The line-up of Columbo killers makes for the very best sort of rogues’ gallery, with everyone from college kids to lovable grandmas represented in the role call.
Most are memorable in some way, shape and form, while the very best loom large over the series being, in their way, almost as iconic as the crumpled Lieutenant themselves. But have you ever stopped to think who your absolute favourite Columbo killers are? And if so, what is it that sets them apart amidst such stiff competition? That’s the journey of discovery I’ve been on here.
Of all the top-10 articles I’ve written for this blog, this was the toughest to nail down because there are some many stellar Columbo killers! A top 20 would have been easier, but I was tough on myself and have whittled it down here to the 10 that I personally enjoy watching the most.
I have, however, named some highly commended stars who I just couldn’t ignore, but even so there are still some brilliant performances by talented actors and actresses not chronicled here, which is in no way meant to be disrespectful to their contribution to the show.
One last thing… I based these decisions purely on the characters, not the actors. So even though I LOVE William Shatner and Johnny Cash, their Columbo characters don’t make this list. And with that spoiler ringing in your virtual ears, read on! I list these in no particular order, except the top 3 who are certainly my absolute favourites.
“Of all the top-10 articles I’ve written for this blog, this was the toughest to nail down because there are some many stellar Columbo killers!”
Deputy Commissioner Mark Halperin – A Friend in Deed
As you can tell from his rakishly angled hat and evil beard, Commissioner Halperin is an absolute rat-bag of a man, and one who represents the very worst aspects of the LAPD.
Corrupt, womanising, manipulative and murderous, Halperin is a moral-free zone who is superbly portrayed by the great Richard Kiley. He’s a dangerous foe, so watching him go toe-to-toe against Columbo makes for spellbinding viewing – and his ultimate downfall is punch-the-air good!
Dr Bart Keppell – Double Exposure
To a certain extent, you know what you’re going to get with a Robert Culp Columbo baddie: intelligence combined with simmering anger that makes him a very fearsome foe. However, what makes Culp so good is that he’s able to make his characters feel very different each time – and bad Bart Keppell is a great example.
He’s not as overtly furious as we see in his two earlier outings, but he exudes a cool, cerebral menace that is no less deadly. Add to that, he positively revels in the clash of minds with Columbo, adding a playful element to the cat-and-mouse games they’re both indulging in. It’s wonderful viewing. Plus that yellow jacket. Say no more…
Dr Ray Flemming – Prescription: Murder
The original baddie, and one of the very best in perpetuity, Gene Barry’s slick, erudite and fiendishly intelligent psychiatrist gave us a chief antagonist that we could love to hate from the series’ get-go.
Despite his sophistication, Raymundo is not afraid to get his hands dirty, as he proves by strangling the life out of his own ‘dear’ wife. His taking advantage of vulnerable patient Joan Hudson to suit his evil ends also marks him out as one of Columbo‘s most dastardly killers.
It’s his keen brain and self belief that make for the most compelling viewing, though, with his ‘hypothetical’ chat about murder over bourbon with Columbo being one of the series’ stand-out moments.
Dr Barry Mayfield – A Stitch in Crime
Another rogue medic, Leonard Nimoy’s electrifying performance as sociopathic surgeon Barry Mayfield terrifies and delights in equal measure.
Never was a Columbo killer so absolutely indifferent to the value of human life, and so ruthless in dispatching those who stand in his way. Quite aside from his brutal slaying of nurse Sharon Martin, Mayfield goes several steps further when he bumps off entirely innocent troubled ‘Nam veteran Harry Alexander in what must be the series’ most senseless and heart-wrenching homicide.
Both of these acts are committed wordlessly by Mayfield with the clinical efficiency of a hired hit man. Given that he’s a medical man for whom life should be sacrosanct it’s all the more disturbing, making his downfall ultra satisfying. The cloud to that silver lining? The most he’ll ultimately face in court is an attempted murder charge for his efforts to eradicate Dr Heidemann through the dissolving sutures stunt. Some justice…
“Leonard Nimoy’s electrifying performance as sociopathic surgeon Barry Mayfield terrifies and delights in equal measure.”
Adrian Carsini – Any Old Port in a Storm
Many a fan’s absolute favourite, Adrian Carsini is a Columbo killer quite like no other, who was brought superbly to life by the inimitable Donald Pleasence.
His Carsini is so fully rounded it’s as if he had been playing the role for years. It helps that Pleasence is the beneficiary of a truly vintage script that puts his British accent to brilliant use. Pretty much every line he delivers is an event in itself, and whether he’s insulting his brother (the “muscle-bound hedonist”), raging at poorly kept wine (“LIQUID FILTH“), or merely conversing with Columbo (“you really are a sly one, Lieutenant”), the audience is absolutely hanging on to his every word.
The growing affability and affection between the two leads helps set their relationship apart and it all culminates in the heart-warming exchange over dessert wine in Columbo’s car as he drives Adrian away to a presumed life behind bars, which is another of the show’s greatest moments.
Indeed, this relationship seems to be the embodiment (if not the genesis) of Columbo’s later revelation that he sometimes likes and respects the killers he meets because of their personal qualities, rather than for the crime they commit. Bravo Adrian!
Abigail Mitchell – Try & Catch Me
The lone female in my top 10, Ruth Gordon’s Abigail Mitchell is a tiny bundle of mischievous fun, who is endlessly entertaining to watch.
