Awards time: recognising the very best of 70s’ Columbo

Peter Falk 1975 Oscars
It’s time to P-A-R-T-WHY? Cos I gotta!

After four gruelling years, we’ve worked our way through 45 classic Columbo episode reviews – so now’s the time to ROCK OUT and celebrate all that’s good about the 70s’ series.

As a result, I invite you all to attend a glitzy and back-slapping awards bash at which I’ll be presenting awards in 20 Columbo categories, including (but not limited to) Best Episode; Best Killer; Best Episode Score; Best Gotcha and many more…

Please welcome your host for the evening…

Dale Kingston refused to loan me his velvet tux, so I’ll instead take to the stage in the cabaret singer’s suit from Now You See Him – an apt outfit for an evening of such spell-binding entertainment.

Take your seats now please, ladies and germs, for the curtain is about to rise. And remember, these are based on my personal decisions, not a public vote, so please don’t jeer too loudly if your favourites aren’t recognised here tonight. So let’s push on and wish good luck to all our plucky nominees!

Columbo Awards
Which of our expectant stars will be honoured tonight?

Best Episode – The Bye-Bye Sky High IQ Murder Case

Columbo Bye-Bye Sky High IQ Murder Case

It’s not the most important episode, but for what it represents to me personally, and for the pleasure it has brought me so often, Bye-Bye Sky High has no equal.

A lot of that I attribute to the splendid efforts of Theo Bikel as the pompous, yet ultimately fragile killer Oliver Brandt, while Peter Falk is on sparkling form as Columbo, adding just the right amount of whimsy to his performance as he investigates a murder at a society of geniuses.

There are flaws in this episode, but any shortcomings almost don’t matter because the episode as a whole is so good and so entertaining. It boasts several of the very best and funniest Columbo scenes and we even see what we’ve been waiting to see since the series debuted: the Lieutenant caught in the rain without his raincoat. It’s magical stuff.

The denouement is right up there with the series’ finest, too, with simple edits between the two leads’ faces building to a frenzied climax amid lightning and thunder. And it proves to the viewer what we’ve always known deep down: that the humble, dishevelled Lieutenant has one of the great minds of his time.

Read my full episode review here.

Highly Commended: Suitable for Framing, Publish or Perish

Best Killer – Riley Greenleaf (Publish or Perish)

Columbo Riley Greenleaf
Drunk Riley is da greatest!

When he set the series benchmark with Ken Franklin, it was going to take quite an heroic effort to top it. But with Riley Greenleaf, Jack Cassidy managed to out-do even himself to deliver the single most watchable villain of the series’ 35-year run.

I can’t imagine any actor having more fun in a role than Cassidy appears to have had as Greenleaf – and that sense of fun is absolutely contagious. He excels in too many scenes to list here, but the faux drunken antics he employs to establish his alibi are absolutely priceless.

Riley Greenleaf is Jack Cassidy in full flight, and that’s a truly magnificent thing to behold. That’s why no other killer can touch him.

Highly Commended: Dale Kingston (Suitable for Framing), Ken Franklin (Murder by the Book)

Best Gotcha – Suitable for Framing

Magnificent in its simplicity, the take-down of smarmy art critic Dale Kingston remains a joy to behold – whether at the first viewing or the 101st.

Keen to see his crazy Aunt Edna take the rap for the murder of his uncle Rudy, Kingston has planted some stolen Degas pastels in her linen closet, which the police duly find. Things look bad for Edna, but Columbo orders the artworks be dusted for prints as he accuses Kingston of slaying his uncle.

Knowing his own prints are all over the works, ol’ Dale remains cool as a cucumber. But it’s Columbo’s prints they’re looking for after he got his mitts on them when reaching into an art folder earlier in the episode. And when there’s a positive ID on Columbo’s prints being on the paintings, Kingston is running short on options.

