Columbo pilot ‘Ransom for a Dead Man’ turns 50!

Columbo Lee Grant
Ransom for a Dead Man made a big impact from the get-go

Most serious Columbo fans are aware that 2021 is a big year for the Lieutenant given that September marks 50 years since the premiere of Season 1’s opening episode Murder by the Book.

While that is undoubtedly a reason for celebration (Murder by the Book being one of the greatest and most important TV episodes ever made), it might never have come about had Columbo’s official pilot episode, Ransom for a Dead Man, flopped six months earlier.

Debuting on March 1, 1971, there was a lot riding on Ransom for a Dead Man. For Columbo creators Richard Levinson and William Link, this was a chance to fulfil their dreams of seeing their star creation granted a series of his own after the success of TV movie Prescription: Murder three years prior. For Peter Falk, meanwhile, it was an opportunity to really make his name after years of critically acclaimed roles in commercially unspectacular TV shows and movies.

There was also plenty at stake for Ransom’s leading lady Lee Grant, as she continued her on-screen revival after ending up on the Hollywood Blacklist as an alleged Communist sympathiser from the early 1950s to the mid-60s.

All the major players have reason to consider Ransom for a Dead Man a big success. Despite that, though, Ransom remains on the periphery of many Columbo fans’ personal list of favourite episodes, and arguably doesn’t garner the appreciation it warrants.

Columbo Ransom for a Dead Man
Ransom is a joy ride for all involved (except Columbo)

Part of that is doubtless because it falls between two such iconic episodes: the Lieutenant’s 1968 debut in Prescription: Murder; and the Steven Spielberg-helmed seminal TV chapter that is Murder by the Book. Yet if weighed up against them with an analytical eye, Ransom is found wanting in very few areas.

Notably, we see a large evolution of the Columbo character from the headstrong and dapper detective of Prescription: Murder. Initially intended as a one-off character, there are only shades of the Columbo we’ll come to know and love in Prescription. By the time Ransom came around, though, Falk was already well on the way to perfecting the good Lieutenant.

Granted, he might not have 100% mastered the character (he arguably didn’t do so until Season 2), but he’s very close. It’s a terrific performance, full of warmth and trickery, and packed with the idiosyncrasies that will come to define the character. It’s a big step up from Prescription and sows the seeds of a character that we’ll truly take to our hearts.

“Falk delivers a terrific performance, full of warmth and trickery, and packed with the idiosyncrasies that will come to define the character.”

Ransom’s Columbo is a less confrontational figure than in his debut outing, while his efforts to lead those around him to underestimate his mental prowess were strongly dialled up. Take his intro scene, when the seemingly bumbling Lieutenant is searching fruitlessly for a pen in the dark doorway of the Williams’ household. He doesn’t seem a threat to anyone.

Soon after, Columbo muses on the troublesome issue of how the lemon-shaped soaps in Leslie’s bathroom stick together when wet. The expressions on display from Leslie and snooty FBI agent Carlson make it abundantly clear that they believe him to be a fool. It’s the classic Columbo disarming technique in action and was rarely displayed better. Falk was in the groove straight away.

Columbo Ransom for a Dead Man
Falk and Grant shared terrific on-screen chemistry

Lee Grant predictably excels as Leslie Williams. She would earn an Emmy nomination for her turn here and one must concede that it was well deserved. She’s wickedly cold, yet dangerously alluring at the same time; a confident woman in a man’s world who isn’t afraid of anyone or anything. It’s a gripping performance from Grant, and an important stepping stone in her Hollywood renaissance that would culminate in a Best Supporting Actress Oscar in 1976 for her role as Felicia in Shampoo.

If the performances of the two leads were suitably grand, the same can also be said for Ransom’s production values. In many ways, it’s a seismic leap from Prescription: Murder, which occasionally felt constrained by its stage show roots. Ransom, however, was an original story and a big budget TV production that deliberately set out its stall to impress.

Everything was ramped up to 11: the sets, costumes, fashions and locations – including filming within the legendary Barney’s Beanery chilli haunt; and capturing sumptuous aerial footage of Leslie’s light aircraft over California’s Tehachapi Mountains. It’s a lavish spectacular, which captures the opulence of the high life in early 70s LA quite beautifully. Director Richard Irving (who also helmed Prescription: Murder) certainly made an impression here.

Ransom was a big budget TV production that deliberately set out its stall to impress.”

Special praise must also go to Billy Goldenberg’s score, which is as good as anything gracing the silver screens at the time. He created a single iconic theme and then fashioned variations on it, sometimes subtle, sometimes haunting, sometimes sweeping and orchestral. Heck, there’s even a muzak version being played at the airport. It’s simply great stuff, which adds no end to the episode’s cinematic feel.

Indeed, so evident are Ransom’s cinematic qualities that it’s little surprise that it was amongst a handful of Columbo episodes selected for limited theatrical release in Europe in 1978. Movie goers in England, Italy, Germany, Hungary, Spain and Yugoslavia must have been lapping up the action as Ransom unfolded on the big screen. It must have been quite a spectacle, and was an event that also saw a number of striking movie posters released in support of the launch – many of which you can still purchase online today.

Columbo Ransom for a Dead Man posters
Rad Ransom movie posters from Italy, England and Hungary

Ransom isn’t perfect, of course, but what is? Some viewers find the hate-filled relationship between Leslie and her estranged stepdaughter Margaret (performed by 20-year-old Patricia Mattick) hard to stomach. Leslie’s motive for killing her husband is never fleshed out, leaving a gap at the heart of the mystery, while staunch critics contend that a woman as intelligent as Leslie ought never to have been caught out in the way she was by paying off Margaret with the ransom money.

Wherever you stand on those issues, one truth remains: Ransom for a Dead Man was a critical success and a ratings winner. In terms of ambition and scope, few other Columbo episodes come close to matching it, and it did its job well enough to convince network execs to greenlight a full series, which would air six months later. I call that a job well done.

And even if Ransom isn’t on my personal A-List of episodes (view my rankings list here), it’s still a magnificent piece of television with a majestic quality that helped pave the way for greater things to come. Its production values are such that it has aged extremely well, and as Ransom celebrates its 50th anniversary I would urge all fans to raise a glass to the vital role it played in the enduring success of the series.

View Ransom for a Dead Man in its entirety below

What are your views on Ransom for a Dead Man, and how well do you feel it holds up as it reaches its 50th anniversary? Share your views in the comments section below. Until next time, my friends, adios!

Read about my top 5 scenes from Ransom for a Dead Man here.

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Columbo Ransom for a Dead Man Patricia Mattick
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