Every once in a while I’m surprised to encounter a Columbo fan who doubts the existence of Mrs Columbo. I’m here to scotch those rumours for good.
And before you smart alecs chime in, I’m perfectly aware this is a TV show, and that she doesn’t really exist. However, in the Columbo universe Mrs Columbo is as real as the Lieutenant himself – even if we never get to lay our eyes on her.
Ardent fans will be well aware of this, but this article is aimed at the more casual fan; the one that digs a bit of Columbo, but doesn’t know every second of every episode off by heart – yet. Casual viewer, I salute you!
“In the Columbo universe, Mrs Columbo is as real as the Lieutenant himself.”
Here I’ll lay out the evidence for Mrs Columbo, as well as tracking back into the archives to provide some insights from Peter Falk and character creators William Link and Dick Levinson on whether or not they believed Mrs C was the real McCoy.
NB – I am absolutely not referring to the SWILL that was the Mrs Columbo TV series that ran for 13 episodes from 1979-80 (ooooh – spanning two decades!). This non-canonical RUBBISH must never be associated with the dear Lieutenant, so if 24-year-old Kate Mulgrew is your mental picture of Mrs Columbo, some illusions are about to be shattered…
The early years
For as long as we’ve known Columbo, he’s been talking about his wife. As far back as Prescription: Murder he recounts how she gives him a pencil every day, which he always goes on to lose. We learn that she thinks he’s forgetful, and that she’d prefer it if he smoked a pipe instead of cigars.
When Columbo returned to screens in 1971 the homely anecdotes about his wife stayed with him. But many of these were broad and could have been applied to anyone at all – in keeping with a potentially fictional character whom Columbo simply referenced as a means of lulling his quarry into underestimating him.
“Levinson and Link wanted Columbo to be a mysterious figure, so it was entirely possible, initially, that Mrs Columbo was a figment of his imagination.”
She certainly could have been fictional when season 1 of the series proper kicked off in late 1971. Character creators Dick Levinson and William Link, in particular, seemed to be of the opinion that Columbo simply made up the references about his wife to suit whatever conversation he was having at that time. In their minds, Columbo was more likely to be a bachelor who lived alone and was married to his work. He never wears a wedding ring, for one thing.
Levinson and Link wanted Columbo to be a mysterious figure. Where did he come from? Where did he go? No one knew, so it was entirely possible that Mrs Columbo was a figment of the Lieutenant’s imagination. Even characters within the show seemed vaguely distrustful of the Lieutenant’s tales of his wife. In Ransom for a Dead Man, Leslie Williams chafes Columbo about his “bag of shop-worn tricks”, including “the seeming absent-mindedness, the homey anecdotes about the family, the wife…”
However, Mrs Columbo soon took on a life of her own. Levinson and Link only wrote one episode of season 1 (Death Lends a Hand), instead having their hands full with production duties. This allowed other writers to put their imprint on the series – and it’s at this stage that Mrs Columbo starts feeling a whole lot more real.
I believe that when season 1 first aired, none of Falk, Levinson and Link had decided whether Mrs Columbo existed. Maybe it didn’t even matter. But then along came Lady in Waiting – the fifth episode of the first season – and all of a sudden the references to her ring entirely true.
Chatting to Peter Hamilton at the bar, Columbo mentions how his wife has a proverb for every situation and that during an argument between them she accused him of ‘putting the cart before the horse’. This proved to be a light bulb moment for Columbo in cracking the Beth Chadwick case, where he himself had put the evidential cart before the horse.
This was a recount of a very authentic, very human encounter; one too personalised to have been made up on the spot. From this point on Mrs Columbo increasingly becomes a fleshed-out character, too real to be simply a part of Columbo’s psyche – unless, of course, he’s certifiable, which we all know isn’t the case.
A further example that strengthens the argument for Mrs Columbo’s existence come in Short Fuse, when the Lieutenant recounts that his wife believes he’s the second best cop in the LAPD – behind 80 other guys tied for first. It’s a sweet anecdote that seems entirely grounded in reality.
Moving into season 2, Columbo chats to car mechanic Mike in Etude in Black about how his wife’s car is nothing special – it’s “just for transportation”. Columbo has nothing to gain by referencing his wife to a random Joe, providing a clear signal that she’s a legit character.
Similarly in Requiem for a Falling Star, the Lieutenant rings home to let his wife know that he’s hanging out with Nora Chandler. Even though Mrs C is out shopping for fish, Columbo chats amiably to brother-in-law George (who also speaks to Nora), so there was definitely someone on the other end of the line who seems to know Columbo and his wife.
Even though the viewers haven’t seen her yet, Mrs Columbo becomes more real with every episode that passes. Yet it’s not until season 4 that we can absolutely say that she’s the genuine article.
Consider the conversation Columbo has with her on the phone from Gene Stafford’s office in An Exercise in Fatality. There’s no one else with him, and the call has no bearing on the case – it’s simply a husband ringing his wife to discuss dinner plans. Again, we’d have to consider Columbo mad to be doing this if Mrs C ain’t real.