Entrapment, he claims with desperation. Columbo must have touched the paintings just now while he wasn’t looking! Cue the legendary ‘gloved hand reveal’. Watch closely and you can see Kingston’s lip quiver in panic when the Lieutenant’s hands come out of the raincoat pockets. It’s the single best television moment of all time, and surely always will be.

Highly Commended: Candidate for Crime, A Friend in Deed

Best Non-Gotcha Scene – Columbo gets cooking

Columbo Double Shock cookery scene

Ask just about any Columbo purist to name their top moments from the entire series and it’s a safe bet that the legendary cookery scene from Double Shock will be right up there.

Weighing in at a little under 8 minutes, the scene was almost entirely ad-libbed by Falk and Martin Landau and it’s an absolute gem. Called up on stage to be a reluctant assistant to TV chef Dexter Paris, Columbo is initially abashed and stunned, barely able to string a coherent sentence together – much to the delight of the live studio audience. Yet he warms to the task, making a few wisecracks and milking the audience applause.

The nature of the scene made it perfect for ad libbing, and Falk, in particular, absolutely nails it. He’s as warm and charming as we ever see him – just look at his face light up as he and Landau revel in playing off one another. This is Columbo at his most adorable.

Highly Commended: Greenhouse Jungle – hill fall; Now You See Him – handcuffs on stage

Best Season Overall – Season 4

Columbo By Dawn's Early Light
By Dawn’s Early Light – just one of six belting episodes from Season 4

A very tough task to assess given that the seasons have different numbers of episodes. However, I’ve come to the conclusion that the strength-in-depth evident throughout season 4 places it at the top of the tree.

Simply put, there’s not a weak episode to be found in the season’s half dozen episodes, with even the comparative ‘lesser lights’ of A Deadly State of Mind and Playback still hugely enjoyable romps with belting conclusions and superb performances throughout.

And even if its highs aren’t quite as lofty as the series’ very, very best outings, in Negative Reaction, By Dawn’s Early Light, An Exercise in Fatality and Troubled Waters, there is great variation in mood and theme, not to mention several of the series’ most celebrated baddies. What’s not to like?

I break down the relative merits of all the 70s’ seasons here.

Highly Commended: Season 1

Single Best Peter Falk Performance – Double Shock

Columbo Double Shock Mrs Peck
Never was a prelude to milk and health cookies more enthralling

I’m of the opinion that Peter Falk was at his very, very best as Columbo in season 2. He had mastered every nuance of the character and was still fresh as a daisy in the role with no hint of being jaded as was evident from season 5 on out.

The culmination of the season is the sensational Double Shock, which features a performance to marvel at from Falk. Because of this the episode gets better with every viewing as we uncover more elements of Falk’s turn to treasure – not least his showdowns with Mrs Peck, which allow Falk to flex his funny bone as well as open up his hurt locker. It’s scintillating stuff from an actor on the crest of a wave.

Highly Commended: Greenhouse Jungle, Negative Reaction

Most Brilliant Crime – Double Exposure

Columbo Double Exposure
Murder never looked so good…

Dr Bart Kepple’s wickedly clever killing of sweaty, caviar-loving client Vic Norris is so smart that one could almost wish he’d got away with it.

Showing the attention to detail we’ve come to expect from Columbo murderers with high IQs, Dr Kepple knows exactly how to manoeuver his victim into the killing zone without drawing attention to himself. Despite Norris dispensing with his services, Keppell takes the news calmly and shows there are no hard feelings by rustling up a dish of salty caviar, knowing that piggy Norris can’t resist stuffing his snout in the trough.

Kepple has also taken the liberty of cranking up the heating in the cinema screen where Norris and his team will be viewing a motivational film. But his smartest move is adding subliminal cuts of tall, cool drinks into the film. It’s an astonishing trifecta, causing the uncomfortably moist Norris to dash out to a drinking fountain, where the coolly calculating Kepple sneaks up on him and guns him down.

The ingenuity doesn’t end there, though. Everyone in the auditorium swears that Kepple has been in the room with them all along, narrating the film footage from the stage at the front. This was all an illusion. He’d simply used his tape recorder to supply the voice-over, before stepping back into position just before the lights went up in the darkened room.

