When it comes to Columbo killers, my mantra has always been: hate the sin, love the sinner. And when you consider the world-class calibre of the show’s guest star murderers, showing them a little love is an easy task.
From adorable old women and wronged sisters to fiendish medical men and cool-cat college kids, there’s a Columbo killer to warm every heart. But which of the series’ 71 confirmed murderers have the most mass appeal?
For some months now I’ve been running an open poll on this website to allow fans to vote for their numero uno Columbo murderer. Thousands of votes have been cast, so here’s the (reasonably, at time of writing) definitive list of Columbo fans’ top 10 killers…
“From adorable old women to cool-cat college kids, there’s a Columbo killer to warm every heart.”
10. Dr Ray Flemming (Prescription: Murder)
The original, and for a good proportion of viewers still the best, Columbo baddie, the erudite Dr Flemming was fiendishly clever while oozing arrogance and self-assurance – traits that have delighted fans for decades. All credit to Gene Barry, who set such a villainous benchmark for the series.
9. Dr Bart Keppell (Double Exposure)
A blockbuster performance from Robert Culp, who toned down the rage here to give us a coolly calculating adversary that thrived under the pressure of the cat-and-mouse games Columbo was playing. How many votes did he win just for that yellow jacket in the supermarket? We’ll never know…
8. Dale Kingston (Suitable for Framing)
The appallingly slimy art critic (masterfully played by Ross Martin) was so pompous and conceited that his downfall makes the heart sing time and again. With his dismissive demeanour towards Columbo, plus his plans to stitch up his lovable Aunt Edna for a murder he committed, Kingston is a killer that we really can love to loathe.
7. Tommy Brown (Swan Song)
Voice of an angel, heart of a sexual predator and playboy, ol’ Tommy Brown likesly owes his high ranking in this poll to the enduring popularity of Johnny Cash, who was superbly cast as the biblical-crooner-cum-murderer. For once Columbo is pitted against a killer as earthy and unsophisticated as himself – and it doesn’t hurt the episode a bit.
6. Colonel Lyle Rumford (By Dawn’s Early Light)
A brilliant, restrained performance from Patrick McGoohan who delivered an unrepentant killer that we can still sympathise with. Despite murdering a rival and framing an innocent cadet to carry the can, McGoohan humanises Rumford so well that we can understand his motives even if we don’t approve of his methods. In particular, his monologue to Columbo about hanging up his uniform and tending his roses leaves a lump in the throat.
5. Dr Barry Mayfield (A Stitch in Crime)
Leonard Nimoy is terrifyingly good as the heartless surgeon who shows scant regard for human life in attempting to murder his mentor through use of dissolving suture, while actually murdering two others to cover his tracks. One of the few killers to drive Columbo to a flash of rage, the confrontation between doctor and detective is utterly riveting.
4. Ken Franklin (Murder by the Book)
Jack Cassidy was the perfect choice to grace the first episode of the first full series of Columbo, with his charm, mischievousness and wit making him a magnificent contrast to the down-to-earth Lieutenant. Ken Franklin is a joy to behold and sets the standard by which all other killers are measured.
3. Abigail Mitchell (Try & Catch Me)
An absolutely gorgeous performance from Ruth Gordon made Abigail Mitchell a killer we could genuinely like and root for. Full of cheekiness and fun, the diminutive octogenarian had a cute and playful relationship with Columbo, whose sympathetic treatment of her has delighted viewers for more than 40 years.
2. Adrian Carsini (Any Old Port in a Storm)
No Columbo killer delivered lines quite like Donald Pleasence, making Adrian Carsini an aural sensation for viewers. Whether putting down his muscle-bound hedonistic brother Ric, schmoozing with his wine-loving chums or berating luckless waiting staff (‘LIQUID FILTH‘), every line was an event in itself.
