If Mark Dawidziak learned anything from Lieutenant Columbo, it was persistence. It took him 5 years to complete his print masterpiece The Columbo Phile, but the effort was more than worth it.
Now, 30 years since the book was published, The Columbo Phile remains the great print tribute to the greatest detective drama of them all. It’s not easy to get hold of as it’s currently out of print, but for serious Columbo fans no bookshelf is complete without a copy. (As an aside, if you’re not familiar with the book, read up on it here first)
Yet remarkably, had fate played out differently we might not have the book at all as Dawidziak’s original intent was to pen a complete history of his other favourite TV show, The Twilight Zone.
At the time a TV, theatre and movie critic for a small East Tennessee newspaper, with one book to his name (a history of Virginia’s Barter Theatre, published in 1982), 26-year-old Dawidziak had already started assiduously applying himself to the Twilight Zone task when disaster (of sorts) struck.
“I walked into a bookstore and there it was – The Twilight Zone Companion by Marc Scott Zicree,” recalls Dawidziak, speaking via Skype from his home in Ohio. “It was a phenomenal book – at the time the best book ever written on a television series. A lot of authors have had that experience of thinking ‘I’m going to write that book’ and then they walk into a bookstore and there it is.”
As one door shut, though, another opened. “Being a practical fellow, I immediately set my sights on my other favourite television series, which was Columbo,” Dawidziak recalls. “It was a matter of faith. I never knew whether I would get the interviews or permissions or anything. I just set my sights on Columbo, and I set out to imitate Columbo and go after the book with his kind of tenacity.”
Publish or perish
Dawidziak’s ambitions were boosted by a new job as a full-time TV critic at the Akron Beacon Journal in Ohio. And, in 1984, when given the chance to interview one of the stars of TV movie The Guardian, starring Louis Gossett Jr and Martin Sheen, he instead requested an audience with Richard Levinson, who co-wrote The Guardian with Columbo co-creator William Link.
Just like Lieutenant Columbo, Dawidziak had an ulterior motive. “I figured if this interview went well, and I could impress Dick Levinson with how well I knew his career, I could ask him at the end of the interview what he thought of me doing a Columbo book. Here was that moment. And Dick Levinson said: ‘I would love to have a book like that to show my grandchildren what I did.’ And that was the start.”
With his cause being championed by Levinson, Dawidziak was able to access some of the series’ key contributors – not least Steven Bochco, writer of several iconic Columbo episodes including Murder by the Book, who at the time was the hottest writing ticket in Hollywood.
“Bochco was working on Hill Street Blues and he had shut everything down and he said he wasn’t doing interviews,” says Dawidziak. “And then one day my phone rang and it was Steven Bochco, and he said: ‘I want to tell you something. I’m only talking to you because Dick Levinson told me I had to, and I have to do what he tells me to do’.
“I set out to imitate Columbo and go after the book with his kind of tenacity.”
“I can’t tell you how helpful Dick Levinson was. He opened doors. He made people talk to me. A lot of the interviews for The Columbo Phile came about because of Dick’s blessing and him giving me full access to everything.”
Another stand-out interview for Dawidziak was Leonard Nimoy, the first actor he spoke to about their Columbo involvement. “It was at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York City in the fall of 1984,” Dawidziak remembers. “Leonard was there for a network show he was doing and was standing in the back of this ballroom. I approached him and asked him if he’d mind answering a few Columbo questions and he couldn’t have been happier.
“That one stands out because it’s the first. The first one’s always the hardest. After the first one you know you’re on your way.”
Just as memorable, but much more challenging, was his interview with legendary guest star Patrick McGoohan. “Patrick was in a Broadway show called Pack of Lies, and I tracked him down in his dressing room,” says Dawidziak. “The show had just closed, so I’d caught him at a very bad time and he really didn’t want to talk to me.
“But knowing how good a friend he was of Peter, I pushed a little bit. And I think talking about Columbo became a distraction from the disappointment of this play closing. He warmed to the subject, and as he warmed he just became so gracious and funny and insightful. It turned into a wonderful interview.”
Of course any book about Columbo really needed the input from its star man to validate it, but Dawidziak found securing face-to-face time with Peter Falk anything but straightforward.
“Peter gave his trust very, very slowly. During this stretch I was in Los Angeles twice a year for my job as a TV critic. I would go out in January for mid-season, then I would go out in summer for the new fall programming – that’s about three weeks in the summer and two and a half weeks in January.
