For every light there is a dark. For every Lieutenant Columbo there is a Sergeant Grover. For every hundred of the series’ masterful moments there’s a hideous misstep lurking in the corner of our memories – and that’s what we’re setting out to identify today.
Following on from the blockbuster success of the Columbo ‘Best Of’ Awards article of last week, there are 16 further gongs being handed out here – but no one wants to get their hands on these ones.
That’s because we’re considering the lesser Columbo episodes and killers of the classic era, the moments that make us cringe and the characters that we’d gladly never see again.
Just which guest stars and episodes will enter the Hall of Shame tonight?And, just as pertinently, can anything prevent Last Salute to the Commodore from making a clean sweep across all categories? Let’s take a deep breath and find out…
NB – as always when writing an article of this type I’d like to remind readers not to take it too seriously. If your favourite episode or character is lampooned here, please don’t take it personally. Life’s too short! Go and watch an episode instead.
Worst episode – Last Salute to the Commodore
At best a failed experiment, at worst an affront to the series and an insult to the viewer, Last Salute to the Commodore is the one 70s’ episode that is almost universally panned – and deservedly so.
In the mistaken belief that this would be the last ever episode of Columbo, Peter Falk and BFF director Patrick McGoohan cooked up an adventure like no other, but this hugely indulgent debacle is the stuff of nightmares.
Packed with hateful characters, and lumbering the Lieutenant with two idiotic side-kicks, Last Salute attempted to be a classic whodunnit but instead delivered a tepid, confusing and deeply unfunny mess that culminates in what can only be described as the least satisfying parlour room reveal of all time.
Even worse, though, was the way Falk and McGoohan managed to make Columbo a total annoyance – not just to suspects, but to the viewer! Replete with weird mannerisms, stoned line delivery and outright creepy invading of personal space, this is a Lieutenant who’s impossible to love.
To sum up, Last Salute a disastrous outing, which isn’t just poor by Columbo standards – it’s simply a bad piece of television.
Worst of the rest: Dagger of the Mind
Worst gotcha – Last Salute to the Commodore
Columbo’s first foray into the world of Agatha Christie-style parlour-room reveals could have partly salvaged an otherwise dreadful episode. Yet the conclusion to this dross is as bad as anything that preceded it in the ponderous build-up.
Rather than gripping intrigue, we have 20 minutes of idle chat from Columbo and his stupid sidekicks, and a medley of couldn’t-care-less-about characters reacting to the Lieutenant holding cupped hands to their ears and stating: “The Commodore’s watch.” The guilty party – our mate Swanny – supposedly identifies himself by saying ‘Tisn’t.’
And that’s it.
I’m sure this absurdity tickled director Patrick McGoohan immensely but after wading through 90 minutes of bilge up to this point, for most viewers it’s a bewildering, possibly offensive, anticlimax.
Close but no cigar: Dead Weight, The Most Crucial Game
Most inept villain – Dr Marshall Cahill (Mind Over Mayhem)
One of the most lifeless adversaries Columbo takes on in these early seasons, Dr Cahill totally bungled his attempt at committing the perfect murder. His course of action was entirely illogical for a so-called genius.
A hit-and-run-cum-robbery would have worked. But Cahill returning the corpse of Howard Nicholson to the living room and setting up a cosy scene to suggest pals have been chatting over brandy makes no sense at all – either in real life or a fictional mystery. And there was absolutely no logical reason for Cahill to leave the incriminating cigar-lighting match at the scene.
If he hadn’t left the match there, could Columbo have cracked the case? Certainly it would have been a whole lot harder. Yet Cahill compounds this stupidity by openly smoking cigars in front of Columbo, essentially screaming aloud “I’M THE MURDERER.” Making such basic howlers as these tears Cahill’s credibility as a Columbo killer to shreds.
Close but no cigar: Dr Eric Mason (How to Dial a Murder), Joe Devlin (The Conspirators)
Worst scene – Make Me a Perfect Murder‘s musical interlude
A decent episode was blighted by a prime example of the malaise that crept into a number of late 70s’ episodes in the shape of the above mind-numbing scene of Columbo tinkering with a TV studio control panel.
All the neck-braced Lieutenant does is push buttons, stare at patterns on a screen and look pleased with himself for more than 2 minutes, which, I can promise you, outlives its welcome by more than 2 minutes. It’s probably the worst example of padding seen in any classic era episode.
