Squillionaire lawyer Hugh Creighton doesn’t know what it’s like to be beaten in a legal tussle – but then, he never had to face Lieutenant Columbo until deciding to murder his cheating lover.
So, what will happen when Creighton’s irresistible force meets the immovable object that is Columbo? Let’s set our clocks back to April 29, 1991 – the night the intriguingly titled Columbo and the Murder of a Rock Star first aired – to find out…
Lieutenant Columbo: Peter Falk
Hugh Creighton: Dabney Coleman
Trish Fairbanks: Shera Danese
Sergeant Habach: Sondra Currie
Marcy Edwards: Cheryl Paris
Neddy Malcolm: Julian Stone
Little Richard: As himself
George: Steven Gilborn
Sam Marlowe: John Martin
Chief Corbett: John Finnegan
Ando Miaki: Tad Horino
Darlene Glinski: Susie Singer
Directed by: Alan J. Levi
Written by: William Read Woodfield
Score by: Steve Dorff
Unbeatable defence lawyer Hugh Creighton plans to ditch his lover of four years (former rock singer Marcy Edwards) after a Private Eye produces video tape evidence that she’s been romping behind his back with bad boy drummer Neddy Malcolm. The cheating chanteuse has other ideas, though. Unless Creighton agrees to pay her $5 million within 2 months, she’ll blab to the press about his dodgy habit of paying off cops and judges – quite a hindrance to the career to the alleged “most famous lawyer” in America. Until that time, they’re to continue to live together as if nothing were amiss. THAT’S AMORE, 1991 stylee!
Creighton agrees to play along, but instead sets a grisly plan into action. Sneaking into the beach house where Marcy and Neddy enjoy their steamy sessions, he injects a sedative through the cork into a bottle of Champagne. The next morning, he spikes her tea with a mystery powder and jallops away after putting on a show of leaving their troubles behind him.
The fiendish lawyer ain’t off for a day at the office, though. He’s really off for a day’s slaying, which commences by his pinching the truck of the Japanese gardener who services the beach house, and driving to said location disguised as said gardener to disturb Marcy and her wimpy lover as they cavort in the sack. Neddy conveniently gulps enough of the sedated Champagne to drop into a slumber, while Creighton sneaks into the house and switches the cork and wrapping from the opened bottle with replacements he procured from a bottle in his own office.
With Neddy now out for the count, Creighton makes his presence known to Marcy. She’s under the impression he’s there to hurt her unconscious lover, but of course she’s the victim whom he throttles off-screen before manipulating the crime scene, planting Neddy’s prints on the bottles and vamoosing in the gardening truck. He drives this back to where he’d parked his own ride, leaving Neddy to wake several hours later to find a dead Marcy in bed beside him and no idea what happened. Rather than make an emergency call, the cowardly custard screeches off into the night on his motorbike.
Come the morrow and our man Lieutenant Columbo emerges to investigate. True to form, he’s soon bewildered by little things not adding up. The raking of the garden sand is inconsistent. Why were two bottles of Champagne opened in the kitchen but drunk in the bedroom? He also notices that one of the corks has one blue star on its underside, while the other has two. Both bottles, meanwhile, have one single star on their labels. What could it all mean?
Columbo is duty bound to report Marcy’s death to her emergency contact – and he’s surprised to learn it’s Hugh Creighton, “the lawyer who’s never lost a murder case”. Interrupting him during his closing comments of his latest case, Columbo breaks the bad news and whisks him off to identify the body. The detective then enrages the lawyer by refusing to share details of the autopsy with him, citing department policy. Their relationship is off to a very edgy start.
While Columbo is yet to make any major deductions, Creighton’s junior colleague Trish Fairbanks has already cracked the case! Although she doesn’t share all the details with the viewer, she references an incident that took place the day before around the time of the murder where Creighton borrowed her car and sent her off on an unspecified “research assignment”. This potentially makes her an accessory to murder, but she’ll keep her mouth shut if Creighton makes her a full partner and agrees to marry her within six months. He reluctantly accepts her terms.
Doubtless stinging from this immediate reversal of fortunes, Creighton invites Columbo out for a feed to discuss the case having first spoken to the Police Chief, who orders the Lieutenant to share all the case files with the lawyer. Over dinner, Creighton feigns amazement at the notion that Marcy could have been in a long-term relationship behind his back – despite eye-witness reports suggesting a motorcycle was seen with her car at the beach house three times per week.
