As another year slides by, it’s my sad duty to pay my appreciation to the Columbo contributors who passed away over the past 12 months.
From writers and directors to the talented actors who brought Columbo alive on the screen, the following is a brief tribute to the Columbo stars we said a permanent farewell to 2019. May they continue to bring us delight in the years ahead every time we pop on the DVD or catch an episode on TV or online.
NB – These are listed chronologically. If I have inadvertently missed anyone off this list, please let me know and I will add them in.
James Frawley (died 22nd Jan, aged 82)
The director of six episodes, Frawley’s Columbo contribution was a strong one spread over more than a decade and encompassing some of the most popular episodes of the 70s, as well as three of the show’s comeback episodes in 1989.
His Columbo directorial debut came in perennial crowd pleaser Try & Catch Me in 1977, and was followed up up by two further season 7 outings, How to Dial a Murder and Make Me a Perfect Murder – in which he also appeared in the movie-within-the-movie The Professional as the suicidal spy. When the show returned in 1989, Frawley came with it as he helmed Sex & The Married Detective, Murder A Self Portrait and Murder, Smoke & Shadows.
His extensive non-Columbo resume includes shows such as Chicago Hope, The Monkees, Law & Order, Cagney & Lacey, Magnum PI and Grey’s Anatomy. He also directed The Muppet Movie in 1979.
Frawley died of a heart attack at his home in Indian Wells, California.
Jed Allan (died 9th March, aged 84)
Known primarily for his work on Beverly Hills 90210, Santa Barbara, General Hospital and Days of Our Lives, Allan made a small appearance as clean cut cop ‘Phil’ in 1971’s Ransom for a Dead Man.
Allan died peacefully at home in Palm Desert, California, surrounded by his family.
Larry Cohen (died 24th March, aged 82)
The prolific producer-writer-director, best-known for directing cult horror classics It’s Alive and The Stuff, and writing Colin Farrell vehicle Phone Booth, also made a strong Columbo contribution and was pally with show creators William Link and Dick Levinson.
He contributed the stories for a trio of the series’ best-loved episodes: Candidate for Crime, Any Old Port in a Storm and An Exercise in Fatality. Fascinatingly, he also claims to have created the story for Murder by the Book – the opening episode of season 1 that is consistently claimed to have been penned by Steven Bochco. Read more about that here.
Cohen died of cancer in Los Angeles, with his family close at hand.
Rip Torn (died 9th July, aged 88)
As at home on the stage as he was on the small and large screen, Rip Torn starred in more than 80 movies including Men in Black, Dodgeball, Robocop 3 and Cross Creek – for which he earned a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination in 1984. His TV credits include The Larry Sanders Show (his biggest hit), as well as appearances on the likes of Will & Grace and Chicago Hope.
Torn was cast as murderer Leon Lamarr in 1991’s Death Hits the Jackpot, providing one of the most memorable Columbo killers of the comeback era. He died at his home in Lakeville, Connecticut.
Valerie Harper (died 30 Aug, aged 80)
The passing of the much-loved star of Rhoda and The Mary Tyler Moore Show was received with great sadness in August. The comic actress won four Emmy Awards and a Golden Globe for her role as Rhoda Morgenstern, and had dozens of other TV and film credits to her name.
She played a small but highly memorable role as high-class call girl Eve Babcock in 1972’s The Most Crucial Game – notably telling a nervous Columbo to stop being ‘so Cincinnati.’
In recent years, Harper had struggled with both lung and brain cancer – even being given just three months to live back in 2013. She died at home in Los Angeles.
Rob Garrison (died 27th Sept, aged 59)
Known to a generation of film fans as wicked martial arts practitioner ‘Tommy’ in The Karate Kid, Garrison also had a small role in the Lieutenant’s comeback adventure Columbo Goes to the Guillotine in 1989. Credited only as ‘Young Man’, Garrison can be seen leading a tour around the Anneman Institute, immediatly prior to Columbo’s first meeting with the dastardly Elliott Blake.
Garrison died in hospital in West Virginia due to kidney and liver failure after suffering from alcohol-related illnesses for some time.
Shelley Morrison (died 1st Dec, aged 83)
Known to millions as El Salvadorian maid Rosario in Will & Grace from 1999-2006, Shelley Morrison enjoyed a 50-plus-year in acting with credits including The Outer Limits, Doctor Kildare, The Flying Nun and Home Improvement.
To Columbo fans, she’ll always be known as the Latina cleaner from 1993’s It’s All in the Game with her repetitive calls of “Ooooooon….. Ooooooooff…” to Columbo when he flips off the circuit breakers at Lauren Staton’s apartment the stuff of legend!
Morrison died at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles from heart failure after a short illness.
Robert Walker Jr (died 6th Dec, aged 79)
The son of actors Robert Walker and Jennifer Jones, Robert Walker Jr followed ably in their footsteps clocking up nearly 80 credits in shows as diverse as Star Trek (he was Charlie X), Quincy ME, Bonanza and Dallas.
Columbo fans remember him as Neil Cahill, the oppressed son of Jose Ferrer’s murderous Dr Marshall Cahill, from season 3 episode Mind Over Mayhem. The Lieutenant memorably fits Neil up for the crime in order to draw out his father.
Walker died in Malibu. No cause of death has been officially confirmed.
With the pool of Columbo guest stars ever diminishing and none of them getting any younger (the youngest Columbo killer, Matthew Rhys, is now in his mid-40s), we must remember to appreciate those still with us while we can.
Thanks, as always for reading, and let’s all do our bit to ensure the legacy of those above – and indeed all who have ever graced Columbo – continues to live on.