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My top 10 favourite Columbo killers

Columbo Most Crucial Game LA Coliseum

Contemplating the series’ best ever killers is tough, lonely work

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

Columbo Mark Halperin 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

Columbo Bart KeppellTo 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

Columbo Dr Ray Flemming 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

Columbo Dr MayfieldAnother 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

Columbo Adrian Carsini 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

Columbo Abigail MitchellThe 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

Columbo Paul HanlonIt’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

Columbo Ken Franklin 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

Columbo Dale KingstonRoss 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

Riley Greenleaf montage 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.”

Highly commended

1 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
2 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!

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108 thoughts on “My top 10 favourite Columbo killers

  1. Pingback: Top 10 Columbo killers: as voted by the fans! | THE COLUMBOPHILE

  2. Dear Columbophile, what about the ubersexy Kay Freestone ? (I hope she’ll be condemned not too long, and then, find a job in TV again). (same thing for the poor Carsini).

  3. To me, an overlooked Columbo baddie is Dr Eric Mason from “How to dial a murder” It’s implied he killed his cheating wife. He coldly kills him victim by training his dogs to do it. Tries to kill the dogs so Columbo doesn’t figure out how, and when he’s cornered with the truth he tries to kill Columbo with the dogs. He’s cold, intelligent, and ruthless.

    • Oh yes. Dr. Eric Mason. I have to agree with you on that. That is an example of a totally evil Columbo villain. His victim Charlie did have an affair with Mason’s dead wife (who Mason probably killed too), which means there is not one shred of “sympathetic killer” in this baddie. Being mauled to death by dogs is a horrible way to die, and Mason even tries to kill the dogs with chocolates to save his own neck when he realizes the good Lt. is making headway in the case. He is arrogant and cocky and thinks he will get away with it (especially when he makes Charlie give the kill command over the exam room phone). The antithesis of the almost lovable Ruth Gordon/Abagail Mitchell I would say, she’s someone you’d kinda root for. But like Lt. Frank Columbo says, Mason left enough clues to sink a ship. He also manipulates and plays mind games with poor Kim Cattrall/Lt. Valeris/Sam from SATC (Joan). One of the few villains to make an attempt on Columbo’s life in the ending. I like the scene with Tricia O’Neal/Capt. Garrett where she educates Columbo about controlling the dog with command words. Fantastic choice Bailey Tate!

    • Second that – Dr Mason makes it to the top of my list, too.
      And if I may add two others:
      – Roger Sanford (Short Fuse): that dénouément is just priceless.
      – Emmet Clayton (Most Dangerous Match): the opening scene shows just how scary chess can really be…

  4. I think Rip Torn’s character is pure evil.Sure, it’s one greedy person killing another, but he is very ruthless and heartless in this episode.

    • I wished Mr. “Play Dr” Mayfield had keeled over dead on the spot from a heart attack when Columbo came back to pull off his big “got ‘ya” in the same office this serial killer had just breathed a sigh of relief one split sec before then. Ditto for evil Nazi mass murderer turned magician who burned paper Columbo reproduced in multiples to prove his guilt. A few sparks gone astray when the bad man waved his hand would have been great to send him away in a pillar of ashes. Why didn’t just one episode end by fast delivery of a killer’s true just deserts? Preferably some way to dish up poetic justice done perfectly.

      • Oh my God!! No love for Evil Spock Mayfield!!!😂😂😂
        Goes to show Nimoy did it best playing a cold calculating murderer, deserving of zero sympathy.
        We did see him give Columbo pills for his upset stomach, and he did open his Benz door for Marsha Dalton…two very minor redeeming qualities we see in the episode.

        (apologies to the administrator, my first reply went to the wrong thread)

    • When you consider that nephew Freddy offered Torn’s character 10 percent of a 300 million dollar lottery ticket, it was pure greed for his uncle to kill him in such a ghastly manner.

    • Oh my God!! No love for Evil Spock Mayfield!!!😂😂😂
      Goes to show Nimoy did it best playing a cold calculating murderer, deserving of zero sympathy.
      We did see him give Columbo pills for his upset stomach, and he did open his Benz door for Marsha Dalton…two very minor redeeming qualities we see in the episode.

  5. Pingback: Columbo full episode: Publish or Perish | The Columbophile

  6. So glad you honored Jack Cassidy twice in your list. He was terrific. My favorite, though, is The Great Santini. If I could only watch three Columbo episodes, the killers would be Santini, Mark Halperin and Hayden Danziger.

  7. Wow! Your list is nearly identical to mine, well by characters and not necessarily the same order. The only killer on yours that I don’t have in mine is Barry’s Dr. Fleming from Prescription: Murder. I’ve got Col. Lyle from By Dawn’s Early Light on my list instead.

    This is a great list of Columbo Killers though! So hard to decide who to pick, too.

    Just barely missing my Top 10 would be Cash’s Tommy Brown and Cassidy’s diabolical former Nazi, Stefan Mueller aka the Great Santini.