It’s evil genius at its very best, leaving Columbo no choice but to copy the subliminal cut procedure to ultimately catch his man.

Highly Commended: Playback, The Most Crucial Game

Most Sympathetic Villain – Grace Wheeler (Forgotten Lady)

Columbo Janet Leigh
If Grace’s plight doesn’t move you, it’s time to upgrade your emotions chip

On the surface, Grace doesn’t seem like she warrants much sympathy. A fading film icon, she peevishly kills husband Henry for refusing to fund her movie comeback. The sad truth, however, is that Grace’s dreams of a return to the silver screen are but a fantasy that could never be realised due to the swift decline of her faculties.

As Columbo uncovers via her husband’s medical notes, Grace has an inoperable brain aneurism, which she isn’t even aware of. This is causing unpredictable behaviour and progressive memory loss. In all likelihood she can’t even remember killing her husband. Experts predict she has a month left to live, perhaps two at most.

I think it’s impossible not to have huge sympathy with Grace, and, as she sits dewy-eyed in front of her home cinema screen at the emotional conclusion, her plight absolutely wrenches at the heart strings. It’s the only case in which Columbo lets the killer go – and that says it all.

Highly Commended: Abigail Mitchell (Try & Catch Me), Adrian Carsini (Any Old Port in a Storm)

Most Deserving Victim – Edna Brown (Swan Song)

Columbo Ida Lupino
Don’t be fooled – Edna is a BIG SOFTIE at heart!

Tommy Brown’s wicked wife Edna is the sort that gives evangelicals a bad name. Indeed, to describe her as a ‘shrew’ or even a ‘fishwife’ would be to do those particular demographics a great disservice.

To put it bluntly, Edna is an old HARPY, essentially holding Tommy to ransom so she can milk his talent to realise her dream of creating a TABERNACLE to show her love for the Lord. In order to manipulate Tommy, Edna turns a blind eye to statutory rape, keeping victim Mary-Anne around as a blackmail threat, rather than, you know, helping her…?

Granted, she may have raised Tommy from the gutter to make him a national star, but Edna’s as ungodly as they come and when she goes up in flames in Tommy’s artfully stage-managed plane crash, there isn’t a damp eye in the house.

Highly Commended: ‘Bullying’ Bryce Chadwick (Lady in Waiting), Tony ‘Idiot’ Goodland (Greenhouse Jungle)

Most Sympathetic Victim – Harry Alexander (A Stitch in Crime)

Columbo Harry Alexander
Harry’s white man’s afro was the talk of the child’s petting zoo…

Has any Columbo killing been as senseless and cruel as Harry Alexander’s in A Stitch in Crime? Surely not, and his demise was simply the final link in what appears to have been several years of genuine heartache.

Get this: Harry’s a reformed drug addict and troubled Vietnam veteran who has struggled to get his life back together and now works in a child’s petting zoo. He had a short-term fling with nurse Sharon Martin (Dr Mayfield’s first victim), which ended in case he became too dependent on her. This bummed him out, but he was dealing with it as best he could.

The very last thing Harry needed was to be jumped on and chloroformed in his own apartment by the fiendish Dr Mayfield – but that’s exactly what he got. Mayfield then delivered a fatal dose of morphine to Harry, which caused his life to tragically end in a psychedelic haze as he tumbled down his apartment steps.

I feel so bad for Harry – who simply has no concept of who is out to get him, or why he’s become a cropper – that it saddens me to even write about it.

Highly Commended: Tomlin Dudek (The Most Dangerous Match), Lisa Chambers (Double Shock)

Best Supporting Male Character – Arthur Kennicut (Death Lends a Hand)

Columbo Arthur Kennicut Ray Milland

Ray Milland is sensationally good as Arthur Kennicut in Death Lends a Hand. Cast as a media mogul, it would have been easy to fall into a one-dimensional braying and adversarial performance. Not a bit of it. Milland gives depth and subtlety, as befits an Oscar-winning actor.