The autopsy has also shown traces of disulfiram in Marcy’s bloodstream – a drug used to treat alcohol dependency, which we saw Creighton add to Marcy’s tea on the morning of her killing. This puzzles Columbo because there were two bottles of Champagne and two glasses in evidence at the crime scene. Why would Marcy have taken such a drug prior to a booze-fuelled rendezvous? Creighton’s feeble suggestion that Marcy might have mistaken one of his own disulfiram pills for one of her vitamins doesn’t seem to entirely convince the good Lieutenant.
The following day, Columbo (wearing a NEEDLESSLY STUPID hat) returns to the beach house to nosy around, dealing with the surliest housekeeper since Mrs Peck in 1973 in the process. He cracks open a bottle of fizz from the fridge and notes the underside of the cork features one blue star. That other cork with two stars is looking increasingly suspicious. He also learns from the housekeeper that the gardener only comes to the house on Tuesdays – so who raked the grounds on Wednesday?
Further snooping in the bedroom also reveals plaster powder on the framed discs on Marcy’s wall. This leads him to the air vent, which appears to have been recently removed. We know that’s because the PI had secreted a video camera in there, although at this stage there’s nothing for Columbo to glean from this. He does receive the good news, though, that our mate Neddy’s fingerprints have been traced and an APB is out for his arrest.
The APB soon bears fruit. Neddy has been spotted at a crumby apartment block, but he eludes Columbo and Sergeant Habach by smashing through a window and leaping off a balcony into a swimming pool before making good his escape. Paperwork shows that the apartment is rented by one Darlene Glinski, who works in some dive bar in Burbank, so that’s where Columbo heads next.
Darlene has what can only be described as the worst entertainment job in the history of LA (and therefore the world), which is to dangle from wires in a dank cell behind a large fish tank and turn somersaults while wearing a mermaid suit. Despite some dubious career choices, she is, at least, able to point Columbo in the direction of Neddy’s likely location at the LA Rock Box. “Ask for Little Richard,” she enigmatically explains.
Well folks, turns out that this Little Richard is the Little Richard of Good Golly Miss Molly fame, who is setting the ivories aflame as Columbo rocks up (and briefly ROCKS OUT) at the Rock Box. After a few moments of boogie-woogieing, Little Richard’s set is over and Columbo trails him to his dressing room to ask about Neddy’s whereabouts. Neddy conveniently saves us all some time by showing up there and then, and Columbo whips him down town for questioning before you can trill ‘a wop bom a loo bop a lop bom bom‘. There Neddy comes clean about his passing out and waking up to find Marcy dead, but denies murder.
The next turn of his investigative wheel leads Columbo to 1930s throwback Sam Marlowe, Creighton’s Private Eye who has been tailing Marcy and Neddy. It only takes the Lieutenant a hot minute to deduce this after seeing traces of paint on a video camera lens that he rightly concludes came from the air duct grill in Marcy’s bedroom. And if Marlowe knows about the affair, it’s a sure bet that Creighton was in on it as well. Columbo confronts Creighton with this suggestion, and the lawyer mumbles something about being too ashamed to admit he knew that his true love was knocking about with a reprobate like Neddy. Again, he’s far from convincing.
Still, there are plenty of loose ends that need tying up and it’s not long before Columbo is careering across town again – this time to grill Creighton’s Japanese gardener. The lovable old Easterner confirms that he was not at the beach house on the day of the killing. In fact, he was working in an entirely different neighbourhood. In his stilted English, however, he is able to provide a vital piece of new evidence. On the day of the killing, his truck was moved two blocks by person or persons unknown, and was found parked underneath a tree that deposited a rare type of berry all over it.
“Creighton is suitably rattled to try to get the District Attorney to force Columbo off his back.”
A good day gets better when Columbo is able to demonstrate how the stars on the Champagne corks could implicate Creighton himself. All the bottles at the beach house feature corks with one star on the underside, but the ones on the more expensive brand that Creighton himself stocks in a fridge at his office have two stars! It certainly looks like the slippery lawyer could have committed murder.