    • As a HUGE Columbo fan I have to weigh in…your top ten list is very good; it definitely leaves the sympathetics (Beth Chadwick, Ward Fowler, Paul Galesko) with much to be desired. Mine are:

      1. Dr. Barry Mayfield. Anyone who is a huge fan of Spock will recognize that Nimoy is playing Mayfield as if he were SPOCK, cold and emotionless (only difference is purely evil and devoted to fulfilling his self-serving interests). He truly is an evil Spock, without the ears, eyebrows and evil Spock mirror universe beard. He also is ruthless. To murder poor Ann Francis (Honey West) and sew up loveable Grandpa Walton’s heart up with dissolving sutures to beat another research team in Germany to patenting a transplant operating procedure is pretty ruthless. Plus burglarize the nurse’s shared (with innocent Nita Talbot) apartment to plant Morphine as red herring A, and burglarize again to stage an OD and murder poor Harry who recovered from his addiction as red herring B is beyond ruthless. This is why Mayfield gets first place. Just about the only ruthless thing he doesn’t try to do is try to kill our beloved Lt. Columbo, which I will hit on in 3 and 4…trying to murder Columbo puts the murderer in a class by themselves. The scene where he gets a telephone page, and Nimoy looks up and doesn’t tell him where to go (until asked after a long pause) showcases his thinly-veiled contempt for Columbo (the “so does a jury” remark shows him being just cocky). He even makes Columbo bang a coffee carafe on his desk and show his hand on who he thinks did the murders. All these things, coupled with a very haunting and Duel-ish Billy Goldenberg score make this the best Columbo episode for me (yes, I know, Jack Cassidy’s Ken Franklin is a CLOSE close 2nd).

      2. Ken Franklin. The phony Have a Nice Day bumper sticker and the fake gun gag and evil smirk in the beginning show how purely evil Jack Cassidy masterfully plays this role. Beyond his literary acumen, Franklin has absolutely no redeeming qualities here to qualify him as a member of the human race. That coupled with the murder of the witness to the crime (the super-fan who played the “I’ll buy that” Calypso bartender in The Odd Couple) qualifies this Jack Cassidy victim as a very close #2.

      3. Fielding…CHASE! (Butterfly in Shades of Grey) William Shatner’s second go-around was so much better. I could go on about all the ways he plays Chase to be such an arrogant and contemptible character, but the final scene where he pulls a rifle from his trunk the shoot out
      our Beloved Lt. Columbo for figuring it out puts him very high on this list.

      4. Dr. Eric Mason (How to Dial A Murder). Okay he uses two trained Dobermans to kill the best friend who cheated with his wife, but then he tries to kill the dog-witnesses with chocolates and tries to kill Columbo with the dogs using his kill command (Rosebud…) puts this guy in very ruthless territory (Bonus: Star Trek alumni Kim Cattrall (Lt. Valeris) and Tricia O’Neal (Capt. Rachel Garrett) guest star)

      5. Joe Devlin (The Conspirators). This guy is good…so good that of the other four didn’t exist, he would be at the top. Clive Revill gives an astounding performance in this top-notch Columbo episode. (Mr. Paulie: You’re here to purchase guns…not the story of my life! I don’t have to account to you!) Don’t you know we kill traitors, Mr. Paulie?

      6. (Really could be a dead tie with Mayfield at 1) Adrian Carsini (Any Old Port in a Storm)

      7. Oliver Brandt (The Bye Bye Sky High IQ Case)

      8. Abagail Mitchell (Try And Catch Me)

      9. Dr. Bart Kepple (Double Exposure)

      10. Dexter and Norman Paris (Double Shock)

      • Like the Fielding Chase choice and agree Shatners later years character was better than his 70’s Ward Fowler. Chase was such a pathetic yet hilarious, entertaining, (and evil) character.

        • Yes Fielding Chase was much better. Fielding was an early version of Denny Crane, replete with unbridled self-assuredness and arrogance. Both episodes have subtle similarities:
          1. Gigantic head shots of the Shatner character all over his home and studio
          2. Similar disguises when committing the murders of Claire Daly and Gerry Winters
          3. Columbo interrupts a tv show taping in both episodes. Hilarity ensues.

  8. I have to give props to George Hamilton IV’s Wade Anders as a deliciously evil murdering technician… he watches the chain-smoking blackmailer cough his last breaths when he places on his surgical gloves, casually quoting lines like “those things are gonna kill ya” and “news at 11” with that $hit eating smirk of his. Priceless. Definitely one of the better post classic era episodes of the series, along with Dabney Coleman’s “Murder of a Rock Star”.

    Paul Galesko’s episode is one that gets better with each viewing. His wife truly did deserve what she got, and the entire skid row mission scenes with Joyce Van Patten and Vito Scotti are some of the greatest minutes in television history….with the exception that Peter Falk is eating out of a totally empty bowl in the mission. How much would it take to crack open a can of Ravioli for props sake? jeeesh

    To me the best murderers are the ones I root for, so Nimoy’s Dr. Mayfield is an utterly repulsive subhuman and I actually loathe his character, though he does have his charms. I never was a fan of Grandpa Walton (in real life he was a wretched excuse for a man, and was so non-believable as a “doctor” in this episode). However, the ruthless murders of the struggling vet/ex-stoner and the perpetually lovely Anne Francis were utterly senseless detestable acts. That’s the one Columbo episode that is uncomfortable to watch.