Into her 80s at the time of filming, Gordon excels at playing up Abi’s ‘adorable grandma’ characteristics, and even ‘pulls a Columbo’ on a couple of occasions to appear like a doddering old dear, even though we know that she, like the detective she’s up against, is as sharp as a tack. The prime example? The way she handles the house key under the plant pot to destroy any chance the police would have of tracing victim Edmund’s fingerprints off it – cleverly destroying a line of enquiry that she knew could harm her version of events.
Similar to Carsini, Abi and Columbo share a mutual respect which makes their exchanges heartfelt and enjoyable to watch in a completely different way to most of the killers on this list. All credit to Gordon, then, who gives us a killer we can really root for and like throughout.
“Ruth Gordon’s Abigail Mitchell is a tiny bundle of mischievous fun, who is endlessly entertaining to watch.”
Paul Hanlon – The Most Crucial Game
It’s Culp again, but a far angrier version, which makes this incarnation arguably his most fun to watch. His handlebar-tashed Paul Hanlon sneers and snarls throughout and is so combustible that we can’t help but feel that Columbo’s very life is in danger simply by being close to him.
There’s extra fun to be had in that Hanlon never even bothers to go through the pretending-to-be-nice phase that most killers make a token attempt at. He’s at best perfunctory, at worst a raging terror – and everyone seems to be off his Christmas card list, except the former Mrs Eric Wagner, whose husband he memorably despatches with a block of ice to the head!
Among many highlights, Hanlon’s inherent wickedness perhaps shows best as he guzzles down a fudgsicle without a care in the world while on his way to commit murder – after leaving a wailing child in his wake, driving his misappropriated Ding-a-ling ice cream truck away with her desperate pleas for him to stop ringing in his ears. It’s GOLD!
“Paul Hanlon is so combustible that we can’t help but feel that Columbo’s very life is in danger simply by being close to him.”
And the big 3…
3. Ken Franklin – Murder by the Book
Similar to the near-perfect casting of Gene Barry as Columbo’s first ever adversary, having Jack Cassidy as the first villain of the series proper was a masterstroke.
His Ken Franklin is so charming, so arrogant and so joyously unscrupulous that even two cold-blooded killings of sympathetic victims don’t diminish the fun we, the viewer, have when watching his every move.
The contrast between Columbo and Franklin was weighted perfectly (something Peter Falk was happy to acknowledge), and the chemistry so right between them that it’s no wonder Jack came back as a repeat guest star. The only mystery is why it took so long to welcome him back when everything he touched here turned to gold.
As is the case with pretty much every aspect of Murder by the Book episode, Ken Franklin sets the benchmark against which every other Columbo killer will be compared against.
2. Dale Kingston – Suitable for Framing
Ross Martin is a sensation as slimy art critic Dale Kingston in what I consider to be the single best performance by a non-repeat guest star killer.
Martin’s Kingston delights from the first seconds to the last, his confident slaying of Uncle Rudy an amazing contrast to his lip-quivering terror as Columbo outsmarts him with the gloved-hand reveal at episode’s end. Throw in the gloriously self-indulgent art show scenes, where Dale cracks highbrow gags galore to the delight of his shallow entourage, and you have a tour de force central performance that elevates Suitable for Framing right into the show’s topper-most tier.
Would the episode have been half as good without Martin in the role? Don’t count on it…
“Ross Martin is a sensation as slimy art critic Dale Kingston, who delights from the first seconds to the last.”
1. Riley Greenleaf – Publish or Perish
When he set the series benchmark with Ken Franklin, it was going to take quite an heroic effort to top it. But with Riley Greenleaf, Jack Cassidy managed to out-do even himself to deliver the single most watchable villain of the series’ 35-year run.
I can’t imagine any actor having more fun in a role than Cassidy appears to have had as Greenleaf – and that sense of fun is absolutely contagious. He excels in too many scenes to list here, but the faux drunken antics he employs to establish his alibi are absolutely priceless as he terrorises the book launch, the valley dive bar staff, and the luckless ‘Ralphie’ and his wife in the car park. If that wasn’t good enough, he later challenges police officers to a rumble when they find him illegally parked. Every second is to treasure.
In short, Riley Greenleaf is Jack Cassidy in full flight, and that’s a truly magnificent thing to behold. And that’s why no other killer, in my opinion at least, can touch him.
“I can’t imagine any actor having more fun in a role than Cassidy appears to have had as Greenleaf and that sense of fun is absolutely contagious.”
Of course there are too many other astounding performances for to completely overlook, so here would be the next in line in my list of favourites…
- Oscar Finch – Agenda for Murder
- Leslie Williams – Ransom for a Dead Man
- Paul Galesko – Negative Reaction
- The Great Santini – Now You See Him
- Beth Chadwick – Lady in Waiting
- Dr Mark Collier – A Deadly State of Mind
- Hayden Danziger – Troubled Waters
- Oliver Brandt – The Bye-Bye Sky High IQ Murder Case
- Colonel Lyle Rumford – By Dawn’s Early Light
- Dexter Paris – Double Shock
As always, I’d love to hear your opinion – particularly on a topic as wide open and subjective as this one. Are you outraged that I’ve ignored your own favourite? Or are we largely seeing eye-to-eye? Hit me up in the comments section below!
I haven’t written a top 10 article for ages, but you can view the other listicle-type articles on the site here. If you’ve got a suggestion for a topic you think I should cover, please leave a comment below. And thanks, as always, for reading!