Creighton is suitably rattled to try to get the District Attorney to force Columbo off his back. A hot-tempered meeting between the three parties hinges on Creighton being able to provide an alibi. He claims to have been driving to and from Pasadena around the time of the murder, but has no eyewitnesses. As if by magic, dear Trish produces a photo of Creighton in his car snapped by an automatic speed camera in Pasadena right when Marcy was murdered. Pasadena is suitably far from the beach to make Columbo’s hunch look dead in the water.
That’s a tough nut to crack, but using the observational skillz he honed as far back as Playback in 1975, Columbo is able to study a blown-up image of the driving Creighton and find a vital chink in his armour. The shadows on Creighton’s face don’t match those of other drivers who got tickets within a few minutes of him. It’s as if he has a two-dimensional face!
After running a brief experiment of his own past the same speed camera, Columbo is confident enough to challenge Creighton fo’ real. Interrupting the lawyer and Ms Fairbanks as they prepare to head out to a swanky ‘do’, Columbo lays out the photo evidence that suggests for all the world that someone was masquerading – literally – as Creighton by wearing a mask of the lawyer as they drove his car at excess speed past a speed camera.
Although he scoffs at it, Creighton is laughing on the other side of his face when Columbo invites him outside to unveil a cheeky little stunt of his own. Shining a flashlight onto his own car windscreen, who should be staring back but the Lieutenant himself! At least that’s what it looks like. It’s really Sergeant Habach wearing a flat, photographic mask of the good Lieutenant – just like Creighton’s accomplice must have been wearing when the man himself was out killing his no-good lover.
If that alone isn’t enough to prove opportunity, the piece de resistance is those rogue berries that had fallen all over the gardener’s truck after Creighton parked it right behind Ms Fairbanks’ car that he’d driven on the day of the murder. The only place in West LA that those berries grow is on the street where the car and the truck were parked. And when Columbo grabs a handful of the berries from the windshield wiper well of Ms Fairbanks’ car, the writing is on the wall for the previously unbeatable Hugh Creighton, who is reads his rights as credits roll…
My memories of Columbo and the Murder of a Rock Star
This is an episode I’ve seen only seldom and not for an eternity, so very little of it stuck in my head beyond the rapport between suspect and detective, and the rather random appearance of rock legend Little Richard.
I was never convinced by the gotcha scene and remember the overall plot seeming somewhat convoluted, but that aside it’s pretty much a blank slate and I went into viewing prepared to believe my lukewarm opinion of it could be heated up a degree or two.
I’m of the opinion that Columbo’s stellar arrest record, which encompasses numerous household names in spheres of politics, sport and the arts, would make it a certainty that every LA lawyer would know him by name, appearance and reputation.
Yet Hugh Creighton, who we’re told is the most famous lawyer in America, and is a man who has never lost a homicide defence case, doesn’t know Columbo from Adam? Give me a break! Such an incongruity might seem inconsequential to some viewers, but to me it’s the sort of plot hole that tighter writing could easily sidestep and, sadly, Columbo and the Murder of a Rock Star is rife with them.
This isn’t merely a great shame, it’s deeply frustrating. There are decent moments in Rock Star, but the apparent lack of quality control across its whole story renders it something approaching a nonsensical mess. And before anyone accuses me of being a killjoy, please consider the following major examples of implausible storytelling that do Rock Star a great disservice: –
- As mentioned above, Creighton not knowing who Columbo is is absolute balderdash! Why have him cast as a homicide defence lawyer at all? Why not have his special skill be helping rich and famous folk get away with fraud and tax evasion, for example? That would give an excuse to not know who Columbo is.
- Creighton’s lack of care over whether the Champagne corks at the crime scene correctly matched the bottles is troublesome. Admittedly it’s a plausible oversight for most people, but he’s supposed to be the best defence lawyer in the country!
- What logical reason could Creighton have for not replacing the gardener’s truck in the exact same spot he took it from? Leaving it two blocks away from its starting point is so idiotic as to be inconceivable. It serves the story, but is as ludicrous a move as Dr Cahill leaving an unnecessary burnt match at the crime scene in 1973’s Mind Over Mayhem.
- Why the devil would Trish Fairbanks have blindly accepted the off-screen mission given to her by Creighton to deliberately get a speeding ticket while wearing a cardboard cut-out of his face? She’s not an office intern for Pete’s sake, she’s an experienced practising lawyer! Why did she not appear to have asked him any questions about his motives?
