In memoriam: the Columbo stars we lost in 2021


With every year that passes, the pool of Columbo supporting stars gradually diminishes. 2021 was no different with a number of contributors – both major and minor – passing from this mortal sphere.

After another year of global lockdowns and significant casualties caused by Covid, it’s entirely possible that some of the list below may have passed you by, but all did their bit to help Columbo capture the hearts and minds of millions over the past six decades. As fans, we salute them for everything they brought to the show.

NB – it’s entirely possible I have missed the loss of other guest stars due to being distracted for much of the year. Any omissions here are accidental and not intended as a snub to the actors or their families.

Trisha Noble

Died 23 January, age 76

Columbo Trisha Noble

The apple of many a Columbo fans’ eye, the delightful Trisha Noble made an eye-catching appearance as Marcy Hubbard in 1975’s Playback – the art gallery attendant who helped confirm the alibi of Oskar Werner’s murderous philanderer Harold Van Wick.

A Sydney-born pop-star-turned-actress, Trisha had a number of chart hits in Australia before moving to the UK to begin an acting career in films such as Carry on Camping, Danger Men and Death of a Woman. She upped sticks for the US in 1967 and went on to appear in TV shows included The Rockford Files, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, McMillan and Wife and The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Fans of Star Wars may also recognise her as Padme’s mother, Jobal Naberrie, in Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith.

Trisha returned to Australia in 2007, taking up a variety of stage roles between then and 2017. Tragically, her death at the age of 76 followed an 18-month battle with mesothelioma, a tumour caused by her having inhaled asbestos fibres years earlier.

Bruce Kirby

Died 24 January, aged 95

Columbo royalty, despite never being a high-profile guest star, Kirby’s passing at the age of 95 was a blow for die-hard fans who were still reeling from the loss of William Link at the end of 2020. Although no cause of death was officially given, Kirby’s son John confirmed via Facebook that his father died on Sunday, 24 January at the Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles.

Born in New York City in 1925, Kirby’s career kicked off in the 1950s with guest appearances on The Phil Silvers Show and Goodyear Playhouse. He would clock up nearly 150 screen credits before he retired from acting in 2009.

Amongst his many credits were appearances on shows as varied as Murder, She Wrote, LA Law, Punky Brewster, I Dream of Jeannie, Hogan’s Heroes, Ironside, M*A*S*H, Kojak, The Rockford Files, The Sopranos and The West Wing. Kirby also graced the big screen in films including Stand By Me, The Muppet Movie, Throw Mama From the Train and 2006 Best Picture Oscar winner Crash.

However, for Columbo fans Kirby is synonymous with the series having appeared in nine episodes between 1973-1995. His debut was a low-key role as a lab attendant in Lovely but Lethal, but he would go on to play Sergeant George Kramer in By Dawn’s Early Light in 1974 (starring alongside his own son, Bruno Kirby, in the process) – a role that would grant him Columbo immortality.

Kramer would go on to appear in five further Columbo outings between 1975 and 1990 (A Deadly State of Mind, Identity Crisis, Last Salute to the Commodore, Columbo Cries Wolf and Agenda for Murder), making him the series’ single most recurring character aside from Columbo and Dog. He would also crop up as a TV repairman in 1978’s Make Me a Perfect Murder and as Detective Sergeant Phil Brindle in 1995’s Strange Bedfellows.

Along with Fred Draper, Val Avery, Vito Scotti, John Finnegan and Mike Lally, Kirby was one of the ‘Super Six’ recurring Columbo support stars that helped bring the best out of Peter Falk amongst an ever-changing roster of actors, directors and producers. Between them, the six clocked up at least 60 appearances over many years.

Jessica Walter

Died 24 March, aged 80

A colossus of stage and screen for six decades, the multi-award-winning Jessica Walter seemed to make a splash wherever she plied her trade.

In her latter years, she became best known for her role as sassy, self-obsessed matriarch Lucille Bluth in hit comedy Arrested Development, which ran for five seasons between 2003-2019. However, by the time she was cast as Lucille, Walter had already racked up well over 100 roles in theatre, TV and movies – winning much acclaim in the process.

