It’s a question that has taxed fans for decades: did Lieutenant Columbo have only one eye like his alter ego Peter Falk?
And, as usual when it comes to knowing anything about Columbo’s real life, the answer isn’t cut and dried – even for those who have studied every episode assiduously.
“The glass eye became as much a part of the Columbo character as the cigar, the car and Dog.”
Let’s start with real life, shall we? Every Columbo fan is aware that Peter Falk had only one eye after having his right eye surgically removed when he was just three years old due to a rare form of cancer, retinoblastoma.
He wore a glass eye for the rest of his life, and the tell-tale squint it caused became as much a part of the Columbo character, from the viewers’ perspective, as the cigar, the car and Dog – the key difference being that this impairment was never referenced by any of the Lieutenant’s colleagues or adversaries.
Despite the obvious lack of movement of his right eye, is there any evidence to suggest Columbo only had one good eye? Some. In Troubled Waters he markedly examines the murder weapon for fingerprints with a magnifying glass held to his left eye. Similarly, in Murder, A Self Portrait he holds a pair of reading glasses to his left eye while discussing a dream sequence with artist-cum-murderer Max Barsini.
By themselves, though, these prove nothing other than Columbo favoured his left eye over his right for close-up work.
No, when it comes to substantial proof that Columbo has only one eye, the evidence that most learned fans seize upon comes from 1997’s A Trace of Murder. In it, the Lieutenant asks a colleague Patrick Kinsley (also the murrrrderer) to accompany him on a visit to see the victim’s wife (the co-murderer with Patrick), so they can gauge her reactions to some searching questions. “Three eyes are better than one!” Columbo cheerfully opines.
And in one throwaway line from an oft-maligned episode we have the crux of the argument, the clear inference being that Lieutenant Columbo does indeed have only one eye. Mystery solved! Case closed! Blog over! Let’s all high five in celebration and bask in collective glory!
Only it’s not that simple. A Trace of Murder was, you see, an episode created to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Columbo‘s first season airing (even though Trace actually aired 26 years later, fools!). As a result, it’s more likely that this line was simply an Easter Egg to tickle long-time fans, and is not something we should consider canonical.
Because even though the Lieutenant was a wily chap, who was very willing to sidestep police regulations when they suited him (note his lack of completing a gun test for a decade, as referenced in 1975’s Forgotten Lady), it’s not likely that he could hide having only one eye from medical examiners, or that the LAPD could turn a blind eye (chortle) to him having such an impediment.
If Columbo had only one eye to start with, he’d never have got onto the force in the first place. If he gained it during his working career, he’d have been pushed into early retirement or a back-office role. Man, wouldn’t that have been a dampener? Certainly, the show might have been a little less enjoyable and enduringly popular…
“Even though the Lieutenant was a wily chap, it’s not likely that he could hide having only one eye from medical examiners.”
But as with all these little aspects of the Lieutenant’s real life, the beauty is that we can make our own minds up and interpret the evidence any way we like – the same as we can for the conundrum surrounding Columbo’s first name.
So if you want to believe Columbo did only have one eye, that’s totally fine. If you choose to accept that the LAPD overlooked his disability because they were happy to keep their star man breaking cases, that’s totally rad. Because whichever way you look at the topic, it’ll certainly never limit your enjoyment of the show.
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This was lovvely to read
Here are some random thoughts related to his one eye.
He seemed to be given a great deal of leeway within the LAPD (possible dispensation based on his skills?) and this, besides his apparent absent mind, maybe one of the reasons some but not all of his colleagues (mostly other detectives and senior officers) did not seem to think much of him. This may also explain why he never was promoted beyond Lieutenant.
Missing an eye, his many apparent Phobias and fears, for the most part not carrying a fire arm, driving a personal vehicle on the job, not following dress or grooming codes, etc., these all seem to be reasons for removal from or maybe placed on desk duty on the LAPD unless he was given special consideration.
I looked up if Peter Falk had only one eye because in one Columbo episode posted online Columbo says, “three eyes are better than one,” when he asks someone to look over a crime scene with him.
Was 3 blind Mice Columbo’s theme because of Peter’s blind eye?
Didn’t Sammy Davis,Jr. have one eye?
Yes but he gave it back.
No one mentions “Trace of Mirder” starring the American popular comedic actor David Rasche (“Sledge Hammer” tv series) as well as Peter Falk’s wife. I have watched this several times, and fully enjoy it. Dont care about “three eyes are better than one”, or that Falk’s wife is acceptable in her role. It’s a rewatchable episode. In the lower end of the upper half of all the newer episodes.
Hello, big fans,
I hope my english is suitable enough.
