For Columbo fans, examples of episodes that might have been always make for fascinating reading.
Over a 35-year period, there were only 69 Columbo mysteries committed to celluloid. But many more were written by both aspiring and acclaimed screenwriters alike that never made it to our screens. Some were rejected out of hand, while others got as far as being purchased by Universal for possible production. Today’s article examines just such an example – an adventure set in the Italian Alps that Peter Falk is said to have personally been a big fan of.
Without further ado, I’ll virtually hand things over to guest blogger Rich Weill (whom you may remember has ambitions of spearheading a Columbo prequel reboot), who will spill the beans on Olivier Cazeaux and Fatal Break – a Columbo that never came to pass.
I’m very grateful to Columbophile for all his help getting the word out about my pilot script (Curtains) for a possible Columbo prequel (Det. Columbo, NYPD), and for his very kind words about the script itself. I realize that the chances of this script ever reaching your television sets are remote, but every journey, however long, must begin with a single step. And Columbophile’s support is a mile’s worth of these steps.
As many of you know, I’ve paid close attention to how a Columbo is written. This study has given me the utmost respect for anyone who has ever penned a Columbo episode.
From 1968 to 2003, 58 men and women are credited with writing the two Columbo pilots and 67 Columbo episodes. Beginning with creators Richard Levinson and William Link (Prescription: Murder; Death Lends a Hand), those in the collective Columbo writers room include Steven Bochco (Murder by the Book, Etude in Black), Jackson Gillis (Suitable for Framing; Troubled Waters), Peter S. Fischer (A Friend in Deed; A Deadly State of Mind), Stanley Ralph Ross (Any Old Port in a Storm; Swan Song), William Driskill (Troubled Waters; Forgotten Lady), and 51 others.
Gillis, Fischer, and Bochco have the most Columbo writing credits: eleven, nine, and seven episodes, respectively. At the other end of the spectrum are the six writers whose single Columbo is their one and only IMDb writing credit: Myrna Bercovici (Lovely But Lethal); Pat Robison (The Conspirators); Sonia Wolf, Patricia Ford, and April Raynell (Caution: Murder Can Be Hazardous to Your Health); and Jeffrey Cava (Murder with Too Many Notes).
And then there’s Olivier Cazeaux — a man who never wrote a televised Columbo. But it wasn’t for lack of trying. If the Columbo writers room had a waiting area, Cazeaux would have been among its most persistent and dedicated visitors.
The Olivier Cazeaux story
Cazeaux lives in Var, France, along the south coast between Marseille and Cannes. He was born in Algeria where he lived until age four, then moved to the Côte d’Azur (Fréjus and Nice) until age 19. After school and military service, he pursued a business career — principally in organizational consulting and banking — until he was 35 and living in Paris, when he decided to take his career in a radically different direction: screenwriting. It was 1993.
His first screenplay, Le Combat des Rois (The Battle of the Kings) was about a Parisian banker, on vacation in Sicily, who receives a phone alert that a stranger has broken into his Paris home. After sending Le Combat des Rois off to prospective producers and actors, Olivier took himself on a summer rock climbing trip in the French Alps near where he grew up. It was there that his Columbo story began.
A long-time Columbo fan (and occasional Columbo impersonator), Cazeaux began to imagine a Columbo episode set in the Alps with a rock climbing theme: a perfect murder disguised as a fatal accident. While hiking and climbing, the other elements of his story soon fell into place — characters, motive, clues. Instead of France as a setting, he thought it more in character that Columbo visit Italy, so he set his story in the Dolomites, a mountain range in the Italian Alps.
Cazeaux returned to Paris at the end of August 1993, and worked daily on Le Pont des Arts (a pedestrian bridge across the Seine) polishing his Columbo. In November 1993, he finished his story treatment, Rupture Fatale (Fatal Break). But to turn his French treatment into English, and then into a script, he would need the help of someone with English-language skills better than his own. Through Fusac (a French version of craigslist), he solicited resumés, and ultimately hired three young American women; two were married to Frenchmen and the third had a boyfriend studying in Paris. They became Olivier’s “Paris Columbo Script Team.”
By late May 1994, the team had completed the English-language Fatal Break treatment and 40 pages of dialogue. Then two misfortunes befell the project. Cazeaux suffered a serious climbing accident requiring hospitalization, surgery, and prolonged physical therapy.
During this delay, two members of “Paris Columbo Script Team” had to return to the United States. Therefore, in July 1994, Cazeaux sent the treatment and completed portion of the script to Universal Studios. In September, his package was returned with a form reply from Peter Falk’s assistant at Universal, April Raynell (co-writer of Caution: Murder Can Be Hazardous to Your Health), stating that Universal Studios policy “forbids absolutely acceptance of any unsolicited script or outline.”
With his leg still immobilized, Olivier Cazeaux considered his Columbo journey at an end — which it was for another year and a half. And then Peter Falk came to Paris.
Enter Peter Falk
In March 1996, Cazeaux heard on the radio, and then saw on TV, that Falk was in Paris for the Michel Simon Film Festival. Not knowing where Falk was staying, he began calling all the likely hotels, asking casually if he could speak to Mr. Peter Falk. When he reached the Hôtel de Crillon, a luxury hotel and former palace on the Place de la Concorde, he received the answer he wanted: “Sorry, sir, but I cannot give you Mr. Falk’s suite.”