Better still was his burgeoning and respectful relationship with the Lieutenant. The men shared an appreciation of the excellence of the other that was rare for the series. Indeed, Carsini was probably Columbo’s favourite killer until smoochy-smoochy Lauren Staton came along 20 years later…
1. The Great Santini (Now You See Him)
Aside from a handful of vino-sipping cognoscenti, few could resent The Great Santini topping the favourite Columbo killer rankings. He does so having scooped more than 10% of the total vote, his combination of mystery, magic and wit winning the hearts and minds of the viewing public. Not a bad trick for a murderous former SS Guard…
“Santini’s combination of mystery, magic and wit won the hearts and minds of the viewing public.”
Who just missed out?
If your favourite wasn’t listed above, perhaps they just missed out on top-10 honours. In 11th-15th place respectively we had Nelson Brenner (Identity Crisis); my own personal #1 Riley Greenleaf (Publish or Perish); Joe Devlin (The Conspirators); Paul Galesko (Negative Reaction); and Milo Janus (Exercise in Fatality) – who is clearly much more popular with voters than he is with the good Lieutenant.
How did the ‘new’ killers fare?
The top-ranked killer from the ‘new’ episodes is Vivian Dimitri from Rest in Peace Mrs Columbo in 19th, with Oscar Finch from Agenda for Murder (Patrick McGoohan in red-hot form) in 21st. Lauren Staton (It’s All in the Game) and Dr Joan Allenby (Sex & The Married Detective) are the only other noobs in the top 30.
Least loved of all?
Not many of our 71 confirmed killers received NO VOTES (including, amazingly, dags Graham McVeigh and Findlay Crawford), but the hated quintet of Norman Paris (Double Shock); Frank Braille (Grand Deceptions); Dr Marshall Cahill (Mind Over Mayhem); Wayne Jennings (Murder in Malibu) and Patrick Kinsley (A Trace of Murder) didn’t raise a single vote between them! It’s especially sad for Norman, who continues to live in the shadow of more popular and boisterous twin brother Dexter…
Where’s your favourite?
Can’t believe Alex Benedict didn’t make the list (he was 16th)? Furious with the lack of rezpeck shown to the 80s/90s killers? Or haven’t cast your vote at all yet? Fear not, you can vote for your favourite and check out the full standings right here (NB – skewing the above results in the process!).
You can also compare your own favourites with my top 10 killers here.
Thanks for reading, and don’t dare be a stranger – or else I’ll send Wayne Jennings round to get ya!
I’m disappointed to see that neither Dr.Bart Keppell nor Paul Hanlon made the top 10. Milo Janus and Mark Halperin belong there too.
Keppell is number 9.
Sorry to say neither of my favorites made the list: Commissioner Halperin (Richard Kiley, A Friend in Deed) and Paul Gerard (Louis Jordan, Murder Under Glass). Not a criticism of the survey, and I don’t feel at all slighted. It merely means that there is a wealth of good roles and performances to choose from. I am surprised, though, that Martin Landau didn’t get a single vote…a terrific performance, or rather, two terrific performances. Maybe there’s a distinction to be made between the actor and the role.
My favorite killer was Cassavetes Maestro (can’t remember name). I think he genuinely loves his wife and is so kind (in a way) to her at the end of the episode when he whispers in her ear that he’s guilty but he loves her. And he exits with so much, dare I say, class? He’s the classiest killer anyway even if he did kill that bird (boo). I also vote this episode as one of the best directed episodes-Nicholas Colasanto (Coach on Cheers). The plot twist when young Audrey points out the man in the tuxedo and it isn’t Cassavetes! Excellent stuff. Columbo is arguably one of the greatest shows in tv history, mostly thanks to Peter Falk of course.
Yes i agree kay freestone is my favorite female killer , attractive, sexy and ambitous
Kills her lover to better her career even though she had a beach house and personalised
Mercedes gifted to her , nice , most suspenseful actual murder shoot in my view also good scenes with columbo in particular her derelict childhood house where she had a trip down memory lane and gave columbo
A neckrub ,make me a perfect murdervery good episode just ashame they didnt leavethat valerie tosh out of it .
Very late to the party. It was a tough choice for me between Ward Fowler played by William Shatner and Tommy Brown from Swan Song. I picked Ward.
