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 become 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, 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!
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I wonder if we might go back even further to Prescription: Murder (the stage play, not the film) even Enough Rope to find the name Philip?
Those who refuse to accept that Columbo’s first name is “Frank” probably have their argument boiled down to one word by now….
He never introduces himself with that name (Frank). Everytime someone asks his name he says Lieutenant Columbo. That’s part of the mystique of the show.
But he did introduce his badge with that name several times in the series so the endless speculation continues. Let’s all just agree that Columbo’s first name was Peter and leave it at that!
His first name was Frank. In A Matter of Honor you can clearly see it on his badge as he’s showing his ID after he gets in the fender bender at the very beginning.
Maybe that’s not his real badge. After all, he does lose things. And he used another cop to take his pistol test. Maybe he lost his badge and, like with the test, had to use someone else’s. That would explain why he has a badge with a name on it that no one ever speaks. Not once.
Columbophile explains it clearly. The badge wasn’t supposed to be seen. By the time this episodes were filmed, there was no way to pause an image. The prop people put the name randomly. The character of Columbo has no official first name. No one calls him Frank in any episode.
But VCRs were indeed all the rage in the New Columbo era, for “Death Hits the Jackpot” and “A Trace of Murder” (see my comments below).
CP, if time allows, I humbly suggest an update to the original 2018 blog post noting up-to-the-second “Frank” sightings!
I guess the prop dept. also made a mistake by putting his real picture on the badge. And what about it’s bizarre appearance in Blueprint? And Falk directed that episode! Talk about a perverse sense of humor!
Dave, Jason, Todd, Bill, Steve, Chuck or Randy. Doesn’t Matter, Frank was produced. Despite the writers using a new ploy to make Colombo anonymous quickly once the series took off, his name is Frank by default as its appeared on his ID of all places. No other name has claim to this and to ignore this is to ignore any other fact during the episode.
How would Columbo see it? Evidence and it won’t go away or be explained as..’Its There’.
Frank Columbo was a popular enough name that Elliot Markham used it (and Columbo’s photo) for his driver’s license. (Same prop department.) But with this insistent “logic” Elliot Markham may have called himself such, but as far as the CA DMV is concerned, he too is Frank Columbo. Prop masters on quaaludes can truly skewer any canonical entities.
I just watched “A Trace of Murder”, and there it is yet again – a “Frank Columbo” badge flash.
Let’s please toss out the idea that Eliot Markham is suddenly Frank Columbo because he holds the prop badge – it’s a false equivalency. It’s quite silly, which is, of course, the precise reason this straw man argument is brought up – to make the “Columbo is Frank” proponents look ridiculous. Quite clearly there’s a surplus of evidence in the episode that Eliot Markham is not, in fact, Columbo. So, reasonable minds should be able to admit that the Columbo badge in that scene is indeed a production goof. I always ignore the clumsy “Frank Columbo” inserts seen in “Dead Weight”, “Matter of Honor”, and “Grand Deceptions” anyway, as they can – reasonably – be argued as production mistakes.
What I can’t throw out are the times that Peter Falk is actually holding up his badge and the name “Frank” is there and visible for all to see. These incidents now total at least three that I have documented: 1) Columbo shows Pat Morita his badge at Alex Benedict’s mansion; 2) Columbo flashes his badge – twice – at the “Death Hits the Jackpot” gotcha; 3) Columbo shows it to the victim’s lawyer in “A Trace of Murder”.
New Columbo absolutely trashed the mythology that Columbo’s name would never be known. It’s a quaint story, and Peter Falk himself has perpetuated it often, but the multiple badge-in-his-hand appearances unfortunately get in the way of the charming tale. You can’t unsee the clear visual evidence that Falk is showing us that name on Columbo’s badge. The simplest answer here is that nobody on the “Frank” or “Not Frank” side is right or wrong – the poor, sloppy attention to detail from the New Columbo team mucked up the mythology and created doubt where none should have existed. This is entirely consistent with the realization that the New Columbo team was sloppy and made poor decisions about a whole lot of things. Hey, I’d likely be in the “Name Not Frank” camp too if New Columbo was at all competent. As it is, you can find several spirited discussions here between myself and Rich Weill (with his well-argued take) on the topic.
Finally, CP should note that in the Columbo Wiki (Fan-generated content | The Columbo Wiki | Fandom) it is stated that his Blog is “run by ‘Frank Columbo’, an Australian Columbo superfan.” As CP is in the “Name Not Frank” camp, this will no doubt come as a shock to our host.
Thanks, Glenn, but the Elliot Markham incident is highly relevant because it underscores the inattention paid by the Columbo production team to props. Props like ID cards and the like were obviously not worth anyone’s careful consideration.
