Devilish dentistry was under the proverbial microscope on April 28, 1990 as the fifth outing of Columbo’s ninth season aired under the witty title of Uneasy Lies the Crown.
Featuring a villain with a selfish streak a mile wide, who will both kill and frame to protect his way of life, Uneasy Lies the Crown was revived following nearly two decades on ice after first being penned by Steven Bochco in the early 1970s.
That’s quite a recommendation, but is this a truly toothsome televisual treat, or ought it to be extracted from our collective consciousness forthwith? Let’s crush those digitalis pills and get ready to mingle with some Y-List celebs at a poker party as we find out…
Lieutenant Columbo: Peter Falk
Wesley Corman: James Read
Lydia Corman: Jo Anderson
Adam Evans: Marshall Teague
Horace Sherwin: Paul Burke
David Sherwin: Mark Arnott
Columbo’s dentist: Raymond Singer
Nancy Walker: As herself (ooooooohhh)
Dick Sargent: As himself (ahhhhhhh)
Ron Cey: As himself (Cantonaaaaah)
Written by: Steven Bochco
Directed by: Alan J. Levi
Score by: James Di Pasquale
Dentist-to-the-stars Wesley Corman’s life of freeloading appears to be over. Summoned to the family dental practice, where he’s the junior associate to irascible father-in-law Horace Sherwin, Corman is essentially given his marching orders from the business and the family!
Horace can no longer tolerate Corman’s gambling addiction and speculative business buy-ins, which have left him over $200,000 in debt to the older man, nor his apparently bungling dental skills. On top of this, Horace’s feeble-hearted daughter, Lydia (Corman’s wife of six years), wants a divorce – something Horace is happy to facilitate as he seeks to rid his family of Corman’s cloying presence.
Corman is given until the end of the month to leave the business and get out of Horace’s life for good, but he predictably has plans in place to safeguard his comfortable lifestyle. He knows that his wife has found a new lover in burly action movie star Adam Evans, a patient of Corman’s who is going to pay the ultimate price for this betrayal.
Engineering a scenario where Evans brings forward his dental appointment from 2pm to 12.30pm, Corman pretends the appointment has been cancelled and sends his staff off for an early lunch to ensure no witnesses when Evans arrives – other than the excitable autograph hunters in the car park and doubtless dozens of other on-lookers he passes betwixt there and the dental reception.
The wily tooth doctor has already procured some digitalis heart medication pills from his ailing wife, which he crushes into powder and mixes into a paste. Evans is in to have a cavity checked, but Corman pretends a crown needs attention instead. After extracting said crown, Corman drills a hole in it, which he stuffs with digitalis paste. The whole thing is then cemented back into the actor’s manly jaw.
Later that day, Corman pleads his case with Lydia to keep him but the cool redhead gives him the brush-off. While ostensibly departing for his weekly poker game, he listens in on a call from Lydia to Evans. The muscle-bound hunk will be right over to see her knowing that Corman will be out losing money until the small hours. Or will he?
Safely ensconced at the poker game (alongside such luminaries as Lydia’s wimpy brother David, former pro baseballer Ron Cey, actors Nancy Walker and Dick Sargent, plus unbelievably tedious impressionist John Roarke), Corman is setting a rock-hard alibi while his wife is seeing to Evans’ rock-hard needs in the form of margaritas and SWEET LURVIN’!
The love turns sour, however, when, in the throes of passion, Evans’ heart packs in and he perishes right there in Lydia’s arms. In a panic, she hits the speed-dial for 911 (because it’s too hard to remember the number in an emergency, right?) and begs for help – but it’s all part of Corman’s fiendish scheme. He’s reprogrammed the phone so that the call will actually divert to the poker game, setting him and David off an a mission of mercy to save the damsel in distress.
Arriving at the crime scene, the pair find Lydia whimpering beside the corpse of her lover. David moves to call the police, but Corman stops him. Lydia is too fragile to handle this crisis scenario, which appears to be an exact repeat of the death of her former husband on their wedding night seven years earlier! No, instead the two men will move the corpse and make it look like a car accident.
As David cares for his sister, Corman puts the final pieces of his plan in place by pouring the remains of the digitalis pill powder into the margarita-making blender and cocktail glass, and planting a book of monogrammed Corman matches in the dead man’s pocket. Evans and his car are then taken to a secluded road in the hills and pushed over a precipice – looking for all the world like he had a heart attack while driving.
