Episode Guide / Opinion / Season 5

Episode review: Columbo Forgotten Lady


Columbo’s season 5 opener proved that the show had lost none of its ambition by casting Hollywood Royalty Janet Leigh as musical murderess Grace Wheeler-Willis.

With an Oscar nomination to her name and a slew of blockbuster motion pictures on her CV, Leigh became one of the series’ highest-profile killers, bringing vivacity and vulnerability to a challenging role as a fading film star plotting her route back to the top.

But is Forgotten Lady certain to win the hearts and minds of a contemporary audience? Or will it fade into obscurity like an aged leading lady without her former dance partner? Let’s turn back the clocks to 14 September, 1975 and find out…

Forgotten Lady cast 2

Dramatis personae

Lieutenant Columbo: Peter Falk
Grace Wheeler-Willis: Janet Leigh
Ned Diamond: John Payne
Dr Henry Willis: Sam Jaffe
Raymond: Maurice Evans
Alma: Linda Scott
Sergeant Leftkowitz: Francine York
Dog: As himself
Written by: Bill Driskill and Peter S Fischer
Directed by: Harvey Hart
Score by: Jeff Alexander
Notable locations: Wheeler-Willis house, 141 N Grand Ave, Pasadena, California

Episode synopsis: Columbo Forgotten Lady

We’re on the red carpet at the premiere of Song & Dance. Amongst the attendees being interviewed for TV are Grace Wheeler and Ned Diamond, big stars from the musicals of yesteryear, although far from the household names they once were.

Red carpet

Glamming it up like ’twere 1953: Wheeler and Diamond

That could be about to change. Buoyed by the reception to the movie (which featured snippets of classic musicals, including those she and Ned appeared in), Grace takes the opportunity to reveal she’s plotting her comeback in a new Broadway show that darling Ned will direct and choreograph. Grace herself will cough up $500,000 in funding to make it a reality.

While Grace is loving the limelight, someone else is less impressed. Watching the interview on TV at home, her decrepit husband Dr Henry Willis switches off the set and turns his attentions instead to a good book.

Once home, the energetic Grace sashays around like a woman in love… with herself. She sneaks a sleeping pill from the unguarded medicine cabinet and shimmies up to her bedroom – a gaudily decorated monstrosity, replete with photographs of herself from earlier days – before finally popping in to see Henry.

As butler Raymond delivers Dr Willis his bedtime milk and designated sleeping pill, Grace whirls about the room, cooing about how the crowd loved her and how half a mill of Henry’s hard-earned dollars will be a great investment. After all: “The qualities that make a star never diminish,” she reasons. “So, by financing my own production, I will be before the public again, and they will learn to love me all over again.

Henry doesn’t so much as rain on Grace’s parade as smite it with a hurricane. He won’t be bankrolling the comeback, and he chides Grace for living in a fantasy world. I rather suspect they’ve had this conversation several times before…

Henry’s unwillingness to finance a pipe dream seals his fate. As soon as his back’s turned, Grace empties the contents of the extra sleeping pill into his milk before flouncing off to watch her favourite movie. Old Henry subsequently downs a double dose of sleeping draught. That’s NAP TIME, baby!

Columbo Sam Jaffe

“Stubborn, stuffy, sick old man.” Grace sure knows how to sweet talk husband Henry!

Once she’s safely in front of said movie (Walking My Baby Back Home – a big hit from her past), Grace puts the rest of her plan into action. After Raymond has set the film rolling and returned to his late supper, Grace jallops out across the lawn and removes a gun from the glove box of Henry’s car. She returns in time for Raymond to change the reel.

After the meddling servant has beetled off again, Grace sneaks up to Henry’s room and finds him deep in a drug-induced slumber. Setting a medical file open on his bed and his book on the side table, she places the gun in Henry’s grip and – BLAM – rids herself of the old killjoy for good.

Luckily the palatial size of the house, coupled with the servants watching Johnny Carson at a million decibels, means no one hears the shot, so after locking Henry’s door from the inside Grace hops off the balcony onto a tree limb and springs to the lawn as deftly as Catwoman to make good her getaway back to the home cinema.

There’s a fly in the ointment, though. While she’s been out SLAYING, the reel of film has broken! In a flap, Grace fixes it and settles back to watch the closing scenes before the skulking Raymond returns to tidy up after her. She slips away and sits cooing at her own reflection in the mirror until her husband’s fate is uncovered by the butler.

Cut to the exterior of the house and an ocean of police black and whites. Lieutenant Columbo is amongst the investigating officers – and he’s as exhausted as we ever see him. Woken in the dead of night, the addled detective hasn’t even remembered to put on his suit jacket, so doesn’t have his  police ID on him. Finally admitted and armed with a cup of coffee, he heads upstairs for a look around.

Columbo Forgotten Lady

Columbo was even more of a shambles than usual when he arrived at the scene

The medical officer makes it clear that he’s fallen for the depressed-old-man-commits-suicide theory. Henry appears to have been reading a medical report recommending prostate surgery, after all. Columbo, however, has doubts. For one thing, Raymond says Henry wasn’t depressed in the least and was planning a trip around the world. Hardly the actions of a man planning to take his own life.

Also why take a sleeping pill if you’re about to put yourself to sleep permanently? It’s a puzzle alright, but with Grace sedated due to the ‘shock’, Columbo will have to wait till morning to seek further answers.

The next day, Grace is up and about and breakfasting with Ned. He offers to postpone starting work on their production, but she won’t hear of it. “What did Rosie do the night her father died?” Grace asks, referring to the title character from Walking My Baby. “She performed. Best performance of her life.”

Ned looks a bit bewildered, although doubtless puts it down to the shock of Henry’s death. “Grace, Rosie was a character in a film,” he responds gently. “But there’s no difference,” Grace replies – giving the audience the first clear hint that she’s ‘not all there’ upstairs.