    Bravo to all of Jack Cassidy’s characters. I truly yearned for all of them to escape capture, except for the killing of Martin Milner’s character…that one was rather coy….and I like Mickey Spillane, but didn’t shed tears over his character getting whacked by the creepy Anarchist cookbook dude……..Eddie “I must have fragged a couple hundred in Nam” Kane was also technically a Columbo murderer, lest we forget.

    Both of William Shattner’s characters left room to be desired. Shattner is pure Canadian bacon (ham)….gotta love him, though.

    Columbo never gets old. Kudos to a great website in it’s honor.

    • Van Patten”s performance in the kitchen of the Mission is hysterical, as Colombo is mistaken for a homeless man. Vito Scotti is splendid, as always. Another funny from Negative Reaction is when Columbo drives into the abandoned junkyard, the camera pans up to a sign that says We Buy Junk Cars. A Cop stops him and tells him to turn around. Once identified the Columbo-mobile won’t start. Later, the Lieutenant asks Galesko if he has a picture of a Cocker Spaniel to assuage Dog. Dick Van Dyke who cant help but be funny, even in a serious role, says no. Colombo episodes are rich with humor, whether it be his raincoat, his car, him droning on about his wife or endless in laws or cousins, or Dog. It could be Celeste Holm fainting or calling him Lieutenant Columbus. What do you think his funniest moments were?

  9. Pingback: Vote for your favourite Columbo killer! | The Columbophile

  10. I loved Lee Grant in the Ransom for a Dead Man. She is so smooth, cool and calculating. I was always a fan of hers as a kid anyway.

  11. With Columbo villains, it’s all about the actors for me. My favourite villain without doubt is Nicole Williamson. He was such an incredible actor, so subtle and understated, but with such disturbing power. I really love that episode: the word association game, the Hollywood memorabilia – the frickin’ dogs!! Definitely the most bloodthirsty villain. ROSEBUD!!!! Can watch that one endlessly. Next, I adore watching Peter Falk go up against Cassavetes. Their love for each other is so apparent, but at the same time there’s the competition. It’s a very sexy episode; the scene where they’re talking about New York – like butter. Whoever dreamed up Cassavetes doing Bernstein deserves special credit. I’d put Lee Grant in at third, but with one qualification; I do wish it had been later in the series. I don’t feel Peter Falk was as comfortable in the Columbo skin at that early stage, so the chemistry wasn’t as powerful as I think it would have been if it had been made a year or two later. But it’s still a great episode – the plane ride really was the first introduction to Columbo’s hilarious list of “idiosyncrasies” and the juxtaposition with Grant’s marvelous self-assuredness make it a classic scene. I then love Trish Van Devere – I think that’s one of the best conceived and written episodes, and from the point of view of the villain, the most sympathetic; even more so than the Ruth Gordon episode which gets a little too schmaltzy for me (she always did have a tendency to lay it on a little too thick.) Fourth, I loved Joyce Van Patten, the scenario for her episode was probably the most eccentric, bordering on gothic Victoriana. It’s a very odd little episode, but her nuanced and delicate performance manages to give the character much more depth than was on the page, which I think made the denouement probably one of the best in the series. I then love Anne Baxter’s performance as the Hollywood legend – it’s just a pitch perfect performance that drips old-school class and cattiness (a little Tallulah, a little Joan etc.) And the cameo with Edith Head – wow! Sixth, I’d say Oskar Werner. Apart from being one of the most fun and best conceived murders, Werner was just perfectly cast as the brilliant technologist. He was such an intense and truthful actor, he just rivets you to the screen. Vera Miles is my number eight – her character is a marvelous Cruella De Vil! Such a fun episode. Number nine would be Patrick McGoohan in Dawn’s Early Light. Even though I think it’s the most intelligent performance in the entire series, and Patrick McGoohan was a frickin’ genius (and one of my favourite actors) I can’t say I liked the scenario as much, which is why it only comes in at nine. Ten would have to be a cheat: all the villains played by Robert Culp and Jack Cassidy – adored all those episodes.

    A list of the best directed episodes would be interesting too. I would put Ben Gazzara’s “Troubled Waters” at Number 1. Got a little vérité on that one. Shame he never played a villain, he would have made a great one.

  12. One of my favourites moments is when Milo Janis is taken down after he forced the former wife to attempt suicide and their confrontation in the hospital waiting area.

  13. How about a Top 10 Columbo murderers co-conspirators – willingly and unwillingly? But I don’t know if there’s enough over 10 to make a Top 10. lol Or if you haven’t done it already ( thought I read an article on here about the murderers who wouldn’t be convicted or get off with a slap on the wrist), Top 10 of “They got away with murder.”

  14. I love your site and I am a huge Columbo fan. I just dont understand you love for the Suitable for Framing episode or Ross Martin. That episode is way further down my list. And Martin I find quite the bore. I do like the end with the gloves. That being said, I love most of your other opinions and the detail you go into on everything is very admarable. Especially since I know this doesn’t pay the bills.