“Every time I went out I would try to arrange an interview with Peter. I would hear absolutely nothing, but I kept doing it. In the meantime Peter was, I found out later, talking to Levinson and Link trying to figure out whether he should talk to this guy, who, like Columbo, wouldn’t go away.”
As the good Lieutenant would himself attest to, perseverance pays off. During one of his LA trips, Dawidziak received an early evening phone call to his hotel room. It was a summons to head to Falk’s Beverly Hills home – right now. Falk was finally ready to open up.
“That first interview was a very long one,” says Dawidziak. “I had two 90-minute cassette tapes, and I filled both of them talking with Peter that evening. When he gave, he gave it his all.
“At the end of the interview Peter walked me out and he asked me: ‘What makes you think people will want to read about Columbo?’ And I replied: ‘In my estimation, it’s one of the greatest series of all time, one of the greatest TV characters of all time. There are 20, 30 books on Star Trek. Columbo should have a book’.
“Peter thought about that, then he said. ‘You’re right, there ought to be one on Columbo.’ And even though at that stage I didn’t have a publisher, Peter was great. “Don’t worry about it,’ he said. ‘It will happen’.”
With Dawidziak also securing input from high-profile guest stars such as Roddy McDowall, Nicol Williamson and Ricardo Montalban, as well as ace story writer Peter S. Fischer, he had every reason to feel confident that the book would find a publisher. But in early 1987, just as he sat down to begin writing the book in earnest, Dawidziak was left reeling from a knock-out blow. That March, Dick Levinson died of a massive heart attack.
“I was devastated,” Dawidziak explains. “I called Bill [William] Link and I said: ‘Bill, I don’t know if I can do this now. Dick was the Godfather to all this. He was the one who really opened all the doors.’ And Bill said something which, to this day, made all the difference. He told me: ‘Now you have to write it. Now it becomes a holy chore for you to write this’.”
Dawidziak did just that. But even once completed, he still had to find a publisher. Initially he thought it would be straightforward because Levinson and Link told him to send it to their agent, who just happened to be the biggest literary agent in New York. And his feedback on the book was terrific, telling Dawidziak it was the best of its type he’d ever read. But he still turned it down. Why? Because his agency was too big to represent a book that had such a small potential audience.
Typically a print run for a TV-related book was only about 8000 copies. Dawidziak, Levinson and Link had overshot. For the author it was another grievous blow. “At that point, the book was dead on arrival,” he remembers.
Once again Dawidziak fell back on his reserves of perseverance. Selling a book in the pre-digital, pre-PDF age was a more onerous process than it is today, but persistence had its rewards. At his fifth attempt, Dawidziak found a taker in Mysterious Press, a subsidiary of Warner Books. But not before another dark chapter in the saga – for the author, the darkest moment of all.
“I’ve never shared this before, this is a little personal,” he confides. “My mother died on Palm Sunday of 1988. She wasn’t very old, she was in her 60s. And the next morning Otto Penzler called me from the Mysterious Press to tell me he was going to publish The Columbo Phile. And the book is dedicated to my mother and father.”
A friend indeed
Just over one year later, on 1 May 1989, The Columbo Phile finally hit the shelves – ironically three months after the series relaunched in the shape of Columbo Goes to the Guillotine. The five-year journey to make the book a reality was now water under the bridge but Columbo continued to play an important part in Dawidziak’s life, not least through his burgeoning relationship with Peter Falk.
“There were many, many memorable meetings with Peter after the book came out,” says Dawidziak. “As I said earlier, once Peter trusted you, you were in.”
Indeed in the 80s and 90s, Falk came to consider Dawidziak as the fount of knowledge on all things Columbo, regularly ringing him late at night (disregarding the west-to-east-coast three-hour time difference) to query whether this type of plot device had been used before, or whether a murderer had ever had that particular profession.
This, naturally, raises the question of what Dawidziak made of the comeback episodes, and how they compared with the 70s’ classics. And like many aficionados, he admits they were a mixed bag.
“Well there were a lot of things that differentiate the two runs,” he explains. “The bad Columbo in the original 45 NBC episodes is rare. It’s not so rare in the 24 remake episodes on ABC. That doesn’t mean they didn’t do some really good episodes. They did some that stand with the original 45, like Agenda for Murder, Uneasy Lies the Crown and Columbo Goes to College.
“The remake certainly wasn’t a disaster. But they did do more than their share of mediocre shows and there are a lot of reasons for that. For one, they were all two hours’ long [including ad breaks] and they didn’t have to be. That was always a problem with Columbo when it was lengthened to 2 hours, even in the 70s. Ninety minutes seemed to be the magic time, although there are good two-hour episodes. But all the ABC episodes are two hours and some of them clearly don’t need to be.