Tommy brown id prefer anyday
I think hes very good in swan song and even sings his own songs and refers to his own jail time , flies a plane and has a dark side and ethical sidewhich he to and fros from , and ward fowler just turns me off , i rate swang song in my top 5 me and my dad always enjoy it when it airs (no pun intended) and i dont like to sound too critical and
I dont dislike fade in to murder but i just think its average at best.
Is it the character portrayal, the way the character is caught, or is it the actor themself? Ross Martin as Dale Kingston was the first episode I ever saw( I was 12)and his reaction to his being outwitted is still the best. The last episode I saw was Now You See Him at the Mayo Clinic after cancer surgery( I was 58) and I realised how perfect Jack Cassidy is in this role and his other two. He was born to be the Perfect Columbo villain. David Cassidy was the Perfect TV teen idol, and his father Jack Cassidy was the Perfect Columbo villain in all three episodes. He had a mixed career of stage musicals, light comedy, and dramas, but I think this is now pretty much what he is known for, and that’s not a bad thing.
Nenlson brenner , identity crisis
Easily makes my list lots of smart remarks , ruthless killer and man of diplomaitic status aswell as a military background as for most boring i cant pick a stand out one but heres 5 off the top of my head
Ruth lytton , old fashioned murder
Luis montoya , a matter of honor
General hollister ,dead weight
Dr cahill , mind over mayhem
Beth chadwick lady in waiting
As for nost annoying from the seventuies joe devlin jumps out
But i dont admire the episode very much on the whole also i just
Rememberd paul gerrard murder under glass ,very uninteresing
Killer , that one is an episode i rate so low that it occasionally slips my mind .
How it is that deputy police commissioner Mark Halperin (A Friend In Deed) did not even make the list is stupefying. IMO he belongs on there easily..
Mark Halperin is number 15. Go figure. He’s easily the most loathsome, since he’s supposed to protect the citizenry. But there’s nothing to like about the character. Nor is there about Dr. Barry Mayfield, but I’m guessing he’s getting a lot of Spock-love votes!
from that list I would replace #3 with Halperin (Sorry, Abigail..). Robert Vaughn (Troubled Waters) belongs on the list too in place of #6 or #8 IMO..
John Cassavetes’ brilliantly played music conductor slimeball villain of the day “Alex Benedict should have been in the top 10 and definitely in the honourable mentions.
Couldn’t agree more
Most hilarious killer…………FIELDING CHASE
It begins and ends with Mark Halperin.
People may not think of him as such, but I’d also suggest Eddie Kane as one of the great murderers of the show. John Davis Chandler played a superlative creep.
Dr. Mayfield is my favorite killer of all, both because of the way he was presented and because a physician working to do in his patient during surgery hits home to an old geezer like me. I thought Carsini deserves to be near the top also. Ones who didn’t make the top ten but would have made my list–Mark Halperin as Colmbo’s boss. Paul Galesko as a ruthless and yet sympathetic murderer. And Beth Chadwick. I didn’t hate Beth at all and understood her motive, although it would have been better if she just left her awful family behind and started fresh with Leslie.
Dr. Barry Mayfield portrayed by Leonard Nimoy was a superb Columbo killer indeed. Falk and Nimoy created a great atmosphere of disdain that made “A Stitch In Crime” my 4th favorite episode and always a blast to watch.
Dr. Mayfield and Paul Galesko were the two most arrogant, ruthless killers over Columbo’s entire run. The fact that the latter didn’t make the top 10 is ludicrous.
Dr. Mayfield is a solid choice and certainly belongs on the list. Mark Halperin not in the Top 10 or even an honorable mention is a bit mystifying and almost impossible to believe. Though admittedly I do have a bias since ‘A Friend In Deed’ is my favorite Columbo episode..
very Hard for me to pick a single murderer as they all have some charachter except for a few namely next one In Old fashioned murder . I loved Patrick mc goohan s episodes he was so Funny and charismatic and always had a smart answer for columbo so in terms of funniness he would be top ( not so funny in By dawns early light due to its strict nature ) Emmett Clayton didn’t impress me too much in The most dangerous match but I loved Kay Freestone and Abigail Mitchell .