Columbo arrives and is cock-a-hoop to lay eyes on Ned Diamond in the flesh. “My wife dragged me to every musical you were ever in,” he enthuses. “I’m sorry you had to be dragged,” Diamond deadpans back. It’s not all bonhomie, though, as Diamond warns Columbo not to upset his beloved Grace.

Columbo Ned Diamond

Finally! An actor sporting a rakishly angled hat that ISN’T the bad guy!

There seems no danger of that as Columbo fawns over Grace at their first meeting – much to the delight of the fading film star. She’s satisfied that Henry took his own life and is determined to ‘be strong’ and carry on. The two inspect the scene of the crime and contemplate the tree that grows up beside the balcony. Could a killer have come into Henry’s room this way? No way brah, says Grace. It’s not humanly possible to climb up as the lower branches have been removed.

Columbo next heads to hospital to speak to one of Henry’s contemporaries – a Dr Lansberg – to discuss the state of the victim’s troublesome prostate. And while it was subject to infection and could have become malignant if untreated, Henry himself was reasonably unconcerned about it – as befits one of the leading diagnosticians of his time.

It’s yet further reason to doubt suicide, but as Columbo digests this information he’s accosted by Sergeant Leftkowitz from the LAPD’s computer section. According to her files, Columbo hasn’t taken his pistol test for five years! He’s required to pass one every six months. Blaming computer error, Columbo denies the accusation and the officious Sergeant bustles off promising to double check her sources.

Someone else running into trouble is Grace, who’s struggling to keep up with the demanding dance routine in the first practice session with the cast of the new musical. She’s losing her cool and blaming the ‘rank amateurs’ around her for her woes rather than accepting the fault lies with her.

Forgotten 6

There’s no excuse to not wear a matching head scarf when rehearsing, amirite?

Her mood is not improved when Columbo drops in. He’s got questions about the book Henry was reading on the night of his death. Not only was it a comedic read – strange choice for someone about to commit suicide – but it had not been ‘dog-eared’ on that final night, as was Henry’s usual bookmarking style. Instead the book had simply been closed and placed on the bedside table.

Grace doesn’t see the relevance, but it’s one of those classic ‘little things’ that bother Columbo. “From my experience, ma’am, I’ve discovered that people don’t usually forget to do that which they usually do,” he explains. Yet more evidence to suggest foul play.

After a further run-in with the department about his failure to complete his pistol test, Columbo grills Raymond about the night of the crime. The butler explains that he started the film for Grace at 11pm sharp, then watched Johnny Carson until 1am. When that finished, he returned to the projection room where the film was just finishing. Make note of this, as it will be vital later on. Columbo even gets the go-ahead to check Henry’s medical files that he kept locked in the basement.

Grace and Ned are also home, and Columbo’s presence unnerves Grace. She becomes irritable, first demanding Ned replace the young hunk he’s hired to be the lead man in the forthcoming musical, then raging at him for the drunken car crash, years earlier, that forced Diamond to quit dancing and scuppered both their careers. It’s a scene packed with regret.

Problems are mounting for everyone – not least Columbo who is told  to complete his gun test or lose his badge! His determination to close the Wheeler case is as strong as ever, though, and he undertakes an unusual experiment to test a hunch. While Grace and Ned entertain a merry crowd at Wheeler HQ, Columbo slips up to Henry’s room. He takes a leap of faith off the balcony on to a high tree branch and, after dangling awkwardly, releases his grip and tumbles onto the lawn below.

Columbo Forgotten Lady

After avoiding breaking his neck in a leap from the tree, Columbo is more certain than ever that Grace killed Henry – though she remains oblivious to his suspicions

Having noticed all this, Grace rushes out to see what’s going on. Columbo is unhurt but has proved a point. Someone could have locked Henry’s door from within and escaped via the tree – especially someone in better shape than him, which Grace certainly is.

Grace, however, isn’t concerned. Indeed, she suspects his repeat visits are less to do with cracking the case and more to do with him simply enjoying ‘being around the magic of show business‘! It’s a delusional thought at this stage of a murder inquiry, and Columbo’s facial expressions indicate he thinks so, too.

As we accelerate towards the conclusion, Columbo starts forcing the issue. He pays a colleague to take his pistol test and confronts Ned about his belief that Grace killed Henry. And despite a damning list of evidence to back up his claim, the ever-defensive Ned won’t accept that Grace is a murderer. So Columbo plays his trump card. “I think she did it,” he says forcefully. “She invited me to her house tonight to watch her film. I’m going. If she means anything to you, you ought to be there.”

Naturally, Ned shows up. Columbo has selected Walking My Baby as the film to watch, and Grace has pulled out the stops to impress. There’s Champagne, caviar and hors d’ouevres, and all three are dressed in their best – including Columbo, who’s sporting a tuxedo in the series for the very first time, earning praise from Grace who enthuses that he looks ‘simply smashing‘!

Columbo Forgotten Lady tuxedo

Jealous Ned glowered when Grace told Columbo he looked ‘simply smashing’ in his tux

As Grace flits about, the two men share a broken conversation. Columbo lays out more of his problems with the case. For one thing, the movie they’re watching tonight – the same one Grace watched on the fatal night – has a running time of 1 hour 45 minutes. Yet on that night it was still playing when Raymond came back to tidy up – two hours after he started it. That’s 15 minutes unaccounted for.

The detective has surmised that Grace left the home cinema and slew Henry before returning and finding the film had broken. The time it took Grace to repair the film, plus the time she was committing murder, would explain why the film over-ran by 15 minutes. To test that theory he’s laid a little trap, rigging the film so that it will break moments into the screening – sending a panicky Grace fleeing to the projection room, where she proves she’s suitably adept at splicing.

“Grace’s inoperable brain aneurysm means that, in all likelihood, she can’t even remember killing her husband.”

