Playwright pens Columbo prequel

Columbo Prescription Murder
Can’t imagine Columbo before the cigars and raincoat? Then read on…

No sooner had I published my recent article on the possible avenues a hypothetical Columbo reboot might follow, than a virtual rapping sounded at my proverbial door.

If you missed the article (shame on you – read it here), one of the possibilities put forward was a prequel chronicling Columbo’s fledgling years on the force as he worked his way towards becoming the best darn detective in TV history. I conjectured that this could be set in either New York or LA and take place in the late 50s or early 60s.

As it turns out, I’m not the only Columbo super-fan whose mind had turned towards the prospect. Indeed, this particular fan has done a lot more than merely think about a possible prequel. He’s written a complete teleplay intended to kick off a whole new chapter of Columbo’s career – and it’s set in 1957 New York.

“This story offers a tantalising glimpse of how a fresh-faced, young detective made his mark on the world before the ‘shop-worn bag of tricks’ became part and parcel of his persona.”

The fan in question will be known to regular readers as it’s lawyer/playwright/author/former prosecutor/Columbophile blog contributor/all-round Lieutenant lover, Richard Weill. The New York resident is one of the world’s most informed Columbo commentators and one of those people who just seem to be ruddy good at everything they try their hand at.

Rich has written a number of plays over the decades with his most noted, a mystery entitled Framed, earning rave reviews and sell-out performances in 2016. This, combined with his legal background, makes him as qualified as just about anyone to put a younger Columbo through his paces.

His proposed opening gambit for prequel series Det. Columbo, NYPD is entitled Curtains and is a murder mystery set on Broadway featuring an esteemed theatre director who sets up a murderous scheme after finding out that his beautiful actress wife is having a fling with the male lead of his new play.

Young Columbo
1950s Columbo has plenty in keeping with his Prescription: Murder incarnation

And while I’m not at liberty to say too much about the actual content of the story, I can say that Rich has done a marvellous job at creating a credible means of introducing our hero. The new detective on the block at the fictional 12th Precinct in Manhattan having earned a coveted assignment to the homicide squad, Columbo has plenty to prove – and plenty to learn. The mystery leaves us in no doubt that the wily Detective Columbo has a promising future but he’s a long way from being the disarming, shabby sleuth with the razor-sharp deductive mind that we know from the 70s.

What impresses most with Curtains is that Rich has managed to convincingly convey a sense of authenticity in the younger Columbo, who speaks and acts just like I’d imagine the character really would have done a decade before his debut in Prescription: Murder. Reading the script, it’s crystal clear that Rich ‘gets’ the essence of the Columbo character just as much as he understands how to craft a good mystery.

Whether Curtains ever gets the chance to see the light of day remains a long shot. There’s no indication that a Columbo reboot of any type – let alone a prequel – is on the cards. However, this story offers a tantalising glimpse of how a fresh-faced and dapper young detective made his mark on the world before the raincoat, the cigar, the wife and the ‘shop-worn bag of tricks’ became part and parcel of his persona. Heck, I’d watch this on stage or read a novelisation of it in a flash and I do think it’s a story fans would really dig.

With that in mind, I caught up with Rich to discuss his prequel, the inspiration behind it and how it fits in around what we already know about the good Lieutenant’s life story…

Rich, what inspired you to write a Columbo script in the first place?

First and foremost, I love stage mysteries. I wrote a popular mystery play called Framed, which premiered in California in 2016, but I’ve been writing plays since 1976, many of which are mysteries of various types. I’ve also authored a World War II-era mystery novel, Last Train to Gidleigh, so writing mysteries, particularly in dramatic form, is something I greatly enjoy.

Obviously, I’m also a huge Columbo fan and I principally look at the show from a writer’s perspective. The quality of the mystery takes precedence for me over direction, acting, music, and the like. It’s one of my great disappointments that I was always at the wrong place in my life when the actual Columbo scripts were being written. In the ’70s, I was still in school; in the ’90s, I was established in a career with a wife and a family on the way. Writing a Columbo script was always something I wanted to do but couldn’t factor in – until now.

Why did you choose to follow the prequel path?

