Debating the merits of favourite Columbo episodes with a fellow fan is one of the most enjoyable pastimes ever. But have you ever wondered which episodes Peter Falk liked most?
If so, your sleepless nights are at an end! Because Falk did outline his four favourite NBC-era episodes (1971-78) for the A&E television network sometime in the early 1990s. In a series of special presentations entitled ‘Columbo’s favourite Columbos’, Falk delivered a personal introduction to each episode, outlining his recollections about each one. These segments were filmed in Falk’s own art studio.
Alas I have never seen these intros, which I believe aired once and once only. I can’t find any evidence of them on YouTube either, so if you happen to know where they can be viewed online please let me know. You’ll bring delight to thousands of fans.
Without further ado, here are Peter Falk’s favourite Columbo episodes, and a precis of his opinions on each. These come from a variety of sources, including ‘The Ultimate Lieutenant Columbo Site‘ and Mark Dawidziak’s The Columbo Phile.
“If you happen to know where these intros can be viewed online please let me know. You’ll bring delight to thousands of fans.”
4. Identity Crisis (Season 5, 1975)
Patrick McGoohan’s second appearance as a guest killer in this bonkers spy romp was poles apart from his Columbo debut in Season 4’s By Dawn’s Early Light. There, his restrained turn as Colonel Rumford is so far removed from the eccentric turn delivered here that it could almost be two different actors at work.
McGoohan’s Nelson Brenner appears to be much closer to the heart of the man himself, and that sense of fun and quirkiness seemed to infect the Columbo character, too. As well as being the headline guest star, McGoohan also had directorial duties on this episode, and Falk seems to have absolutely reveled in the immersive experience.
Speaking about Identity Crisis, Falk said: “The scenes between Columbo and the murderer are, in my judgment, among the best we ever did. They have that perfect balance between being both compelling and amusing. And that’s what we always strive for – that’s the trick in those scenes, keep ’em tense and keep ’em funny. And a great deal of credit for that goes to Patrick McGoohan.
“I’ll always remember how much fun I had playing ’em, and to this day I get a kick out of watching ’em.”
For his part, McGoohan was just as enamoured with the process. Falk and series producer Everett Chambers had essentially given him a carte blanche to put his stamp on the episode – and it shows.
In an interview with Mark Dawidziak for The Columbo Phile McGoohan recalled: “I was wary about directing an American television show, but I was given total control by Peter and Everett Chambers. They had a classy story. It needed some work, but Peter was a wonderful actor for a director.
“Peter is a meticulous man. He is a very careful actor. My association with Columbo continued because Peter liked me and I liked him.”
Indeed the association would last a further 25 years, with McGoohan repeating his double act as murderer/director in two further epsiodes (Agenda For Murder in 1989 and Ashes to Ashes in 1998), as well as additional stints as a director in Last Salute to the Commodore (1976) and Murder With Too Many Notes (2000).
3. Now You See Him (Season 5, 1976)
Airing three months after Identity Crisis, the magic-fuelled Now You See Him represented Jack Cassidy’s third and final appearance as a Columbo killer. It was also one of his very last screen roles as he died tragically in a house fire just 10 months later.
“The new raincoat made him very uncomfortable and self-conscious. It was a brilliant idea.”
During his intro to the episode, Falk fondly recalled ‘the terrific running gag’ about Columbo’s hatred of the new coat his wife had bought him and his efforts to rid himself of it – including instructing Dog to look away if someone tried to steal it from his parked car.
Falk had earlier praised the same plot point in an interview for The Columbo Phile, saying: “The new raincoat made him very uncomfortable and self-conscious. It was a brilliant idea.”
Falk’s other episode highlights included him volunteering to assist The Great Santini on stage during his live stage show – a scene similarly cherished by fans – and he spoke warmly about what a fun time he had playing alongside Cassidy.
2. Forgotten Lady (Season 5, 1975)
Another from Season 5 – this time the season opener – Falk recounted how much he enjoyed working with Janet Leigh and enthused about how the writers Bill Driskill and Peter S. Fischer ‘really outdid themselves.’
He was particularly pleased with the quality of the clues Columbo picks up on during the course of his investigations that indicate to him murder, not suicide, was the cause of Dr Henry Willis’s death. The initial investigation scene was used as a model for future episode writers on how such scenes should be put together.
The episode also stood out in Falk’s memory as a ‘real rarity’ in that Columbo allows the killer to go free given her inoperable brain aneurism means she has only a month or two to live.
Although he described it for the TV cameras as ‘one of our better efforts’, Falk was slightly less effusive in 1989’s The Columbo Phile, telling Mark Dawidziak: “We had all kinds of problems getting that one to two hours [running time].”
1. Any Old Port In A Storm (Season 3, 1973)
Here is one example where Falk and the viewer appear to see entirely eye-to-eye, with Any Old Port perennially topping polls of fans’ favourite episodes, including from a poll on this very site.
The mutual and genuine admiration that grows between the two leads is what helped Any Old Port stand out for Falk, who recalled this as the first episode in which Columbo developed such an emotional attachment to the murderer.
“I’m very fond of that episode,” Falk recounted in The Columbo Phile. “Columbo liked the Donald Pleasence character a lot. That character had the same obsession with excellence that Columbo had.
“Columbo might have been a slob with clothes, but he had respect and admiration for excellence. The job had to be done properly. Columbo was delighted by that guy. He admired him.”
The presence of Vito Scotti – a six-time guest star in his first appearance on the show – was another plus point for Falk. “Vito Scotti is a good friend and a terrific actor,” Falk said. “We were glad to use him whenever we could. He was terrific as the waiter, the old bum, the funeral parlour director.”
“The mutual and genuine respect that grows between the two leads is what helped Any Old Port stand out for Falk.”
It might come as a surprise to fans that pivotal episodes Etude in Black and Murder by the Book don’t feature here – particularly Etude, which starred Falk’s BFF John Cassavetes.
Instead, all of Falk’s personal favourites come from Seasons 3 or 5, when the show was more firmly established. Notably, three of the four are from Season 5 alone. What does this tell us? Well for one thing it suggests that Falk was at his happiest in the crumpled raincoat once he had a couple of full seasons under his belt.
We must remember that Season 1 was marked by Falk’s continual run-ins with the studio about his desire to direct an episode. It was a stressful time for star, studio, cast and crew, which perhaps explains why he doesn’t include any Season 1 episodes amongst his favourites – despite most fans naming at least one of Murder by the Book, Suitable for Framing or Death Lends a Hand amongst their top picks.
“We must remember that Season 1 was marked by Falk’s continual run-ins with the studio about his desire to direct an episode.”
Not only had he completely mastered every nuance of the character, but by Season 5 Falk was an absolute Hollywood power player, increasingly calling the shots on who he was happy to work with and the amount of time dedicated to getting each episode signed off to his exacting standards.
Falk was also earning a King’s Ransom by that time, which doubtless contributed to him considering these years as a Golden Age in his career. He earned $100,000 per episode in Season 3 – and this leaped to $132,000 for Season 4 (the equivalent of $660,000 today!). Figures for Season 5 are not available, but undoubtedly kept on the upwards trajectory. It was certainly a great time to be Peter Falk…
How do Peter’s favourite episodes compare to your own? Any surprises there? Let me know in the comments section below.