Reality is dawning on Ned. But Columbo then reveals his moral quandary. When examining Henry’s medical files, Columbo found one under the name of ‘Rosemary Landon’ – Henry’s codename for his wife – that reveals Grace has an inoperable brain aneurysm. It’s caused a progressive memory disease that, in all likelihood, means that Grace can’t even remember killing her husband.

That’s why Columbo knows Henry would never have agreed to bankroll Grace’s comeback, because the strain of performing could kill her at any moment. “How long has she got?” Ned asks. The answer is grim. A couple of weeks, perhaps. Two months at most.

Ned thinks fast. “All you’ve got is proof that it wasn’t suicide,” he concludes – just as Grace returns from splicing to overhear them talking. She flies into a temper, unable to understand why the subject of Henry’s death is still a matter of discussion. And as Columbo steps forward, seemingly about to accuse her outright of murder, the noble Ned does the only thing he can think of to protect her. “Grace, this has gone on long enough,” he says, taking her by the shoulders. “I killed Henry.”

Columbo John Payne

The awful truth finally dawns on Ned during the heartbreaking conclusion

Quaking at this stunning blow, Grace can’t take it in. But when Ned explains that he did it to allow her to become the star she used to be, and that everything will be all right, she allows herself to be seated in front of the film in a dazed, child-like, state.

The two men make to leave. “It’s not going to take long to break your story,” Columbo warns. “It might take a couple of months,” replies Ned, walking out of the house – and out of Grace’s life – forever. Columbo takes one last, wistful look back at Grace, who is sitting enrapt and tearful in front of the movie screen, as credits roll…

Forgotten Lady’s best moment – Noble Ned

The poignant conclusion to the episode packs an almighty punch – and no one helps the scene succeed more than John Payne, whose performance as Ned Diamond ranks as one of the series’ greatest support star outings.

Columbo Forgotten Lady Ned Diamond

Ned Diamond – the shining star of Forgotten Lady

Ned, who has been protecting Grace from harm throughout the episode, is racked with grief as he comes to accept that his long-time love is both a murderer and mortally ill. So rather than allowing her to face what little time she has left alive behind bars, he steps up to take the rap and calm Grace’s desperately fraying nerves.

Combining gentle tones with utterly convincing body language and expressions, it’s as believable a display of love as I’ve ever seen on the small screen. Forgotten Lady marked John Payne’s final screen appearance. He certainly went out on a high.

My thoughts on Forgotten Lady

An interesting departure from the norm, featuring a stunning twist and great emotional depth, Forgotten Lady makes for one of Columbo’s most thought-provoking adventures – and one that stays with the viewer long after the closing credits.

The key issues to consider are the desperate plight of Grace Wheeler-Willis at episode’s end, her behaviour throughout the episode and how our interpretation of her actions determines where our sympathies lie. Because this is not an open-and-shut case, for the viewer or the Lieutenant. Grace is a Columbo killer like no other.

Columbo Forgotten Lady Janet Leigh

Every inch the star: Janet Leigh as Grace Wheeler-Willis

For the most part, we can make our minds up about a Columbo killer pretty quickly. They’re generally a loathsome cad (Ken Franklin or Dale Kingston), or a sympathetic soul we can quietly root for (Abigail Mitchell or Adrian Carsini).

Grace is more difficult to pigeon-hole, because there are essentially two characters at play. The first is the petulant diva who kills her husband to finance delusions of grandeur, and whose haughty manner hurts those around her. This Grace is hard to love.

The second is the vulnerable and frustrated fading star who has never recovered from her career being cut short through no fault of her own, who has earned the love of the noble Ned Diamond, and who is succumbing to a terminal illness that has been hidden from her.

Leigh succeeds at both. At the age of 48, but playing a character I’d estimate to be closer to 60, she gives us a three-dimensional protagonist, complete with foibles, to get to grips with. And Leigh does it so well that it’s not always easy for the viewer to reconcile whether their sympathies lie with victim Henry – on the surface a wronged old man – or with Grace herself.

“Columbo’s revelation that Grace has just weeks to live must have represented a jaw-dropping twist for the first-time viewer.”

On that front, the last 10 minutes of the episode, where Grace’s condition is exposed, represent the crux of the matter. Columbo’s revelation that Grace has just weeks to live must have represented a jaw-dropping twist for the first-time viewer, who is suddenly given a potential reason for Grace’s murderous ways and erratic behaviour. This bombshell is dropped so abruptly, however, and so close to the end, that it’s difficult to digest the impact her condition might have had on the episode as a whole.

For those of us who have watched Forgotten Lady multiple times, however, it’s a different experience and one which I believe should significantly impact our feelings towards Grace.

From online conversations, I’m aware that many viewers don’t feel any sympathy for Grace. They cite her demanding behaviour as reason to castigate her, and claim that if she was mentally sharp enough to plan her husband’s murder then she deserves everything she gets. Perhaps you agree?


Despite some personal shortcomings, Grace’s enviable collection of headscarves couldn’t be faulted

I don’t think that’s being entirely fair. I take the perspective that Grace’s terminal illness has affected her behaviour over a prolonged period in the build-up to the events we see on screen, and accelerates as we watch. We don’t know how long ago her condition was diagnosed, but it’s not unreasonable to think that it could have exacerbated her negative emotions, heightened her delusions and fuelled her irrational fears – a direct causal link to the killing of Henry, which Grace believes was justified to fund her fantasy comeback.

I don’t believe that we can just assume that Grace is peeved about her husband’s miserliness and has made a rational decision to to bump him off solely because of that. To do so would be to do a disservice to writers Bill Driskill and Peter S. Fischer, who did a first-class job of subtly portraying Grace’s decline – right from her first minutes on screen when she struggles to recall names in the limo ride home.