Weakest season overall – Season 5
Hindered in no small measure by the sub-par swill that is Last Salute to the Commodore, there’s a gulf in class between season 5 and the rest in terms of consistent quality.
To my reckoning, there’s one awesome episode (Now You See Him), two that are decent (Identity Crisis, Forgotten Lady), two forgettable efforts (A Case of Immunity, A Matter of Honor) and the DISMAL Last Salute. That’s a pretty poor strike rate for such a proud series.
Worst of the rest: Season 7
Worst Columbo characterisation – Last Salute to the Commodore
As outlined higher up, Last Salute achieved the unthinkable by portraying Columbo as an irritating nuisance. It’s an unforgivable crime.
While director McGoohan is largely to blame for encouraging Falk to push the character in ‘interesting’ new directions, it takes two to tango and Falk must shoulder his share of the blame. After 36 outings in the crumpled mac, he was doubtless glad of the chance to mix things up, but I daresay his friendship with McGoohan clouded his judgement.
Allowing the Lieutenant to evolve into the infuriating, discourteous, stoner weirdo he is in Last Salute is a betrayal of the Columbo we know and love. Falk might have been having a whale of a time, but the audience simply isn’t in on the joke.
Close but no cigar: Murder Under Glass, The Conspirators
Biggest waste of talent – Vincent Price (Lovely but Lethal)
Before you start hissing, let me clarify. This award does not mean I’m panning Vincent’s performance in Lovely but Lethal. Far from it. I love him in it, and his presence may well be the best aspect of one of the 70s’ series lesser efforts.
However, I can’t help but feel that he wasn’t made the most of here. On the upside, it’s so cool that Vincent Price starred in an episode of Columbo! On the downside, he’s criminally underused.
To me, it doesn’t make sense to have Price at your disposal and not maximise your use of him. Who knows, perhaps he only had a couple of days spare to accept a small guest slot and we should count our blessings he appeared at all? But for a character as intriguing (and, lest we forget, potentially such a realistic murder suspect) to simply vanish halfway through the episode is such a shame.
Close but no cigar: Robert Vaughn (Last Salute to the Commodore), Ida Lupino (Short Fuse)
Most idiotic character – Tony Goodland (Greenhouse Jungle)
Okay, Tony’s intentions may have been from the heart (he wants to fake his own kidnapping to get ransom money to buy back the affection of his wife), but floppy-haired victim Tony Goodland is an almighty simpleton. As a result, it’s impossible to feel any sympathy for him because it’s glaringly obvious to anyone with more cells than an amoeba that he’s being double-crossed by his bellowing, bewigged uncle Jarvis.
On top of that, Tony is a bona fide fruitcake. I mean, he signs photos that he gives to his loved ones – wife included! That’s a special kind of weird right there. Uncle Jarvis openly admits that Tony, his only living relative, is a dolt, delivering a magnificent line to Columbo: “I don’t mind revealing that my nephew isn’t worth a sack of peat moss. He’s a wife-ridden weakling whom I’ve despised for years.” Enough said…
Close but no cigar: Nadia Donner (A Deadly State of Mind), Hugh Caldwell (A Friend in Deed)
Least believable display of grief – Riley Greenleaf (Publish or Perish)
“BUT, WHO? WHY?”
Need I say more…?
Close but no cigar: Paul Galesko (Negative Reaction), Commissioner Halperin (A Friend in Deed)
Worst representation of a killer’s profession – John Cassavetes (Etude in Black)
John Cassavetes may have been an actor of infinite talent, but he seems to have absolutely no sense of rhythm – at least as far as his impersonation of world-renowned concert Maestro Alex Benedict at work is concerned.
Correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t a baton supposed to be caressed rather than wielded? Benedict’s stiff arm movements and rock-solid grasp on his wand (double entendres 1000% intended) seem more akin to a club-carrying caveman, a lumbering robot, a golem of legend, or even the Incredible Hulk. Maestro? Don’t make me laugh…
Close but no cigar: ‘Chemist’ Roger Stanford (Short Fuse), ‘Actors’ Nick Frame & Lily Stanhope (Dagger of the Mind)
Worst attempt to appear inconspicuous – Hugh Caldwell (A Friend in Deed)
You can tell that Bel Air resident (and lily-livered murderer) Hugh Caldwell doesn’t spend a lot of time hob-nobbing with criminals in downtown dive bars, can’t you?