A Best Actress Golden Globe nomination was her reward for a star turn as alluring stalker Evelyn alongside Clint Eastwood in 1971’s Play Misty for Me, although she’d find most of her fame in the field of television. Among dozens of screen credits, Walter starred in shows as varied as Mission: Impossible, The Fugitive, Banacek, Magnum PI, Mannix, Quincy and Wonder Woman.

She would even go on to snare an Emmy Award as Outstanding Lead Actress in a Limited Series in 1975 for her work on the ahead-of-its-time police drama Amy Prentiss. Although a critical hit, audiences of the day seemingly weren’t ready to accept a show about a female Chief of Detectives having to deal with resentment from her male colleagues, and the show was cancelled after one season.

Notably, Walter’s opposite Emmy Award winner for Best Male in 1975 was Peter Falk for Columbo, and the two had starred together in Season 3 outing Mind Over Mayhem with Walter cast as the enigmatic Margaret Nicholson, wife of the elderly murder victim. The two also appeared on the same billing in Falk’s 1965 legal drama The Trials of O’Brien.

As well as rediscovering the limelight in Arrested Development, Walter would also voice major character Mallory Archer in more than 120 episodes of popular animated spy show Archer between 2009-2021, winning several awards for voice work in the process.

Walter died in her sleep at home in New York less than two months after her 80th birthday. No cause of death has been confirmed.

Frank McRae

Died 29 April, aged 80

Man mountain Frank McRae was a pro footballer for the Chicago Bears and Los Angeles Rams before embarking on a career in acting, and would go on to appear in more than 40 feature films and numerous TV shows between 1972-2006.

Standing six-and-a-half-feet tall, McRae was often cast as an authority figure or a tough and appeared in such motion pictures as Dillinger, Hard Times and Big Wednesday. He played alongside Sylvester Stallone four times (F.I.S.T., Paradise Alley, Lock Up and Rocky II) and cropped up in a number of comedic roles in films such as Batteries Not Included, Used Cars, Last Action Hero and Loaded Weapon 1. He is likely best remembered, however, for the role of James Bond’s pal Sharkey in 1989’s Licence to Kill. Columbo fans, meanwhile, will recognise McRae as the Lieutenant’s towering sidekick Lt Robertson in 1992’s A Bird in the Hand

McRae died in Santa Monica, California, after suffering a heart attack.

Norman Lloyd

Died 10 May, aged 106

A revered actor, producer and director of astonishing longevity, Norman Lloyd was born while the First World War was still in its infancy in late 1914 and would go on to work with and befriend screen titans including Orson Welles, Alfred Hitchcock, Martin Scorcese, Jean Renoir and Charlie Chaplin.

Starting out as a member of the legendary Mercury Theatre, founded by Welles and John Houseman in 1937, Lloyd was cast in the title role of Hitchcock’s 1942 spy film Saboteur and would reunite with the iconic director three years later in Spellbound. His film roles continued to rack up until the early 1950s, when his association with the likes of Chaplin, John Garfield and John Losey saw him blacklisted as part of the McCarthy Witch-hunts.

He was rescued from this purgatory in 1955 by his old match Hitch, who hired him as an associate (later executive) producer and director on Alfred Hitchcock Presents, which ran for eight years. He would go on to produce and direct dozens of TV episodes and TV movies until the mid-80s – one of which was Columbo Season 1 episode Lady in Waiting. This was one of the early episodes hampered by Peter Falk’s run-in with Universal execs, although he and Lloyd’s relationship was not said to have suffered.

His longest-running acting gig came in 80s hospital series St Elsewhere, as the genial Dr Daniel Auschlander, while he also graced the big screen in films including Audrey Rose, Dead Poet’s Society and The Age of Innocence. His final acting credit was in Judd Apatow’s comedy Trainwreck at the age of 100.

Lloyd died of natural causes in his sleep at his home in Brentwood, Los Angeles.