There are many examples peppered throughout that give the observant viewer every opportunity to see a broad picture of Grace’s collapsing mental state. Consider:-

  • She continually forgets Columbo’s name – even after admitting it’s an unusual one
  • She doesn’t know what day of the week it is when her vocal trainer calls in for a lesson
  • She fails to grasp that Columbo believes she committed the crime – instead thinking his presence at her home is due to the ‘magic of show business’
  • Mood swings, over-reactions and irrational behaviour at times of stress
  • Child-like self absorption and inattentiveness
  • Failure to see the difference between her life and that of character Rosie from Walking My Baby

She’s clearly not compos mentis. Things are affecting her beyond her control, and as a result her plight fairly wrenches on the heartstrings. Indeed, with the benefit of ample contemplation, I have more sympathy for Grace than any other murderer.

Columbo Forgotten Lady Janet Leigh

Look here, sunshine. If YOU were exposed to decor like this over a prolonged period, you might resort to murder too!

Even if you’re harder of heart and think Grace is a murderous b*tch, I don’t see Henry as an entirely blameless victim. He may have loved Grace and wanted to protect her (similar to Ned, in his own fashion) but denying her knowledge of her own terminal illness borders on playing God.

True, it’s an act that likely sits less comfortably with a modern audience, but why does Henry feel it’s OK to act in such a controlling manner on so vital an issue? Oughtn’t he to have respected and loved Grace enough to tell her what fate had in store for her so she could prepare for it on her own terms? The great strength of the episode is in the moral questions like this it leaves the viewer to ponder on.

If the exposure about Grace’s illness is the unforgettable climax of the episode, there’s plenty more that warrants discussion, not  least the stellar performance of John Payne as Ned Diamond. As excellent as Janet Leigh and Peter Falk are, it’s Payne who steals the show and delivers one of the great Columbo guest star performances.

He makes Ned’s nobility, selflessness, guilt and heartbreak entirely believable. When required he’s the enforcer protecting Grace’s interests. At other times he’s her rock and shoulder to cry on. His regret that Grace chose to marry Henry rather than he – presumably after his car crash wrecked their careers – remains palpable and close to the surface throughout. He won’t let her down again.

Forgotten 1

Ned truly was a DIAMOND GEEZER *laughs till cries at own hilarity*

Ned’s unshakeable faith in Grace makes him an excellent barometer for the audience. Even when Grace is at her worst, he offers patience and support. If he can love her for all her failings, she surely deserves some understanding from us.

Such is the power of Payne’s performance, and of Leigh’s during the stark finale, that Forgotten Lady must rank as one of the most emotionally charged Columbo episodes of all. The Lieutenant himself is also drawn through the emotional wringer in a case that tests him to the max – in all the wrong ways.

“The great strength of the episode is in the moral questions it leaves the viewer to ponder on.”

The Lieutenant loves his work and thrives on cracking a perfect murder. Here, though, his moral conundrum regarding Grace’s mental state leads him to do what would have previously been unthinkable: he lets the guilty party off the hook, sparing Grace the trauma of spending her final, confused days in police custody.

It’s an act of kindness by Columbo, but is not lightly reached. Not only did he do a very thorough job of scotching the suicide theory, but he was also required to subtly manoeuvre Ned into a position where he could both believe Grace committed the crime, and decide to protect her from the consequences by taking the rap himself.

In another nod to the excellence of the writing, Columbo’s willingness to let Grace go is nicely foreshadowed by the subplot surrounding his pistol test.

Columbo Forgotten Lady Sergeant Leftkowitz

Foreshadowing a tragedy never seemed such fun!

We know from previous episodes that Columbo hates guns and never carries one. We learn here that he hasn’t taken his gun test for 10 years – something that ought to earn him immediate suspension. To avoid this, he pays a colleague to take the test for him. Although these scenes raise a smile, they mask a serious aspect of his character: Columbo will bend the rules if they do not align with his moral compass. Sure enough, he does the same when he lets Ned take the rap for the murder of Henry Wheeler.

It all sounds rather sombre, doesn’t it? And it is. But there’s still room for a little fun in the script – some brought about by Grace’s complete lack of self-awareness. Her line about Columbo being drawn to the magic of show business after he falls from the tree would be hilarious if it wasn’t tempered by a sinister underlying reason for her wide-eyed obliviousness. She also looks at Columbo like he’s the crazy one when he tells her he’s promised to take Dog to the park, rather than enjoy schmoozing at her house. Pot / kettle anyone?

Columbo and Ned have some fine exchanges, too, none better than when the Lieutenant seeks dancing advice from the musical legend. “My wife is a terrific dancer, but I got two left feet when it comes to dancing in public so she always has to sit out,” the detective laments. “What can you do for a problem like that?” Ned’s response is pointed and brilliant: “Become a critic.”

The Lieutenant also pokes some straight-faced fun at Sergeant Leftkowitz, who tracks him down about his pistol test. When she comments she’s never seen him down at the homicide department he shoots back: “Well I don’t get there too much. None of the murders take place there, you know.” She doesn’t appreciate the joke.

Tree climb 4

Cute as ever: Columbo and Dog having a frolic

The presence of Dog is as fun as ever, while the decor at Wheeler HQ even raises some unintentional giggles to the 21st century viewer given some of the outrageous wallpaper designs on display. Who knows, perhaps too  much exposure to these affronting patterns over a prolonged period pushed Grace over the edge? It happened in The Yellow Wallpaper

Despite all this goodness, Forgotten Lady has its problems. Chiefly, its pace is very slow – sometimes agonisingly so. The cycle of Columbo’s visits to Wheeler household and dance studio, interspersed by run-ins about his gun test, becomes a tad repetitive. Indeed, and I say this with wariness, I found some of it a bit boring

It may be that the slow build-up to the charged finale was a deliberate attempt to mirror Grace’s accelerating descent. I’m of the opinion, though (as usual), that the longer running time contributed to scenes being tediously drawn out, and that Forgotten Lady could’ve easily lost 15-20 minutes without damaging the story.