Of these, the latter two do the most damage to the credibility of the episode and I suspect for most viewers the black hole at the heart of Trish Fairbanks’ involvement in the crime is the single most damning aspect of Rock Star.
It’s not until Rock Star’s 38th minute that we hear that Trish had been sent on a ‘research assignment’ by Creighton at the time of the murder. We don’t see this happen and never get official confirmation that this mission had been for her to wear a mask of Creighton’s face while obtaining the alibi-setting speed ticket, although Columbo does suggest as such in the 91st minute of the episode. Disguising the nature of her involvement seems like a bit of a cheat by the production team, while leaving it so late to clarify it to the viewer muddies the waters of what was a pretty convoluted mystery anyway.
From what we are shown on-screen, we are led to believe that Trish simply acquiesced to Creighton’s ridiculous request – but no lawyer worth their salt would ever do this without receiving a watertight explanation as to why it was necessary. It smashes the credibility of the Fairbanks character, while simultaneously revealing Creighton to be an absolute halfwit in the field of judging a person’s character. Did he not think she’d smell a rat after hearing about Marcy’s death? It’s unbelievable, in the truest sense of the word.
Regardless of all this hoo-hah, the mask evidence is incredibly flimsy in its own right. Columbo makes a big play of highlighting the lack of shadow under Creighton’s nose compared to photos of other drivers ticketed around the same time. The simple defence would be that his face was at a sufficiently different angle to cause this. There would have to be doubt in a sane juror’s mind about the driver’s identity.
So while the mask evidence is fragile, it is what most viewers will remember as the clincher. Not so. The crucial clue for Columbo is the presence of car berries on the Trish’s car windscreen and the gardener’s truck. These prove that someone had parked under that tree in Trish’s car, and that someone (likely the same person) had moved the gardener’s truck to under the same tree. That could have provided an opportunity for someone to use the truck to skedaddle to the beach house to commit murder. But nothing proves that this someone was Hugh Creighton!
Columbo has no eyewitnesses who can place Creighton at the scene. He does link the glove marks on Marcy’s throat to glove marks in the gardener’s truck, but, again, that proves nothing against the lawyer. Nor does Columbo provide any evidence that Creighton was ever driving Trish’s car. It’s all a total let-down. What the gotcha scene needed was Trish to be present to corroborate some of the Lieutenant’s deductions. In fact, the scene is screaming out for it – yet it didn’t happen. Why? Well, thanks to David Koenig’s excellent new book Shooting Columbo, we now know the reason.
The original script saw Trish present throughout the entirety of the gotcha scene. However, due to a blazing row between Peter Falk and wife Shera Danese (playing Trish), she is alleged to have stormed off set and refused to return to re-film it the following day – instead going shopping. The scene had to be re-written and moved outdoors to suggest Trish had stayed inside, while Danese’s lines were given to other cast members, presumably mostly to Sergeant Habach. If true (and this anecdote came from episode director Alan J. Levi) the lack of professionalism shown by Danese is breath-taking.
“Shera Danese simply cannot be trusted with roles requiring range, gravitas and intelligence.”
Indeed, now’s probably the time to address how miscast she is in this. I’m not a Shera hater per se, but it’s increasingly hard to justify her meaty roles in the show given her paucity of talent. She’s fine in small roles (indeed was excellent as Eve Plummer in Murder Under Glass 12 years earlier) but simply cannot be trusted with roles requiring range, gravitas and intelligence e.g. a lawyer. She was similarly poor in Murder A Self Portrait two years prior.
Interestingly, Danese wasn’t the only ‘significant other’ to be cast in this episode with director Levi’s own wife, Sondra Currie, playing Sergeant Habach. Again according to Shooting Columbo, both Falk and Levi were reluctant to agree to the other’s wife appearing, despite both wanting their own wives cast. They agreed to compromise: if Shera was cast as Trish, Sondra could appear as Habach. Universal was said to be very nervous about the arrangement – and it’s not hard to see why given how things worked out with Danese. She ought never to have been cast in Columbo again, regardless of her relationship with its lead man. She would, however, appear twice more in the years ahead. Oy vey…
Had she been present at his downfall, I’d like to think that Trish’s duplicitous nature would have seen her thoroughly shove Creighton under the bus. At the very least she would have had a deserved comeuppance of her own. As things stand, though, the episode fizzles out with a whimper and Creighton has a tonne of room to manoeuvre in any subsequent legal case.