Oh, come on. Where the heck is Mark Halperin???
Sheesh. . .
He snuck into the top 20.
On my list. Halperin is a real baddie and Kiley as a cold-blooded killer is genius.
“You just lost your badge, my friend.”
Columbo is the Best Series Ever had Amazing Drama with Comedy sprinkled Peter Falk was an Absolute Genius and no Actor could have played him with the skill of Peter Falk Great Acting by co stars and Great Writing Brilliant Show not 1 Bad episode!!!!
Peter Falk was absolutely irreplaceable and ranks second on my list of greatest character actors over the past 75 years. Second out of literally hundreds during that time is pretty darn good..
I agree but who is your number 1 then?
yes who is your no1 screen character?
Jack Cassidy was the ultimate killer. He was the definition of a calculating cold blooded killer in several episodes. He also died under rather bizarre circumstances back in the mid 70s – burned to death on a couch while passed out from one too many drinks while smoking a cigarette.
Jack defonetley had the most trajic death , personally i like pat mc goohan best as he seems to have a smart awnser for columbo except for by dawns early light which was very straight laced , he delivered some cracking lines in agenda for murder , but jack was good too and dont forgey george hamilton who starred in 2 very decent episodes from both eras .
What about Theodore Bikel’s character who thought his intellect would triumph over Columbo’s, or Lee Grant as the woman who tried shipping her stepdaughter away to keep her from revealing her suspicions? Or Ann Baxter, with her husband buried in the backyard? Tyne Daly, pathetically insecure killer? Ed Begley, Jr. as the bogus insurance adjuster looking for puzzle pieces to steal a treasure? Eddie Albert, the suave, opportunistic military retiree ruthlessly preying on an eyewitness, flawlessly played by Suzanne Pleshette? The fact is that Columbo episodes were so expertly cast that there really was no badly played villain, though some episodes were better written than others. My personal favorite is Patrick McGoohan as Col. Rumford, but Ruth Gordon and Donald Pleasance tie for a close second. And Faye Dunaway was at her most gorgeous and charming. Whether or not the episode was flawless, she was a pleasure to watch. I never miss a rerun of Columbo if I can help it.
Let me also add for my #1 guilty pleasure, Rip Torn as Leon Lamar. I can’t wait till you review this one. So many contrived characters, but Leon Lamar is so over the top that I can’t help but smile every time he’s on the screen.
yes leon lamarr was great death hits the jackpot was the best new episode in my opinion ahead of Agenda for Murder in second and columbo goes to college in third
Kay Freestone, played brilliantly by Trish Van Devere. I wonder if this episode is Peter Falk making a comment about the TV industry; it has a collection of unsavory characters, from Mr. Flanagan to Mark’s assistant who rats on Kay when she says she’s moving into Mark’s office. Her angst while getting back to the projection room and in the elevator is palpable. If she didn’t try to involve Johnathon in her murder she would be in my personal top three of sympathetic villains. Sadly, Mark had her pegged. She makes guesses, and her guesses are all wrong.
Kay Freestone easily makes my list of sympathetic characters. Trish Van Devere was as good as they came in portraying her.
Kay Freestone may well top my list of “Best Columbo Killers In Episodes I Don’t Much Care For.” It’s a very short list. As I wrote earlier, the ranking of the killer and episode generally go hand in hand.
