In-jokes abound greeted viewers for the opening episode of Columbo‘s sixth season, as the world’s leading TV detective investigated a murder carried out by… the world’s leading TV detective!
Yes folks, the meta-tastic Fade in to Murder pitted Lieutenant Columbo against highly paid TV actor Ward Fowler and his famous alter-ego Lieutenant Lucerne. Confused? You will be…
Still, with William Shatner leading a support cast that also included fellow Star Trek ace Walter Koenig, it’s a sure-fire bet that we can set our phasers for FUN. But is this the Columbo equivalent of The Wrath of Khan, or is it more like The Final Frontier? Let’s time travel back to 10 October, 1976 and find out…
Lieutenant Columbo: Peter Falk
Ward Fowler: William Shatner
Claire Daley: Lola Albright
Sid Daley: Alan Manson
Mark Davis: Bert Remsen
Molly: Shera Danese
Tony: Timothy Carey
Sergeant Johnston: Walter Koenig
Assistant director: John Finnegan
Joseph: Fred Draper
Written by: Lou Shaw & Peter S. Feibleman (story by Henry Garson)
Directed by: Bernard Kowalski
Score by: Bernardo Segall
Significant locations: Ward Fowler’s home (Enchanted Hill Estate, Beverly Hills 90210)
Episode synopsis: Columbo Fade in to Murder
Highly-paid TV actor Ward Fowler, star of hit crime drama Detective Lucerne, is being blackmailed by studio exec Claire Daley, who knows his shady past as a Korean War deserter – a fact certain to ruin his career if it ever got out.
Fed up of paying Claire a large share of his super-salary, Fowler strikes back. He drugs his faithful assistant Mark (a recovering alcoholic), who has come round to watch the ball game. When Mark is out for the count, Fowler hits record on his state-of-the-art VCR (Google it, millennials) and busts a groove: destination MURDERVILLE.
Concealing himself in a ski mask and puffer jacket from the studio wardrobe department, and using a pistol from the props department, he tracks Claire to her favourite deli. Disguising his voice, he robs the till and pistol whips the shop owner into unconsciousness (!) before popping a cap through Claire’s icy heart – although only after she figures out it was him.
Cutting up and binning his disguise, and hiding the gun for later retrieval, Fowler heads home to arouse the slumbering Mark. He rolls the time back on Mark’s watch and hits play on the recorded ball game. The groggy Mark is awoken and it looks for all the world like he’s only been out for the count for a few minutes. Clever work, Ward!
Mark is then ushered into the guest bedroom to sleep off his sore head. As soon as he’s napping again, Fowler resets his watch to the correct time and leaves him be. As alibis go, it’s a pretty commendable effort.
Back at the crime scene, Lieutenant Columbo is on the case. It looks like a robbery gone wrong, but, as per usual, Columbo spots the crucial clues that others miss. Namely, the bloody bullet hole in Claire’s dress is higher than the bullet hole in her body. Her hands were raised when she was shot. Plus the robber didn’t take the credit cards from her wallet, nor the diamond ring from her finger. Why not?
The accuracy of the shot to the heart could also suggest an expert marksman. Could it be premeditated murder, rather than a robbery? Maybe. All they know is what deli owner Tony tells them – the killer had a deep voice and was a little shorter than average height.
Columbo heads to the studios to do some probing – unwittingly blundering on to the set of Detective Lucerne and ruining a take, much to perfectionist Fowler’s annoyance. Columbo is looking for Sid Daley, Claire’s estranged husband, who police have yet to trace.
In one of the series’ least-convincing displays of grief, Fowler uses the opportunity to profess his heartfelt sadness at Claire’s death – and also to heavy-handedly slip in his alibi, which is confirmed by gofer Mark.
Switching into Lieutenant Lucerne mode, Fowler then begins to assist Columbo with his enquiries. Claire’s diamond ring, he says, was very tight and not easily removed (as she once demonstrated at a party – fun times!). And why would a killer risk fencing stolen credit cards, when police are known to bribe fences?
Big Sid finally shows up to interrupt the love-in between the two ‘detectives’ – Fowler greeting the older man with a totes awkward hug, which was really done so he could steal a thread off Sid’s sweater. Devious so and so…
Sid explains that he was enjoying a ‘marathon chess session‘ with his lawyer the night before. They didn’t finish up until 5am – staying power that even Emmett Clayton would envy. Conveniently, the lawyer took a flight to Rome earlier that day so they’ll just have to take Sid’s word for it – and who could possibly distrust a TV exec, eh?
Columbo then has a short chat with Mark where he is gifted some crucial intel. Comparing times on their watches, Mark laments that his new $1000 watch has lost 5 minutes overnight! He always sets his watch 5 minutes ahead because he’s always racing the clock. Today it’s suspiciously set to the right time!
The Lieutenant gleans further vital deets after another quick chat with Sid, who tells him that Claire had to do things her way and even though they were partners she fought him on everything – including the new contract for Ward Fowler. Sid is livid that Fowler earns such a grand salary – but he let Claire talk him into it. See, she always sided with Fowler on matters like this. Sid also confirms that Claire and Ward used to be lovers. Those tit-bits would make any detective’s ears prick up.
The clues are starting to stack up – and fast. The shredded jacket and ski mask have been recovered and there are traces of make-up on the inside of the mask. Perhaps the killer was a WOMAN! Heartened to hear of this possibility, Fowler retrieves the murder weapon from a hollow tree and returns it to the studio props department, cleverly attaching the thread from Sid’s sweater to the trigger.