“Secondly, the expense of doing television had gone way up in the 90s. One of the richnesses of the 70s’ series is you could go four or five stars deep in an episode. Look at Short Fuse. The killer is Roddy McDowall. But behind Roddy McDowall is Anne Francis, behind Anne Francis is Jimmy Gregory and behind Jimmy Gregory is Ida Lupino.
“You couldn’t hire that level of actor in the 90s. I don’t mean to denigrate anybody, but the calibre of the supporting cast was generally lesser in the remake.”
Another problem Dawidziak identifies is the increasing influence Falk had in his role as Executive Producer. “I’m sorry to say it, but Peter had too much power,” he says. “Peter needed a really strong executive producer – somebody who could tell him no. He had that in the early seasons with Levinson and Link, Dean Hargrove, Peter Fischer and Richard Alan Simmons.
“Peter needed that person there to temper him and without that he made some very poor decisions. The most infamous bad decisions were the Ed McBain stories.”
Columbo purists will most certainly nod their head in agreement here. Converting two of McBain’s 87th Precinct police procedural novels So Long as You Both Shall Live and Jigsaw into the oft-derided No Time to Die and Undercover arguably marked the series’ lowest points. And Dawidziak has the inside line on how they came about.
“The Ed McBain’s stories rank among the worst Columbos ever done.”
“Peter always was conscious of the stories and the quality of the scripts, so this all comes from a good place, but he was out to dinner with a friend who was an expert in the mystery field, and Peter’s complaining about the quality of the scripts. He asks the guy who the best mystery writer out there was, and the guy replies that it’s Ed McBain.
“Now I might have said the same thing, but I would have tempered it up by saying: ‘But Ed McBain writes police procedurals like Hill Street Blues. He’s not right for Columbo’. But Peter immediately, on impulse, went out and bought Ed McBain’s stories and they rank among the worst Columbos ever done.”
Whether we’ll ever see Dawidziak’s views on all the new Columbo episodes chronicled in print now seems unlikely. He reveals that he did consider attempting to create an updated edition in 1999 but couldn’t find a buyer. The rise of the internet and access to quality information on beloved shows also reduced the appeal of print publications – although a fully revised version exists in Japan, another writer adding the ABC episodes to Dawidziak’s existing text.
Still, by TV tie-in standards The Columbo Phile is considered a massive success. All 16,000 paperback copies and 6000 hardbacks were sold over a period of 10 years. Peter Falk even had Dawidziak sign a copy of the book as a gift to his mother, it meant so much to him.
And 30 years since its publication, the book remains a stand-out in Dawidziak’s career. Many more books have followed, including TV tie-ins for The Night Stalker and Playhouse 90. He even managed to publish a Twilight Zone book in 2017 – just a small matter of 25 years after his first, doomed attempt. But The Columbo Phile will always be special to him.
“I was very fortunate to meet Lieutenant Columbo. I’m very fond of the little fellow. He did an awful lot for me.”
“I always like to tell young writers that you don’t really choose books – they choose you,” he says. “You look back and you think you’re in control and you think you are the master of your destiny. But when you look back you kind of realise the universe shoved you in certain places where you were meant to be.
“I’ve been very fortunate in the people I’ve met and the opportunities that they’ve given me. And I was very fortunate to meet Lieutenant Columbo. I’m very fond of the little fellow. He did an awful lot for me.”
Mark Dawidziak profile
A long-time TV critic currently working for the Cleveland Plain Dealer, Mark Dawidziak was born in Huntingdon, New York, on 7 September 1956.
As well as his collection of TV tie-in books, Dawidziak is an acclaimed playwright, director and actor who frequently portrays one of his idols, Mark Twain, in live performances. A recognised Twain scholar, he has published several books on the author.
Dawidziak teaches part-time as an adjunct professor at Kent State University where he teaches the Reviewing Film & Television and Vampires in Film & Television courses. He lives in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, with his wife, Sara Showman, and their daughter, Becky.
Mark’s favourite Columbo episodes (no particular order)
- Now You See Him
- Any Old Port in a Storm
- Suitable for Framing
- Try and Catch Me
- A Friend in Deed
More of Mark’s behind-the-scenes Columbo recollections will follow in a separate article in the coming weeks. In the meantime, let me know what you make of the book, if you’re one of those lucky enough to have a copy.
Thanks for reading, and see you again soon!