Columbo car

Columbo clocked up 1,000 visits to Wheeler HQ over the course of the episode

Forgotten Lady isn’t a lot of fun most of the time either. I prefer a bit more levity when I watch Columbo, although adding too much tomfoolery to this particular episode would admittedly have blunted its impact. As a result, Forgotten Lady is something of a strange beast to me. Rather like By Dawn’s Early Light, I appreciate its many strengths and applaud the writing and performances, but it falls short of truly capturing my heart. Sorry, Grace…

Still, what do I know? Peter Falk was a big fan of this one, naming it amongst his very favourite episodes due to the calibre of the writing and the clues Columbo cracks to jettison the suicide theory. If it’s good enough for him it’s likely to be good enough for most fans, too.

Just don’t forget to pack your hanky so you can dab your eyes at the tear-jerking finale. And remember, the ending is really only the start of the journey in truly appreciating and understanding this unique Columbo outing.

Did you know?

Walking My Baby posterJanet Leigh really did appear in the film Walking My Baby Back Home in 1953, although the name of the character she played in it was Chris, not Rosie. Genuine footage from the film was indeed being watched by Grace around the murder of Henry, and also during the closing scenes.

However, the actual running time of the film was 1 hour 35 minutes, not 1 hour 45 mins as Columbo suggests to Ned Diamond. What are you trying to pull, Lieutenant…?

How I rate ’em

I can’t deny its power, but beyond its gripping conclusion Forgotten Lady doesn’t really scratch my Columbo itch. It’s a worthy drama, but is far from the first episode I would choose to watch if selecting them from my own DVD collection, so it slides into the mid-tier of my personal preferences.

It may look like it’s low on the list now, but remember there’s very little to choose between any of the episodes on my ‘B List’. As such, it’s still a cracking piece of television.

Missed any of my other episode reviews? Then view them via the links below.

  1. Suitable for Framing
  2. Publish or Perish
  3. Double Shock
  4. Murder by the Book
  5. Negative Reaction
  6. A Friend in Deed
  7. Death Lends a Hand
  8. A Stitch in Crime
  9. Double Exposure
  10. Lady in Waiting
  11. Troubled Waters
  12. Any Old Port in a Storm
  13. Prescription: Murder ——– A-List ends here—
  14. A Deadly State of Mind
  15. An Exercise in Fatality
  16. Swan Song
  17. The Most Crucial Game
  18. Etude in Black
  19. By Dawn’s Early Light
  20. Candidate for Crime
  21. Greenhouse Jungle
  22. Playback
  23. Forgotten Lady
  24. Requiem for a Falling Star
  25. Blueprint for Murder
  26. Ransom for a Dead Man —– B-List ends here—
  27. Dead Weight
  28. The Most Dangerous Match
  29. Lovely but Lethal ———— C-List ends here—-
  30. Short Fuse
  31. Mind Over Mayhem
  32. Dagger of the Mind

So where next I hear you ask? Well, we find Columbo injected into the intriguing world of Middle Eastern diplomatic relations in A Case of Immunity. See you there…

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As always, please let me know your views on this episode and where you agree or disagree with me about its merits. And if you rate the magic of Forgotten Lady above all others, vote for it it in the fans’ favourite episode poll right here!

See where Grace Wheeler ranks in my list of most sympathetic Columbo killers here.

Janet 2

“I don’t think you’re being entirely candid with me, are you Lieutenant? Just admit that you LOVE me, like everyone else in the world does…”

How did you like this article?

153 thoughts on “Episode review: Columbo Forgotten Lady

  1. For any given film, we may change our opinion of it if we re-see it several years later. However, I think this is true even more so for Columbo episodes. Precisely because they have so much great writing and acting in them, we often may notice critical clues or aspects of the acting that change our opinions significantly in the good or bad direction. This episode was such a case for me. In my comments right after CP posted his review, I stated that I agreed word for word with everything he wrote, including his mid-tier ranking thereof. However, upon re-watching the episode, I truly love it, and place it just below the truly top episodes (probably around 18-20 once I complete the whole series re-watch).

    As I’ve commented before, for me the primary deciding factors for an episode’s success are: 1) murder plot brilliance, 2) level of difficulty, originality and ingenuity in the detective work to break the case and/or obtain a confession, 3) the final proof or gotcha ending, 4) the acting caliber of the murderer (and occasionally, a second leading character), and whether his or her (or their) role creates sparks in the battle with Columbo (in either an antagonistic (Dr. Mayfield) or sympathetic (Abigail or Carsini) manner, 5) the inclusion of complex emotions or social/moral issues that pull us in different directions as we judge Columbo, the murderer, the victim, or the process, and 6) the remaining factors that increase or diminish the overall enjoyability of watching (e.g., humor, pacing and length, music, cameos, scenery). On a rare occasion, one of these last factors may be so strong that it greatly influences the overall episode quality, but most of the time this is the least important determinant for me. (This is not the case for others. For example, CP has shown that for him, humor or pacing may often make or break an episode.)

    Going through the list, we have: 1) a well-planned murder, 2) superb detective work, 3) an unusual but powerful and gripping ending, 4) a fascinating 3-way relationship bet. Falk and Leigh/Payne and great acting all around, and 5) a plethora of emotional and moral issues, As for the 6th factor, it may not have ADDED that much to the episode’s success, but it certainly did not subtract either IMHO. For example, I found the subtle, restrained humor of Raymond’s facial expressions and running around with an ash tray to be funnier and more enjoyable than the over-the-top and way too repetitive explosions of Mrs. Peck. Likewise, the use of different people in the gun check subplot made it enjoyable, funny, and non-pestering.

    • My favorite episode. Just watched in on Peacock. (besides that i own all the DVD’s of the first 7 seasons). The finale actually made me cry.

  2. Rewatching it, definitely stunt doubles for Columbo and Grace when both climbed down the balcony using the tree. Can tell by the cuts and camera angles and using the Texas switch for Grace when she drops behind the bush.
    Unless someone can find me an interview with Peter Falk saying he climbed down the tree for real.