I can’t precisely recall wich episodes it were (I strongly think during seasons 2-3, before 4th season in any case) but there are at least two scenes where Columbo/Falk proves his right eye is dead : one bumping on a meal plate handed to him (from the “wrong” side), the other bumbing (again) on an opening door.
It may not prove anything but since these have been “left” in the final editing of the episodes, it could be some clue…
Definitely One-eyed-Frank, to me !
I have always been of the opinion that Columbo had both eyes. Many plots are based around him seeing minutiae (discarded flints in shag pile carpeting etc). The glass eye plays a real eye on TV in the same way Falk played a real detective.
With that in mind, that we are intended to be seeing this as a real life detective story, then of course he has both eyes and a first name, that would be expected by the LAPD at the time. No aliases on official paperwork, no gun without both eyes etc.
He is Frank Columbo, first generation Italian immigrant, probably called Francisco Columbus by his parents and Anglicised. Does speak Italian, proves it multiple times throughout the show, but like everything Columbo, doesn’t when its in his best interest not to. Fought in Korea as a young man and then joined the Police as many of that type and generation did.
I have always thought of Columbo as having a dark heart, a true predator. His anger, when it flares, shows everything else is an act. He is above all an LA homicide detective. He is always dishevelled. Your typical hard drinking, hard smoking, hard living detective. Devious, cunning, Machiavellian, manipulative. It takes one to know one and he knows his prey intimately. He toys with them, wrapping them in silk before revealing himself as the spider. He is not soft, he rarely cares about any of these people. The level of respect he shows them starts to look like the wolf licking its lips at the sheep and the sheep being flattered by it when you bear in mind who he is.
This is a man that will have seen death galore in Korea and chose to come back and make his career corpses.
Which makes his act, his tactics, all the more impressive.
Actually, Columbo had a bionic eye like Steve Austin’s. That’s why he was able to spot a tiny feather that led to Danzinger’s arrest in Trouble Waters. The Lieutenant was the real six million dollar man!
In the episode “Now You See Him”, Columbo (Peter Falk) explains his evidence to suspect Santini (Jack Cassidy) by describing single-use film in a typewriter cartridge. Revealing the ability to read back what had been typed from the used ribbon, Columbo points to his RIGHT eye as he says, “You can clearly see it.”
I would consider this an inside joke rather than a hint towards a two-eyed Columbo, because Peter Falk in fact couldn’t see anything with his right eye.
By the way… the clue about the rewritable ribbon was stolen from Columbo’s partner series “McMillan & Wife” and its 1973 episode “Free Fall to Terror”. This plagiarism makes the ending of “Now You See Him” a little poor.
The answer is simple. Peter Falk had only one eye but Columbo had no such infirmity.
Three eyes! Nice catch. RE-posted on twitter @trefology
There was a well known LAPD detective nicknamed Jigsaw John who served for 50 years or so even though he lost an eye when a prisoner assaulted him early in his career.
peter falk isn’t the only one eyed actor.sir rex Harrison and sandy Duncan are another two who spring to mind brian wilkinson
Neither one of them have artificial eyes.
But Leo McKern did….
More info: in the Winery Case (Any Port in the Storm) Columbo mentioned some other cop, cpt. I-don’t-recall-a-name, who will be avalaible at the day watch. Says that he is very nice man but a bit deaf with his right ear. Here we have a clear wink, link, or whatever – to Columbo having just one eye.
I guess he got away with one-eye trouble as much as with guns and uniform and policecar. I’ve read somewhere that Columbo has his shooting-test (annual or so, required by the police) done by someone else. I imagine it would be extremely hard to aim and shoot with but one eye, it explains in detail why would he need a… well a stuntman.
And only having one eye isn’t necessarily that much of a problem for shooting. My brother-in-law can shoot deer and he’s only got one eye.
The LAPD knew about it, but they turned a blind eye to it.
The “three eyes are better than one” line is best explained this way:
In A Matter of Honor, Columbo tells someone that he is always thinking about his work. That is why he solves the murder of Hector Rangel while on vacation, just as he had solved a murder while on another vacation on the cruise ship.
At some point between the first run of the series and the second, Columbo and his wife take a vacation to Bermuda and the worst possible thing happens: nobody gets killed. With no murder to solve, Columbo is forced to use his detective skills on himself.
In an astonishing flash of intuition, Columbo gets the idea that he is being played by Peter Falk. This would explain many things. He has been told for years that he looks and sounds like the great actor, although he himself could not see any resemblance, and there have always been certain unrealistic aspects of his career that would be perfectly explained if it were a TV show.