  15. My least favourite murderers (70s run) would be the murderer from a matter of honour , Joyce van Patten in old fashioned murder , the chef Paul Gerard in murder under glass , the murderer in mind over mayhem , last salute , terrible episodes general Hollister from dead weight and of course the duo from dagger of the mind .
    lets not forget though these were the COMPARITIVLEY poor episodes and that could be a lot of reasoning behind it . A lot of Colombo fans don’t rate Oskar Werner’s role as Harold von wick including colombophile but I don’t mind it , yes he wasn’t particularly funny
    but its was a decent episode and he doesn’t depress me like the ones previously mentioned.

  16. Here is a rough outline of my 10 top columbo killers
    1) Abigail Mitchell
    2) Oscar finch
    3) Kay freestone
    4) Dr Barry mayfield
    5) nelson Brenner
    6) Paul galesko
    7) Riley greenleaf
    8) colonel kyle Rumford
    9) Dr Bert keppel
    10) Leon lemar

    • Yes, Dr. Bart Keppel is a ruthless killer, but his insistence on being called Dr. Keppel is pomposity at it’s finest.

      • Neglected to mention your no.1 pick, Abigail Mitchell. A good choice. Her crime was hideous. How was she so sure that Edmund killed her Phyliss? The police couldn’t find her. Columbo did discover that there were no pictures of her in Edmund’s apt. Not enough evidence to conclude that he killed her, One of Dogs finest moments when he went back to sleep after the Lieutenant told Ruth Gordon that the ocean made him peskier

  17. its very difficult to distinguish between favourite killers because you have to think of the motive and I’ve only looked at this post breifley so here would be a rough of my top 5 draft mr lemar is top killing his own nephew freddie and then showing false remorse in front of colombo , Kay freestone killing her buisness partner to gain promotion olive brandt killing his best freind bertie as hes spoiling his wife with stolen funds , of course abigail mitchell murdering edmund although maybwe he had it coming and for now dr barry mayfield was evil in a stitch in crime.

  18. Really enjoy the killers that Columbo hated like Dr. Barry Mayfield and Milo Janus, and 2 that he genuinely liked such as Adrian Carsini and Tommy Brown (gotta include Cash). Anyway this is a really cool website, I’ve been a huge fan since the mid 80’s and even got my wife watching episodes with me…..her fave is Abigail Mitchell. Enjoy reading other fans views…..Happy Holidays!

  19. Joe Devlin is such a multi-talented fellow – poet, musician, raconteur, all-around entertainer, arms expert – that I felt he made a formidable, and somewhat disturbing, villain despite his friendliness. You’d think a guy who could do all that so well, could get away with murder.

    • I’m reminded of the dialogue from Hitchcock’s Dial M For Murder:
      Tony Wendice:How do you go about writing a detective story?
      Mark Halliday: Well, you forget detection and concentrate on crime. Crime’s the thing. And then you imagine you’re going to steal something or murder somebody.
      Tony Wendice: Oh, is that how you do it? It’s interesting.
      Mark Halliday: Yes, I usually put myself in the criminal’s shoes and then I keep asking myself, uh, what do I do next?
      Margot Mary Wendice: Do you really believe in the perfect murder?
      Mark Halliday: Mmm, yes, absolutely. On paper, that is. And I think I could, uh, plan one better than most people; but I doubt if I could carry it out.
      Tony Wendice: Oh? Why not?
      Mark Halliday: Well, because in stories things usually turn out the way the author wants them to; and in real life they don’t… always.

      Then, after he gets caught:
      Tony Wendice: As you said Mark, it might work out on paper, but congratulations,

  20. The first thought upon reading the introduction: is Keppel in? Yes! One of my favorites. And then, while coming close to No. 1: will it be Riley? Yes! I knew that… I agree with many of these choices, but Mr. Markham is definitely missing!

  21. I can’t believe the name of Jarvis Goodland hasn’t appeared on this page yet. Of course the man’s a flamboyant nitwit, a first-class twit in a third rate toupee. But it’s his braying cluelessness, like Ronald Coleman with a snootful, that puts him in his own odd light. I’m not saying he was the worst/greatest. But perhaps the most over the top. It’s a tossup between him and Viveca Scott.

    • Jarvis is hilarious and would make my top 20. He along with Viveca are definitely two of the most underrated killers and both their episodes are also underrated

      My top 10 is already listed but here is my positions 11-20

      11. Riley Greenleaf
      12. The Great Santini
      13. Leslie Williams
      14. Ray Flemming
      15. Milo Janus
      16. Oliver Brandt
      17. Nelson Hayward
      18. Jarvis Goodland
      19. Lauren Staton
      20..Vivian Dimitri

    • I absolutely HATE Ray Milland’s performance as Jarvis Goodland in Greenhouse Jungle. It’s not that it’s over the top. So is Rip Torn’s delicious performance in an otherwise second tier outing, Death Hits The Jackpot (but I love to watch Torn in almost anything).