  3. Loved this episode. The guest stars were just wonderful to watch.

    I have trouble with Columbo having someone take his test at the firing range. I’m just not sure it’s something I could see his character doing.

  4. Is the name of the character the same as the filming location. Anyone have any background on the house?

  5. Don’t see it mentioned here yet, but the December 3, 1961, episode of What’s My Line? featured John Payne as a guest panelist and Janet Leigh as the celebrity mystery guest. I don’t find any other professional links in my online research for Payne and Leigh than this Columbo episode, so it must just be a happy coincidence that they ended up together again here.

  6. My favorite non-season 1 episode. It even inspired me to write a fanfic sequel to it, taking place in the world of “Quantum Leap” which has Dr. Beckett dropped into Ned Diamond, 1956 so he can prevent him from screwing up his own life and allowing Grace to marry him instead of Henry.

    This character nuance is why the episode is so fascinating. Ned’s sacrifice for Grace is poignant because deep down he realizes that his own mistakes long ago, which caused him to lose her to Henry (in what comes off as a kind of marriage Grace made “on the rebound” rather than for love) is what put her in the position of doing something terrible as a murder, even if it was influenced perhaps by her illness. Combined with the vulnerability Leigh projects once its clear her memory of the killing has left her (the director shows us the moment where her memory of it disappears when the camera zooms on her expression in her room before the door pounds about Henry not answering) you see that these people deserved better fates.

    And I have to say that at the beginning, in that off-the-shoulder Greco style gown, Leigh is simply breathtaking. I actually saw that same gown worn again in a “Bionic Woman” a few months after this to much lesser effect by Cassie Yates.

  7. I love this episode, one of few I remembered in detail from childhood viewing. One odd inconsistency that I don’t see mentioned. In the first scene Grace seems to be making up the idea of staging a Broadway comeback, but 2 days later, after her husband has been murdered, the production appears to be well underway, cast and with a rehearsal schedule. I decided that this was meant to be an LA production that Grace intends to take to NY, but then we’re told that her husband thought doing a show would endanger her health and she only had a short time to live, so he would have stopped it. A little rewriting could have resolved this.
    Also, it bothers me that the butler changes the reels, but we don’t actually see the end of a reel and the start of the new one. Judging by this episode, a reel ends in the middle of a song, and no one actually changes projectors.
    I love that the show ends with Janet Leigh gazing at her younger self longingly. A gutsy choice for her to play a narcissistic, aging film star.

  8. It’s a nice ending, but since he apparently wanted to make it easy on everyone since it was clear he knew she wasn’t going to live long enough or even be fit to stand trial of she did, all he had to do was go along with the suicide ruling and move on.

  9. I was surprised and delighted to see how nimble a dancer Janet Leigh was in her late 40s, especially since (unlike Grace Wheeler) the song and dance stuff was not at all the main focus of her career.

  10. I think we need to point out the clear homage to “Singing in the Rain” in the opening exterior movie theater scene… it’s almost an exact copy of Lockwood & Lamont vibe along with the overly enthusiastic interviewer and the night time gala etc. A good episode but I agree with you this fits squarely in the middle of the best of list…

  11. “Shall we go, Lieutenant?

    It’s not gonna take much to break your story.

    It might take a couple of months.

    Yes. Yes, it might.”

    (Best if you can see the look on Columbo’s face and hear his actual lines.)

    This is the dialog at the very end of the episode.
    My favorite Columbo moment!
    A most thoughtful and humane moment and also an insight into Columbo’s humanity and morality.

  12. Just watched this—am going through ’em all, in order, on DVD. Not seen it since it it was originally shown by Granada TV in the seventies. Columbophile might not agree (about this yarn at any rate) but I like the decor in the various settings we find ourselves visiting during the course of the episodes. Can’t feel any sympathy for the murderess in this one. The crime was carefully planned and calmly carried through without the “lady” batting an eyelid. A star turn from Dog, and a nice bit from Maurice Evans (in hight-liftee shoes!) add to the charm. The disapearance of Evans’s slight cockney twang as proceedings unfold is a mystery in itself.

  13. Note Buddy Hackett’s billing on the WALKING MY BABY BACK HOME poster. Hackett had a funny story about his time at Universal; “They had a clause in my contract that I couldn’t make movies for any other studio, and after a few films they added ‘and none for us, either!'”

  14. I enjoyed this episode, one of the ones I don’t remember from my youth. I liked the end a lot, but there is little evidence that Grace killed her husband, only the lack of another suspect, a possible motive, and the opportunity. Of course, during the film breakage, she could have opted to go to the bathroom before restarting the film. I guess people don’t do that on TV. Maybe get a snack?

    • What’s a butler for if you have to get your own snacks? 🙂 And I don’t think a reasonable bathroom break would be more than 5 mins long.

      People have been arrested and charged for murder on less. It’s up to the attorneys to determine a Bunko charge or not.

  15. Just one more thing! I appreciated that there was a running theme throughout the episode: putting one’s own personal feelings above society’s morals. We saw it three times – with Columbo bribing the officer to take his shooting test because he hates guns, the doctor not telling his wife she’s dying of a brain aneurysm, and at the end when Columbo lets Ned take the wrap for the crime. You could say that’s two for Columbo and one for the doctor, or perhaps the last one is for Ned instead of Columbo. I like to think that this isn’t a coincidence and that it’s just a case of good, consistent writing.

  16. This is one of my favorite episodes, just rewatched it on free streaming NBC Peacock. (with commercials and a lot of them!) I love the scene where Ned tells Grace that he always loved her, it has me in tears! In real life John Payne was hit by a car (way before this episode was filmed) and was left with facial scarring that he did not try to hide. Forgotten Lady was his last performance and he went on to become a wealthy real estate investor (per Wikipedia).

  17. In the episode “Forgotten Lady ” Columbo says he couldn’t get at babysitter. This made me wonder if Columbo had children.