The one incontrovertible fact no Francophile has ever been able to explain away is that there is not a single oral reference to a Columbo first name in any Columbo episode, or a single such written reference in any Columbo script. (And there are numerous express references to the contrary. See the Columbo-Lauren Staton exchange in “It’s All in the Game,” written by Peter Falk. As well as notable omissions, such as Columbo being referred to by close family members during the wedding scenes in “No Time to Die” most oddly as “Lieutenant.”)
The people most entrusted with the Columbo biography — centrally, the creators, the producers, the story editors, the writers, and Peter Falk — paid laser-like attention to the Columbo scripts. They did not pay much attention, or any attention, to props. (Hello again, Elliot Markham. And Falk himself directed that episode.) That was the job of junior members of the production team, not anyone on the creation side. Columbo is loaded with production errors. Read through the “Goofs” entries on IMDb for each episode if you doubt this.
Perhaps blog commenter “Bruce Wayne” can weigh in on this. Bruce’s full name is Bruce Wayne Mecchi. He is credited as “Leadman” (the person who oversees the set dressers, and ensures that all furniture, dishes, paintings, curtains, ashtrays, plants, etc. are in place) on 7 Columbo episodes between 1977 and 1991: “The Bye-Bye Ski High IQ Murder Case,” “Try and Catch Me,” “Murder Under Glass,” “The Conspirators,” “Columbo Goes to the Guillotine,” “Murder, Smoke and Shadows,” and “Columbo and the Murder of a Rock Star.” Maybe he can tell us whether props were vetted in any meaningful way before their use.
Finally, I come back to a point I made several days ago. Who is empowered to change YOUR first name? Just anyone with a Sharpie?
What I wanna know is if his wife and children ever really existed, other than in his own mind. No first name and no wife and kids: talk about a true mystery!
He has private telephone calls in “An Exercise in Fatality” and “Troubled Waters” with his wife. No one else around. No one to impress. There are other examples (e.g., Nelson Brenner’s wiretap in “Identity Crisis”). The wife is demonstrably real. As for kids, there’s no evidence of those except for the “babysitter” reference in “Any Old Port in a Storm.” But that was for show in front of a murderer.
Richard, you’re totally correct but I was just being a smartass as usual. What really pisses me off is they made a whole episode about Mrs. Columbo and still never revealed her identity – not to mention their children! Yet another reason why I despise the 90s Columbo.
Columbo only made reference to nieces, nephews, cousins, brothers & sisters in law. I vaguely remember his saying he & his wife never had children.
He references a kid or kids in one or two episodes, but says he had none in Rest In Peace Mrs Columbo. He might have said this because he knew the killer was trying to target his family! I always suspect the references to children were just made up on the spot to suit the conversations he was having with particular killers. I feel like he doesn’t have children but the Columbo extended family offsets any sadness he might have about that.
But one of the excuses used by Columbo as to why his wife didn’t show up was because they couldn’t get a babysitter.
It’s on his badge, so Frank it is.
As an American of Italian ethnicity, pondering “Phillip” as a name for an Italian-American cop is off-putting. It’s a “No.” Maybe, I’m prejudiced.
‘Phillip’ is fine for other people. My best friend when I was a little girl was a little blonde boy named Phillip.
There was no reason for Columbo to carry a false ID.
I don’t think it matters how it came about, who originated that first name. It’s set now. And it was a fine choice.
Those of us who love Columbo are happy to carry the secret of his given name in our hearts, while never referring to him by it. We might know, but we will only ever say, “Lieutenant”, out of respect for the great detective. (The profane need not know.)
But thanks, for the discussion. 😉
My contrary view is oft-stated on this site. I will only add that your “I don’t think it matters how it came about” is contradicted by your “it was a fine choice.” A “choice” cannot happen by accident. It must be a deliberate decision. Thus, to be a “choice,” it does matter “how it came about.” Moreover, a “choice” must be made by someone empowered to choose. I very much doubt you would welcome being tagged by just any passerby with a permanent first name you did not condone or appreciate. Give the creators of Columbo the same courtesy.
And Francisco is a fine Italian name for the Lt.
At the end of “The most dangerous match” when Columbo’s in the trash compactor room, there’s two workers with him. The worker up top calls to the worker down below (who happens to be named Frank and standing behind Columbo), “Hey Frank, give me a hand up here will ya?”. And Columbo … doesn’t even bat an eye?
So was Columbo so entranced in thought he didn’t hear his name called? Or is Frank just an alias to protect his identity?
season 4 episode 2 with Dick Van Dyke, In the scene at the mission when Coilumbo goes into the mission to interview the drunk witness he introduces himself as Frank Columbo.
I think you might have misheard.
After reading your comment, I rewatched the entire mission scene twice. Columbo never uses his name with anyone except the witness Dolan (Vito Scotti); he introduces himself as “Lieutenant Columbo.” He finally tells the nun (Joyce Van Patten) that he’s a police officer working on a case, but never uses his name.
Ironically , Cannon’s name WAS Frank. 🙂