Joanne Linville

Died 21 June, aged 93

Candidate for Crime Vicky Hayward

A versatile character actor, whose career spanned six decades from the early 1950s to the mid-2000s, Joanne Linville clocked up more than 80 screen appearances on shows including Gunsmoke, Hawaii Five-O, Bonanza, CHiPs, Barnaby Jones and Kojak. She also notably played a Romulan Commander in Star Trek TOS episode The Enterprise Incident in 1968.

On the big screen, Linville appeared in such films as Scorpio with Burt Lancaster, and A Star Is Born with Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson. Columbo fans, however, remember her for her exceptional turn as the heavy-drinking Vicky Hayward, misused wife of Jackie Cooper’s corrupt senatorial hopeful Nelson, in 1973’s Candidate for Crime. Linville was also amongst the small numbers of actors who appeared in both Columbo and ill-fated spin-off Mrs Columbo, the latter in 1979 episode Falling Star.

Born in Bakersfield. California, in January 1928, Linville died in Los Angeles at the age of 93. No cause of death was disclosed.

William Smith

Died 5 July, aged 88

If ever an actor can be described as a ‘beefcake’ it would be William Smith, whose Herculean physique was put to good use in motion pictures such as Conan the Barbarian (he played Arnie’s father) and Any Which Way You Can, where he went tooth and nail alongside Clint Eastwood in an epic bar-room rumble.

Smith could also be said to have been prolific, racking up more than 270 acting credits between 1942-2020 in such shows as Rich Man, Poor Man; The Dukes of Hazzard; The A-Team; CHiPs; Walker, Texas Ranger; Airwolf; and Murder, She Wrote. As well as starring in dozens of B-movies, he also had a small role in 1994’s Maverick alongside Mel Gibson and Jodie Foster. He left an indelible mark on Columbo as hunky ski instructor Ken Nichols, lover of Kathy Goodland, in Season 2’s The Greenhouse Jungle.

A child actor, Korean War veteran, body builder and two-time World Arm-Wrestling Champion, Smith was fluent in six languages – including Russian. Born in Columbia, Missouri in 1933, Smith died in Woodland Hills, LA. He is survived by his wife of 31 years, Joanne Cervelli, as well as two children William E. Smith III and Sherri Anne Cervelli.

Basil Hoffman

Died 17 September, aged 83

With more than 100 TV and movie credits, and as many more on stage, Basil Hoffman knew how to keep himself busy and was still working up until his death, both on film projects and acting workshops in his hometown of Albuquerque, New Mexico. He died at the age of 83, although no cause of death was given.

The talented character actor appeared in Oscar Best Picture winning movies Ordinary People (1980) and The Artist (2011), and also pops up in films such as My Favorite Year (1982), The Last Word (2017), All the President’s Men (1976), Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) and Rio, I Love You (2014).

His TV career commenced in the mid-1960s and encompassed roles in a wide variety of shows from M*A*S*H*, Hill Street Blues, The Rockford Files, CHiPs, Kojak and Square Pegs. He played the marvellously madcap Jason Danziger, President of the Sigma Society, in my personal favourite Columbo episode The Bye-Bye Sky High IQ Murder Case in 1977.

William Lucking

Died 18 October, aged 80

Adaptable and prolific, William Lucking was rarely out of work during an acting career that stretched 46 years from 1968-2014.

Although best known as Piney Winston, the bad-ass biker from Sons of Anarchy between 2008-2011, Lucking amassed more than 160 acting credits on the small and big screen. In TV, his debut came in Ironside and would go on to encompass appearances in The A-Team, Murder, She Wrote, Star Trek Deep Space 9, Renegade, ER and The Mentalist amongst dozens of others. He also popped up in a number of cinema roles, including Red Dragon, Erin Brokovich, The Limey and The World’s Fastest Indian.

In the Columbo universe, he starred as former hit-man Dominic Doyle, brother to dim-witted security guard Joe and would-be fall guy for killers Justin and Coop in 1990’s Columbo Goes to College.