Rolling on to the next day we encounter Columbo, alone, in Fowler’s studio trailer. He can’t resist trying on the TV detective’s trademark hat and shoes – which he notices have a built-up heel to make Fowler appear taller on screen than he really is. Fowler busts in and catches Columbo in costume and the two men share a companionable chuckle – although the good Lieutenant squirrels the shoes clue away for later digestion.
He also reveals further analysis on the ski mask make-up show that it was actor’s pancake make-up – the style that Columbo has just noticed is in Fowler’s trailer. Where this led him to was the studio wardrobe department, where it was confirmed the mask and jacket came from.
It’s here that Fowler starts referring to himself as a suspect, based on how Lieutenant Lucerne would view the case. A handful of people knew that Claire was heading to Tony’s for food (Fowler included), but only Fowler would have been caked in actor’s make-up and have ready access to the wardrobe department. Columbo also blabs that the murder weapon has been found in the props department. It’s having tests run on it, but no fingerprints have been found at this stage.
Fowler’s not the only viable suspect, though. Columbo hasn’t been able to verify Sid’s alibi yet, but has found out that Claire had willed everything to him – including a small fortune in silver certificates and $500,000 in IOUs from Ward Fowler himself.
Before Columbo investigates further he gives Sid one last chance to confirm his ‘lawyer/chess’ alibi. Sid comes clean. For ‘lawyer’, read ‘scorching young secretary, Molly‘. While you’re at it, substitute ‘marathon chess session’ for ‘hours of red-hot love‘. Molly corroborates this filthy dalliance, leaving slimy Sid looking to be free as a bird.
That leaves us with Fowler as the only real contender in the ‘Claire Daley Murderer of the Year‘ competition – particularly now Columbo’s snooping has uncovered that Fowler was a US army deserter before Claire Daley discovered him in Canadian theatre. All these details are confirmed by Fowler (after he shows Columbo how a VCR works, natch), although he’s lapsed into referring to himself in third person from the perspective of Lieutenant Lucerne. As you do!
So why did Fowler owe Claire $500,000? Was she blackmailing him with the army desertion secret? Fowler (as Lucerne) says no. Instead she had bailed him out of financial difficulty early in his career, nothing more than that.
Predictably unsatisfied with Fowler’s nonsensical spouting, Columbo dishes further dirt. He’s learned from Fowler’s army records that he used to be an ace marksman – the sort that could effortlessly bust a dame’s heart from 20 paces. But that devilishly clever alibi of Fowler’s just can’t be beat, so Columbo remains stumped. OR DOES HE?
Turns out that closer inspection of the gun has revealed the presence of a blue mohair thread on the trigger – and police have tracked down the sweater to Sid Daley’s wardrobe. Sid (plus Molly and a police officer) promptly arrives at Fowler HQ to demand answers about why his home was ransacked. Columbo is happy to provide them.
You see, he remembers the sweater well from his first meeting with Sid, because Fowler got snagged on it when the two cuddled. Fowler could easily have planted the thread on the gun to incriminate Sid.
More than that, Columbo has deduced (although not in any way proved) that Fowler’s home video system could have been used in creating his elaborate alibi. After all, why was Mark so hungover after a single drink during the ball game? He could well have been drugged. The fact his watch lost 5 minutes is a telling indication that a third party tampered with it.
Add to that, Fowler’s natural height (without platform heels) was a match for the eyewitness’s description of the killer, while his known skills as a marksman stiffen Columbo’s suspicions. Still, none of this is actual proof, so Fowler still isn’t in the least alarmed – until Columbo produces the piece de resistance that seals his fate.
Whipping out the murder weapon from his pocket, Columbo confirms that there were no prints left on the gun itself. There were, however, prints left on the bullets – Fowler’s prints that he had forgotten to wipe clean. A stunned Fowler is left with nowhere to hide and admits his guilt as credits roll…
Fade in to Murder‘s best moment: playing Lieutenant
Finding himself alone in Ward Fowler’s trailer, Columbo can’t resist a little snoop – and what he finds will have a material bearing on the case.
The wily detective notices that the shoes Fowler wears in Lieutenant Lucerne mode are platforms, handily giving him a lift of a few inches in height. Given that the eye witness to the killer stated that it was a man of average height or below, Fowler now becomes a very real physical fit for the murderer of Claire Daley.
“Falk’s reaction is a delight, providing one of those unforgettably human moments when we see Columbo for who he truly is.”
Far more enjoyable, though, is Falk’s playing of the scene. He slips on the shoes himself, seemingly enjoying the height advantage they provide. He then proceeds to place Lucerne’s trademark white fedora on his head, and take up the TV detective’s ever-present cane.
When busted by Fowler, who has returned silently to the trailer and is now looking on with a straight face, Falk’s reaction is a delight, providing one of those unforgettably human moments when we see Columbo for who he truly is – an abashed fanboy caught out in the heat of the moment. He’s rarely been more adorable.
Fowler’s lapse into good-humoured laughter also highlights the genuine camaraderie and warmth between the two leads – arguably the strongest thread running throughout the entire episode.
My take on Fade in to Murder
Columbo‘s fifth season ended on such a bizarre note with Last Salute to the Commodore that its creators were going to be hard pushed to ever get close to such silliness again – but, boy, did they have a good go at doing so with Fade in to Murder!
