Despite the impressive longevity of a high proportion of its guest stars, sadly no year elapses without a number of Columbo contributors passing on to the next realm.
The 2020 In Memoriam list chronicled below is rather a long one and features both headline names and bit-part players – all of whom did so much to make Columbo the televisual treasure it remains to this day.
Without further ado, let’s raise a glass to the Columbo stars we lost in 2020, and thank them for the indelible mark they left on our favourite show.
NB – This list is in chronological order. It’s probable that other stars of the show have passed away that I have missed off this list. If so, please be assured their absence here is entirely accidental.
Jerome Guardino, died January 4, aged 96
Jerome Guardino ought to be a familiar face to Columbo fans given that he appeared in four episodes between 1975 and 1989 – including a hat-trick of appearances as the same character, Sergeant Burke, in Try & Catch Me, Make Me a Perfect Murder and Murder, Smoke & Shadows. His debut came in Forgotten Lady, where he played Detective Harris, whom Columbo paid to take his gun test.
With nearly 50 acting credits between 1960 and 2002, Guardino also cropped up in shows as varied as Kojak, The Doris Day Show, The Rockford Files, CHiPs and Matlock. No cause of death was announced.
Dick Balduzzi, died January 27, aged 91
The role of the surly janitor in 1990’s Columbo Goes to College marked the final acting credit for Dick Balduzzi. During an acting career that spanned five decades, Balduzzi appeared in films such as Kelly’s Heroes, Police Story and Zorro, and clocked up TV credits on Happy Days, The Bionic Woman, The Rockford Files and even Mrs Columbo.
He died at home in West Whiteland Township, Pennsylvania, and leaves behind wife Phyllis, whom he married in 1959.
Leon Singer, died Jan 30, age unknown
Mexican-born Leon Singer became one of Columbo’s most sympathetic victims in 1992 outing A Bird in the Hand, when his helpful gardener Fernando was blown up by a car bomb intended to kill his master, Big Fred.
In an acting career that spanned more than 30 years, Singer also appeared in Murder, She Wrote and Lonesome Dove and even scored roles in critically acclaimed motion pictures Amistad and If… Dog… Rabbit.
No details of Singer’s cause of death have been made public, and his precise date of birth is unknown.
Fred Silverman, died January 30, aged 82
Top network executive Fred Silverman plays an interesting, if controversial, role in Columbo history, being the President of NBC at the time the series was shelved in 1978. He was also the key player in bringing the short-lived and hated Mrs Columbo to screens the following year, going against the advice of William Link and Dick Levinson by casting 24-year-old Kate Mulgrew in the title role of a show that was roundly rejected by viewers.
That notwithstanding, Silverman is recognised as one of the defining network execs of his day, holding top jobs in CBS, ABC and NBC from the 1960s-80s. Successful shows he helped bring to the screen include Scooby Doo, Where Are You, M*A*S*H*, Hill Street Blues, All in the Family and The Mary Tyler Moore Show.
Silverman died at home in Pacific Palisades, LA, due to cancer.
Robert Conrad, died February 8, aged 84
One of the most significant Columbo actors to pass away in 2020, Robert Conrad’s fitness franchise Kingpin Milo Janus from An Exercise in Fatality places him in the top tier of Columbo villains.
His sizzling and fractious relationship with the Lieutenant has helped make Exercise one of the best-loved Columbo adventures, with he and Falk sharing a glut of memorable scenes including a furious showdown at the hospital, which ranks as one of the greatest Columbo scenes of all.
Although Milo Janus will live long in the memory of the Columbo fan base, Conrad’s extensive body of work made him one of the most popular TV stars of the 60s and 70s in such shows as Wild, Wild West (with fellow Columbo alumnus Ross ‘Dale Kingston’ Martin), The DA and Black Sheep Squadron.
Away from the screen, Conrad was a long-time supporter of the Wounded Warriors Project, Paralyzed Veterans of America, the United States Marine Corps and the Jimmie Heuga Endowment. Conrad was a recipient of the Distinguished Service Award in Broadcasting and an inductee of the Stuntman’s Hall of Fame. He also enjoyed a career as a radio and podcast host well into his 80s – despite being partly paralysed in a serious car crash in 2003.
