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In memoriam: the Columbo stars we lost in 2020

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 ArgonautsCoronation 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. 

Read my full tribute to William Link here.


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.


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31 thoughts on “In memoriam: the Columbo stars we lost in 2020

  1. Just looked today, Dick Van Dyke (Negative Reaction) is 95 years old…. simply amazing. Hope he hits the century mark.

     
    • yes lets hope so watched chitty chitty bang bang and negative reaction over the Christmas, also seen lee grant from ransom for a dead man 1971 who is still with us in the heat of the night last night , anyway as theres not much happening lately there is as always plenty columbo on 5 USA

      9 am Fade in to murder
      10 30 A matter of honor
      12 00 Requiem for a falling star
      1.25 Double shock ( Top pick )
      3.00 cries wolf
      5.00 uneasy lies the crown
      7.30 Butterfly in shades of grey

      Not quite a 5 star line up , but good enough Double shock ,cries wolf , and uneasy
      lies the crown would be my top 3 in fact the new episodes outweigh the seventies
      (Double shock Excluded) episodes listed , as I consider a matter of honor one of the poorest 70s and fade in to murder and requiem average at best .

       
  2. Each year, I’m amazed by the Columbophile’s ability to compile this list — because of the lesser-known entries: those folks we do not automatically associate with Columbo, and whose passing often escape wide public notice. CP, someday you must explain how you are able to collect what otherwise might easily have been overlooked.

     
  3. Dear Columbophile, as a suggestion for a new article, I would like to propose an analysis of the curveballs thrown by writers in some Columbo episodes. I’m alluding to such moments as the unexpected death of main suspect Charles Clay in Last Salute to the Commodore, Dian Hunter’s baffling return from the dead in Columbo Cries Wolf, the disclosure of the true criminal mind in A Bird in the Hand or even one the best laid-out murder plans in the entire series: Nora Chandler’s in Requiem for a Falling Star.

     
    • Excellent idea. The mid-episode twist. A speciality of Columbo’s most prolific writer: Jackson Gillis. He gave us many of the most memorable ones. Rudy’s will in “Suitable for Framing”; the appearance of Norman Paris in “Double Shock”; the murder of Charles Clay in “Last Salute to the Commodore”; the shooting of a dead body in “Murder in Malibu”; the hit-and-run death of Big Fred in “A Bird in the Hand …” Even in his lesser offerings, Gillis’ mid-episode twists were a brilliant touch.

       
      • Thank you for pointing out some more examples. Even in dreadful entries, these twists have the ability of adding a bit of interest to the proceedings, even if momentarily.

         
        • For a few of them (“Last Salute to the Commodore”; “Murder in Malibu”), I believe the mid-episode twist was the primary impetus for the story. Unfortunately, little could be put around it to measure up to the twist.

           
  4. I wasnt aware that the actors who played seargent burke & detective stroller had passed , co incidentley try and catch me my favorite seventies epispode ,( i love the line well have your safe open in a jiffy mam )and death hits the jackpot my favorite new one which i watched over xmas , a sad but necessary annual duty for cp.

     
  5. I have watched Columbo for years. I look for it on TV all the time. It’s on in Morning’s on Saturday and Sundays. And watch it in Evening’s at 8 PM. I find all his movies very interesting. I like them all and the one with Johnny Cash was a great one. Peter Falk sure played his Part so well. And that Coat was a main part in the show. Thank you Mr. Falk for so many Memories of your past Life. You will be Remembered for Years to come. RIP ❤️Susie W. Florida

     
    • The Johnny Cash one is my favourite too. Swan Song, it is on tomorrow and I will be watching.Happy New Year Susie. Kathy F in England,

       
      • Swan song is one of my favourites too easily in my top ten, I rate johhny cash and the episode very highly , ida lupino is also good and it has a great gotcha , I always try and watch it if i can.

         
  6. Thank you for a great gift to start 2021. I’m a long time fan and even got my 22 year old grandson to join the club. May I ask the question, do you know why Columba whistled Nick Knack Patty Whack, or had the instrumental played in so many episodes, maybe in all of them?

     
    • It was a tune Peter Falk enjoyed so he added it in as an ad lib to fill a long pause in Any Old Port in a Storm. He thought it was a funny little ditty, so kept using it. It became his de facto theme tune in the ‘new’ episodes from 1989 onwards, often being worked into the episode score.