He succeeds in portraying Kennicut’s grieving, sorrowful side as effectively as he does the stern man of action. The dignified vulnerability he displays really touches the heart. Indeed, Milland delivers everything his performance as killer Jarvis Goodland in Greenhouse Jungle lacks.

Highly Commended: Ned Diamond (Forgotten Lady), Peter Hamilton (Lady in Waiting)

Best Supporting Female Character – Goldie (Blueprint for Murder)

Janis Paige Columbo Goldie
Goldie’s acceptance speech (and outfit) would likely be the highlight of the evening!

You want impact? You got it with Goldie, whose sass, style and straight talking illuminate every scene she graces.

Coming from an era when girl power as we know it was a distant prospect (Charlie’s Angels wouldn’t hit screens for another 5 years), she’s a welcome breath of fresh air and quite unlike any Columbo character we’ve ever met.

Confident and cocky without ever being unlikable, Goldie effortlessly wins the hearts of viewers and the Lieutenant in the process. Her best moment? Undoubtedly when she asks a bashful Columbo to look away as she dresses because she “doesn’t want to corrupt” him. The world would be a more interesting place with more Goldies in it.

Highly Commended: Mrs Peck (Double Shock), Elizabeth Van Wick (Playback)

Best-Dressed Villain – Nora Chandler (Requiem for a Falling Star)

Columbo Nora Chandler

As befits an episode featuring costumier GODDESS Edith Head, fading film star Nora Chandler has a wardrobe to die (or kill) for.

So dazzling is her array of outfits that it’s hard to decide which is her very best look, although I think her flared navy and fuschia pink pant suit nicks it – and gives her a slight edge over the fashion turban-tastic Viveca Scott.

Highly Commended: Viveca Scott (Lovely but Lethal), Hayden Danziger (Troubled Waters), Grace Wheeler (Forgotten Lady)

Most Loathsome Baddie – Dr Barry Mayfield (A Stitch in Crime)

Columbo A Stitch in Crime

What puts Dr Barry Mayfield to the top of the list is that his ice-heartedness knows no bounds. In order to take credit for a revolutionary drug he’s been developing with senior surgeon Dr Heideman, he tries to put the latter out of the way through use of dissolving suture after a heart operation.

He then brains the nurse who figures it out with a tyre iron. And later he slays a reformed-drug-addict-turned-petting-zoo employee to frame him for the nurse killing. Oh, and he also laughs at and shoves Columbo in two separate incidents of barbarism…

He’s the first killer who elicits a genuine flash of anger and dislike from the normally placid Columbo – a sure fire sign that he’s bad to the bone.

Highly Commended: Milo Janus (Exercise in Fatality), Paul Gerard (Murder Under Glass)

Best Episode Score – Billy Goldenberg, Murder by the Book

The opening episode of Columbo‘s first season simply had to have impact, and with Steven Spielberg at the helm and Jack Cassidy as the quintessential villain, it certainly hit the ground at a gallop. But we should also not overlook Billy Goldenberg’s iconic score, which does so much to enhance the episode’s atmosphere.

Fittingly for a tale about murder between a mystery writing duo, Goldenberg samples typewriter keystrokes in the score’s haunting and sinister main theme. It’s as good as anything on the silver screen at the time from arguably the greatest Columbo composer of them all.

Highly Commended: Billy Goldenberg (Ransom for a Dead Man), Gil Melle (Death Lends a Hand), Patrick Williams (Try & Catch Me)

Most Underrated Episode – Lady in Waiting

Columbo Lady in Waiting

The hidden gem of Columbo‘s first season, Lady in Waiting flies beneath the radar yet manages to stand proudly even amongst such titanic episodes as Murder by the Book, Death Lends a Hand and Suitable for Framing.