    • Colombo mentions children is several episodes. In Any Old Port . . ., he tells the character that he took his wife and kid on a picnic, and then it rained. He was trying to remember which day it had rained that week. Also, I think, Now You See Him, he tells the character that his wife didn’t come to the show because they couldn’t find a babysitter. So, he does mention kids a few times.

  18. The twist about Grace’s health was shocking, but so was another revelation: that butler and maid are married? He’s clearly a bit older than she is, which isn’t unusual, but they didn’t strike me as a husband and wife duo.

    Overall a real surreal episode. Lots of it looks like it was intended to be a dream, and reminded me of high-concept modern movies like Christopher Nolan’s work. The framing of Columbo’s face in the dark screening room when he’s explaining to Ned how to account for the extra 15 minutes was an exceptional shot.

  19. After Janet Leigh fires the gun, they cut to the servants watching TV. Who is the guest on the Carson show?

  20. It is a great one and feels like a movie rather than a part of a series.
    Yet, there’s a slight problem with the final evidence. Columbo speaks about 15 minutes being unaccounted for. But Grace watches the entire film all by herself, so in reality almost two hours are unaccounted for. Anything could happen over this span. She might have fallen asleep e.g. But if she wanted to kill her husband, she could do it any time during the movie.

    • Yes, but the point is the fact that 15 minutes went by when the film wasn’t running means that she wasn’t in the room when the film broke and only became aware of the break when she came back from killing her husband.

  21. Just found this site and am glad I did. Great, in-depth summaries and reviews of each episode. I particularly liked Forgotten Lady because of its excellent writing and acting. The pace didn’t bother me at all. The episode had a Sunset Blvd. feel to it with the aging star, the attentive butler, and the disdain the star had for the younger generation of performers. The ending was a real wow for me and gave the show a nice extra layer of depth, emotion and meaning. Is there such a thing as a bad Columbo episode? I haven’t seen any evidence of that yet. Bravo to the show and to your site.

  22. I have just watched this episode for the first time and see why Columbo kept saying he had problems with this case. He did not want to arrest this women since he says himself, He did not think that she even remembers killing him. All the actors were terrific, but I can not believe that no one has addressed the orangutan in the episode, Maurice Evans was Dr. Zaius in planet of the apes, every time he speaks I see him arguing with Charlton Heston about the stupidity of man. Anyway great episode in my opinion.

  23. I just watched this episode (Forgotten Lady) and read this Columbophile review. I agree with the conclusions in this review that, while this may have been a bit boring at times, the overall quality of the acting (Grace and Ned are stellar, as played by Janet Leigh and John Payne) is superb, and makes up for the somewhat slow pace. (The one exception to the slow pace was the scene where Janet Leigh looked like a super hero climbing down the tree and jumping to the ground from about 15-20 feet above the lawn. That was not believable to me for an instant, dancer or no dancer!!). I came to the conclusion fairly early on that the one hour 45 minute length of the reel-to-reel movie, compared to the 2 hour gap in time that the butler Raymond cited to Columbo as the time between changing out the reels, would undue Grace. However, when we learn in the final 5 or 10 minutes WHY she might have killed her husband and why she was so self-absorbed and so childish, I thought that this was a clever plot twist. And when noble Ned steps forward to take the heat off of Grace, I thought was a great ending that left me, like Columbo, perplexed with how to handle the situation. I found myself hoping that Columbo would find it in his heart to not challenge Ned, but let him play the noble role of protecting Grace, who obviously needed psychological help and was so close to the end of her life. I particularly enjoyed the butler Raymond, and how he chased Columbo all over the house with large ashtrays. More than once we see the disdain he has for Columbo. He plays the stereotypical part of a well-mannered, proper English servant masterfully. Kudos to Maurice Evans. His character reminds me a lot of two other English actors who play the roles of similar English butlers in two popular comedy movies from 1981 and 1983 (Sir John Gielgud played Hobson, spoiled millionaire Dudley Moore’s dry, sarcastic butler in the comedy Arthur, and Denholm Elliott plays Coleman, the butler of spoiled rich-kid Dan Ackroyd’s character Louis Winthorpe III in the comedy Trading Places). Brilliant acting all around in this episode (as has always been my experience in every Columbo episode that I’ve ever watched). While this might not rate as high as others due to the stories slow pace, I enjoyed the acting performances very much.

  24. I understand why this episode must be placed so far down Columbophile’s rankings, but it really can’t be compaired with other episodes; if just on acting alone. Strong writing too. No it is not a “go home feeling good” show, but it is an awesome stand alone Columbo outing.

    • Because and ironically, like the character he played in this, Payne’s career never recovered after a 1961 auto accident (car hit him) and cost him two years recovery time. He only acted in one movie and just a handful of TV guest star appearances after it.

  25. When Columbo is telling Diamond about the actors that he admired growing up, he says Edward G. Robinson twice–was that intentional, Columbo being excited talking to a movie star, or Falk’s mistake?

  26. When Sam Jaffe turns off his TV, gets me every time–for a split second, I think mine has gone off too. Nicely executed effect.

  27. A 48-year-old Janet Leigh playing a 60-year-old Grace Wheeler-Willis explains something that puzzled me when I watched the episode. When I first saw “Night of the Lepus” (1972), I thought she looked very young and well-preserved, and here she looked much older than in “Lepus” even though it was made only a few years later.

    My friends and I watched “Fade in to Murder” last night and saw Columbo himself wearing a hat at a jaunty angle!—but I don’t know if that counts as a rakish-angle hat that isn’t for the bad guy, because Columbo was borrowing the “Lt. Lucerne” hat which belonged to the killer.

  28. This is another one I don’t find as enjoyable, and I think Columbophile put his finger on why not—it’s a bit slow and padded. It’s also somewhat depressing (understandably). I enjoy Ned and Henry, the inclusion of “The Tonight Show,” and the subplot with Columbo’s gun test.

