying a firearm and apparent substandard performance on the qualification range is at least as much a mystery, if not moreso. I recall one episode, though neither title nor season, in which the Lieutenant finangles another policeman into taking the pistol requalification for him. In any case, Columbo, especially, the original run, was a great series, the like of which is conspicuously absent in modern television. Thank goodness for Cozi TV, MeTV, and suchlike.
    God bless, and remember, there’s always “just, eh, one more thing…”

    • Dear Mr Cranston (or is it Mr Allard?). The episode in which Columbo asks another cop to take the firearms test for him is, without a shadow of a doubt, “Forgotten Lady”.

  8. Check Season 05, Episode 02, a case of Immuinty. Time mark 52:30, his boss introduces him, and it sounds like he says “Danny” or “Denny”

  9. I remember Peter Falk when asked about “Philip” he remarked, “Yes that would be a name that Columbo is not proud of”. To add further weight, I don’t believe Fred Worth made it up and he had the only real source for that name and I have that book which stated that the name was used in a play about Columbo as well. In addition, why give away the name via a badge when you don;t want anyone to know? Philip as his name makes more sense than Frank at least to me.

    • To add to your claim that Fred Worth made it up would mean that most of his trivia was made up and his goal was to compete with other books. Why is it that this particular piece of trivia is considered fabricated because he used that as his explanation to sue Trivial Pursuit owners. Philip is correct!

  10. As far as I am concerned, Columbo’s first name is “Joe”. When the series first became popular in Britain in the early 1970’s, I read an interview with Peter Falk in a national newspaper (I think it was the Daily Mirror). The gist of it was that Peter Falk was not playing a man without a first name, but rather as a man who knew what his own first name was. He always thought of the character as “Joe”, possibly because he was “an ordinary Joe” who just happened to be a brilliant detective. This would not have been what Levinson & Link had in mind, but when he’s played by Peter Falk, he’s Joe Columbo,

  11. I watched Murder By The Book last night and around 35:48 you can hear Jack Cassidy’s character say “Thank you, Frank” in response to Columbo. Check it out.

    • I checked it out and I guess you heard Columbo saying “Thanks a lot, Mr Franklin”, not Mr Franklin saying “Thank you, Frank”.

        • Columbo closes with “Thanks a lot, Mr Franklin. And listen, I am very sorry about what happened tonight”. Franklin then replies something that sounds like “Thank you, right.” but definitely not “Thank you, Frank”.

  12. I remember the TV tie in books released decades ago that had the warrant card on the front cover that clearly stated Frank.

  13. In season 3, first episode, “Lovely but lethal”, Vera Miles’ character, upon being arrested, can be heard saying to Columbo “Adam, tell your brother-in-law (the chemist who identified the poison ivy) a message for me, something appropriate”

  14. I think it is. His first name was shown on his Police ID in the series, so I take Frank to be his real first name. I think he is like Inspector Morse and doesn’t like to use his first name much, so he just becomes known by his surname.

  15. Pingback: Does Lieutenant Columbo have only one eye? | The Columbophile

  16. Faye Dunanway asked Coumbo in “It’s All In The Game” what his first name was and he said Lieutenant. I know there are other episodes too where he avoids telling his first name. In a “Matter of Honor” Commandante Sanchez tells how he read of Columbo’s crime solving when referring to “Troubled Waters”. His first name must of been in the newspaper article that he read. So, their are several other references to Columbo being a famous Detective (Ruth Gordon also comes to mind). I could see for security reasons a Detective wanting to secretive about his first name, but Columbo seemed to famous to pull it off.

  17. I have been watching Columbo since I was a child back in the late ’60’s and I always understood he didn’t have a first name (the character) the same way his wife was just “Mrs. Columbo”. That’s the way it was intended and it doesn’t matter all the other stuff that was introduced later. It the creators, producers and even Mr. Falk stated there was no first name, there wasn’t. As you said, they made a prop ID and no one thought people would be able to freeze the frame and read it through. Let’s not spoil the mistery.

    • Hi just my thought, Frank is good enough for me, But just when you mentioned his wife. I was watching the frank Sinatra roast on you tube & Colombo was a guest speaker & referred to his wife as rose to Sinatra for a autograph from him to his wife. All the little bits that come up ?

  18. There was a champion bodybuilder at the time called Franco Columbu (see Pumping Iron). Maybe a subliminal link by someone in production…?

  19. I feel his first name is Frank, it goes with Columbo. I have always enjoyed the show and Peter Fall is one of my favorite actors.

  20. You wrote “No, if we’re looking for official confirmation of Columbo’s first name that can only ever come from Levinson and Link,” and I completely disagree.

    Levinson and Link’s opinion probably holds more water than many, but it isn’t absolute. Nor do they own the series. In any program, other writers, producers, and directors have the privilege of adding facts and background to the characters and their lives. We can perhaps chalk the badge in “Dead Weight” up to a genuine mistake, but since the series made at least two subsequent references to Frank, it’s canon.