As I see it, a prequel is the best way to bring Columbo back and avoid the long shadow of Peter Falk. Setting Columbo in late 1950s Manhattan puts him in a time and place that Peter Falk never occupied. I’m greatly influenced in this view by the brilliant British series Endeavour, the prequel to Inspector Morse. It’s so well done. And there’s something special about evoking the past so vividly. It’s one reason for Mad Men’s success.

Could late 50’s Columbo evoke the era as successfully as Mad Men?

Some may fear that a prequel would be inundated with a flood of background information about the good Lieutenant. But, come on, aren’t there things you’re dying to know? For years, Columbo wore a raincoat in a place where it never rains. Aren’t you curious why? He’s clearly from New York. He tells us his boyhood heroes were members of the New York Yankees (Make Me A Perfect Murder) and he started in Manhattan’s 12th Precinct (The Conspirators). So how did he meet his wife, whose entire extended family is based in Los Angeles?

A Trace of Murder appears to acknowledge that he has only one eye (“Three eyes are better than one.”). If so, how did he ever get on a police force? Sprinkling a few of these tidbits into a prequel can’t do any harm and might prove very interesting to many. As a comparison, Endeavour shows us where Morse’s red Jaguar and house came from.

Character creator William Link has said that when Columbo was conceived “we wanted to keep him almost mythological, he comes from nowhere and goes back into nowhere.” Link was even vehemently against showing Columbo at police HQ but you see inside the police station as early as Prescription: Murder and you see his own office in Any Old Port in a Storm and Now You See Him; and in other offices in A Friend in Deed, Negative Reaction, and A Case of Immunity. That ship has sailed, as I see it.

Moreover, as a young detective, it’s logical that he would be less independent, have visible superiors, and confide in his colleagues differently than he would speak to a murder suspect. You would expect a bit more candor about himself than when he was an experienced detective, working much more on his own.

How did you go about establishing the timeline and fitting it in with what (little) we know about Columbo’s earlier career?

Wanting to move Columbo as far away from the Falk era as possible, I took my lead from a few lines in The Conspirators about the “sainted” Sgt. Gilhooley from New York’s 12th Precinct. As originally presented, Gilhooley was a “desk sergeant,” i.e., a uniformed officer. But the young Columbo has to be a detective. Uniformed officers don’t stick with a case long enough, so desk sergeant Gilhooley had to become Det. Sgt. Gilhooley, Columbo’s direct supervisor in the homicide squad.

Columbo in 1950s’ Noo Yoik? Yes, please…

I set the show in March 1957 because Columbo served in Korea (Swan Song) and needed enough time thereafter — even if he “worked harder than they did, put in more time, read the books, kept my eyes open” (The Bye Bye Sky High IQ Murder Case) — to work his way up to detective and earn an initial homicide assignment. And it had to precede the 1960s because one reference has him moving to Los Angeles in 1959 (in 1973’s Requiem for a Falling Star, he says he moved to LA 14 years ago). Why would such an NYPD up-and-comer suddenly relocate? I try to hint at that answer, too.

Can you give us a sneak preview of the story?

I wanted to write a classic Columbo story, much like the “perfect Columbo” I described in my article for The Columbophile on the subject. I also wanted to evoke the time and place where the prequel was set. So, I first needed a “perfect villain,” with specialized knowledge and skills, who was also an identifiable New York type (as much as Nora Chandler, Nelson Hayward, and Adrian Carsini were prototypical Californians).

Enter Noel Sheridan, Broadway director. Sheridan’s latest hit play, Vengeance is Mine, stars his wife, Mercedes St. John, and a young English actor making his Broadway debut, Paul Dunleavy. The title of the play refers to its final moment when Mercedes’ character finally breaks free from Paul’s character’s Svengali-like hold over her and shoots him.

Columbo Dagger of the Mind
‘Curtains’ sees Columbo investigating murder in a theatrical setting – 15 years before the events of ‘Dagger of the Mind

Unfortunately, Sheridan — who continues to monitor the play periodically while its Broadway run is underway — spots the signs of a backstage romance between his wife and her co-star. He conceives of a perfect crime: whereby Mercedes will fire a live bullet at Paul at the end of the play (although the stage manager carefully loaded blanks minutes before) — while Sheridan is 100 miles away, trying to help a play with out-of-town problems in Philadelphia. How does he do this? Stay tuned (although I will tell you that the idea came from how one actor actually died in real life).

