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.