Born Conrad Robert Falk (no relation to Peter) on 1st March, 1935, Conrad died of heart failure in Malibu, California. He is survived by eight children and 18 grandchildren from two different marriages.
Marge Redmond, died February 10, aged 95
Known to Columbo fans as Dr Joan Allenby’s friend Helen Hendrix in Sex and the Married Detective (she appears in the infamous tuba scene), Marge Redmond is best known for her role as Sister Jacqueline in 80 episodes of The Flying Nun, which ran from 1967-70, and also starred Sally Field. She served as the show’s narrator in addition to her acting, and received an Emmy nomination after the show’s second season.
Other TV work includes Matlock, The Cosby Show, Law & Order and The Rockford Files, while her film resume includes The Trouble With Angels (1966) The Fortune Cookie (1966) Family Plot (1976) Manhattan Murder Mystery (1993). She was married to actor Jack Redmond from the 1950s-80s. No details of the cause of her death have been made public.
Honor Blackman, died April 6, aged 94
Although predominantly associated with the Bond franchise after her starring role in Goldfinger, Honor Blackman holds a special place in the heart of many a Columbo fan.
Blackman became Columbo’s third female murderer when she did away with Sir Roger Haversham in the opening scenes of 1972’s London-based romp Dagger of the Mind – the murder being particularly memorable as it was caused by a jar of cold cream to the old boy’s temple.
Aged 47 at the time of Dagger’s first airing in November 1972, Blackman had already enjoyed a long and distinguished acting career, her first screen roles coming in the late 1940s while still in her early 20s.
Her big break came in The Avengers alongside future Columbo alum Patrick Macnee in 1962, where she starred as kinky boots-loving martial arts ace Catherine Gale for 43 episodes. She left the series to take up her now legendary role of Pussy Galore opposite Sean Connery in Bond’s third adventure, Goldfinger, in 1964.
Blackman also had large and small screen roles on productions as varied as Jason and the Argonauts, Coronation Street and Doctor Who, while she appeared in 95 episodes of hit UK comedy The Upper Hand from 1990-96. In addition, she worked in theatre for many decades.
A breast cancer survivor in 2003, Blackman died peacefully at home in Lewes, southern England. She is survived by a daughter, Lottie Kaufmann; a son, Barnaby Kaufmann; and four grandchildren.
Danny Goldman, died April 12, aged 80
Danny Goldman starred in one of the most memorable Columbo finales, as he was the police photographer the Lieutenant called on for assistance to bring his subliminal cuts plan to fruition in Double Exposure.
Elsewhere, he appeared in such films as Young Frankenstein and TV shows including Happy Days, Hawaii Five-Oh and Criminal Minds. He’s probably best known, however, for voicing Brainy Smurf in The Smurfs cartoon series and movies between 1981-89.
Goldman died peacefully at home with his family at his side having suffered from multiple strokes at the turn of the year.
Little Richard, died May 9, aged 87
The rock and roll pioneer was one of the highest profile celebrity passings of 2020. With hits such as Tutti Frutti, Long Tall Sally and Good Golly Miss Molly, his flamboyant style influenced everyone from The Beatles and Elton John to Prince and The Black Keys. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986.
Little Richard also clocked up more than 30 acting credits, including playing himself in 1991’s Columbo and the Murder of a Rock Star. He died due to bone cancer in Tullahoma, Tennessee, and is survived by his son, Danny.
Anthony James, died May 26, aged 77
Easily recognisable due to his distinctive, pock-marked face, Anthony James was a veteran of 74 big- and small-screen roles between 1966 and 1992 – including his appearance as Tommy, the young man who claims to have murdered Carol Flemming, in Prescription: Murder.
Interestingly, James started and ended his acting career by appearing in films that won Best Picture Academy Awards: 1967’s The Heat of the Night and Unforgiven from 1992. He died of cancer in Massachusetts.
