A hypothetical Columbo reboot: how might it work?

Columbo Requiem for a Falling Star
For many fans, the idea of rebooting Columbo is no laughing matter

NB – this is a speculative article considering the best approach to rebooting Columbo should it ever come to pass. If you’re so against the idea that even a hypothetical debate will vex thee greatly, please immediately head to this safe page of photos featuring Columbo cuddling Dog.

We must assume – whether we like it or not – that a Columbo reboot will happen at some point in the future. The show’s too big and too enshrined in popular culture for it to be left untouched forever.

And while the rights have been tied up for years, that could change depending on the outcome of a court case between NBCUniversal and show creators William Link and Richard Levinson (now deceased) over tens of millions of dollars of unpaid back profits and interest.

The case, which has gone to appeal in the US after a Supreme Court judge initially awarded Levinson and Link more than $70m in November 2019, will likely reconvene once the coronavirus crisis of 2020 is finally under control. If NBCUniversal wins, who knows? The rights to Columbo just might become more attainable.

With that in mind, and putting our own personal feelings as to the appropriateness of a reboot aside, how ought a Columbo revival to be handled? When and where should it be set? And, most contentiously of all, who could be entrusted to follow in Peter Falk’s footsteps? That’s what I’m considering here.

Ought it ever to happen?

Columbo Peter Falk
Should Falk’s mastery of the role preclude others from ever portraying Columbo?

Most fans of Peter Falk and Columbo would state outright (and shirtily) that the show should never be rebooted. I know, because I’ve had this conversation with countless fans online. Why bother, when Falk was so perfect in the role, and so intrinsically connected with the character? No one could match Falk’s interpretation – especially in the 70s – so why not just leave it alone?

I sympathise with that viewpoint. Columbo doesn’t need to be refreshed and in the wrong hands it would be very easy to do a reboot badly, which would be infuriating. But whether good or bad, it wouldn’t mean the originals were any poorer because of it. I mean, I despised Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull with a passion, but it hasn’t eroded my love for the Young Indy adventures, nor the original Indy trilogy. If anything, it made me appreciate them more.

“I believe there are more brilliant Columbo stories that could be told.”

The same would be true for Columbo. If the worst came to the worst and a reboot was utterly dismal, we’d still have Falk’s classic era episodes to fall back on. And the hype surrounding the reboot would create an avalanche of interest in the original series, bringing it to the attention of a whole new generation of viewers and underscoring just how amazing Falk’s Lieutenant was – and always will be. That could never be a bad thing.

I believe there are more brilliant Columbo stories that could be told. The great thing is that we only had 69 episodes over 35 years! There is undoubtedly enough creative talent in the world to come up with a dozen or more really excellent Columbo mysteries to add to the mythos. If so, and the team behind it was absolutely top notch, wouldn’t your interest be piqued? Mine certainly would.

What should the format be?

Columbo Prescription Murder
One-off Columbo is good – but it takes a series to get to know and love him

Personally, I see little benefit in bringing Columbo back on the big-screen – unless it was a prelude to a subsequent series. It takes time to get to know and love Columbo, and to notice and appreciate all his mannerisms and idiosyncrasies. One movie wouldn’t be enough to do that. It would short change the character and the audience.

Fortunately, Columbo wouldn’t need the big screen to succeed. As a medium, TV is more appealing to the world’s leading stars than it’s ever been. It wouldn’t be considered a come-down for a Hollywood A-Lister to turn out a few series of event television, and that absolutely plays in Columbo’s favour. It was always served up in moderation, so two or three seasons of 4-6 episodes would be in keeping with the traditions of the show, and offer the best opportunity for quality thresholds to be met.

“If Columbo ever got into the hands of some flashy fool like J.J. Abrams I’d abandon all hope.”

Whatever your feelings are towards Netflix, they do a great job at creating quality, big-budget television and attracting talent. The Lieutenant could find a very happy home there. And while I don’t think a stand-alone movie is the way forward, I do think it would be totally rad to have a star-filled Columbo film on the big screen, knowing that a limited series was following on behind. I’d be keen as mustard – as long as the right creative team was behind it.

That’s the crux. Having the right people in charge would be absolutely crucial. God forbid, if Columbo ever got into the hands of some flashy fool like J.J. Abrams or Guy Ritchie I’d abandon all hope. But there are enough intelligent screenwriters, producers and directors who get what Columbo is all about to believe that a reboot could win the hearts and minds of existing fans as well as newcomers.

When should it be set?

Columbo Identity Crisis
Cool this extreme means any reboot would be best set back in the 70s

The way I see it, there are three options: a prequel exploring Columbo’s formative years as a detective; a continuation of the Lieutenant’s adventures in the 1970s; and a true reboot set in the present day.

Of these, my personal preference would be to keep it in the 70s’ – Columbo’s spiritual home, and a time before forensics and computer technology took a lot of the guesswork and reasoning away from detectives.