My Personal List
Top Ten (Best/Most Interesting, Charismatic Murderers)
1. The Great Santini
2. Paul Galesko
3. Ken Franklin
4. Dr. Ray Flemming
5. Dr. Mayfield
6. Tommy Brown
7. Adrian Carsini
8. Abigail Mitchell
9. Wade Anders
10. Commissioner Halperin
Honorable Mentions (Excellent Murderers):
1. Eric Prince
2. Leon Lamarr
3. Kay Freestone
4. Oliver Brandt
5. Col. Rumford
6. Riley Greenleaf
7. Investigator Brimmer
8. Dale Kingston
9. Tie: Elliot Markham/Leslie Williams
10. Tie: Dr. Bart Keppell/Hugh Creighton
Horrible Mentions (Most Annoying or Boring Murderers):
Dr. Joan Allenby
Dolores (Big Fred’s wife)
Tie: Joe Devlin/Max Barsini/Ruth Lytton
Other than Beth Chadwick i think your horrible mentions are right on spot…..
i agree beth chadwicks charachter is rather plain , lady in waiting in my opinion is only average at best , I just dont get much out of it but its still better than These 6 , dagger of the mind , mind over mayhem, last salute dead weight , short fuse and murder under glass .
Easy on Beth Chadwick! She’s one of my personal faves.
I feel that women still have a tougher row to hoe when put up against males in an acting competition. I keep this in mind when I read comments about character actresses as Diane Baker, Joyce Van Patten, and Mariette Hartley (though I rarely read criticism of Mariette–perhaps because of her powerful appearance). Beth Chadwick is certainly an interesting character; borderline annoying, but she manages to keep it real for me.
yes I agree with your horrible mentions , I normally agree with columbophile but I Just not a fan of Beth Chadwick and Lady In waiting like columbophile is , just dont do it for me so well done, Wayne Jennings very forgettable and the episode , might replace Hassan sallah with Paul Gerard as i consider Murder under glass much poorer than A case of Immunity , absolutely hate swanny and last salute so well done again , would replace Dr allenby with max barsini as I hate Murder a self portrait not sure about Joe delvin , good character just the conspirators was a forgettable episode and Ruth lytton plain dull so well done again .
Ward fowler ( fade in to murder )
Turns me off somewhat ,it is bit silly and uninteresting a lot of the time but bear in mind i dont rate the episode on the whole anywhere near the best of the seventies but roger stanford ,( short fuse ) is more irksome and the episode is poorer also. And as for the new episodes , billy conolly s charachtr is a real turn off for me although some people like it , but the episode is so bad on the whole that i generally dont make a direct comparison as i put it in the basement club with the likes of undercover, murder in malibu and no time to die .
I’d replace Mitchell with Janus, but otherwise I can’t argue with the list one bit. Thank you for sharing.
Hard to argue with any in this sumptuous top 10, although I’d have loved seeing Kay Freestone make the list.
Right with you. Kay is a great pick.
I’m very pleased with the list and think the top 10 has great representation.
Hooray for the new killers list! But I may be biased.
I never expected that my favourite, Oscar Finch, would make the top 10, especially since there are so many greats to choose from so I’m content with his current spot. And I love it that Joe Devlin made top 15.
Despite the wide gamut of opinions that different viewers often have of a specific episode, I find it hard to quibble with almost any name in the top 15, except for the very last one, Milo Janus, whom I would not consider one of the truly top murderers, albeit he was definitely not a bad one. I also think Gene Barry was so good that I would have to place him closer to the top. Likewise, the 4 from the later series were all excellent choices, as were the baddies (although I liked Jose Ferrer’s performance and would have expected him to garner a few votes). The only omission that I cannot forgive is that of the great Swanny Swanson (aka Fred Draper). Just for the delicious way he pronounced the word “tisn’t” merited winning him acclaim. But after seeing that he did not make the goodies list, I still held out hope that he would make the baddies list. To make neither list is truly shameful. I protest.
On behalf of Swanny, I’ll demand a recount!
Alfred Hitchcock once said: “The more successful the villain, the more successful the picture.” Is it any wonder that the best-loved Columbo episodes, generally speaking, feature the viewers’ favorite killers?
The harder question, I think, is: how much of these favorite killers is due to the character the writer created, and how much is due to the actor’s portrayal? Obviously, both contribute to the result—but something tells me that even Jack Cassidy couldn’t have transformed Dr. Marshall Cahill (“Mind Over Mayhem”) into a favorite Columbo killer.