A torrid year rounded out on a further low note for Columbo fans with the news that character co-creator William Link passed away on December 27 at the age of 87.
In partnership with his erstwhile buddy and writing partner Dick Levinson, Link was one of the goliaths of TV production and development from the 1960s to the 90s, being responsible for the development of iconic shows such as Murder, She Wrote, Mannix and Ellery Queen. It was, however, the creation of Lieutenant Columbo that has done more than anything to immortalise him to generations of viewers.
Columbo (played by Burt Freed) first appeared in the Levinson and Link-penned mystery Enough Rope, which aired as a one-hour live broadcast on The Chevy Mystery Show on July 31, 1960. An expanded version of the mystery would go on to become a hit theatrical production in 1962, this time entitled Prescription: Murder and featuring Thomas Mitchell as the meandering Lieutenant.
It wasn’t until the third time of asking, though, that Columbo was truly embraced by the viewing populace, with the TV movie version of Prescription: Murder (introducing Peter Falk to the role) airing in 1968 – becoming one of the top 10 most-viewed TV movies of all time in the process. Three years later, an official series pilot, Ransom for a Dead Man, was sufficiently impressive for a full series to be commissioned. The rest is history.
After overseeing the production of Columbo’s first fraught season, Link and Levinson relinquished their day-to-day duties on the series, becoming prolific writers and developers behind a slew of hit series and TV movies. The pair would be recognised for their excellence through Emmy Awards in 1970 for My Sweet Charlie and, two years later, for their Columbo episode Death Lends a Hand. Link, meanwhile, was inducted into the TV Academy Hall of Fame in 1995.
Link and Levinson’s long-time friendship and professional partnership, which commenced as teens in Philadelphia in the 1940s, was torn asunder in 1987 following the untimely death of Levinson from a heart attack at the age of 52, although the tragedy was the impetus for Link to revive their best-loved creation as Columbo was rekindled and returned to screens in 1989, with Link in the role of Executive Producer, and later Supervising Executive Producer, for the first two seasons of the Lieutenant’s comeback.
He never lost his love for the good Lieutenant, publishing a collection of short stories entitled The Columbo Collection in 2010 (now out of print). Ambitions for a follow-up book sadly never materialised.
Among the luminaries paying tribute to Link on his passing was Steven Spielberg the “boy genius” on the Universal lot who was entrusted with directorial duties on Murder by the Book, which would be selected as the opening episode of Columbo’s first season. It opened doors that the then-24-year-old swarmed through to establish himself as one of the leading filmmakers of the 20th and 21st centuries.
“Bill’s truly good nature always inspired me to do good work for a man who, along with Dick Levinson, was a huge part of what became my own personal film school on the Universal lot,” Spielberg said in a statement. “Bill was one of my favorite and most patient teachers and, more than anything, I learned so much from him about the true anatomy of a plot.
“I caught a huge break when Bill and Dick trusted a young, inexperienced director to do the first episode of Columbo. That job helped convince the studio to let me do Duel, and with all that followed I owe Bill so very, very much.”
Although Link will forever be associated with Columbo, his final years featured an ugly legal battle with NBCUniversal over 40 years’ of unpaid profits from the successful series. A jury initially awarded Link and the heirs of Levinson more than $70m in 2019, but the decision was swiftly overturned and a new trial has yet to take place.
Born in 1933, Link had only turned 87 on December 15. His death was caused by congestive heart failure, and Link died in Los Angeles on December 27. He is survived by his wife of over 40 years, Margery Nelson, and several nieces, nephews and grandchildren.
Link’s passing marks the final farewell for the three most pivotal forces in the creation and enduring success of Columbo following the deaths of Dick Levinson in 1987 and Peter Falk in 2011. We can only hope that wherever they are now, the three of them are able to revel in each other’s company once again.
I’m sure I speak for all Columbo fans when I pass on my sincere best wishes to Mr Link’s family and friends, and offer a humble thanks to the man himself for how much enjoyment his creations have brought to so many millions over so many years. He leaves a quite magnificent legacy.