Although it was always a contemporary show, Columbo worked best in the ’70s when the scruffy Lieutenant was able to poke his nose around the mansions and pool parties of LA’s rich and famous. It was a classy time, so that aspect would still absolutely appeal. Would I want to see Columbo chillin’ at a hip-hop star’s gold-plated ‘crib’ in a modern day setting? Take a guess…

I see a 70s’ reboot as simply filling in some of the gaps in Columbo’s career and telling some of the stories we hadn’t seen before. Yes, the actor would be different, but the character should be the same: seemingly absent-minded but really razor sharp; bashful and self-deprecating; still smoking cigars, losing pencils and sharing anecdotes about his unseen wife.

This mightn’t, on paper, be the most adventurous way to bring the character back. It would be more of a refresh than a reboot, but the original recipe ain’t broke, so there’s no need to fix it. There’s a reason why so many incarnations of Sherlock Holmes remained true to his Victorian origins, and why Poirot’s ideal home is the 1920s/30s. Those eras are their natural times. I see Columbo and the 70s in the same way.

My second choice would be a prequel, showing how a younger Columbo (to quote himself) was able to “make it happen” through a combination of hard work and inspiration. This could be set in New York or LA and chart Columbo’s formative years as a detective, or even his time as a uniformed officer before he makes the jump to homicide.

Set in the late 50s/early 60s, a prequel would have a style all of its own and would be interesting in that the Columbo we’d meet would doubtless be a very different (and more smartly dressed) character than the fully-realised Lieutenant of the 70s. It could potentially be a fascinating series, and if lessons are learned from success stories like Endeavour (the acclaimed prequel to equally acclaimed UK detective drama Morse), it could be a hit.

Endeavour – a detective drama prequel every bit as good as its parent show

The trick, of course, would be to show restraint in how much of the ‘real’ Lieutenant’s character and background would be revealed – and when. The Columbo we know from the 70s was a mysterious figure. We never really knew if what he was saying was true, how he lived off-screen and how much of an act he was putting on. The danger of a prequel would be to try and give an overt explanation to everything connected with the character.

I use the dire Star Wars Solo film as a cautionary example of a prequel that massacred the enigma of one of cinema’s coolest heroes through its clumsy efforts to explain every little thing about his back story. However, if handled with kid gloves and subtlety there’s no reason to think a Columbo prequel wouldn’t succeed.

There’s also the thorny issue of casting to consider. I know who I’d cast as a Columbo set in the 1970s, but I have no actor in mind who I can picture as a younger variation in his late 20s/early 30s. It would be a difficult choice.

A present day reimagining would be (by far) my least favoured route to go down, as it’s the one that I would most expect to turn into a calamitous pile of steaming pants. Placing Columbo in today’s world would likely mean a different character completely: possibly a daughter, niece, son, nephew or grandchild following in their famous forebear’s footsteps.

“A present day reimagining would be by far my least favoured route to go down.”

It could even be a Sherlock or Elementary-style take, simply transposing Columbo to the present day without any of the baggage of the original series. Creatively, this may be a preferred route for many production teams keen to leave their own indelible marks on the character. For existing fans, however, I suspect this approach would be greeted with the most apprehension.

Columbo has been such a success for more than 50 years because we love the Lieutenant and all his little quirks. Folk determined to take the character in ‘cool’ or ‘woke’ new directions could run roughshod over Columbo’s treasured persona and heritage, alienating fans in the process. That’s why the casting would be so pivotal – and also so difficult to get right.

Who could be cast as Columbo?

Columbo Ruffalo
Mark Ruffalo and Natasha Lyonne: leading contenders to relight the Columbo flame

It’s been several years now since the internet was abuzz with the idea that Mark Ruffalo would be the man to reincarnate Lieutenant Columbo. Put forward on Twitter by screenwriter and author Gary Whitta, Ruffalo was only too happy to be linked to the role and has said in several interviews that he’d love to be the guy to inherit the rumpled mac.

However, with the rights being tied up and Ruffalo having been shackled to the Marvel Comic Universe for years, that ship looks increasingly likely to have sailed. But the actor himself hasn’t forgotten about Columbo – recently engaging in a Twitter debate with Russian Doll star Natasha Lyonne about which of them has first dibs on the character should it become available.

I think Ruffalo would be the ideal choice. Although a bit more physically imposing than Falk, he has the look and the acting chops to pull it off. Many have said – only half-jokingly – that his turn as detective Dave Toschi in 2007’s Zodiac was essentially an audition for Columbo. If so, he nailed it.

Just as importantly, Ruff’s a huge fan of the show and of Falk’s portrayal. The respect and love for the original subject matter are there – without any gimmicks. He could pull it off, but it’s a once-in-a-generation opportunity.