      Milland seems to shout every single line in Greenhouse Jungle, pausing dramatically with arched eyebrow to “send home” his message–high school acting, at best. He was not always such a one-note actor, but by this time he wallowed in self-parody. (Admittedly, he was adequate in Death Lends a Hand, but no better than that. Any of a dozen lesser known character actors could have done as well.)

      He really began to decline with Panic In The Year Zero (which he also directed). His major theatrical release around the time of the Columbo outings was The Thing With Two Heads in which he cozied up (literally) with Rosie Grier. ‘Nuff said.

      • What I like most about Jarvis is how he fancies himself to be some sort of Voltaire while wallowing in his own pomposity. He’s like Wile E Coyote, Super-Genius, until the Lieutenant turns up on a dirt pile in his sol-AR-ium. In the comments here, people seem to object most to how loud and stupid he is. Well…guilty as charged I guess. But he obviously thinks he’s twice-again as smart to Columbo’s twice-as-dumb (he thinks) cop. And I kind of like seeing that in these episodes.

      • i agree i cant stand ray millands performance its annoying on the whole and i dont enjoy the greenhouse jungle its well in the Lower ranks of my 70s episodes. on the other hand i do not agree with you on rip torn it was a great script , murdering his nephew Freddie who won the lottery and then pretending he won it then sleeping with freddies Ex, most of all though he play acts a remorseful broken man eveytime columbo is about like at the funeral , the first night at the costume party and at the jewellery shop were columbo questions him about the watch he switches role very well .

    • The name is Ronald Colman, and I consider his performance as Sydney Carton, in A Tale of Two Cities (1935), one of the greatest ever.

  22. I happened to be cycling through Publish or Perish this evening, and was admiring how Greenleaf structured his plan so the crazed-revenge-killer aspect had to slowly emerge, as if it were the real cause. He’s even “blacked out” during his alibi. And he gets to act surprised at every twist he’s given it, from the bashed fender to the “stolen” key. A degree of intricacy that actually undoes the plan, when that lock starts changing back and forth. And Rock Hudson doesn’t get shot. It would have worked great if nothing changed!

        • Character. Although I also find her physically repulsive, I would still attribute that to the character rather than the actress. I have seen a fair amount of criticism of certain actors’ performances on this site, for instance, Ray Milland in The Greenhouse Jungle, but off the top of my head, I can’t think of any times that I did not like an episode because of bad acting. It has more to do with the character being dull or unattractive/repulsive, two more examples being, Harold Van Wick and Ruth Lytton. The most important thing in a story is to have a good plot, and secondarily, strong characters. Also, some people tend to object to ‘over-the-top’ acting, but I tend not to, for instance, William Shatner, in certain scenes on Star Trek.

        • what exactly determines a great columbo killer ? is it the motive they had , lack of remorse , how many people they killed or planned to kill there are so many different murderers and scenarios its hard to even start with a top ten but my least favorite would be lieutenant lucern from a fade in to murder his character is just annoying and it was never a great episode 70s episodes im on about for now.

        • Also, I recently saw the ending of that episode again, and not only has she tried to kill Columbo and his wife, but in the end, she slaps Columbo!

    • One of my favorites too. She was really sad (grieving the loss of her husband) and yet so mean spirited.

    • Helen Shaver was one of my best Gotha’s as she tried to kill Columbo and his bride. She was a self assured wench who was thankfully outwitted in the end.

      • Despite my belief that one wrong can’t justify another, this lady was quite evidently tormented by grief from her husband’s death as he served time. So, her mind isn’t rational when she tried to “repay” Lt. Columbo in like kind. I actually felt sorry for her in a way. Remember how she cried at the very end before her final “Gotcha” moment arrived?

        • I couldn’t agree more. From the first time I’ve watched it and Everytime since, I’ve always felt very sorry for her. She seemed, to me, to be suffering immensely. That scene where she has her husband’s pictures on the wall and she’s drinking and listening to music is so sad to me. She really needed help and I feel she wasn’t in a right frame of mind, obviously. The pain and loss she must’ve felt blinded her. It’s very sad actually but it’s one of my favorite “new” columbo’s.

  23. My top 10

    1. Kay Freestone
    2.Mark Halperin
    3. Paul Galesko
    4. Col. Rumford
    5. Barry Mayfield
    6. Ken Franklin
    7. Bart Kepple
    8. Mark Collier
    9. Adrian Carsini
    10 Viveca Scott

    It would have been easy to include all of Jack Cassidy’s characters but i decided just to have one. Viveca is not going to be on many peoples list i guess but i found her enjoyably bitchy and i quite like her episode, even though again its not many peoples favourites. Kay is by far my favourite female killer and overall favourite, but my top 5 are all pretty close. Dick Van Dyke was splendid, Mark Halperin was the most powerful, Col. Rumford the most tormented and Barry Mayfield and coldest killer of all.

      • I LOVE all the Columbo tv programs, hard for me to pick, just one, Peter Falk had me at Prescription Murder,I’ve been hooked ever since,long live “Columbo!”