The transformation of Beth Chadwick from oppressed Plain Jane to assertive and sultry minx is the crux of its success. All credit to Susan Clark, who is superb as Beth, and who is ably supported by a fine turn by Leslie Nielsen as her star-crossed lover, Peter Hamilton.

Throw in some excellent humour, a memorable finale and a brilliant moment when Beth’s perfect murder goes awry and you have a magnificent 70 minutes of television. Why it doesn’t rank higher with most fans is a genuine puzzle.

Highly Commended: Double Shock, Publish or Perish

Funniest Episode – Negative Reaction

Columbo Negative Reaction nun scene
“That coat, that coat, that coat…”

Despite its dark moments (notably the cold-blooded killing of Frances Galesko by husband Paul), season 4’s stand-out adventure Negative Reaction delights with some absolutely rib-tickling scenes.

Columbo’s request for a photo of a cocker spaniel to ease Dog’s broken heart is a gem, but it’s bettered by the Lieutenant being mistaken for a hobo by an eager nun, his chit-chat with Vito Scotti’s noble drunk and, best of all, by his encounter with Larry Storch’s highly strung driving instructor. It’s laugh-out-loud funny and the jokes never wear thin.

Highly commended: Bye-Bye Sky High IQ Murder Case, Double Shock

Most Jaw-Dropping Cameo – Jeff Goldblum

Columbo Jeff Goldblum
Without a jot of hyperbole I confidently state EVERYONE IN THE WORLD loves Jeff Goldblum

The world’s most popular actor popped up extremely briefly in a couple of scenes in season 5 outing A Case of Immunity as one of the student protesters raging outside the Suari Delegation. Although he did little more than chant a bit, wag a placard and be jostled by a police officer, knowing Big Jeff was actually in a Columbo episode is one of the world’s most reassuring thoughts.

Highly Commended: Edith Head (Requiem for a Falling Star), Jamie Lee Curtis (Bye-Bye Sky High)

Hottest Female – Jessica Conroy (An Exercise in Fatality)

Columbo Gretchen Corbett
<insert wolf whistle sound effect here>

Surely no Columbo guest star has set so many hearts a-flutter as Gretchen Corbett, who addled detective and audiences alike when opening the door to Columbo wearing only a minuscule cherry-print bikini.

The lover of the similarly dishy Milo Janus, Jessica rocks a variety of looks throughout the episode, but it’s the bikini scene that places her firmly in the role of true Columbo icon. Gretchen Corbett, we salute you!

Highly Commended: Kay Freestone (Make Me a Perfect Murder), Beth Chadwick (Lady in Waiting)

Hottest Male – Milo Janus (An Exercise in Fatality)

Columbo Milo Janus

While numerous Columbo stars have good looks and engaging personalities on their side, none of them can match Robert Conrad’s Milo Janus in the slammin’ bod stakes. To use simple terms, he was all man.

Looking perfectly honed throughout, in whatever outfit he was wearing, Janus was a suitably chiselled figurehead for a gym franchise empire. His love affair with Jessica Conroy firmly places them as the Prom King and Queen of the Columbo opus. Phwoooooooar!

Highly Commended: Alex Benedict (Etude in Black), Carl Lessing (Lovely but Lethal)

Peter Falk Jessica Walter
Oh darling, you were simply WONDERFUL!

That’s a wrap, folks. I hope you enjoyed this article and agree with at least some of the gongs handed out here. If not, please share your own thoughts on worthy winners of any chosen category.

This being a celebration of all things good about Columbo, I didn’t include anti-prizes for Worst Episode, Worst-Dressed Villain, Most Disappointing Gotcha etc, but have written a separate follow-up article giving out some Columbo Razzies right here!

Thanks for reading! Now get outta here and enjoy the after party. I hear there’s a particularly lavish bash being planned at Dr Ray Flemming’s penthouse apartment. Word on the street is that they’ll even be playing Boticelli – what a scream! Get there soon before the Champagne runs dry…

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Carsini was said to be LIVID about his lack of recognition at the awards