Far more definitive proof comes in Troubled Waters. Mrs Columbo has won the couple a cruise at the church raffle and she’s definitely aboard the
boat ship, as testified by Captain Gibbons and Purser Watkins who both report having seen her at different stages of the episode. Unless there was some sort of mass hallucination taking place, even the most doubting Thomas can now safely believe in Mrs Columbo’s existence.
Just as conclusively, ace spy Nelson Brenner has bugged the Columbos’ home in Identity Crisis. When the Lieutenant reveals that Madame Butterfly is his wife’s favourite piece of music, Brenner warbles back: “I kno-oooooow!” He’d have no reason to say that if it wasn’t true.
We must also remember the hated new coat Mrs Columbo gifted the Lieutenant in Now You See Him. Columbo couldn’t think in the offending garment and spent the episode trying to get rid of it. If this wasn’t a genuine gift from his genuine beloved, the guy has a serious screw loose! There are also numerous other phone calls between Columbo and his wife over many years to strengthen the argument.
Personally I think these examples are more important than actually having to see Mrs Columbo ourselves. We want Columbo to have a wife because we want him to have the happy and fulfilling life off-screen that he so fondly talks about.
Assuming Mrs Columbo to be fictitious makes the Lieutenant out to be at best a lonely eccentric; at worst someone with serious mental health issues – very unappealing options for so beloved a character.
Life after The Conspirators
When Columbo’s televisual career wound down after 1978’s The Conspirators (another episode complete with references to ‘her indoors’), NBC was keen to keep on making cash out of the Columbo name – with or without Peter Falk.
The network’s new President and CEO, Fred Silverman, therefore decided to finally give audiences what they’d surely always wanted – full sight of the Lieutenant’s wife. And despite the protestations of Levinson and Link, NBC – who owned the rights to the Columbo name – pushed ahead with the creation of the dreaded Mrs Columbo.
In an attempt to make the best of a bad situation, Levinson and Link did what they could to at least ensure the show’s central character bore some resemblance to the woman that Columbo had spent years talking about. They first suggested Oscar-nominated actress Maureen Stapleton, but NBC wouldn’t have it. The duo later put their support behind Zohra Lampert – a member of Falk and Cassavetes’ inner circle – only to be rebuffed again.
NBC wanted a young hottie to carry the name, so cast 24-year-old Kate Mulgrew as the titular Mrs Columbo. Never you mind that she was only born in 1955, and so would’ve been just 13 years old when Columbo spoke about his wife in Prescription: Murder – the decision was made.
Needless to say, the series absolutely bombed. Falk described it as ‘disgraceful’, and viewers gave it a wide berth. Realising the error of their ways too late, NBC attempted to distance the show from Columbo itself. The show was renamed Kate Columbo, with the leading lady said to be married to some other LAPD cop also going by the name of Columbo.
She was subsequently said to have divorced him and returned to her maiden name of Kate Callahan as the show was retitled (again) to Kate the Detective and AGAIN to Kate Loves a Mystery. The unloved debacle was finally put out of its misery in 1980 after two torrid seasons.
Despite the best attempts of the show to be considered canonical (even showing the Lieutenant’s clapped-out Peugeot in the driveway of her home in the opening titles), Mrs Columbo must never be regarded as having any genuine in-universe connections to Columbo.
And when the Lieutenant himself returned to screens in 1989, still happily married to his dear wife, any lingering doubts as to whether Kate Mulgrew could be considered to be the actual Mrs Columbo were firmly put to bed.
We still didn’t see her, but she was real enough to have Vivian Dimitri try to kill her in Rest in Peace Mrs Columbo; while a dog groomer in Caution, Murder Can Be Hazardous to Your Health mentions taking direct instructions from her on a pedicure for Dog!
The final word
Hopefully the above evidence should be enough for any doubter to now fully get on-board the ‘Mrs Columbo is real‘ bandwagon. And Peter Falk certainly came to believe in her – even if if he wasn’t sure way back when Columbo first hit screens.
In a 1999 interview with James Lipton on long-running US interview show Inside The Actors Studio, Falk was asked whether Columbo’s wife and relatives were mere fantasies. His response was emphatic: “Oh no no, all those people exist.” Case closed? I think so…
As a final aside, much as I think it was the right thing to keep Mrs C in an off-screen capacity, I do believe there could have been an appropriate and subtle way to include her in a fitting finale to the entire Columbo saga.
Falk longed to film one last Columbo in the mid-2000s (read more here) in order to give closure to the character. Wouldn’t it have been wonderful for the very final scene to have a retiring Lieutenant be interrupted from a farewell conversation by his car pulling into the shot behind and the horn being beeped.
“Oh you’ll have to excuse me, that’s my wife,” Columbo would say. “She’s taking me out to dinner and her car is in the garage, so she’s driving mine.”
He would then proceed to turn and amble towards the car, where we would see an indistinct woman sitting behind the wheel – the camera focus just too soft to pinpoint her looks – as the screen faded to black. I tell ya, there wouldn’t be a dry eye in the universe…
Do share your views on Mrs Columbo below. Are you glad she never appeared, or would you have liked to see her pop up during the life of the series? And did you ever tune in to Mrs Columbo, the show? If so, let me know what you made of it. Utter tripe, or unfairly vilified?