And while Fade never threatens to scrape the bottom of the barrel in the same way Last Salute does, viewer enjoyment is highly likely to hinge on three factors: how much they like William Shatner; how many meta-references to Peter Falk’s own run-ins with Universal they can stomach; and how they handle the episode’s descent into madness. A lesser appetite for any of these aspects may seriously dampen your enthusiasm for this frankly bonkers adventure.
We may as well tackle the presence of Mr Shatner first – a figure much lampooned for his toupee wearing and his deliberate, breathy, over-the-top acting style. Personally speaking, I love the guy. I find him both charming and interesting, with just the right amount of eccentricity. He may not be the world’s most naturally gifted thespian, but you know what you’re going to get with Shatner, and there’s very rarely (if ever) a time that he doesn’t provide outstanding entertainment when on screen.
“Shatner and Falk hit it off marvellously and seem to be genuinely revelling in one another’s company.”
That much is definitely true of his performance in Fade in to Murder. Shatner and Falk hit it off marvellously and seem to be genuinely revelling in one another’s company. Both are blessed with an inherent likability, and both put that to excellent use here in a number of scenes where the two men bond in a natural, believable fashion.
A prime example is the ‘best of’ moment chronicled in greater detail above, when Fowler finds Columbo in his trailer trying on his hat and shoes. The interchange between the two is really rather lovely and feels authentic. The same can be said when Columbo is baffled by Fowler’s intricate door locks, and later in a largely ad-libbed scene when the actor films Columbo with his video camera and the two chummily view back the footage on the VCR. In each example, the chemistry between the two is unmistakable.
So what about the abundance of in-jokes peppered throughout that poke fun at Peter Falk’s own relationship with Universal? There’s certainly no shortage of them and it’s crystal clear that the Ward Fowler character – the highly-paid, Emmy Award-winning star of the most successful detective drama on TV – is the Columbo universe equivalent of Falk himself.
Falk had an often fraught relationship with network and studio execs over his penchant for perfection, which resulted in endless re-shoots, with budgets and time schedules continually blown. He played hardball when it came to renegotiating his contract – never more so, it seems, than between seasons 5 and 6. After being prepared to hang up the raincoat forever at the end of Last Salute to the Commodore, Falk was eventually tempted back by one of the highest-ever TV pay cheques of $300,000 per episode (the equivalent of $1.35m today).
So that scene in the restaurant early on, when Sid and Claire are discussing the future of Detective Lucerne, and Fowler’s wage demands, with studio execs, is very likely not far off the actual conversations that took place about Columbo and Falk.
“It’s crystal clear that the Ward Fowler character is the Columbo universe equivalent of Peter Falk himself.”
“Who does Ward Fowler think he is?” asks one exasperated studio stooge. “As a representative of this studio, I will not stand for this precedent. There is no actor in the business who is irreplaceable.” His flustered colleague chimes in: “Ward Fowler is not the first actor on this network to win an Emmy!”
The Emmy dig is unmistakably aimed at Falk, who won back-to-back awards in 1975-76 for his portrayal of Columbo. Therefore Claire’s defence of the wage increase must have had real Universal execs not knowing whether to laugh or cry at how close to home she was hitting. “Without Ward Fowler there isn’t going to be any next year for this show,” she says. “Ward Fowler is the show.”
The good-natured barbs continue later in a conversation between Columbo and Sid about Fowler’s new contract. “Paying an actor that kind of money is insanity,” Sid growls. “I think they [the studio] should have turned him down. I think he would have folded.”
Few could begrudge Falk an indulgent smile or two when reading this script. He was, after all, the guy who bossed the studio over his own wage demands and won every time. Is it all a bit too knowing and self-referential? Arguably so, but I think they just about get away without the in-jokes dominating proceedings too much.
I guess the production team were being careful not to over-egg the pudding, too, because one further joke at the expense of the Columbo character was even ditched from the original script (read it here). “Before I decided to play Lucerne as an intelligent-sounding detective, I thought of one other possibility,” Fowler confides to Columbo. “To play him like you.” It was evidently a gag too far.
This restraint is admirable, but where I’m less charitable towards Fade in to Murder is the ludicrous veer it takes as Fowler seemingly descends into madness. This kicks in at about the 50-minute mark when he begins referring to himself (Fowler) as a suspect, from the perspective of Lieutenant Lucerne – and it doesn’t let up.
Up until this point, Fowler has been helping Columbo with the case using the expertise he’s picked up as a TV detective. This seems fair enough. But when he shears off and compartmentalises the Fowler persona the episode become seriously weird. Columbo is conversing with Lucerne, not Fowler, and Lucerne becomes the middle man in their relationship.
Prime example: when Columbo is seeking answers on whether Claire was blackmailing Fowler, Lucerne responds with. “I asked him. He claims not.” HOW IS THAT AN ACCEPTABLE RESPONSE!? When then asked by Columbo if Lucerne believes Fowler, the response is: “I think so. I’m not sure.” If I were Columbo I’d be shaking him by the lapels by now!
Whether or not this evasion could be classed as obstruction of justice I don’t know, but it certainly has no grounding in reality. The key questions is: why is Columbo being complicit with such lunacy? He wouldn’t have accepted such third-person silliness from Ken Franklin or Tommy Brown. It’s a little bit exasperating, truth be told. The writers must have realised viewers would be scratching their heads, because they have an annoyed Sid Daley reprimand Columbo for indulging Fowler’s mania.
“Will you stop calling him Lieutenant Lucerne?” cries the desperate producer. “He’s a television detective. You can’t conduct an investigation based on his suspicions.” At this moment, we are all Sid Daley!