Claus Biederstaedt, died June 18, aged 91
If you’re a Columbo fan based in Germany, you’ll very likely be aware of the work of Claus Biederstaedt, who provided the Lieutenant’s dubbed German voice in 19 episodes. He also played the German voice of Jim Rockford in all 121 episodes of The Rockford Files.
An accomplished stage and screen actor in his own right, Biederstaedt has more than 100 film and TV credits to his name. He died peacefully at home in Fürstenfeldbruck, Bavaria, due to cancer.
Billy Goldenberg, died August 3, aged 84
One of Columbo’s best and most appreciated composers, Billy Goldenberg contributed epic scores to seven episodes between 1971-74, including Ransom for a Dead Man, Murder by the Book, Suitable for Framing, Lady in Waiting and A Friend in Deed.
A prolific TV composer, Goldenberg’s work graced the likes of Rhoda, Kojak, Harry-O and Alias Smith and Jones, while he also scored Steven Spielberg’s breakthrough TV movie Duel in 1971 having worked with the hot-shot young director on Murder by the Book.
Nominated for an incredible 25 Emmy Awards throughout his long career (including for his Lady in Waiting score), and winning three, Goldberg died from a heart attack at home in New York City.
John Fraser, died November 7, aged 89
At one point dubbed “the most handsome man in Britain”, Glasgow-born John Fraser tiptoed around mega-stardom in his early career and starred in critical cinema hits including The Dam Busters, El Cid, Repulsion and The Trials of Oscar Wilde.
And even if his career never hit the heights that many predicted, Fraser can claim credits in such hit shows as Dr Who, Young Sherlock, The Practice and Thundercloud. Columbo fans will recognise him as well to-do Sergeant O’Keefe in 1972’s Dagger of the Mind: the detective sent to Heathrow to collect Scotland Yard’s ‘special guest’, Lieutenant Columbo.
Fraser died in London due to oesophageal cancer.
Warren Berlinger, died December 2, aged 83
In a career that spanned six decades, Berlinger appeared in well over 100 TV and film roles, including The Cannonball Run, That Thing You Do, Murder, She Wrote and Friends episode ‘The One Where Joey Moves Out’.
His lone Columbo credit came in 1991’s Death Hits the Jackpot, where he appeared as one of the Lieutenant’s sidekicks, Detective Jack Stroller.
Berlinger died in hospital in Valencia, California, from cancer. He is survived by daughters, Lisa and Elizabeth, sons David and Edward; eight grandchildren, and a great-grandson.
William Link, died December 27, aged 87
The passing of the series co-creator was a shocking footnote to an already tortuous year when it was announced in late December.
William Link, who, with long-time friend and writing buddy Richard Levinson, created the Columbo character (and subsequent series), died in Los Angeles of congestive heart failure on December 27. He was 87 years of age.
Aside from the legacy of Columbo, Link (along with Levinson, who died in 1987) was also the creative mastermind behind hit TV series Mannix, Ellery Queen and Murder, She Wrote. He and Levinson won two Emmy awards for their writing (one for Columbo episode Death Lends a Hand), while Link was inducted into the TV Academy Hall of Fame in 1995.
He is survived by his wife of over 40 years, Margery Nelson, and several nieces, nephews and grandchildren.
Dawn Wells, died December 30, aged 82
Forever known as Kansas farm girl Mary Ann Summers in Gilligan’s Island, Dawn Wells also clocked up a Columbo credit in her long acting career, appearing briefly in a speaking role as a female party guest of Lauren Staton (Faye Dunaway) in 1993’s It’s All In The Game.
A former Miss America participant, who was also crowned Miss Nevada in 1959, Wells worked in TV from 1961 until 2019. She died due to complications caused by COVID-19 at an age-care facility in LA.
I know that’s pretty disheartening stuff, but thanks, as always, for reading, and let’s remember to appreciate the Columbo stars that are still with us while we’ve got the chance. Here’s wishing you all a safe and productive 2021.