Columbo Ruffalo
Give that man a cigar! Mark Ruffalo has the chops to play Columbo

The big issue is that if it’s ever going to happen, it’ll need to happen soon. Ruffalo is 52 now – three years older than Falk was when Columbo’s classic era came to an end in 1978. The rights would need to be secured pronto, and Ruffalo to be able to factor it into his schedule within a year or two before the opportunity really is lost to him. Those are pretty big ifs.

The question also remains whether he’d be able to commit to the character in the long-haul. He’s spoken specifically of wanting to do a Columbo movie, when a TV series is really the best format for the character. It might be a stretch too far for him.

The other name regularly – and increasingly – connected to Columbo is the aforementioned Natasha Lyonne. Another huge fan of both Peter Falk and the good Lieutenant, Lyonne has enough amiability and eccentricity to be the female heir apparent to the Columbo dynasty. If he was still with us, I can imagine Peter would absolutely adore her.

Personally, I think she’s wonderful and if a Columbo reboot were to spiral off into completely different directions (e.g. daughter or niece of Falk’s original Lieutenant), I think she’d be brilliant. But I’m a purist at heart, and a Lyonne-led Columbo might be too much of a departure for my delicate constitution to handle – although I’d definitely tune in.

I’m not against females being cast in male roles per se, but Columbo is such an iconic character that recasting him as a woman doesn’t seem right to me – in the same way that I wouldn’t want to see Miss Marple cast as a chap. That’s why I’m on Team Ruffalo – at least until such a point where he’s categorically ruled out.

Columbo Natasha Lyonne
Natasha Lyonne as Columbo? Artwork by Leona Florianova

Falk’s ownership of the role makes it impossible for many fans to look beyond him as Columbo. But it’s worth remembering that he was the third actor to play the character (after Bert Freed and Thomas Mitchell in the 1960s), and that A-Team star Dirk Benedict won rave reviews for his portrayal of the Lieutenant in the a UK theatrical version of Prescription: Murder in 2010. Falk’s performances may never be equalled, but he’s not the only actor to have excelled as Lieutenant Columbo.

Other names I’ve heard put forward by fans include Supernatural’s Misha Collins (who definitely has the build and look) and Paul Giamatti, who is an ace talent, but I can’t imagine as Columbo in a million years. At the age of 60, Vincent D’Onofrio is now too old (and too intense?) for the role, while Doctor Who legend David Tennant seems to me to be a suggestion completely out of left field.

Summing up

To conclude, I’m not vehemently opposed to a Columbo reboot in a way I once was, but would only feel confident if it was set in the opulent LA of the 70s, remained true to the original character’s sex, ethnicity, habits and personality, was a series not a one-off movie, and was suitably supported by a cavalcade of talent. In short, more of the same from when the show was at its peak.

Mark Ruffalo Columbo
Dramatisation: may never happen

If that sounds unadventurous, so be it. It would work. And do I think RuffaColumbo going toe-to-toe with the likes of George Clooney, Don Cheadle, Michelle Pfeiffer, Denzel Washington and Kate Winslet sounds appealing? Absolutely – as long as the quality of the writing was suitably high.

However, Columbo is such a televisual treasure that a re-imagining is fraught with risk. Anything less than A-List talent in front of the camera and behind the scenes could doom the venture from the outset. Faced with that prospect, I’d happily live my life without ever seeing a rebooted Lieutenant.

But if he is ever to return to our screens in new adventures, I can’t help feeling that the time is right – and I’m not alone in that opinion. Author and critic Mark Dawidziak, writer of The Columbo Phile book and a long-time friend of Peter Falk’s, summarised the subject quite beautifully when I interviewed him last year.

“Nothing’s ever going to touch Peter’s performance, but if a character is truly a great character, then it should be able to be played and reinterpreted by other actors,” he said. “It all comes down to how it’s done. I think the Columbo character is strong enough and vibrant enough to be brought back.

“If Hamlet’s a great character and he can be interpreted and reinterpreted by many different actors, why can’t Columbo? If Sherlock Holmes can be played by a lot of different actors, why can’t Columbo? And I think Peter might be one of the first to say that, because he was an actor himself.”

Columbo Old Fashioned Murder
Could this be the right moment for Columbo to re-enter the fray?

Please spill your thoughts on what you’d want to see in a Columbo reboot should it ever happen. I’m more interested in constructive debate about how a reboot could work than a blanket refusal to even consider the prospect, so do share your views on preferred settings, timelines and cast – the Lieutenant and the potential villains!

It’d also be fun to hear your thoughts on the worst-case reboot scenarios. Who would you hate to see cast as Columbo? What would be the most infuriating directions they could take the character in? It’s always a hot topic, so do wade in and share your opinions – but please always remain respectful to your fellow fans.

Until next time, farewell!

What would be your reboot preference?

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