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