Columbo called this idea “the Falk theory,” and never it shared with anyone except Adrian Carsini, on one of his monthly visits to the prison. (On that occasion, Carsini delicately sipped the Chardonnay the Lieutenant had smuggled in, and said, “I wonder who is playing me.”)
So when Columbo said, “three eyes are better than one,” he was letting us know that he can solve meta-mysteries, as well as homicides.
I’ll have what he’s having. 😉
On one episodes he plays golf like a pro, on another he plays pool very adeptly. He is very coordinated for a one eyed man and perhaps as such the Police would give hm a pass. I think even a mildly observant person would notice that one eye is different from the other. Then again, maybe that is because I already knew. They went through great lengths to hide Walter “Rader” O’ Reily’s hand deformity because he would of never been let in the Army with such a handicap. I guess when you have an actor that is perfect for the character you find a way to make it work. Like Peter Falk, once you are aware of the handicap, you can’t help but notice.
I’ve been a Columbo fan since I was about five years old, and I am embarrassed to admit that I had no idea Peter Falk (and possibly Columbo) only had one eye! *hangs head in shame*
Here’s my “splainin to do” when it comes to the question of Columbo’s eyes. I think the Lieutenant had both eyes, probably through the run of the original series. His eyesight comes up during “Negative Reaction” when he’s inadvertantly torturing Mr. Weekly with his driving skills. He tells the instructor that he has 20/20 vision. But he doesn’t mention that he only has the one eye, something the garrulous detective would probably have brought up. I’m thinking that at some point during the “Dark Ages” (when the show was on hiatus), Columbo lost the eye, perhaps for the same reason he did in real life. (Although being the TV World and not the real world, if there was a splainin it would have some dramatic TV reasoning for the loss.)
By the time the series came back for the ABC run, he could have fully recovered and was able to return to his duties as a detective. Besides the fact that the LAPD would be crazy to let go of their star crime-solver just because he only had one eye, the fact that this is the TV Universe comes up again. This is a world that had a totally blind cop working for the NYPD just a few years ago in “Blind Justice”.
And I consider that “Three eyes are better than one” line to be canon – if it’s shown on TV or said (unless an obvious lie) then it’s fact.
Sounds plausible enough! There is an alternative explanation to the ‘three eyes’ line, though: perhaps Patrick Kingsley only had one eye!
As Columbo would say: ‘Possible. Very unlikely though.’
Yes, I agree it’s very unlikely.
In “Death Lends a Hand”, Brimmer tries to lure him away from a career with the LAPD by saying it means “one eye on the promotion list and the other on my car payments”. Without realizing a one-eyed detective would be more focused, and not on either topic. It’s almost as amusingly clueless as Mr Gordon (in Prescription Murder) pompously assuring the Lt that he could earn “quite the little feather in your cap”– Columbo’s obviously not interested in little feathers, at least in his cap (unlike “Troubled Waters”, where he finds one on the floor).
I always accepted he has one eye. It’s like a mythological figure– the half-blind man who sees everything. And the one eye he has is as sharp as a diamond.
Here’s an article about a rookie LAPD officer who was shot in the line of duty in 1996 and lost one eye as a result. The LAPD released him on permanent disability — but the Fullerton PD then hired him. The article discusses the reasons a police officer needs both eyes. It’s a convincing case for uniformed officers. It’s less convincing for a detective who doesn’t even carry a gun.
Thank you for another excellent blog. I choose to believe that the LAPD,even with its immense bureaucracy, allowed Lt. Colombo to stay on the force because he was their super star.
Columbo had only one eye, and well for the reason mentioned in A Trace of Murder. When, for whatever reason, the makers inserted that line (three eyes see more than one), they decided that he had, so that became the truth. You can’t just ignore that, from that moment on Columbo always has had one eye.
Thoughts about the improbability of a cop with one eye being accepted into the force are irrelevant in my opinion. There could be plenty of reason to accept him. Maybe the LAPD had a temporary policy to recrute good men with disabilities in the 70’s. Or maybe he stood out in other area’s (quite likely).
Anyway Columbo is a fictional character. So even if you don’t think that in real life he could not have become a cop with one eye is also irrelevant. He just is, in the world of Columbo. Think about it what you like.
A sidenote to this is that is doesn’t matter any, whether he had one or two eyes. It naver played a part in any of his cases, or in his private life. Columbo is Columbo in all his one eyed glory.
Why were there tears running out of my right eye permanently after Peter Falk had died, hours BEFORE I received the sad news? It made me think “I never had this before and afterwards, so it was Columbo’s way of letting his biggest fan know before the media did.” So to me Columbo has only one eye.