Born in Michigan in June 1941, Lucking died at home in Las Vegas. He is survived by his wife of 25 years, Sigrid Insull Lucking, as well as his daughters Marjet Lucking and Juliana Ryan.

JoAnna Cameron

Died 22 October, aged 73

The trailblazing beauty became the first female TV superhero in 1975’s The Secrets of Isis – beating Linda Carter’s Wonder Woman and Lindsay Wagner’s The Bionic Woman to the proverbial punch.

Three seasons in the role of Isis propelled Cameron into the households of millions of viewers, while she also cropped up in such shows as The Amazing Spider-Man, McMillan and Wife and Marcus Welby MD. Her Columbo appearance came in superior 1974 outing Negative Reaction, where her bewitching good looks were a potent factor in Dick Van Dyke’s Paul Galesko opting to bump off his shrewish wife, Frances.

For all this, Cameron was perhaps best known for being the face of dozens of different products on a range of TV commercials in the 70s. Indeed, the 1979 Guinness Book of World Records cited that she had appeared in more than 100 network TV commercials – more than any other person at that time.

Despite her fame, Cameron opted not to pursue her acting career beyond 1980, when she moved to Hawaii and lived a relatively quiet life working in nursing and hotel marketing. Born in Colorado in 1948, she died in Oahu, Hawaii, due to complications caused by a stroke.

Dean Stockwell

Died 7 November, aged 85

Arguably the most high profile Columbo contributor to pass away in 2021, Dean Stockwell’s acting career commenced in the 1940s as a child star and ran for 70 years – his final role coming in 2015.

Stockwell amassed more than 200 credits in those seven decades and worked with some of Hollywood’s finest directors including David Lynch, Jonathan Demme, Robert Altman, Wim Wenders, Sidney Lumet and Francis Ford Coppola. His big-screen roles included mob boss Tony Russo in 1988’s Married to the Mob, for which he would earn a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nod; as well as scene-stealing turns in Dune; Blue Velvet; Paris, Texas; Beverly Hills Cop II; The Manchurian Candidate; and Air Force One.

Equally at home on the small screen, Stockwell graced such productions as Dr Kildare, JAG, The Twilight Zone, Street Gear, Miami Vice and The New Adventures of Superman, while he twice guest starred in memorable Columbo episodes in the 1970s: firstly as playboy Eric Wagner in 1973’s The Most Crucial Game, the victim to Robert Culp’s murderous ice-cream man; and later as the luckless (and big-haired) Lloyd Harrington in Troubled Waters, whom Robert Vaughn tries to frame for the murder of a cabaret singer.

The role that guaranteed him acting immortality, however, came as Al in Quantum Leap, in which he starred alongside Scott Bakula for 97 episodes over five seasons between 1989-1993. Stockwell would pick up a Golden Globe for the role in 1990.

Born in North Hollywood to acting parents in 1936, a stroke caused Stockwell to retire from acting in 2015. He died of natural causes in November and is survived by son Austin and daughter Sophia.

Bridget Hanley

Died 15 December, aged 80

Best known for her role as Candy Pruitt in the 1960s western series Here Come the Brides, Bridget Hanley starred in more than 40 films and TV shows between 1965-1996 – including as Mrs Rusk, wife of the murdered criminology professor DE Rusk in 1990’s Columbo Goes to College. Her resume also featured appearances in the likes of The Odd CoupleLove, American StyleWelcome Back, KotterEmergency!CHiPsRiptideSimon & Simon; and Murder, She Wrote.

Born in Minnesota in February 1941, the 80-year-old actress had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and was living at the Motion Picture and Television Fund Wasserman Campus in Woodland Hills at the time of her death. She is survived by two daughters, Bronwyn and Megan.

Well folks, there we have it. If I’ve missed out any other contributors that you’re aware of, please sing out in the comments section below. I will take this opportunity to wish you all a splendid 2022, and to wish health and longevity to the many Columbo contributors out there who are still going strong.

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