    • Kay #1 as her license plate read, my fave as well. Great acting, I thought! I sort of sympathized with her as a woman in business in the 70s, when it was still so much a boys club. She had so much determination to get away with it.

    • The ‘highly commended’ characters take the number up to 20. There are probably another 4-5 more really excellent performances I couldn’t squeeze in (Kay Freestone, Investigator Brimmer, Milo Janus, maybe even Justin & Coop from Columbo Goes to College).

  24. Most of Columbo killers would be a profiler’s dream. There’s some much wealth of detail in many of them, that one can’t help wandering what, in their background, has lead them to such nefarious deeds. Just last week, while watching Make Me A Perfect Murder (a wonderful episode, by the way), the exchange between Kay Freestone and Columbo in her childhood home as well as her relation with Lainie Kazan’s character spoke volumes about her personality and motivations. In the end, I felt sorry for her. One of the most solitary characters in the series.

    • She (Kay Freestone) was my favorite and it was my favorite episode. She was so overly confident, ruthlessly ambitious, yet showed her kind side in comforting her friend.

  25. In the honorable mention column, I’d add the characters Dr. Joan Allenby (Lindsay Crouse) from “Sex and the Married Detective” (1989) and Justin Rowe (Stephen Caffey) and Cooper Redman (Gary Hershberger) from “Columbo Goes to College” (1990). Dr. Allenby is a much more unusual murderer (or, rather, murderess) than usual and her character has dimension and richness. The same can be said, to a lesser extent, about the characters Justin and Cooper, who are a sort of high-tech modern-day Leopold and Loeb, albethey more pragmatically motivated. Also, as a separate issue, the three actors playing these roles do a great job.

    BTW, when watching “Columbo Goes to College,” I’d recommend as a companion piece, the movie “Compulsion” (1959), based on the Leopold and Loeb crime, which is a tour de force of acting. Notably, the movie also includes great performances by Dean Stockwell, Martin Milner, and Richard Anderson, each of whom, as long-time Columbo fans know, also starred as Columbo victims.

      • Gary, there is much to commend in Hitch’s “Rope,” but the experimental nature of it (involving a real-time narrative and the simulation of a single take for the entire film) will probably be lost on today’s audiences. Of course, if you love movies regardless of the era they were made and you love Hitchcock, “Rope” is a must-see. “Compulsion,” on the other hand, with its focus on the psychology of the characters and its almost Columboesque structure should have great appeal to Columbo fans. It’s available, for now, to watch on YouTube:

        • Thanks for the link; I’ll get around to watching it eventually. But who cares about ‘today’s audiences’? I don’t. I don’t care about ‘millennials’, those with short attention spans, those who are in favor of political correctness and censorship and consider a mere disagreement with them, with being hypercritical, rather than it reflecting on their own hypersensitivity. I also don’t care for those who are of the social media generation who don’t know or follow the rules of proper communication, in terms of spelling and grammar. That being said, I have a ‘rule of thumb’, not an absolute, that in terms of TV, movies and music, from 1980 and on, it is not so good. That is certainly true of Columbo, with the later episodes being on a much lower rung, on average. I’m a big Hitchcock fan, and I’ve seen all of his available films, and I like films from each of his eras, silent, British and American, but my favorites are still the more famous American films, Vertigo, North By Northwest, The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), Strangers on a Train.

        • Unfortunately, I watched the film, because the latter part, with the psychobabble and pleas for mercy, was downright evil. The first part had a more realistic depiction of murderers, as most of the people on this site seem to think of Columbo murderers as great big teddy bears that they’d invite over to a dinner party. Speaking of which, the bit with one of them talking to his teddy bear was hysterical. The classic novel, Crime and Punishment, by Fyodor Dostoevsky, had its main character, Rodion Raskolnikov, write an article, On Crime, which introduced Raskolnikov’s idea of a “superman,” arguing that certain extraordinary people are above the masses of humanity and so have the right to violate moral codes, for instance, by committing murder.

          • Sorry “Compulsion” wasn’t to your liking. Many of the events depicted in the movie did happen, and Clarence Darrow did make pleas for mercy much as Orson Welles’ character did. And some of the lines in the movie were drawn directly from his pleas before the judge, such as this one: “I have heard in the last six weeks nothing but the cry for blood. I have heard raised from the office of the state’s attorney nothing but the breath of hate.” The film did take considerable liberties, though, particularly for the purpose of “humanizing” Dean Stockwell’s character. And the addition of Diane Varsi’s character along those lines was pure fiction. However, from the standpoint of good drama, those “humanizing” elements made the characters more interesting.

            I also thought that Columbo fans would appreciate the movie as one of the early dramatic examples of the inverted detective story format, including Bradford Dillman’s “charming” character working with the police to attempt to mislead them. Also, in writing this, I realized that “Compulsion” has not just three actors who went on to become Columbo story victims, but four actors: Dean Stockwell, Martin Milner, Richard Anderson, and Bradford Dillman. So, I’m now thinking that the “Compulsion”-Columbo connections aren’t just wild coincidences and that “Compulsion” made an impression on Columbo’s producers, Lewison and Link.