The episode takes us to a Broadway theater, obviously, but also to the old Madison Square Garden on Eighth Avenue between 49th and 50th Streets, to a classic New York delicatessen, and a Times Square appliance store with an episode of The Honeymooners playing on a television set inside (that helps Columbo solve the case). There’s also a subtle allusion to West Side Story, which opened in 1957.

I also tried to incorporate into Noel Sheridan something I love to see in the best Columbo villains (e.g., Col. Lyle Rumford, Adrian Carsini, Oliver Brandt): where the seeds of his ultimate undoing are planted deep in the core of his character. I’ll say no more.

What are the similarities/differences between your younger Columbo and the one we know from the series proper?

The Columbo we know and love is a very talented man. The talent, I believe, always was there. Some of the knowledge wasn’t. The experience wasn’t. The confidence wasn’t. But the talent was. As a result, we see a lot of the same case-solving skills years before Prescription: Murder. Sgt. Gilhooley fills in some of the missing knowledge. Gilhooley, more than anything, tells Columbo to “be yourself,” thereby giving him needed confidence that he’s up to the job without imitating anyone else.

The biggest difference, I’d say, is that the younger Columbo isn’t as crafty and manipulative as his older self. That’s a skill that comes with experience. He has some of it, but not as much.

What are your hopes for your story?

If I could free the genie from the bottle, getting Det. Columbo, NYPD — at least this pilot episode, entitled Curtains — on the air would definitely be one of my three wishes. At a minimum, I’d like to get the script in front of someone who is able to start that ball rolling, get an honest, professional assessment, and let the chips fall where they may.

Getting the word out on The Columbophile certainly is a terrific first step. With your international readership of Columbo devotees, including several very influential followers, your support opens up the possibility that someone will read about Det. Columbo, NYPD here and take an interest. If any readers could help make this happen, I’d be eternally grateful.

If a Columbo prequel were to come to pass, who could you envisage in the role?

I’ve given a lot of thought to casting. The look needn’t be exact. Shaun Evans, who plays the younger Morse, doesn’t look much like John Thaw. But the age and height should be in the general range, and the manner somewhat the same. After considering many possibilities, I settled on Dave Franco (James Franco’s younger brother).

Columbo Dave Franco
Rich fancies Dave Franco (left) as a young Columbo

Granted, I’ve never seen him in a comparable role. I wish I could. The movie If Beale Street Could Talk was a big step up for him, which is an excellent sign. Dave is 34 years old (though looks considerably younger and exudes boyish charm, which could serve the character well), and stands 5’7”. In 1968, Falk was 41 years old and stood 5’6”. And allowing for the difference in age and the loss of a Southern California suntan, there is something of a resemblance.

So there we have it, folks. Sounds intriguing, no? Excitingly, since I grilled Rich about Curtains, he’s also drafted a second script for Det. Columbo, NYPD, this one entitled Bumped Off and concerning a wronged game show contestant who takes murderous vengeance against the show’s villainous producer.

Based on the real-life quiz show scandal in New York in the late 50s, it’s so hot off the press that I haven’t had a chance to read it thoroughly yet but from what I have seen, it’s a terrific yarn with a much more sympathetic killer than the dastardly Noel Sheridan.

Should anything come of Rich’s Columbo endeavours, you’ll hear about it here first. Maybe you could even help get it in front of entertainment industry eyes through sharing it with a friend of a friend of that guy/gal who works in TV? You might even be the player in the entertainment world who can help this project along? If you think you can help promote the project or would like to know more details, please speak up or contact me directly. I’ll put you in touch with Rich.

In the meantime, do share your thoughts on whether you think a 50s’ Columbo reboot would hit the spot and, if so, what aspects of the character you’d like to see explored. Until we meet again, so long!

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Columbo's car
Columbo’s car wasn’t even built by 1957 – what will he drive in Noo Yoik?
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