Behind the scenes

Columbo’s Alpine adventure – the episode that never was

Columbo Short Fuse
The nearest Columbo got to the Italian Alps was the claustrophobic cable-car finale to Short Fuse in 1972

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.

Columbo Jim Ferris and Ken Franklin
Jim and Ken – a different sort of Columbo writer

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.

Peter Falk Paris
Unrelated: Peter Falk in Paris, 1976

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

Peter Falk in Paris
Fishing on the Seine, 1976

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.

Columbo Olivier Cazeaux
Bon amis – Olivier and Peter Falk in the 1990s

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?

Columbo Any Old Port
Fatal Break features both subtle and overt references to Any Old Port

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 ThèA 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

Peter Falk as Columbo
How does the concept of Fatal Break sit with you?

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!

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17 thoughts on “Columbo’s Alpine adventure – the episode that never was

  1. There’s a remarkable resemblance between Olivier Cazeaux and Peter Falk.
    If you had written “Peter Falk and his son Oliver” under the photograph, I should have believed you.

  2. Okay while i appreciate all the future columbo stuff but however we would like and appreciate a review of agenda for murder ps thers been emough of a gap between last review

    • I’m sure your intention wasn’t to cause me offence, but I only have a finite amount of time available to produce quality content and I work to my own schedule on when reviews will be published.

      • Take your time, Columbophile. There are only 69 episodes. We all will regret when the 69 are done. There’s only 18 remained, And some of them don’t even deserve a long and elaborate review.

      • Sorry i didnt mean to be pressing and i dont have a wife and kids like cp ,its, just i had a couple of drinks on me as is in my nature when i sent the text, i do apoligise its just i thought the hundred greatest moments created a big gap in the reviews that maybe cp would try to review agenda to keep keen and paying readers in quick sucsecion happy plus its one of the best i just thought it would be more positve for cp and readers in general to get it up and out before the bank holiday here in the uk .

        • As I clearly have an interest in what articles CP chooses to post, I’ve tried to stay out of this exchange. But it’s only fair to point out that (1) the Top 100 series required an enormous amount of work on CP’s part, and should never be regarded as some sort of hiatus for CP, and (2) CP did review “Columbo Cries Wolf” since that series ended.

  3. Thanks to Richard for tracking down these Columbo ideas – and the story behind them. which is actually quite interesting itself. It takes imagination, creativity, logical thinking, and patience to put all the elements of a good Columbo together, and it is extraordinarily difficult to cap everything with a satisfying Gotcha. Reading Columbo story outlines, I like to imagine myself in front of the television, first listening to Henry Mancini’s NBC Sunday Mystery Movie theme (with the arcing flashlight) and then “viewing” the “episode” scene-by-scene to see if it holds up. I like the imaginative settings for Cazeaux’s readings; I’ve long thought that an outdoor-initiated mystery was fertile ground (pun intended) for an episode.

    The Gotchas here didn’t quite stick the landing, but Cazeaux’s efforts deserve appreciation, and I enjoyed having the chance to pretend once again that I’m sitting and staring at that rabbit-eared television on a Sunday night in 1972.

  4. I’ve read that episode now following the link you gave to Cazeaux’s website – it reads like a very good episode (far superior to almost all of the ‘New’ Columbo episodes) and in the right hands and production values could have been excellent but as one of the other comments mentioned above, hard to see this being produced in the late 90s – also dare I say it was Peter Falk a little too old now to be in an episode which required him to be quite physically active?

  5. I agree, but I think that the ABC series did not have the budget for European location shootings. Even in Dagger of the Mind, from the NBC series, many of the scenes were filmed in Los Angeles, artfully blended with the London footage. I would hate to see Columbo carrying out his investigation in front of a back projection of an alpine resort. Of course Alfred Hitchcock got away with it on numerous occasions, but that was a different era, and no one was fooled even then. We overlooked it because he was Hitchcock.

  6. Perhaps we should think of Columbo as a classic character created by Levison, Link and…yes…Peter Falk. That character was brought almost perfectly to the screen in the 70’s and, less effectively, in the second rendition inthe 80’s and 90’s. The character has sufficient depth and complexity that we starve for more opportunities to see it in action.

    Think of Sherlock Holmes. The character was created by Arthur Conan Doyle, but (except to absolute purists) does not belong to him anymore. Consider all the screen interpretations from the silent film era to the latest: John Barrymore, Basil Rathbone(!!), Peter Cushing(!), Stewart Granger, Ian Richardson, Jeremy Brett (!!!, my fav), Gene Wilder (sort of), Robert Downey, Jr (sort of), and the post-modern Benedict Cumberbatch. And this is, quite literally, just a sample. One could create a similar, smaller list for Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe character.

    I like to think we do not need to have just one actor to replace Falk. I’d love to see a whole series of actors give their own versions of the character, either as one-shot performances or in a SHORT cable series (reboot or prequel). One great thing is that the actor can be of almost any age because we’ve seen Columbo portray the character from his 30’s to his 70’s. A younger actor would be appropriate in a prequel. (Actually Falk was 40 when Prescription Murder was first shown on TV, but we get the impression of a slightly younger man. In his last appearance, the character could not plausibly be as old as Falk himself. I think of that Columbo as being in his mid sixties, on the verge of retirement.)

    In addition to Mark Ruffalo, I’d like to see Tony Shalhoub give it a try, since his Monk character owes a lot to our lieutenant. Of course, he would have to be careful not to play Monk with a name change.

    Just for the record, I do not want to see Robert Downey Jr. in an “Action Columbo” movie.

    • RDJ’s talents are not confined to action movies. i think he would make a great Columbo. He has the talent and the gravitas, as well as bearing a resemblance to Peter Falk-small in stature with dark hair and incredible brown eyes.

  7. What a shame nothing ever came of it, sounds like a cracking idea. Always love seeing Columbo in unfamiliar territory and it would have made a refreshing change for abc series. Will check it out in more detail.

    Great blog post!


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