Despite breaking every law there is, Corman’s actions earn him the admiration of Horace Sherwin, who forgives his errant son-in-law for past misdemeanours and welcomes him back into the fold with open arms. What an emotional rollercoaster ride!
Naturally enough, one of the investigating officers on the scene the following morning is Lieutenant Columbo. And, just as naturally, he’s soon being bothered by little things, like why the car gear lever was in neutral rather than drive. He’s also handed the monogrammed matches by a fellow officer, sending the detective to Corman HQ, where he is welcomed at the door by the breakfasting murderer.
Corman’s reaction to the news of Evans’ death is straight out of the Riley Greenleaf school of faux grief, although he swiftly recovers his composure to answer questions. Despite the matches on Evans’ person, Corman says the actor hadn’t been visiting their house the night before as far as he knows, although his attendance at the poker match means he can’t guarantee it. He’s reluctant to have Lydia troubled with questions, though, as she was such a fan of Evans that her dicky heart mightn’t take the strain.
Columbo beetles off to see the medical examiner who has two stunning revelations for the detective. Firstly, Evans’ heart attack was caused by an excess amount of digitalis. Indeed, there was so much in his system that he must have died within a minute or two of ingesting it. Columbo is also told that the actor was in the midst of love-making at the time of death, that he’d been consuming booze, and there was a gash on the inside of his right cheek. What can the Lieutenant make of all that?
As a result, Columbo scarpers back to the Corman residence to question Lydia, who is in an enfeebled state out by the pool and being shielded by husband and father. Lydia denies that Evans was there the night before, and also rebuffs the suggestion that she spoke to him on the phone. Columbo, however, has checked the phone records which show five calls from the Corman house to Evans’ number in the preceding 24 hours.
Pushing harder, Columbo reveals that Evans was murdered, at which point Lydia admits that he had paid her a visit, and had merrily swug some margaritas. A subsequent check of the pool house throws up the dregs of the cocktail in the mixer and glass, which Columbo confiscates for lab analysis. He also receives confirmation that Lydia takes digitalis to control her own heart condition.
Lydia’s starting to look guilty as sin – especially when lab results prove there was digitalis residue in the mixer and glass. Columbo, however, starts to find reason to suspect Corman’s involvement. First, he finds out that Evans had been due for treatment at the surgery on the day of his death, supposedly ringing Corman rather than the receptionist to cancel. Secondly, if Evans had died in Lydia’s presence, outside help was needed in moving his heavy body.
His investigations next take Columbo to Corman’s poker mates, who are once again wasting a weekday evening by throwing good money away at cards. In betwixt some celebrity appreciation of Nancy, Dick and Ron, Columbo finds out about Lydia’s call to the house, and how Corman and David fled to her assistance. The plot thickens!
Things then take a dark twist, as we cut to Corman at home urging Horace to have Lydia committed to an asylum to keep her out of Columbo’s clutches. Apparently, Lydia spent some time under psychiatric observation after the death of her first husband. Horace is aghast at the idea, but Corman is floating the notion that only a sick mind would have put poison in Evans’ margarita, so having her locked up will be good for her. That’s some seriously tough love Wesley is dishing out!
Columbo rings the house requesting an audience, so Corman and uber-wimp David arrange to meet him at a frigging night club, which seems to be full of 40-somethings dressed badly and dancing worse. The Lieutenant challenges the pair about their concealment of Lydia’s call to the poker match, and they come clean, admitting moving Evans’ corpse to protect dear Lydia.
The Lieutenant finally collars the demure ginger on her own the next day and asks her why she rang her husband and not 911 when Evans perished. Lydia claims she did ring 911 on the speed dial, and when Columbo tests it, it does indeed go through to the emergency services. Even stranger, several of Lydia’s digitalis pills are missing from her bottle and she claims to have no idea why.
Rather than putting her under lock and key, Columbo’s belief in Corman’s guilt only deepens as he secures some telling circumstantial evidence. The stub of a parking ticket found on the windshield of Evans’ crashed car shows he had been at the building where Corman’s dental practice is on the day he died. While it doesn’t prove he and Corman met, it’s very suspicious.
