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…
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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‘!
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.”
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
Janet 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.
- Suitable for Framing
- Publish or Perish
- Double Shock
- Murder by the Book
- Negative Reaction
- A Friend in Deed
- Death Lends a Hand
- A Stitch in Crime
- Double Exposure
- Lady in Waiting
- Troubled Waters
- Any Old Port in a Storm
- Prescription: Murder ——– A-List ends here—
- A Deadly State of Mind
- An Exercise in Fatality
- Swan Song
- The Most Crucial Game
- Etude in Black
- By Dawn’s Early Light
- Candidate for Crime
- Greenhouse Jungle
- Forgotten Lady
- Requiem for a Falling Star
- Blueprint for Murder
- Ransom for a Dead Man —– B-List ends here—
- Dead Weight
- The Most Dangerous Match
- Lovely but Lethal ———— C-List ends here—-
- Short Fuse
- Mind Over Mayhem
- 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…
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!