       
    • Yes, and Peter Falk talks about this (the tune) in his book Just One More Thing.
      Well worth a read 🙂

       
  7. I decided the best thing we could do this year is spend time with Columbo. We began today with Prescription: Murder, the first viewing for our daughter.

    I don’t think I was aware of Warren Berlinger’s passing. It makes me sad, but I appreciate the news.

     
  8. William Link doesn’t get enough credit for Mannix. It was a clean show (meaning straightforward, standard formula) holding up long-term, driven by great chemistry between the (guest starring) actors and intricate plots. Episode “Fly, Little One” was on MeTV (USA) the other night. And it was a tricky blend of typical detective work, built around Mannix’s interaction with a disturbed little girl. The point being, that it showcased Mike Connors’ range, and sensitivity towards (especially) child actors. The series was never afraid to tackle several points of view, and when it featured Mike Connor’s Armenian roots, was particularly enjoyable!

     
    • I LOVE when he speaks to someone in Armenian. Or when someone who knew him when he was younger calls him Joseph. I love a good backstory.

       
    • Bientot, nous nous retrouverons comme au bon vieux temps, ils s’on parti a temps de cette civilisation que je ne reconnais plus, le temps passe vite, pour moi c etait hiers, merci pour tout ces bon moment de tèlè, 😔💕

       
  9. I know this will be controversial, but I confess to having a soft spot for mrs.Columbo/Kate loves a mystery, I even have the box set!. I don’t consider it as anything more than another unconnected detective show, and it’s certainly not in the same league as Columbo, but there are a few enjoyable episodes, the one with Robert culp in is one of the superior ones. Kate Mulgrew did a good job for a 24 year old – clearly had they started off with the later premise and never made the tie in it would have worked better and maybe even gone further.

     
    • Soooo happy I’m not the only one who enjoys Mrs. Columbo. I have only seen the episodes included on the Columbo DVD’s but I find them enjoyable. I feel like the show was a precursor to Murder She Wrote and could have been just as popular with a few changes. Thank you for your comment.

       
      • You should invest in the box set, mine is french issue but plays in English, there are some fun episodes and a few that are a bit darker. Only the first few are called mrs. Columbo, after that it’s Kate loves a mystery and the title sequence is changed with no Columbo references, she is Kate Callaghan from then on, a divorcee, but the rest of the premise is the same.
        If you hadn’t seen the first few Columbo linked episodes you would just look on it as a light hearted detective show, very much like murder she wrote as you say.
        Kate mulgrew gets a mauling from Columbo fans, but she’s a good actress who took an opportunity, at 24 a leading role is like gold dust for an up and coming, so I can’t blame her. As I understand it she even reflects on the age disparity and premise being the downfall of the show. If they had started with the later format I think it would have carried on, but making huge changes mid season lost a lot of viewers and the network opted not to give a second series, had they, and carried on from where it developed to it may have run and run, but us networks are notoriously trigger happy in axing shows that don’t initially do well. There are examples here in the uk of shows that really did very badly ratings wise in series one, but picked up later and are considered classics now.

         
  10. I was actually re-watching Prescription: Murder for the first time in awhile when I saw that William Link had died. I like to think that I wasn’t the only person watching a Columbo episode when they learned of Link’s passing.

    The contribution of Billy Goldenberg to Columbo’s success is easy to take for granted, but his scores in the first season episodes set the tone in their ability to provide atmosphere, supply psychological cues to the audience, and reinforce or foreshadow story elements. Eerie electronics, dissonant strings, multi-tracked synth effects, and exotic percussion instruments would create something mysterious, suspenseful, murderous, and downright creepy. An unnerving instrument called the waterphone was invented in the late 60s, just in time for Goldenberg to use it in his Duel soundtrack, and in Columbos like A Stitch in Crime, where it was an audio cue for any appearance of Dr. Mayfield’s morphine. Other composers would make similar music contributions through the years, and the soundtrack became a unique part of the Columbo viewing experience. Other Goldenberg highlights include the opening minutes of Ransom For a Dead Man, Suitable for Framing, and his theme for Ken Franklin in Murder By The Book.

    Just compare the music of the Classic Era to New Columbo scores and the difference is, unfortunately for the 90s, very obvious.

    I’ll be starting 2021 with a Classic Columbo. I like that it’s going to take me awhile to decide which one.

     
  11. So well researched, thank you so much. Very sad for all of us fans. But on a realistic and thankful note, all who passed in 2020 seemed to have a long life. As we re-watch these episodes (as we all do, over and over!) we will appreciate again the contributions of these talented actors and truly enjoy their contributions!

     

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