            • Was Orson Welles that made up or did he really look that bad at the time? If Diane Varsi’s character was the one that was going to be raped and/or murdered, she is the typical liberal, that enables evil. She slaps Martin Milner when he expresses the right attitude. But after she testifies in favor of mercy, and now he admires her, that is the lowest possible level. About the only good thing that was said in the last half of the movie was when one of the murderers said that they should have been hanged.

              • Orson Welles was in his early 40s at the time “Compulsion” was made. And his aged and weathered look was the result of makeup artist Ben Nye, who would later do the makeup for “Planet of the Apes” (1968). According to what I’ve read, Welles was very upset with the movie and its production for a variety of reasons. He wanted to direct as well as act in it. And the IRS was also pursuing him. He stormed off the set when he completed his job.

  26. Hi. I love this post and agree with most of them. I would’ve put Joe Devlin in the top 10 though and even though this killer is mentioned no where, I have to give Milos Janus an honorable mention. I love exercise in fatility. I’m probably one of the few who feel that but I think he did a great job. I love when he made columbo run with him during his workout..

  27. Thank you for this entertaining and accurate list of murders. My favorite of all time made your Top 10 list: Dr. Barry Mayfield, the sociopathic medical doctor. “A Stitch in Crime” is also my favorite episode of all time. Keep up the excellent work and thank you for your blogposts!

    Pat Rarus, MS

    Marcom Consulting Group

    Home Office: 760-630-2089

    Mobile: 760-216-1444

  28. No outrage, but I can’t figure out how Nelson Brenner didn’t make even your list of runners up. Cold, cynical, suave, yet intriguing with excellent line delivery and a near perfect murder plan. My only gripe would be that he had a boring character name but his parents are to blame for that. LOL. He tops my list with Abigail crowding in on him.

  29. For me, a “best killer” list should focus primarily on the cleverness of the killer’s murder scheme, as the best killer (if one is going down that morally dubious road) should be the one who designed the most perfect (even if Columbo ultimately proves it to be imperfect) crime.

    This being the case, I would disqualify all Columbo murderers who did not plan their crimes. Spontaneous or improvised murders are rarely the cleverest. I would also disqualify any plan dependent upon the cooperation of an accomplice, as accomplices are inherently unreliable. Moreover, if a clever plan depends on an accomplice remaining silent, the killer will either be disappointed or forced to kill again. I also have a personal prejudice against gimmicks with phones, tape and video recordings; they’ve become too cliche to be the cleverest scheme. Finally, I feel compelled to disqualify The Great Santini (“Now You See Him”) for the simple reason that, however clever his crime, just being a magician makes it virtually impossible for him to exonerate himself. [Ken Franklin (“Murder by the Book”) saved himself from disqualification by admitting finally, “You want to know the irony of all this? That is my idea”; had it been Jim Ferris’ plot, as Columbo supposed, Franklin couldn’t be credited. Of course, “Murder by the Book” is one of those phone schemes.]

    With all of this in mind, I would put Paul Gerard (“Murder Under Glass”) at the top of my “best killer” list. What a simple, diabolical murder plan. If only Gerard had gone to the hospital when told that his dinner companion had been poisoned, who knows if Columbo ever would have nailed him.

    • I like your premise, and I would certainly agree with disqualifying murders that weren’t planned. I am not prejudiced against phones, and so I would have to say that one of the cleverest murders was that by Dr. Eric Mason, and his ‘accomplices’, the dogs, aren’t exactly going to talk. An obvious nomination is the murder by Oliver Brandt, but I just can’t ‘forgive’ how dumb it was to draw the red line on the dictionary. You make a good point about Santini, but anytime that the murder takes place with the murderer actually or seemingly in another place, that has got to be clever. Some good examples of that, besides Paul Gerard, are Dr. Bart Kepple, Dr. Marshall Cahill and Hayden Danziger. Elliot Markham and Sean Brantley were cases where the murderers baited Columbo into making a fool of himself, only to have their secondary plan fail. But I would say that the most clever murder was the one in Columbo Goes to College, It seems that the main thing that tripped them up was pure chance. While questioning Dominic, Columbo notices footage of Professor Rusk’s murder being run on a news program. The footage is from a different angle. Apparently, while recording a movie on an obscure channel, the person inadvertently picked up Rusk’s murder via his satellite dish. Whoever killed Rusk
      videotaped the murder.

    • i cant disagree more with Paul gerrard , good killer and plan but murder under glass is one of if not the poorest episodes of the 70s and you need a good episode to correspond with a top killer and murder under glass isn’t although a lot of people might enjoy it but i dont , im also not a big fan of the conspirators or old fashioned murder ..

    • Talk about pre-planning!I vote for Dr. Joan Allenby. That was quite an experience to watch her plan and then carry out her murder, and she looked so gorgeous throughout, even when she was supposedly the dull Dr, instead of the delectable Lisa.

  30. Nice. Hard to go wrong with any of them.

    I went a different way. Killers I wanted to get away with it:

    1} Grace Wheeler {Technically the only one who…..}
    2} Adrian Carsini
    3} Abigail Mitchell
    4} The Great Santini
    5} Joe Devlin

    I could only get to 5

    Love the site.