The one remaining “Paris Columbo Script Team” member was pressed into action. She would pose as a motorbike delivery girl purportedly working for an American producer, go up to the Hôtel de Crillon concierge, present him with a parcel, and tell him (speaking quickly in her American accent) that she is late and if Mr. Falk doesn’t read her delivery tomorrow morning, she’ll be fired. When she did, the concierge smiled and said, “Okay, I’ll manage it so that your material will be on the top of all the things we send to Mr. Falk each day.”
The parcel contained the first 20 pages of the Fatal Break script — the first act ending with Columbo’s entrance. On page 21, in large letters, was this message: “Do you want to know the rest of the story? Call this number …”
It was Thursday night. Falk’s last Paris appearance was Saturday evening. On Sunday, he was leaving. At noon on Saturday, Olivier’s American co-conspirator left him this telephone message: “Peter Falk and I are waiting for you at the Crillon restaurant. It’s not a joke, he just called and wants to know the rest of the story.”
An hour later, Cazeaux arrived, showered and shaved, at the Crillon where a desk clerk led him to the hotel’s three-star restaurant and presented him to Peter Falk. The two spoke in the restaurant until 4pm, then until 7pm in Falk’s suite. Falk went through Cazeaux’s treatment page by page, line by line, asking detailed questions. When he was done, Falk first closed the treatment, closed his eyes, then nodded Columbo-style before saying: “This is the best story I’ve read in a long time.” Persuading the studio, he intimated, was another matter.
A year later, after several Falk-Cazeaux phone calls, Universal bought Olivier’s story. Revisions began a few months later, and a revised Fatal Break treatment was completed in June 1998.
During the period Fatal Break was being revised, Cazeaux also worked on two additional Columbos: a story about a Catholic priest who commits murder, aided by a perfect alibi, entitled Confessional Open; and an outline for a Columbo featuring a Viveca Scott-like head of a perfume company, called A Hint of Murder. All were well received — but alas, none was produced. Between 1998 and 2003, only three Columbos were made (Ashes to Ashes; Murder with Too Many Notes; Columbo Likes the Nightlife). Cazeaux’s Fatal Break was not among them. [Nor, according to Olivier, was a third Columbo by Howard Berk (By Dawn’s Early Light; The Conspirators).]
Undaunted, Olivier Cazeaux turned his attentions to a French translation of Prescription: Murder, entitled simply Lieutenant Columbo. Written in 2001, it was revised by Pierre Sauvil in 2004 under the title Une Femme de trop (One Woman Too Many), and produced in 2006 with Columbo-imitator Pascal Brunner in the lead role.
Cazeaux also tried his hand at creating a new, Columbo-like television series with a female lead: Mélodie Melville. Olivier’s proposal for the series (written in French) contains a lengthy section entitled “L’exception Columbo” — the Columbo exception — all about “the reverse puzzle” and “a balanced duel between a detective and a murderer.”
But what about Fatal Break, the story that first attracted Peter Falk’s attention, was purchased by Universal, and then shepherded through a studio-guided revision? Cazeaux still promotes his story as a Columbo feature film. So, what’s it all about?
What are we missing?
A Columbo set in the Italian Alps, with Columbo there visiting his nephew Luigi (a mountain rescue officer), and huffing and puffing his way up the mountainside, would certainly have been a change of pace in the series’ waning days.
The set-up of Fatal Break bears some similarity to Any Old Port in a Storm: the heralded founder of a noted mountain climbing equipment company faces the imminent sale of his beloved company as an act of revenge by his wife, the actual owner. Indeed, the parallel to Any Old Port is explicit. As part of the deal, the wife would purchase the Carsini Winery at a bargain price. She is even given a bottle of Carsini’s Opus #5, Napa Valley, Cabernet Sauvignon, 1976 as a sweetener.
Predictably, the husband turns to murder as his only alternative, and arranges an accident at the critical Tea Cup handhold on the rock face his wife is climbing. [The French version of the story is entitled Une Etrange Tasse de Thè — A Strange Cup of Tea.] He is aided by a disguise and a helicopter ride, but leaves several clues behind, including a watch that indicates the altitude and a backpack damp with sweat. And he certainly didn’t expect that the mountain rescue officer who responded to the scene would bring his uncle along.
The murderer is ultimately nailed with a rather elaborate, Columbo-organized charade — an ending topped with a Try and Catch Me-style (though less credible) dying clue.
My favorite moment? Columbo deduces that the victim was negotiating a business deal at her bank, the direction in which she drove, and (from the odometer reading) how far. Luigi’s sister Marisa gives him a ride toward that destination — where there is no bank. In minutes, he realizes his mistake, and why the victim took this journey. It’s a very nice touch.
You be the judge
Oliver Cazeaux has posted most of his work online, so you can read all of his Columbo stories for yourself. If my summaries seem vague, it is intentional. No spoilers here. At the very least, his stories make good reading. No need to buy old Columbo novels from Amazon. These are cost-free and instantly available.
Now — enough about Olivier Cazeaux. Let’s get back to talking about my pilot script for a Columbo prequel …
Rich Weill is a New York-based lawyer/playwright/author/former prosecutor. He has written several articles for this blog, which you can access here.
My thanks to Rich for his sterling work in unearthing this gem of a Columbo story, which I was completely unaware of prior to his sleuthing.
Would you have been happy to see a Columbo adventure set in Italy? And how do you think Olivier’s idea sounds compared to the final few episodes that did get made? It’s over to you.
If you’ve a hankering for more info about Columbo episodes that never came to pass, check out this article about a Brian De Palma-scripted episode from 1973, as well as the sad, untold story of Columbo’s last case. For now, au revoir!