Given that Columbo is so revered by generations of viewers, it’s easy to forget that the Lieutenant wasn’t quite as popular with the suspects he was hounding.
Although many liked and respected him, many more found him mildly to highly irritating. A handful of killers undoubtedly wished they could have gotten Columbo out of the way permanently. But few went as far as to actually threaten his life.
It did happen, though. Over a period of 23 years, six killers had the chance to extinguish Lieutenant Columbo’s life force – either in the heat of the moment or as a premeditated act. Can’t remember them all? Then here’s a short overview of the six times Columbo diced with death…
1. Lady in Waiting
The original example, and arguably still the best, Columbo’s life was in serious jeopardy after he disturbed Beth Chadwick’s sense of security at the end of Season 1’s excellent Lady in Waiting.
After he essentially broke into the bedroom of a scantily clad, lone female at the dead of night, Beth would have had every right to gun down the snooping Lieutenant. After all, she’d be home and free with him out of the way.
But Columbo used his street smarts to save his own skin, both lying to Beth and playing up to her fragile ego. “There’d be no point in that, not with the police officers outside,” he lied, before chucking in the clincher: “Besides, you’re too classy a woman.”
Smiling demurely, Beth handed over the gun and went to slip into something less comfortable, as Columbo stepped into the garden to reveal not a single other officer is in sight. That’s some seriously good work under pressure…
2. Murder Under Glass
There was no love lost between Columbo and haughty French food critic Paul Gerard, with the latter sinking low enough to try to poison the good Lieutenant in order to permanently rid himself of a niggling pest.
Columbo has already figured out that Gerard killed bellowing Italian Vittorio through an injection of fugu poison into a bottle of wine. To prove it, he lays a delightful bait-and-switch after cooking a private meal for the two antagonists. Having poisoned Columbo’s wine, Gerard is all smiles as the detective takes a deep swig from his glass. But it’s Columbo who has the last laugh. He switched the wine glasses, you see, so is quite unharmed. But once the poisoned liquid is analysed, Gerard’s proverbial goose will be cooked. Wonder how much he’ll enjoy that prison-issue gruel?
3. How to Dial a Murder
1978 was a rough year for Columbo with two attempts on his life in a matter of weeks! The second attempt, at the behest of vile psychologist Dr Eric Mason, was far more chilling because if it had it worked as intended, Columbo would have been torn to shreds by two attack dogs.
Fortunately the wily detective had been able to crack the codeword which ‘programmed’ the dogs to kill. Working with animal behaviourists at police HQ, Columbo reprogrammed the two dobermans to ‘kiss, not kill’ at the uttering of the word ‘Rosebud’. He may have received an almighty slobbering on by the two beasts, but that’s an awful lot better than having your throat torn out!
4. Columbo Goes to the Guillotine
There was nothing subtle about Columbo’s TV comeback in 1989, was there? The episode title alone was an indication that ‘new’ Columbo was going to be somewhat heavier handed than its 70s incarnation – and so it proved with a denouement so outrageous as to defy belief.
Outsmarting devious magician-cum-psychic Elliott Blake required extreme measures from Columbo. How extreme? Placing-his-head-in-a-working-guillotine extreme, that’s how! In another example of bait-and-switch, Columbo had changed the safety labels on the guillotine neck brace, foiling Blake’s attempts to behead him.
Just as well Blake was bad to the bone, isn’t it, or Columbo’s comeback would have been the shortest in televisual history!
5. Rest in Peace Mrs Columbo
Revenge was a dish best served toast temperature for Vivian Dimitri, who desire to pay Columbo back for his role in her now-deceased husband being sent to jail years ago saw her attempting to bump him off through use of poisoned marmalade.
Columbo, of course, was on to her from the start, even faking his own wife’s death and funeral to draw Vivian out. After he pretended to be feeling woozy after eating toast and marmalade in her presence after the sham funeral, Vivian couldn’t help but gloat and reveal her ghastly plan. The Lieutenant’s instant recovery and call for fellow officers to drag her off downtown really showed her who’s boss.
Silly Vivian clearly hadn’t done her homework well enough. A flick through the newspaper archives of 1978 would have shown her that Columbo had previous experience in outsmarting would-be poisoners. There’s a lesson here for Vivian: fail to prepare and you prepare to fail.
6. Butterfly in Shades of Grey
Radio host Fielding Chase had short, sharp plans to rid himself of Columbo after the Lieutenant’s proves Chase’s guilt through a loss of cell phone reception on a deserted road in the hills. Chase goes for the shotgun in his car boot, but he hasn’t reckoned on Columbo’s magnificent foresight.
Perhaps finally applying the learnings from the Beth Chadwick near miss 23 years earlier, Columbo has back-up available in the form of police officers on bicycles, who ride to his rescue before Chase can blast him to Kingdom Come.
Chase goes for the shotgun in his car boot, but he hasn’t reckoned on Columbo’s magnificent foresight.
That about wraps it up, folks. I do hope this article has proved to be educational and entertaining for you, and do shoot me a comment below to let me know which of Columbo’s near-death experiences you enjoy the most.