  31. A EXCELLENT Article Which I Throughly Enjoyed!! Jack Cassidy, I Totally Agree,Was Columbo’s Best Advisory, And I TOTALLY UNDERSTAND The Anguish You Went Through To Decide Which Of His Three Turns Was The Best!! I Could & Have Watched Them Match Wits Over & Over, And It Never Grows Old!! Ruth Gordon Bout Against The Lieutenant Was AWESOME!! KEEP UP THE GREAT ARTICLES FOR US COLUMBOPHILES!

  32. First off, thanks for all the work to produce another highly enjoyable piece on our favorite TV character. I think 7 of your entries are so extraordinary and unique that it is hard to argue with them as all-time greats, though one could perhaps think of another character or two who could perhaps rank equally. My three disagreements relate to your point on not choosing actors, but characters. In my opinion, our views of certain actors inevitably affect what we think of their particular performances. I think Culp was a highly talented actor, and I enjoyed all of his 3 performances very much, but I never thought of him as an elite actor, and neither did I think any of his 3 were utterly unforgettable characters, who literally carry the episode. Moreover, I thought Hanlon was by far the weakest of the 3, and I would definitely put Galesko over him, for his sheer arrogance and coldblooded nature as a killer.

    It is because Jack Cassidy was such a great actor that he made each of his 3 performances unforgettably special. So I’d definitely replace Hanlon with The Great Santini. As I have also stated several times elsewhere, I just fail to see why Ross Martin’s performance blew you away, and I think it colored your vision in also seeing that episode as better than it really is (i.e., a classic, rather than a very good one). I don’t think he even comes close to Colonel Rumford in A Deadly State of Mind, either in the complexity of the character, or the quality of the acting. By the time he is nailed, you almost feel for him as if he were a real person. Likewise, his completely anti-Columbo nature is so strong, that the two of them create scene after unforgettable scene of classic TV. I could argue for Oscar Finch as well if I had the time to get into it now. (I would even consider McGoohan’s Nelson Brenner if not for the fact that it went way afar with the whole CIA angle, and I could not stand seeing him go unpunished. McGoohan was so good, that even Ashes to Ashes was extremely enjoyable because of him.) And speaking of characters who made you feel for them, I never saw Johnny Cash in any other movie, but in Swan Song he just blew me away, and that final scene with Columbo would probably make for one of my top 5 all-time endings. You get the feeling Falk also felt that way. I would put either Cash’s Tommy Brown, or Joe Devlin from the Conspirators in place of Brimmer, because each of them carried the show (together with Columbo, of course) to a far greater degree than Brimmer, and each of them made you feel conflicted feelings as to whether you wanted them to be caught or not. For honorable mention, Nicole Williamson’s Dr. Eric Mason, whose face matched the viciousness of the cold blooded and frightening killer that he was.
    Finally, how could you leave out the killer in Last Commodore? Ok, I can see why on second thought. You were probably in such a drunken stupor by the end, that like me, you can’t even remember who the killer really was.

  33. Bravo for these anti-heroes & this most enjoyable round-up! Time to watch Riley Greenleaf’s episode again – it’s been a decade or so.

  34. Lovely idea, thistop 10 and I agree this is a tough one. So many greats to choose from,it’s almost impossible. I can’t do more than a top 5, in random order:

    Dr Bart Kepel, for all the reasons mentioned above

    Ken Franklin, idem

    Luis Montoya, because of his motive. Columbo mentions it himself: ‘I think I know why the victim was killed, but I’m afraid no one will believe me.’ Montoya can’t have it known that he was scared, ever, and it shows. I think he was a great killer to catch for Columbo.

    Oscar Finch, perfectly briljant, a great challenge for Columbo, and the way he’s always nibbling at something, or chewing gum, and of course cheese.

    Kay Freestone, because of all the layers in her character. She’s tough, but when she actually executes her murder plan, you can feel the tension, not just of what’s happening, but she’s having difficulty holding her nerves, unlike some other Columbo killers. In this episode facing Columbo is her challenge, more than the other way around. I like that, for a change.

    • One of the best musical scores for Columbo, as well, helped us feel the tension.
      I actually found Columbo kind of sexy in this one.

  35. Columbophile has proven the great W.S. Gilbert to be wrong where Gilbert famously penned,

    “He’s got ’em on the list — he’s got ’em on the list;
    And they’ll none of ’em be missed — they’ll none of ’em be missed.”

    This Columbo villain list is golden and, indeed, these well-rounded characters and the actors’ splendid performances are some of the main reasons that we return again and again to these ageless episodes.

  36. Without accepting the idea that one could have a favorite killer, although some are more ‘colorful’ or edgy or deliciously diabolical, instead I’ll list five who at the end that I’d have the most sympathy for, Adrian Carsini, Abigail Mitchell, Tommy Brown, Dr. Marshall Cahill and Colonel Lyle Rumford.

  37. Excellent list. I would have put Galesko near the very top of my list but you can’t go wrong with this group IMHO.


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