When completing his clandestine rendezvous with Artie Jessup in LA’s equivalent of the Mos Eisley cantina, our mate Hugh hardly dresses for the occasion. Wearing his finest three-piece suit and tie, Hugh sticks out like a swollen, gangrenous thumb – his attempts at disguising his identity through wearing giant sunglasses indoors only accentuating quite how much he doesn’t belong.
Just as well this was a pre-happy hour meeting, or Hugh would’ve been dead at the hands of one of the bar’s denizens before he could even order a pink gin and lemonade.
Close but no cigar: Alex Benedict (Etude in Black), Nora Chandler (Requiem for a Falling Star)
Worst haircut – Harold Van Wick (Playback)
For a man at the coal face of technological advancements, Harold Van Wick’s hair styling is distinctly 16th century. More choir boy bowl cut than smart, modern exec, Harold’s dodgy coiffure is just about the only thing in this episode that isn’t cutting edge.
He definitely doesn’t go to Daryl’s…
Close but no cigar: Steve Spelberg (Mind Over Mayhem), Lloyd Harrington (Troubled Waters)
Most scurrilous stereotype – Miguel Hernandez (A Matter of Honor)
Surely, in the only episode set in Mexico, Columbo creators could resist the temptation to feature a moustachioed vaquero accepting a bottle of booze, drinking it all and falling asleep in a field instead of doing the job he was asked to do?
No. No they couldn’t. Hence why we have the talented Emilio Fernandez ticking every stereotypical box possible in the small role of Miguel in the cliche-tastic A Matter of Honor. Subtlety isn’t this episode’s strong point.
Close but no cigar: Tanner the butler (Dagger of the Mind), Hassan Salah (A Case of Immunity), Kerry Malone (The Conspirators)
Most inept police officer – Sergeant Vernon (Candidate for Crime)
The Hayward case proved conclusively how lucky the LAPD was to have Lieutenant Columbo on staff. To put it bluntly, all the other cops in this episode appear to be absolute incompetents. Hayward’s guard detail seem particularly inept, letting the disguised Harry Stone easily escape their clutches and then taking an eternity to trace Hayward, at his home.
The most culpable seems to be arch-dunderhead Sergeant Vernon, who is essentially Hayward’s personal protector. Vernon’s low point is when he picks up Hayward’s gun-laden jacket at the hotel suite, only to helpfully hang it up rather than bust the plotting politician for carrying an undisclosed firearm.
Little wonder, perhaps, that Hayward had the confidence to attempt his audacious final stunt, which included setting off an instantly-findable firecracker on his suite balcony. True to form, when Vernon lollops in and gives the balcony a cursory once over, he completely fails to see the firecracker debris, simply mourning that Hayward’s fictitious assassin ‘must have been a human fly’. Good work, Vernon!
Close but no cigar: Sergeant Grover (Greenhouse Jungle), Theodore ‘Mac’ Albinsky (Last Salute to the Commodore)
Least convincing wig – Jarvis Goodland (Greenhouse Jungle)
Life must have been terrifying for Jarvis Goodland, knowing, as he did, that any second could be his last should a stray spark, ember or carelessly held cigarette send him up like a tinderbox.
Yes folks, Goodland’s combustible hairpiece was as dangerous as it was conspicuous, giving rise to his irascible temperament and hatred of others, while explaining why he only felt safe in the presence of his beloved orchids in their very humid greenhouse.
Close but no cigar: Gloria West (Greenhouse Jungle), Ward Fowler (Fade in to Murder)
Worst-dressed guest star – Roger Stanford (Short Fuse)
As referenced more often than ought to be considered healthy in my review of Short Fuse, Roger Stanford’s wardrobe choices are probably the episode’s enduring memory. But that’s NOT a good thing. He double denims at one point, but the bigger crime is the unforgettable – some might even say unbelievable – blouson shirt and skin-tight trouser combo he sports quite merrily on a standard work day at the chemical plant.
Word on the street is that the trousers were so snug that Roddy temporarily went mad, which might explain Roger’s descent into sheer lunacy at episode’s end.
Highly Discredited: Billy Fine (Any Old Port in a Storm), Sam Franklin (Suitable for Framing)
Thank you, ladies and germs, for that large round of indifference and those hearty Bronx Cheers. The award winners tonight certainly deserve them!
As always, your own thoughts on deserving alternate categories and winners would make for interesting reading, so please bust your comments below. Oh, and before I forget, will the last one to leave please turn out the lights?