Must we conclude that Columbo has cottoned on to Fowler’s burgeoning insanity, and is treating him as gently as possible to avoid setting off an aneurysm? It’s hard to see another plausible solution, because Fowler is behaving so erratically, and has such a shaky grasp on reality, that he genuinely appears to have lost his mind. Maybe he has split personality disorder? Maybe the pressure of the case, allied with his huge insecurities, pushed him over the mental brink?
Whatever the reason, it makes for an unsatisfying conclusion and robs us of what could have been a classic encounter of minds, for Fowler’s plotting and covering up of the murder really was first class. His skillful manipulation of Mark and clever use of cutting-edge VCR technology created a masterful alibi, which Columbo doubts but can’t disprove.
Even Fowler’s motive would seem to be iffy to a jury, because Claire blackmailing him doesn’t make sense. Consider how high-risk her strategy is: if she blows Fowler’s cover as a war deserter she’ll have no more hit show and no more hold over him. Columbo even asks the question himself: why does an intelligent woman go and destroy her only means of income? It’s a question never clearly answered, although obsessive greed and control would be my interpretation.
Fortunately for Columbo he’s able to retrieve definitive proof of Fowler handling the murder weapon through the prints on the replaced cartridges. It’s hard evidence, but as a gotcha it lacks clout because there’s not enough build-up to the final reveal. We never saw Fowler replacing the bullets, so it’s intel the audience wasn’t in on, and it’s so swiftly delivered as to make it rather anticlimactic. Fowler’s plotting had been so good up to then. The bubble of impregnability is burst too quickly.
The gotcha we see on-screen is another variation from the original script (again, view it here – see page 82) – and this time it’s a significant change. In it, Fowler’s prints aren’t really on the bullets at all – it’s a ruse used by Columbo to get his suspect to admit his guilt, which he does instantly. The TV detective, you see, wasn’t au fait enough with actual police techniques to do anything other than take Columbo at his word.
“Fowler’s plotting and covering up of the murder really was first class.”
“Do you know how difficult it is to raise a clear fingerprint?” Columbo asks the stunned TV star. “Do you know how seldom it’s done? Do you know how hard it is to raise a fingerprint off a bullet? Too hard for us to do.” Fowler’s TV ‘training’ was no good to him here.
I’m glad they dropped this aspect and allowed real evidence to collar the criminal. Pretty much every episode in season 5 featured trickery or deception on Columbo’s part to make the killers reveal themselves. Here the cold, hard facts do the talking and Columbo’s conscience can remain entirely clear.
Speaking of which, our mate Fowler’s conscience hasn’t pricked him throughout the episode. Indeed, he regards himself as a sympathetic murderer. Certainly he was wronged by Claire, who is herself one of the series’ least sympathetic victims, but if Fowler deserves our sympathy it’s for his mental frailty, not for silencing a would-be blackmailer.
Fowler may yet be able to escape justice in court by implicating big Sid Daley. He’d been trying to throw the balding producer under the bus throughout the episode. He could claim he and Sid were in on it together – he to free himself from his debt to Claire; Sid to rid himself of a battleaxe who fought him tooth and nail on everything. Try it, Ward! Sid’s alibi will count for naught then, regardless of what secretary Molly says.
Molly, as no knowledgeable viewer will need telling, is played by Peter Falk’s future wife Shera Danese, who is making her first of six guest-star appearances over a 21-year period. A harsher critic than I might say that this small role is her best Columbo appearance, and it’s admittedly hard to find fault in her 28-word cameo.
Elsewhere the cast does its job admirably, although Columbo and Fowler share so much screen time that everyone else is really relegated to the background. As usual, though, Columbo aficionados will enjoy spotting the cameos by series’ regulars John Finnegan and Fred Draper, while Timothy Carey, as deli owner Tony, makes his third appearance in the show.
We also can’t overlook the small role for Star Trek‘s Pavel Chekov, aka Walter Koenig, as one of Columbo’s colleagues at the crime scene. This remains the only time ever I’ve seen Koenig on-screen not using a Russian accent. His presence allows viewers to imagine that Kirk and Chekov have had to travel back in time to right a wrong from earth’s ancient past. That just might explain Fowler’s erratic behaviour…
The script itself is light-hearted and there’s plenty of fun to be found in the many exchanges between Fowler and Columbo. I particularly enjoy Fowler’s casual response of “If you tell me that one more time I’m going to kill myself,” when praised by Columbo for the umpteenth time. Later, in a moment of rare lucidity, he tells Columbo “Why don’t we stop pretending that I’m brilliant and you’re simple.”
Part of the pleasure is the way Shatner delivers these lines in his trademark, ‘Shatnerian’ style. Indeed, without his drawn-out recital technique the episode may only have lasted 40 minutes! His wardrobe is similarly entertaining, switching between different, matching satin shirts and slacks as he drains brandy from glasses the size of goldfish bowls. He even sports something I could swear was a denim onesie! H-to-the-O-to-the-T!
I’m also pleased to report that dear Lieutenant Columbo is much more back to his old self than he was in the shambolic Last Salute. There, his weird creepiness played a big part in ruining the episode. Here, Falk is playing it much more by the book and is showing welcome moderation despite the craziness going on around him. What a relief!
We can also enjoy a laugh at the lameness of the Jaws model on the Universal back lot (blatantly not the one from the film, despite Sid’s claims to the contrary) and the fact that Fowler’s VCR – now hopelessly antiquated – came with a $3000 price tag, the equivalent of more than $13,000 today!