The Lieutenant therefore tails Corman to the race track, where he and his pals are enjoying success on the gee-gees. In a classic unsettling move, Columbo ruins Corman’s afternoon by insinuating that the matches were placed in Evans’ pocket deliberately, and the car left in neutral deliberately to ensure police were able to trace the death back to Lydia.
He takes things further, however, by demonstrating Lydia’s innocence. According to the autopsy, Evans drank two margaritas before his death. But there was so much digitalis residue left in the second glass, it suggests a dose so high that he’d have died before finishing his first. Ergo, the digitalis wasn’t in the margaritas when he drank them – it was planted later.
Who could have done that? The same person who reprogrammed the phone to ring the poker match instead of 911 – and then re-reprogrammed it to ring 911 when next tested. And that person can only be… Wesley Corman! However, the detective admits he doesn’t have nearly enough evidence to make an arrest and the ultra-smug dentist sure ain’t confessing.
A trip to his own dentist provides Columbo with food for thought when he subsequently bites and gashes the inside of his cheek before the novocaine injection wears off. The wound is a match for the one found on the inside of Evans’ cheek.
Seeking further inspiration, Columbo enlists Horace to help unravel how Corman could have poisoned Evans at a secret dental appointment. They can’t figure it out until a chance discussion about the dissolving coating of pills sets off a light bulb in the Lieutenant’s head. That’s how Corman killed Evans – he coated the digitalis, hid it in a cavity, and the coating wore away hours later when Evans was lying in sin with Lydia.
The theory seems sound, but how to prove it? With Horace’s aid, Columbo sets up a trademark set-piece to draw out the killer. Summoning Corman to police HQ, the Lieutenant outright accuses him of murder by mixing digitalis with a time-release medical gel, which was subsequently absorbed through his gums, causing the fatal coronary. The body has been exhumed, and when traces of digitalis are found in the mouth, Corman will be convicted of murder.
To achieve this, Columbo needs to complete a brief chemistry experiment. He divulges that a tiny speck of digitalis will turn the porcelain enamel of a crown blue when catalysed by moisture at body temperature, and proceeds to demonstrate his point using a kiddies’ chemistry set.
When he tips warm water on a crown that he claims has been pre-prepared with digitalis, it immediately turns blue. “And you know what, doc?,” Columbo chides Corman. “When we pull that porcelain crown from Adam Evans’ mouth, you can bet your eye tooth that the underside of it is going to be stained blue.”
Horace eagerly steps forward, keen to extract the tooth that will seal his hated son-in-law’s doom. But before he can do so, Corman stops the sideshow. The habitually useless gambler folds like a concertina in a Frenchman’s hands and admits his guilt before being roughly dragged away by uniformed officers. A smirking Horace, meanwhile, leads a disgusted Lydia home.
The medical examiner looks on in wry amusement. Digitalis on porcelain wouldn’t do a thing, he says. The only thing that would turn the crown blue is common laundry bluing. As he says this, Columbo reveals tell-tale blue marks on his own shirt. “Laundry bluing, is that a fact?” he utters, striking an innocent pose as credits roll…
My memories of Uneasy Lies the Crown
I’ll be able to keep this short because I hardly remember anything about this one other than the smarminess of the murderer, the use of digitalis hidden under a tooth as a means of murder and the ghastly celebrity poker match.
I couldn’t recall a thing about the victim, nor Lydia Corman, nor her family members, nor even the gotcha moment. I’ve seen this episode only a few times (and not for several years) and it has made very little impression on me – usually a bad sign. Will Uneasy Lies the Crown pull a few pleasant surprises when viewed with fresh eyes? I certainly hope so…
Before leaping into a full analysis of Uneasy Lies the Crown, it’s essential to consider the history of the story, which was created by no less a writer than Steven Bochco (he of Murder by the Book, LA Law and NYPD Blue fame) way back in 1972 with the intent for it to form part of Columbo Season 2.
Many ardent fans of the series are aware that the episode was rejected at the time and put on mothballs, but not all know precisely why, as varying reasons are given on the internet – including that Peter Falk didn’t think the script or killer was interesting enough. However, I have it on excellent authority from Columbo author (and Peter Falk confidant) Mark Dawidziak that the truth of the matter is quite different.