He could even blame Trish, claiming that she was jealous of his relationship with Marcy, so had killed her while he was away in Pasadena. Trish had access to the Champagne from the office fridge, plus it was her car that had the incriminating berries in its windshield well. As it is, Columbo has nominally proven motive, method and opportunity against Creighton, but I’d wager that the super lawyer’s unbeaten record in court will continue.
The person who suffers most from the yawning plot holes and clumsy writing in Rock Star is Dabney Coleman, because he’s generally very good in this – certainly one of the better murderers of Columbo’s new era. The episode is at its best when he shares the screen with his good pal Falk, and his arrogant, sarcastic asides at the detective’s expense when his alibi is revealed are quite delicious. He convinces as a man with a complete lack of scruples.
He is given some daft moments that do grate, though; notably his performance in court, when he interrupts the prosecution lawyer during his closing remarks with comedy coughing and noisy slurping from a glass of water. This sort of drivel might sit OK in a pseudo-comedy like Ally McBeal, but it should be far too juvenile for Columbo. At times like this I think fondly back to Ransom for a Dead Man in 1971, when the production team felt absolutely no need to portray Leslie Williams in comedic terms, maintaining the integrity of the character in the process.
As has become the norm for ‘new Columbo‘ episodes, Rock Star contains a liberal smattering of silliness that serves little purpose. Sam Marlowe, for example, is every cliché of a 1930s’ film noir private eye rolled into one annoying, fedora-wearing whole. Trish’s childish antics when ordering the office to be redecorated are pure pantomime, while Columbo’s decision to order a fortune’s worth of food at his dinner outing with Creighton sees him essentially raising two fingers to a man he has been ordered by his superiors to afford every respect to. It’s hugely out of character.
Elsewhere, an otherwise enjoyable scene with Columbo annoying a tightly wound housekeeper is marred by the questionable decision to have Columbo carrying on while wearing a stupid cap with NFI emblazoned over it. Word on the street is that Falk simply borrowed the cap from a bystander and decided to wear it for sh*ts and giggles. Would he have done this in the show’s golden age? Not a chance! So why do it now? And why weren’t people telling him not to?
It doesn’t end there, either. Columbo baselessly tells a speed camera technician that he’s never had the top down on his car prior to this very episode. Who does this line serve? Die-hard fans remember the top being down in classic outings including Lady in Waiting, Last Salute to the Commodore and The Most Dangerous Match. Newcomers to the series won’t care either way. Was this supposed to be a joke? Who knows. And while it’s not a big deal in its own right, it speaks again to that lack of consistent quality control in the storytelling.
What is a big deal, however, is the ghastly scene at The Aquarium bar when Columbo encounters the mermaid behind the giant fish tank. Obviously included only to help the episode reach the 90-minute running time, it’s two excruciating minutes of TV as the Lieutenant grills a busty blonde in a mermaid suit, who is twirling on wires to the presumed delight of the barflies. The crowning turd on the scene is the infantile flapping of the toothless drunk at the bar, who appears to not believe his own eyes as detective and mermaid give him a wave through the tank. It’s 15 of the worst TV seconds I’ve ever seen and it enrages me every time. If you can’t remember it, here it is in all its frightfulness…
Another downside to Rock Star is its recycling of some familiar aspects of classic episodes from the 70s. Columbo scouring through images of speed camera drivers harks back to both Playback and Identity Crisis. Champagne corks played a roll in heightening his suspicions of Ken Franklin having murdered Lily La Sanka in Murder by the Book. Most blatant is Creighton injecting a substance into a bottle of wine through its cork, first seen in Murder Under Glass. A golden opportunity for Columbo to reference this case to Creighton (delighting long-term fans in the process) went begging.
Even if Rock Star isn’t Columbo at its best, it’s not a complete train wreck. If you can overlook the faults there’s some fun viewing and some decent performances amongst the large ensemble cast. Of particular note, series stalwart John Finnegan makes his eighth overall appearance in the show, and his second as Columbo’s chief of police in the 1990s. Elsewhere, and in a first for the show, Columbo has a significant female sidekick in the form of Sondra Currie’s Sergeant Habach, who even finds herself involved in one of the series’ ultra-rare action scenes when wantaway drummer Neddy Malcolm escapes the police via leaps through a window and off a balcony.