So how do we rate Fade in to Murder against all that’s come before it? It’s a hard one to assess, because it delights and frustrates in equal measure. The mystery hidden behind all the absurdity is really rather good and the rapport between leads is top notch. But overall it leaves me feeling flat.
Too much nonsense got in the way of a fine story. The way the creative team chose to tell it, Shatner was the perfect choice to play Fowler/Lucerne. However, had it all been played straighter, and with a more cultured lead antagonist, this could have been a fascinating addition to the series.
As it stands, Fade in to Murder is something of an acquired taste and is not an episode to be taken too seriously. Compared to Last Salute, however, it’s a masterpiece and one that shows there’s life in the Columbo dog yet.
Did you know?
Ward Fowler’s house represents the third time LA’s legendary Enchanted Hill estate was used in the series. Evidently ownership of the palatial home passed from Double Shock‘s Clifford Paris to Nelson Brenner in Identity Crisis before being snapped up by Fowler.
Given that one of the above is dead and the other two are in prison, we can only ask: who’ll be its next owner?
All jokes aside, the sad fact is that this stunning building has long since been demolished and the Enchanted Hill location is now simply 120 ares of prime real estate (owned by Microsoft co-founder Paul G. Allen) awaiting redevelopment. How thoroughly unromantic…
Check out the ultimate Columbo locations map here.
How I rate ’em
Although undoubtedly enjoyable, Fade in to Murder is a little too preposterous for its own good. I’m all for a bit of fun, but not at the expense of the mystery itself. As a result, Fade slips into the lower portion of my B-List. This means, of course, that I still rate it highly in the grand Columbo scheme.
Feel the need to revisit previous episode reviews? Then click on any link below and fill yer boots!
- 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
- Now You See Him
- Double Exposure
- Lady in Waiting
- Troubled Waters
- Any Old Port in a Storm
- Prescription: Murder
- A Deadly State of Mind —B-List starts here—
- An Exercise in Fatality
- Identity Crisis
- 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
- Fade in to Murder
- Ransom for a Dead Man
- A Case of Immunity
- Dead Weight —–C-List starts here——
- The Most Dangerous Match
- Lovely but Lethal
- Short Fuse ———-D-List starts here—-
- A Matter of Honor
- Mind Over Mayhem
- Dagger of the Mind
- Last Salute to the Commodore —Z-List starts here—
Let me know where you stand on Fade in to Murder. Bonkers brilliance, or mystifying over-indulgence? Shoot me a comment below! And of course, don’t forget to check back in soon when I revisit one of 70s’ series least-remembered outings: Old Fashioned Murder.
Thanks to regular contributor Rich Weill for alerting me to the differences in the draft episode script!
I enjoyed the Shatner-Falk interactions throughout. And once again, I have to commend Columbophile for his excellent review and hilarious photo captions and funny comments.
I do not agree that Fowler has multiple personality disorder. The main reason is that he consciously switches from Lucerne to Fowler. For example, at one point he says “As Lieutenant Lucerne, I have a rather unpleasant idea taking shape in my mind.” and then later he says “…you understand, of course, that I’m speaking now strictly as Lucerne.”
People who have multiple personality disorder flip into another personality without conscious awareness. In other words, Fowler would have just become Lucerne and then at other times just become Fowler. He would not have said “I’m speaking as Lucerne.” That comment reflects that he is choosing to pretend he is Lucerne and is aware of making that choice.
I thought that his speaking as Lucerne was his way of playing a game with Columbo and that Columbo just played along with him. Both were aware that Columbo was closing in and that it was just a matter of time.
I haven’t seen anyone say this, but I definitely think Ward Fowler was intended to be read as having multiple personality disorder (now called dissociative identity disorder). There are hints about it from the first time Columbo questions him. He says he’s “swimming in and out” of himself and forgets questions that Columbo has just asked. He says he has a poor memory for time, which is why he needs his gofer. Amnesia is one of the most important symptoms of DID—people who have it frequently “lose time” when one of their other personalities takes over.
It’s a much more subtle portrayal of multiple personalities than you usually see. I really liked it. I think toward the end Columbo wasn’t humoring Fowler—he was catching on that Lucerne genuinely considered himself to be a separate person and reacting appropriately.
I agree with everything you said otherwise!
I’m pretty sure he was lying about drifting in and out
That’s a very interesting theory ! Food for thought. Thank you.
In my article “What happens when Columbo’s cases go to court? — Part II,” I mention Fowler trying to mount a DID defense—even trying to call Columbo as a defense witness—and explain why it won’t work. https://columbophile.com/2022/12/11/what-happens-when-columbos-cases-go-to-court-part-ii/
Quite thought provoking that being a war deserter will end your career in the states. In my book deserting a war is a positive thing to do…
I was not particularly thrilled by this episode. A bit too lightweight for my taste.
I don’t think we are meant to see Fowler as having a mental breakdown or being confused about whether he is Fowler or Lucerne. As you note, this episode is all meta. This episode could only work with William Shatner. No one in the history of TV had such a following of fans who genuinely had *the exact same confusion* between an actor and his character. With the exception, perhaps, of Leonard Nimoy, who, it will be recalled, even titled his book: I Am Not Spock. This episode was an extremely well-written exploration of fans’ confusing attitudes and attributions between actors and the characters that define them. (I suspect, too, that Peter Falkland and Columbo were similarly intertwined in fans’ minds, which also made it fun.) But back to Shatner and Kirk: this episode was a full decade before Shatner’s infamous and hilarious “Get a life” SNL appearance. In other words, even 10 years later, Trek fans still went to ST conventions and still often made no meaningful distinction between the actors and their characters. In 1976, this would have been, well, quite intensely true. So I don’t take this episode at face value at all, as a man having an identity crisis. I take it as a superb and humorous look at what it would be like *if* an actor had the same confusion that a fan had. Or, in other words: what would it look like if the fans were right and actors are half themselves and half their characters? The “breakdown” is a commentary on super-fans, not a genuine plot element. As such, it’s quite genius, and well done.