He alleges that show creators Richard Levinson and William Link took Peter Falk and his mother Madeline out for dinner to celebrate the success of Columbo’s debut year, and to talk about what would come next. Keenly interested in what the future held for her son, Madeline asked for a run-down of what stories were in the bag for Season 2 – and it was she that gave Uneasy Lies the Crown the kiss of death.
According to Dawidziak, Madeline couldn’t conceive that the audience would buy into a dentist being a murderer. Her doubts convinced Falk to reject the script, which was quietly tucked away into the vaults at Universal. There would be a dastardly medic in Columbo’s second season, but it would be ice-cold killer surgeon Barry Mayfield in A Stitch in Crime, not wicked dentist Wesley Corman.
You can’t keep a good man down, though, and Bochco’s story would be resurrected, Lazarus-like, in 1977 when it was released under the title of An Affair of the Heart as part of the sixth season of McMillan and Wife (at which point Police Commissioner McMillan was no longer married – go figure!).
I watched this in order to write the review (you can access it on Dailymotion here) and to analyse how the original treatment compared to the Columbo version of 1990, and I can tell you it’s extremely similar; the key difference being we don’t see Corman (here played by Larry Hagman) tampering with Evans’ crown as McMillan didn’t follow Columbo’s inverted mystery formula.
That aside, it’s pretty much beat-for-beat the same in terms of characters, clues and plot – although McMillan did include a ludicrous attempt by Corman to kill McMillan via a home-made car bomb, which is so stupid it surely wasn’t part of Bochco’s original Columbo teleplay.
There’s no elaborate charade to force Corman’s confession, either; instead, sensible use of dental x-rays prove Evans’ crown had been taken out and replaced, while traces of digitalis were found on it to seal Corman’s fate (although he does then try to escape after taking his receptionist hostage at gunpoint – another dubious inclusion).
Having now watched both versions, it’s safe to say that McMillan’s 70s’ setting helped greatly to enhance the aesthetic charm of the episode, while the cast was a darn sight better, too. However, it can’t disguise the fact that this just isn’t a great story for either of the iconic policemen. I actually find it mind-boggling that a Columbo that was rejected in 1972 was deemed strong enough to be exhumed 18 years later – especially after the story had already been televised on McMillan!
Uneasy Lies the Crown doesn’t even try to hide its connections to the past by changing character names. It simply boldly retells the same story with the same characters, making only slight cosmetic changes, padding out scenes to lengthen the running time, and adding in the tedious sub-plot about laundry bluing to make the gotcha much more confusing than in the original. That’s a pretty poor return in my opinion.
“I find it mind-boggling that a Columbo that was rejected in 1972 was deemed strong enough to be exhumed 18 years later.”
Still, let’s consider Uneasy on its own merits and start off by examining central villain Wesley Corman. I can’t say I rate James Read terribly highly in terms of charisma, but he does portray Corman’s odious qualities to a tee. This is a guy so desperate to keep his grubby mitts on his father-in-law’s riches that he’s willing to see his wife either jailed or packed off to the asylum! He’s a vile specimen of manhood who deserves everything he has coming to him.
Though he may be utterly repellant, the show made the error of making Corman too stupid to be a truly great villain. It’s hinted at that he’s a bit of a liability as a dentist (although that doesn’t explain how he maintains a client base awash with celebrities), but surely a man who conceives of such a brilliant plan as to place poison within a slow-release medical gel could have avoided undoing his good work by spiking the dregs of the margarita mix with so much digitalis powder.
I’m aware that he wants police to suspect foul play and investigate Lydia, but Corman is aware how little digitalis is required to kill, and therefore putting so much of it in the margarita mix is a gaffe of mammoth proportions. We’re told he’s not much of a chemist, but even the class dunce would realise that such an act could only blow a hole in his scheme a mile wide.
As a comparison, think of Stitch in Crime’s Barry Mayfield. He was such a brilliant baddie because he was so smart and so ruthless. It made his downfall ultra-sweet. Corman, on the other hand, makes it far too easy for Columbo to nail him, severely blunting the impact of a gotcha scene that really ought to have been punch-the-air satisfying.
Even Corman’s set-up of switching Adam Evans’ appointment to an earlier time of day so he could send his staff off for lunch and avoid witnesses is ridiculous. Hundreds of people could have seen the movie star take the elevator to the dental surgery and place him in Corman’s company on the day he died, despite the yarn that he’d cancelled his appointment.