“Murder of a Rock Star falls way short of making Columbo’s greatest hits album.”
Falk himself is on good form and pretty restrained by 90s standards. We are given three nice examples of the cop Columbo really is behind his own mask of shambling servility as he tough talks both drummer Neddy and 30s throwback Sam Marlowe. He’s also very blunt during the showdown with the DA openly stating that he knows Creighton did it, despite a lack of damning evidence. As always, these situations make for good viewing as they shed at least a little light on the enigmatic Lieutenant’s true personality.
The closing credits also round things out on a pleasing note. A running ‘gag’ throughout the episode has been Columbo’s interest in procuring a ghetto blaster for his nephew. As credits roll, we see that he has indeed secured the coveted item and is using it as he speeds down the highway, blasting out and singing along to poor dead Marcy’s best-known hit as a tribute to her memory.
No review of Murder of a Rock Star would be complete without referencing the episode’s only actual rock star: Little Richard, who makes a show-stopping cameo around the hour mark. Given his negligible relevance to the plot, it could be said his appearance was a little gratuitous – perhaps even a ruse to use in previews to make audiences think the rubber-faced crooner was to be the episode’s victim. Nevertheless, his high-octane musical interlude certainly injects some energy into proceedings, and judging by Columbo’s head bobbing to the music, Peter Falk was no small fan of the rock icon.
Overall, though, if we’re looking for a musical analogy to sum up Murder of a Rock Star, I’d have to say it falls way short of making Columbo’s greatest hits album. The excellence of Dabney Coleman aside, this is B-Side material with the quality and unfolding of the narrative ultimately rendering it all a bit of a dud.
Did you know?
The episode’s oft-heard title track was actually sung by none other than Shera Danese, whose singing abilities certainly seem to exceed her acting skills here. In other news, Dabney Coleman is one of only three actors to play both a murderer and police officer in Columbo after previously appearing as a detective sergeant in 1973’s Double Shock.
The other two actors to share this distinction are Ed Begley Jr (a canine control officer in 1978’s How to Dial a Murder and a double killer in Undercover in 1994); and Fred Draper (murderer Swanny in Last Salute in 1975 and a police forensics guy in Negative Reaction a year earlier).
How I rate ’em
Despite being a fun watch, Murder of a Rock Star falls short too often to be considered a smash hit. A detective drama has to have more than just fun. It needs to set out a plausible crime, committed by plausible characters in plausible ways. Rock Star doesn’t manage that nearly well enough to make this anything more than a passable entry in the series. Shame for Dabney Coleman, who put his all into a patchily written character.
If you missed any of my earlier ‘new Columbo‘ reviews, access them via the links below.
- Columbo Goes to College
- Agenda for Murder
- Columbo Cries Wolf
- Rest in Peace, Mrs Columbo
- Columbo Goes to the Guillotine
- Sex & The Married Detective
- Caution: Murder Can Be Hazardous to Your Health
- Murder, A Self Portrait
- Columbo and the Murder of a Rock Star
- Murder, Smoke & Shadows
- Uneasy Lies the Crown
- Grand Deceptions
- Murder in Malibu
I haven’t yet started to slot the new episodes in amongst the classics in an overall rankings list, but you can see how I rate the 70s’ run of episodes right here.
Now it’s over to you. I’m of the opinion that Murder of a Rock Star is a relatively popular outing amongst fans, so would be most interested to hear your views. How damaging are the plot holes to your enjoyment of the episode? Are there any other highlights / lowlights I haven’t mentioned that you believe warrant further exploration? Hit us up in the comments section below.
Next up on our Columbo saga is Death Hits the Jackpot, starring the late Rip Torn as a murderous uncle who bumps off his lovable nephew in order to fiddle him out of a massive lottery win. A proverbial jackpot win for fans, or another disappointment? Tune in soon to find out…
On a personal note, I’m delighted to report that my dear daughter received the all clear from cancer on Christmas Eve and is looking forward to a much more stress-free year as she recovers her full health. Thanks again to all those who sent their best wishes to her throughout 2021. She’s a real little trooper!
I just watched Murder of a Rock Star and would like to comment on it but first a few comments about Columbo in general are needed.
The original Columbo series was a drama with occasional funny or light-hearted interludes. The show was at its best when it featured tough, smart characters in believable situations who were confounded by Columbo’s eccentric ways. Columbo debuted during the golden age of gritty police dramas and competed with shows like Hawaii Five-0, Ironside, Kojak and many more. Columbo was different enough to stand out, but not too different.