I think, perhaps, it takes a (former) Trekker to really get the humor of this episode and why it would have to be Shatner (or Nimoy) to be the guest star. But maybe you can see where I’m coming from!
That explains why Ward was listening to the game on the radio in his car right before he shoots Claire! He’s making a note of a thing that happens in the game so he can play back that part on videotape for Mark. Like Chris said above, if Mark remembers watching that thing happen with Ward at the time that it happened, and if Columbo looks up what time the thing happened at, it places Ward well away from the deli at that time—though of course it’s never mentioned again.
While this episode was spooling across TV screens, Universal Television was launching a lawsuit against the makers of videocassette recorders (and one unfortunate VCR owner), crying foul that VCR users could pirate their and other studios’ work by the very act of taping. (A few weeks after “Fade In to Murder” aired, NBC ran “Gone With the Wind” as a special; supposedly every VCR tape in the country was bought up by users wanting to record GWTW off their sets.)
The case went all the way to the Supreme Court, which ruled that private home off-air taping did not violate copyright law.
Maybe it’s because I just now watched this for the first time after attempting and failing to get through the mindbogglingly awful Last Salute To The Commodore, but I thought it was a very entertaining episode, and, unlike Commodore, it was >enjoyably< nutty, instead annoyingly so. Great fun, especially seeing Bill send himself up so perfectly. I’m a Shatner fan, and I enjoy his hambone performances as much as his legit good performances. And his chemistry with Falk is dynamite. A welcome return to form after an absolutely epic disaster.
If my radio theory is no soap, I think it went down like this: Ward needs an alibi for the time of the murder, so he winds Mark’s watch back to that time, without noticing that it’s 5 minutes fast.
He rewinds the video recording of the baseball game back to that same time, and wakes Mark up. As it happens, it’s a significant point in the game, involving the player that they made the bet on earlier, and again, as it happens, Mark never even looks at his watch before falling asleep again.
Fowler then winds the watch back to the correct time, as he doesn’t know that Mark always keeps it 5 minutes ahead. Mark would then truthfully tell Columbo about the part of the game he saw, and would assume that he saw it at the time that it happened, whenever that was.
My recent comments on this episode have been from memory, but luckily I saw it on 5USA yesterday.
Claire takes 50% of what Ward Fowler earns “off the top” by having him buy the silver certificates for her. She is not doing him any favours, as all of the extra money that comes out of her and Sid’s pockets goes back to her in the form of the certificates. And Ward is not as wealthy as everyone thinks, as he also owes Claire half a million dollars in IOU’s for gambling debts she covered.
Ward DOES have the radio on during the scene where he is destroying his disguise, so he knows at what point in the game Everly hit a home run. When he gets back home, he resets the big, red digital clock on the VCR to that time, then winds Mark’s watch back to the same time, and rewinds the tape to the point where the home run was scored.
Mark does not appear to look at his watch during the brief time he’s awake, but he probably remembered seeing the time on the VCR clock, since we know from the “Playback” episode that people remember the time when they see it printed out. Luckily, Ward Fowler does not have any other clocks in his living room or bedroom.
I have to agree, Fade In is a generally diverting
episode, damaged by serious weaknesses in the
Entertainment: (5 out of 5)
The idea of Columbo encountering his more polished
twin is a nifty one. Falk’s difficulties with the studio,
only now more widely known,didn’t seem so self-
referential then. Fowler’s lapsing into his Lucerne
character speaking about himself in the third person
is indeed bizarre. Which I interpret as Fowler coming
to his senses that his play acting has now strayed over
the line into self incrimination. After which he obviously
begins to deliberately deceive, or at least keeps his
opinions non-committal. (And is not experiencing
multiple personality disorder, as it might look.)
One thing lacking in comparison to Requiem… ,that
other episode where Columbo is an unabashed fan,
is the lack of humour. Still there’s enough good chemistry
between the two leads to make the episode watchable.
Clues Leading Columbo To The Killer: (2.5 out of 2.5)
Generally novel and well thought out. The deliberate
murder. The studio wardrobe and props departments
as the source. The evidence of Claire’s blackmail.
It seems to me that the main weakness is Fowler’s murder
motive..As Claire’s husband Sid points out, they as co-
producers are footing the Fowler’s pay increase demands,
which Claire goes to bat for. She is effectively giving Fowler
half of what he wants out of her husband’s pocket. Yet
despite herself gaining nothing, she is bumped off by a killer
who can’t see what she’s doing for him. How fouled up is that?
Final Gotcha: (1.0 out of 2.5)
Yes fingerprints on the bullets is indeed a smoking gun.
But such a stupid error, that no one planting fibre evidence
on the murder weapon could possibly overlook this, given
that leaving bullets in a studio prop gun is incriminating to
begin with. Plucking the thread from the patsy’s sweater, in
full view of Columbo, is unbelievably dumb also.
The usual way to penalize such a lame gotcha, is to deduct
0.5 for each missing important element. Namely surprise,
ingenuity, and audience deductible, all of which are lacking.