It’s a risk of Titanic proportions for a murderer to take. Far more plausible (and so easy to include in the script) would have been to have Corman ask to meet him right at the end of the day after sending his staff home, when there would be less likelihood of witnesses. Not having Evans be a hugely recognisable movie star might also have been a sensible call. Why not just make him a handsome, wealthy businessman whom passers-by would never remember?
If I’m being charitable, I’m guessing we’re supposed to interpret Corman’s failings of being a second-rate dentist and abysmal gambler as reasons why he’d make the errors and take the risks that ultimately doom him. Still, you’d expect a betting man to put up more of a front at the end when he utterly falls for Columbo’s bluff and admits his guilt before Horace can extract Evans’ crown.
Everything we see of Corman throughout the episode indicates a man who doesn’t fold – even when the going’s tough. He has nothing more to lose by letting the tooth be pulled, yet he meekly submits – letting Columbo off the hook and delivering a gotcha that can only be described as tepid at best. In all these examples, the writing is at fault and the impression I get from watching is of a story that’s been rushed into production, rather than one that has been gathering dust for the best part of two decades.
There are other aspects of the story that disappoint, too, not least Columbo’s use of laundry bluing to trick his opponent. This appears to have been added in especially for Uneasy, and to put in bluntly, it sucks. I mean, who even knows what laundry bluing is today anyway? It makes for a clue that has dated terribly and only sullies the waters at the end of the episode when the damning evidence was already right there in a suitably strong form in the original treatment.
The Lieutenant inferring that both he and Evans’ bit their own cheeks due to novocaine injections is a suitably Columbo-like deduction to have led him to check dental x-rays and discern (with Horace’s help) that Evans’ crown was tampered with on the day he died.
From there, I’d have been quite happy for Columbo to simply have the crown extracted and find trace amounts of digitalis below it that force Corman to confess. Sure, this might have made for a less dramatic finale, but it would have felt a whole lot more realistic, made Columbo seem like a real detective instead of a show pony, and prevented there being such inconsistency at the heart of the Corman character.
Wesley, however, ain’t the only member of the Corman household that I struggle to take seriously. Lydia is a strangely written character who comes across as such an insipid husk that the idea of all-action hero Adam Evans falling for her after a chance meeting at a party seems rather far-fetched.
The Lydia we meet in McMillan and Wife was much stronger, and in fine fettle both mentally and physically (Horace was the one with the heart problem there). Her past trauma and enfeebled state in Uneasy make Lydia a pathetic and pitiable figure against whom Corman’s actions seem all the more beastly, but as a character in her own right she’s completely bland – a criticism that can be levelled at much of the supporting cast, including Lydia’s laughably weedy brother David, whom I wouldn’t entrust to open a bag of crisps, let alone clear up a crime scene.
Speaking of the support cast, I guess now is as good a time as any to raise the horrendous spectre of the celebrity poker match that Columbo gatecrashes when checking up on Corman’s alibi. I’d forgotten quite how bad this scene is, but it’s a shocker that is both hammy to the max and agonisingly drawn out (albeit notable for Ron Cey becoming the first human to wear a full shell suit on network television).
“Watching the celebrity poker scene unfold is like having teeth pulled without the benefit of anaesthetic.”
Quite whose idea it was to dredge up this cavalcade of D-Listers (including former McMillan and Wife regular Nancy Walker – what a scream!) remains to be seen, but one can only assume it was a put-upon work experience lad who never worked in television again. The scene is boring, gratuitous and hopelessly unfunny, reducing the Columbo character to cooing like a star-struck teen, but with none of the charm of his meeting with, say, Nora Chandler in Requiem for a Falling Star.
Aptly for an episode with a dental theme, watching this scene unfold is like having teeth pulled without the benefit of anaesthetic. Let us never speak of it again…
Annoyingly, after seeming to have rediscovered his mojo in the preceding trio of episodes, Falk’s Columbo is back to showing strains of extreme silliness – a trait regular readers will know I’ve been sincerely lamenting since his comeback in Columbo Goes to the Guillotine.