    I can completely envision Columbo’s superiors in the present day letting him get away with not having a gun because he’s too valuable as a detective, but I wonder how he managed to get through the academy and his time as a regular uniformed cop! I guess he just tried not to have to shoot anyone. We could use more of that today.

    A bit of trivia: Jerome Guardino, who normally plays Sergeant Burke, plays a different cop named Harris in this one. It stood out to me as odd at the time, but now that I’ve seen more episodes I realise that’s not that weird—Bruce Kirby was other characters besides Sgt. Kramer.

    Maybe it was jarring to me because Guardino is playing a cop, but not his usual cop. When Kirby is a TV repairman, we’re not momentarily confused as to why Kramer is fixing a TV. But when Guardino is following Columbo and warning him to take that gun test, you’re momentarily confused as to why Burke is being so mean to his friend! 🙂

  29. Did you notice that the floor in the hospital with the colored lines is the same set as Deadly State of Mind, Collier’s laboratory

    • Good observation.

      This episode I thought had a superior storyline. Talking about the past, seeing the old musical of Janet Leigh. Nice touches throughout of her memory loss. Seemed authentic that her long term memory was good.
      The whole idea about the film ending later then it should have, that that gave her the opportunity to kill her husband. She had a very busy day with that Hollywood premier, can’t she have been tired and perhaps fell asleep while watching, and work up to restart??? , or maybe she being so taken with herself loved a musical number and went into the projection room to rewind so she can see a scene again.
      I think her husband keeping that secret from her was out of love.

      • I agree that she could have easily fallen asleep while watching and simply not noticed the broken reel. It seems odd that Ned didn’t even mention this as a possibility to Columbo at the end, although at that stage I suppose we needed closure than more perhapses.

        • I’m going with the argument that the 60-something woman, having just come from a film premiere event and is now sitting through an entire movie, might very well take 10 or 15 minutes for a potty break.

    • This is an episode that you want to keep thinking about its moral ambiguity and because of the caliber of acting. Janet Leigh, John Payne, Maurice Evans and Sam Jaffe. All actors who’d had long successful careers. That Columbo producers had been able to cast Janet Leigh and with so many excellent supporting actors was something not many other shows could have.

      Payne may not be a household name, but he is well-known by film noir aficionados as the star of several top notch noirs, 99 River Street, Kansas City Confidential and The Crooked Way. You can really feel the anguish he must have had because he was the cause of her career ending so abruptly, while she still had many more years to continue that stardom. Payne had himself suffered serious injuries in the early 1960s from being hit by a car, it took him years to recover, and you can see some scarring on his face.

      Maurice Evans is better-known for his stage work on Broadway, being one of the leading Shakespearean actors, although his later career was primarily in television. His exasperation with Columbo’s sloppiness could have been overplayed by a lesser actor. I can’t dispel the thought that the Johnny Carson Show mentions are there because that’s a plug for another NBC’s show.

      Sam Jaffee has a short part but he strikes the right note of pathos, as such an eminent diagnostician knows she may only have a short time to live and that she would become increasingly confused and emotionally disturbed. That she turns to murder could be a part of that degeneration of her mental faculties. Perhaps he didn’t tell her because she might not even remember he had told her. Perhaps he told her but she forgot, as suggested by Columbo’s statement about her possibly not even remembering she shot him. That he talks about it having been a good life is about the past they’ve shared because they have little future together.

      That’s the strength of this episode, that it so well engages you because it leaves you with questions about the characters who have more subtle shadings than we’ve seen thus far. Is she a villain? Or is the killing the act of a person deranged enough that she isn’t responsible for actions, not guilty by reason of insanity?

  30. Hi Fellow Columbo Fans,

    I don’t have anything specific to say about this iconic series in this, my first contribution to the website, other than to say that over the past few months I’ve started watching ‘Columbo.’ again and probably because it triggers some nostalgia for my TV watching over of younger years, I’ve fallen absolutely in love with the series!

    I can’t say I have a favourite episode exactly but I will say that the revival series episode featuring Lindsay Crouse (I don’t recall the title right now) ranks pretty highly for me. And I can also say that for my taste the episode in which John Dehner plays the Commodore (again I don’t recall the title right now) is my least favourite. I saw it recently and I thought that the tone of it was strangely all over the place! Some scenes seem to me to almost play like peculiarly self-reflexive farce!!

    I’ve just purchased the Columbo Files book from Amazon and as soon as I can find an entire series collection, or at least individual releases of all of the seasons, on blu ray, I shall buy that too. In the meantime I shall continue to delight in the current UK run of episodes on the various Channel 5 Network channels. Watching these episodes on TV is like slipping on an old, warm, comfy, shabby beige raincoat.

    As for a possible reboot of Columbo; now that I’ve seen mention of it here on the website I have to agree that Mark Ruffalo probably would make a great new version of our favourite Lieutenant. He certainly has the acting chops to create a character that’s true to Peter Falk’s beloved original, without being a flat out impersonation of it.

    But then again I suspect that even with an actor as good as Mark Ruffalo in the role, Peter Falk’s original would simply cast too long a shadow over any attempt at a reboot and it would be lucky to last more than a season before it gets cancelled. Although it might gain more traction if it comes to Netflix or Amazon Prime Video?…

    Oh and just one more thing… How is it possible that in (very) late 2019 we still don’t have every episode of ‘Columbo.’ widely available on blu ray? That’s an absolute travesty! It seems beyond weird to me that the only complete box set of the series is a Japanese release!!

    OK, that’s all I can think of to say right now, so I hope that in the near future I get to share some interesting and fun thoughts with many fellow ‘Columbo.’ fans on this great website, which I’m so pleased to have discovered this evening.

  31. Pingback: 2019: the Columbo year in review | THE COLUMBOPHILE

  32. Pingback: Episode review: Columbo Murder Under Glass | THE COLUMBOPHILE

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