Final Rating: (8.5 out of 10)
With regard to Fowler’s pay rise, doesn’t he say something to the effect of “it’s not as much as you think”? His motive is that his extra pay is coming out of Claire and Sid’s pockets, but then going straight back into Claire’s pocket, which is how she is able to afford the silver certificates. Detective Lucerne is still a popular show, so even if Clare is dead and Sid imprisoned for her murder, some other producer might pick it up.
And the fingerprints on the bullets is a stupid error by Fowler, but that’s how Columbo catches ‘em! Very clever people, but who are nevertheless amateurs.
I think Fowler is unable to see that Sid’s wife
is actually helping him. Her now maternal
relationship to him, as Sid puts it. But instead
of seeing Claire as his helper in extracting
raises from Sid, Fowler sees his glass as half
empty, and her strictly as a blackmailer. As he
is being bilked more and more each time without
the network catching on.
But, he won’t go to Sid, as Claire knows too
much. So Fowler is complicit in the fraud too.
It’s all messed up.
The gotcha here is a gift to Columbo, a dumb
mistake out of the blue. As would be a signed
confession. That’s cheating viewers on their
expectations for the series. The gotchas are
almost always a very clever deduction by
Columbo, or a brilliant trap he sets.
The fingerprints are a mistake that almost certainly
Fowler, after planting incriminating fibres on the
prop gun, and deliberately leaving bullets in it to tip
off it being the murder weapon, would not make.
It’s maybe the lamest gotcha of all the 70s episodes.
I don’t think that Ward Fowler gets to keep any of the extra money that he gets from Claire and Sid. It all goes to Claire to fund the silver certificates. What Ward gets is an undeserved reputation from the network for demanding higher and higher pay rises.
And he resents Claire for the way that she controls and insults hims. He wants his freedom, to be his own man, but he can’t do that unless Claire is dead.
On an unrelated note, wouldn’t somebody who served with John Schnelling in the Korean War recognize him as TV’s Ward Fowler?
A lack of humour in this episode? What, you mean apart from the bit with the elevator shoes, the bit with the video camera, the “shark” from Jaws scene, the “average height” routine at Tony’s (he runs the deli) and Columbo ruining the take on the set of Detective Lucerne?
Check out the framed photo of Shatner as Captain Kirk in the scene where Ward and Mark are watching the ball game. The photo appears behind Shatner.
I never saw that. Will have to check it out.
Thanks for pointing it out!!
Hi Jolynn. As Ward Fowler has photographs of himself on display in his home and in his trailer, I assumed at first that the picture you describe was just an old publicity photo of William Shatner taken sometime in the 1960’s, as was done with Honor Blackman in “Dagger Of The Mind” (no, not the Star Trek episode).
But I’ve looked at it carefully (it’s behind Ward’s left shoulder) and the hairstyle and black collar are definitely Captain Kirk rather than Ward Fowler, which is why we never get as good a look at it.
“Really, very well done”.
I wondered if Shatner knew it was there or if the crew put it there to prank him and they kept it in. I’ve seen that episode at least 50 times (yup, I’m a Columbo addict) and didn’t notice it til recently.
I found this episode to be excellent. Similarly to the Columbophile, I love Ward Fowler. However, I did not find the references to Falk’s own contract perturbations annoying and I have a different take on the ‘madness’ of Fowler.
I did not think for a minute he was descending into madness. Having played a TV show detective, he clearly had some critical thinking skills and was capable of drawing conclusions similar to those of Columbo. Consequently, at some point he must have realised that Columbo was getting closer and it was inevitable that Columbo would arrive at what actually happened and who the killer was. And that is why he started referring to himself in third person. He didn’t want to directly answer Columbo’s questions as Fowler and accidently reveal or admit to something that would be his undoing.
Columbo indulged him because he knew he had won the battle of wits and was revelling in it. Fowler did not lose his mind. At the end, once he is defeated, he says ‘I’ve had no rehearsal as a murder.’
All in all, for the reasons listed by another commenter (MICHAELTHAU), it is one of my favourite episodes.
Hi Tom. Totally agree. Ward Fowler is not insane, or pretending to be insane.
Columbo cannot condone what Fowler has done (shooting a woman in the back and framing her husband) but he is a genuine fan and understands his dilemma.
Yes, Columbo is indulging Fowler up until he gets some solid evidence against him.
I just watched this episode and liked it very much. I read the review, and went through many of the comments, and was a bit surprised to not find a single mention of Lola Albright’s earlier role as Edie Hart in a very good detective series, Peter Gunn, from almost 20 years before this. The episodes are still up there streaming in IMDB, and well worth seeing.
“Too much nonsense got in the way of a fine story.” Amen to that. I wasn’t sure if it was Fowler, Columbo or me that was losing it.
The episode blurs the line between Columbo’s
universe and Lucerne’s a little too much to be
believable, or even for us to be sure that one of
them hasn’t flipped their wig at some point.
Starting early when Fowler admits that his first
responses and insincere reactions to Claire’s death
and Columbo’s questions were ones that Columbo
expected from a guilty party, not his real ones,
Wow! Wouldn’t really only a guilty party do that?
Columbo admits he was totally fooled, then shortly
after asks Lucerne for help in solving the case! So
he clearly endorses Fowler’s lunacy from the start,
even trying on Lucerne’s hat and shoes later.
Lucerne agrees to help to catch the actual guilty
party, which he knows is himself. Can’t Fowler
see Columbo is just getting him to incriminate himself?