    Put another way, I don’t believe that Levinson or Link ever wrote that Columbo had a policeman nephew. As much as everybody dislikes “No Time to Die,” you can’t discount the episode because it introduces a fact about Columbo’s family that L & L did not create. And even if there is some throwaway reference to Andy in a 1970s episode, my point still stands: television is, with few exceptions, a very collaborative medium where many, many people have a say in the development of the characters’ futures and their pasts. L & L don’t get the final say, any more than they could approve everything that ever happened to Joe Mannix or Jessica Fletcher.

  21. The whole “what’s his first name”
    gimmick may have started with an earlier tv series, “Man in a Suitcase” (1966-67) where the main character’s name was McGill who would never tell anybody his first name. This was a British series starring the American actor Richard Bradford.

    • Don’t forget The Prisoner from the same era. The main character is known as Number Six. We never hear a name at all, though many believe it to be John Drake from Secret Agent/Danger Man.

  22. Another question is not really clear. Does Columbo speak Italian or not? In the few episodes where there is a mention about this point, some episodes let us believe that he did speak Italian (at least some Italian), while in some other episodes, the answer is clearly that he doesn’t. Anybody has an opinion or an answer?

  23. My opinion is that Columbo had no first name. A tiny mention in the first episode is not enough to conclude that it was Frank. In all the episodes, except for another quick appearance of Frank in an episode from 1975, his name is Columbo or Lieutenant Columbo.

  24. I gave up on “Columbo” adhering to any form of continuity logic when they had Wilson as “Freddie” in one episode and “John J.” in another.

    • “They had Wilson as “Freddie” in one episode and “John J.” in another.”

      LOL I recently wrote about this in a blogathon about Classic TV Villains. My topic was the Meddling Monk from ‘Doctor Who’ and his pathetic attempts to rewrite History. While his ultimate goals were thwarted, I claimed he could still alter History in small ways. And I blamed one such adjustment as leading to Sgt Wilson’s parents giving him a new name in the revised Timeline.

      • Haaa! That’s a more charming explanation than lazy script coordinators not researching a character’s history.

        • Agreed! Amazing stuff. Alternately maybe he changed it to John J to give him some extra authoritaire! It’s similar to how Brody’s deputy in Jaws changed his name from Lenny to Jeff in Jaws 2.

  25. I thought when I recently went through all of the “modern” episodes there was a one verbal reference to Frank Columbo (not the label on the specimen bag), but I don’t remember now. Perhaps it was another written reference or a reference on the DVD box. I will have to pay closer attention the next time we go through the modern episodes.

  26. With respect to Mr. Levinson and Mr. Link, once they let their “baby” set sail on the video seas, it was kind of out of their hands. ‘Columbo’ grew on its own with input from others from the writers, the directors, the star, and yeah, even the prop man. The medium is a collaborative effort. They never originally envisioned him to look like Falk, but there you are – telly evolution.

    For me, if it shows up on screen, then it’s canon. If you’re going to deny what is actually there to be seen for your own preference, then you’re in fanfic territory. The intent of the creators, just as in their original vision of the character’ look, ended up at odds with what’s on screen. So it goes.

    If anything, it could still be that it’s not his real first name, just a nickname that he uses when forced to do so – like signing an official form like an ID badge. Columbo might have a hated first name and goes out of his way to avoid it, but uses “Frank” as a fall-back option when there’s no other choice. Just sayin’….

  27. Omitting Columbo’s first name was a part of his character in the same way Levinson and Link didn’t want him being seen working in a police office. They wanted him to just come and go, with a sort of mystery about him.

  28. A few references on this point:

    http://emmytvlegends.org/interviews/people/william-link#: William Link insists that Columbo never had, and never will have, a first name (see Part 4, beginning at 25:00).

    http://therapsheet.blogspot.com/2010/10/bringing-columbo-to-printed-page.html: William Link blaming the “Dead Weight” ID card on ” a prop man screwing up, creating a badge without even knowing the series.”

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yzKehvXNBus: where Peter Falk reveals Mrs. Columbo’s first name.

  29. I am from Germany, I know the German dubbing versions by heart, and I can put both my hands into the fire: Never ever it was Frank Columbo in a german dubbing version in any of the 69 cases. For too long I was searching for the first name until I finally read one day that the first name was written on the badge in several cases. I would have heard it if Columbo was ever to be called Frank. Only the gym cleaning guy in “An Exercise in Fatality” succinctly called Columbo “Hey Charlie”.
    Since Columbo is a citizen like you and me, he has to have a first name, so I don’t agree on that he has no first name at all. But because Columbo is an Italian, the name Franco would fit better. Frank reminds me too much of Lt. Frank Drebin alias Leslie Nielsen. Oh, how I wish Leslie Nielsen would have played a Columbo villain at least once in his two appearances!

  30. Well done! Love having all of this information, I was not aware of Levinson and Link’s opinion on the matter. In my mind, this is no longer an Identity Crisis. I’m with you, I don’t give a hoot.


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