I object to the broader comedic characterisation re-employed at times here, which undermines the steelier Lieutenant of recent adventures. His introduction in Uneasy, where he can’t fathom how to rig up a plug-in police light for his car before galloping off to flag down a motorcycle cop, is particularly infuriating as it makes him out to be an imbecile.
I don’t mind Columbo playing the fool to downplay his threat level to a suspect. When he’s just shown to be a fool for no good reason, however, my blood boils. This arm-waving clown brings back unwelcome memories of the Lieutenant soothing a frightened pot plant in Guillotine, or running around yelling and rummaging in bins in Sex and the Married Detective.
Also of note (although less offensive) are some inconsistencies around Columbo himself. For one thing, he asks for coffee with cream at the Cormans’ house, when even the greenest fan knows he takes it black. He also states that he’s been on the force for 22 years, which would mean that he had literally just started his career in Prescription: Murder. Gimme a break! Either this is a nod to his 1968 screen debut, or no one updated Bochco’s original script, which would have (realistically) backdated Columbo’s career commencement to the early 50s.
Do little things like this really matter? I suppose not, but slip-ups like these shouldn’t happen to such a firmly established character and are indicative of either a slap-dash approach or a failed attempt at humour. Bah humbug!
To avoid readers becoming too depressed, I’ll gloss over the awfulness of the night club rendezvous (arrgh!), the extreme unlikeliness of Evans being exactly where Corman wanted him to be at the time of his death (yaroo!), and Falk’s appalling orangey hair dye job (aieeeee!) and seek, instead, the crumbs of comfort that can be found tucked beneath the episode’s gumline.
Firstly, the murder itself is clever and memorable, even if the most wasn’t made of it. Secondly, Wesley Corman is enjoyably sub-human in his motives, making him one of the least redeemable Columbo killers of all and someone whose downfall we can justifiably celebrate. Thirdly, Paul Burke was pleasingly vindictive as Horace Sherwin, and gave a lot more energy to his performance than Read mustered as Corman.
There’s a nice extended scene of Columbo haranguing Corman at the race track, which had the feel of one of his great tussles from the classic series about it. Elsewhere, 70s Columbo regular John Finnegan is granted a small cameo as a lurgy-ridden café owner (with woeful hand sanitation skills), while the episode title is a nice throwback to the witty titles of the past. That aside, though, it’s pretty uninspiring.
In spite of all my grievances, Uneasy Lies the Crown falls short of being a complete train wreck. If it had originally aired in the 70s, it could conceivably be considered a tolerable, if forgettable, entry to the timeline, perhaps on par with Lovely but Lethal or Dead Weight. That’s a big if, though. The sad fact is that this wasn’t deemed good enough for Columbo’s classic era. So, why was it deemed good enough years later when the story had already aired as a McMillan and Wife? It makes no sense.
I can’t overcome the feeling that Uneasy’s ship had sailed long before 1990, making its belated addition to the canon a decision that rather sums up the near-enough-is-good-enough approach all too prevalent in Columbo’s revival run.
How I rate ’em
While not exactly a disaster, Uneasy Lies the Crown is a toothless affair with plenty of pain points that really should never have been resurrected. It represents a giant backwards leap for Season 9 after three promising episodes and just goes to show that even a name as great as Steven Bochco’s can’t guarantee a hit.
Missed any of my earlier ‘new Columbo’ episode reviews? You’ll find them via the links below.
- Agenda for Murder
- Columbo Cries Wolf
- Rest in Peace, Mrs Columbo
- Columbo Goes to the Guillotine
- Sex & The Married Detective
- Murder, A Self Portrait
- Murder, Smoke & Shadows
- Uneasy Lies the Crown
- Grand Deceptions
If you want to check out any of my ‘classic era’ episode reviews, or see how I rank them all in order, click here. If Uneasy Lies the Crown acts as sweet anaesthesia to your troubled soul, you can vote for it in the fans’ favourite episode poll here.
I’ll be most interested to hear your views on this one, as they may differ considerably to my own. Were you aware that the story had already been told on McMillan and Wife? If not, has it changed your perception of the value of this episode? Let the debate commence.
After getting all that off my chest, imagine my delight when I realised the next stop on my Columbo marathon is Murder in Malibu – an episode derided by the masses in which the Lieutenant says ‘panties’ far more often than can be considered acceptable. Has the promise of Season 9 completely evaporated? Check back soon to find out…