Even if it’s a ploy not in Lucerne’s own playbook?
Fowler doesn’t say anything about his first responses and insincere reactions to Claire’s death and Columbo’s questions being what Columbo would expect from a guilty party, but rather what a (lesser) detective would expect to hear from somebody shocked by a friend having just been murdered.
He explains this by saying (truthfully) that he didn’t care for Claire very much and hadn’t done so for years. He’s not admitting to being guilty of her murder, just that he’s not really upset by it.
You’re right. But Fowler’s responses sure sound
insincere, if not outright incriminating. Which in
a murder investigation, is a huge red flag.
Yet Columbo claims Fowler fooled him. A
sign I think that already he distrusts him.
True. But consider this. It’s common knowledge around the set of Detective Lucerne that Claire and Ward don’t get along the way that they used to. Any good detective would find that out pretty quickly.
Fowler first behaves the way an outsider would expect him to behave, which does not come as a surprise to anybody on set. He knows what he’s doing, and expects Columbo to find out that he’s only pretending to be sorry that Claire is dead.
Columbo claims that Fowler fooled him, and Fowler doesn’t believe him. Fowler knows a lot about police procedures from his show, and has prepared a script in his head for any eventuality. But of course, he’s not a real policeman, and comes unstuck when dealing with Columbo.
I think that Columbo is on to Fowler when he makes out that he can’t remember what he was doing the previous evening, prompting Mark to innocently say “You were watching a ball game with me” which Fowler still makes out he doesn’t remember.
Easy to follow episode, so maybe my mind wandered. When did Columbo take off the elevator shoes?. How did the continuity folks miss the blowing hair inconsistency when Sid is talking to Columbo in the Jaws scene? They switch back and forth from shots from behind Sid to shots from behind Columbo, In the scene from behind Sid, part of his hair is flapping onto his face. You can see it just start to loosen in the final scene from behind Columbo, so they must have shot the scene from behind Columbo first, then did the whole thing again from behind Sid. I enjoyed this episode for its lightheartedness, but I found it a little predictable..
My guess is that Columbo took the shoes off while the camera is on Ward Fowler. Did you notice that the chalk circle is already on the back of Columbo’s coat in the Jaws scene?
If you’ve never seen Walter Koenig without a Russian accent you must have missed Babylon 5? Great series, and given your obvious passion for brilliant guest stars, I think you’d really enjoy. Koenig as the creepy Psi-Cop “Bester” is one of the stand out characters of the entire show. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=urMYZ-5X88o)
Loved this episode, LMAO throughout!!! Shatner killed me with his alter ego while Colombo played along. By far the funniest thing I’ve watched in a long time
Just watched and thought it was great as well. Other episodes have featured murderers who developed some kind of rapport with Columbo. But Ward Fowler is the only one I can think of who seemed to positively enjoy Columbo’s company. Also liked the fact that Fowler wasn’t taken in by Columbo’s act for a second and Columbo was never able to use it to unnerve him. Made for a unique episode.
The in jokes didn’t bother me at all — not sure I’d even have realized quite how in most of them were if not for Columbophile’s very useful summary of the background re Falk’s disputes with the studio. In any event, think that they fit perfectly well with the internal logic of the script and that wouldn’t stand out to someone who knew nothing about Falk or the show when it first aired.
The “descent into madness” didn’t bother me at all. Not really sure that’s what it was. Seemed more like Fowler’s eccentricities as an actor providing him a means to address the suspicions he knew Columbo had. As to Columbo putting up with it, IIRC, we later learn that at that point he already knew about Fowler’s fingerprints being on the bullet, so he’s just indulging Fowler in the hopes of ultimately getting a confession out of him.
Probably not a popular opinion among fans of the show, but I think this might be my favorite episode.
I haven’t read all of these comments, so maybe I’m not the first to say this, but I think Shatner plays Fowler as if he’s gay.
I don’t think Fowler is meant to be gay (he was Claire’s lover for a start) but he is a narcissist.
I think Fowler, who is played by Shatner, plays Lieutenant
Lucerne way too flamboyantly to be real. What cop walks
around in a white suit with a cane and big white floppy hat,
and a red rose in his lapel?
Shatner who is Canadian, is really playing Fowler playing
Pierre Trudeau, a past Canadian PM, in one of his garish
outfits. Incidentally, his son Justin, is now the PM.
Lucerne is a fiction within a fiction, so he’s not meant to be all that “realistic” to us, on a higher plane of reality. It’s a bit like the daytime soap characters in Mrs Peck’s TV shows.
Watching this episode recently, I finally realised that “Detective Lucerne” is meant to be a period show, set around 50 years earlier, sometime in the mid 1920’s. The car, the outfits, the decor, etc, none of them are contemporary. (When Columbo first meets Fowler, a lady extra in a decidedly non-1970’s frock walks across the set). I think the episode was made not long after Levinson & Link’s highly enjoyable “Ellery Queen” TV series, set in the 1940’s.
I think that “Detective Lucerne” is an indirect reference to Columbo’s roots in English country house type murder mysteries. The character of Lucerne seems to be a based on Gene Barry’s millionaire police captain, Amos Burke, admittedly a 1960’s character, but with an overlay of Dorothy L Sayers upper class detective, Lord Peter Wimsey. We are not meant to take “Detective Lucerne” too seriously (how seriously are we supposed to take Mrs Melville?) it being the Columboverse version of a fictional police detective in a world were Lt Columbo is a real police detective.