By the early 90s the gritty police dramas were mostly gone and the show’s producers probably thought they needed to lighten it up. So 90s Columbo became more lighthearted, almost a caricature of the old Columbo with occasional dramatic moments thrown in. The characters featured were often eccentric themselves and plots were more far-fetched. I prefer the older Columbo episodes in general, but the new Columbo is ok if you view it for what it is and don’t expect a copy of the old series.
I like Murder of a Rock Star as a new Columbo episode. Dabney Coleman is good and the way Columbo catches him is interesting. And I also think Shera Danese was good for the role she played. She was not a great dramatic actress, but she was pretty good at comedy in the kind of role that was emphasized more in the new Columbo. I like the way she put the squeeze on Dabney Coleman when she found out his live-in girlfriend had been killed and recognized right away that he killed her. Granted it was all rather unrealistic, especially the way she immediately set about remodeling the law office, but that was 90s Columbo which emphasized comedy over drama.
The way I’d put it is this: The 70’s Columbos took themselves seriously. If you accepted the premise of an unarmed, scruffy, overly chatty police detective who mostly worked alone investigating murders by the high and mighty, the rest followed fairly logically and with serious intent. When the show became a mega hit, it became a magnet for satire: impressionists, Mad magazine, Johnny Carson, the Dean Martin Celebrity Roast, etc., etc. Over time, the satire seeped into the original. It started at the end of the original run: the mannerism more exaggerated, the pauses more prolonged. By the time the show was revived in 1989, its entire vibe had changed. Now the stories, too, were more outlandish; the villains more cartoonish. In short, the show stopped taking itself as seriously as it once did.
Rich, you just nailed it perfectly! 70s Columbo: timeless entertainment. 90s Columbo: cartoonish buffoonery.
In general, most Columbo fans would agree with this critique. But, there are exceptions. Agenda for Murder, Columbo Goes to College, and Murder in Malibu come to mind as exceptions.
(Okay, I was kidding about that last episode. Just checking to see if you were awake.)
James, you literally just made me spit out my Coke with laughter listing MiM! I actually don’t mind some 90s Columbo, among them Death Hits The Lottery, Columbo Goes To College and Asses to Ashes. MiM, Undercover and the one with Norm from Cheers I usually avoid like the plague.
Columbo noticed the shadows versus lack of shadows under the noses of the speeding drivers. But he didn’t notice that Dabney’s car went past the camera at a completely different time of day than the car just before his and just after his on the film even though the time stamps on the three cars’ photos were just minutes apart. The length of the shadows cast by the cars show that these the photos of the before and after cars were taken near the same time, but the photo of his car was taken much closer to high noon. How could a detective with Columbo’s skill have missed this obvious clue. This film was doctored!!!
Best part of this lame episode was Creighton telling Columbo to get the hell our of his office and all Frank could say was “Oh!” The best scene we didn’t get to see was Shera screaming like a banshee when that gorgeous ginger cop slapped the handcuffs on her.
Just watched the episode. Agreed 100% with the review.
When I first saw Columbo and the Murder of a Rock Star in 1991, I didn’t know much about the drug disulfiram, which played a significant role in Hugh Creighton’s murder plan. And I don’t recall it being deployed since in stories written after Billy Woodfield’s teleplay.
So, naturally enough, when I read the following news article, I thought instantly of this Columbo episode.
I know this post is off-topic, but I think this good news is worth sharing.
I worked with a bench researcher who was studying combinations of disulfiram with other drugs to increase its effectiveness in treating cancer. Tough nut to crack — so many genetic variables — but it is fascinating stuff.
I really enjoyed this episode and find your view about the “implausible” scenes very harsh:
“What logical reason could Creighton have for not replacing the gardener’s truck in the exact same spot he took it from? Leaving it two blocks away from its starting point is so idiotic as to be inconceivable”
–> Well, the obvious downside of being seen by the gardener that logically already noticed that his truck was missing from the driveway DO NOT worth the risk! (gardeners usually fetch for the tools between each task). There is no upside for bringing back the truck.
“Why the devil would Trish Fairbanks have blindly accepted the off-screen mission given to her by Creighton to deliberately get a speeding ticket while wearing a cardboard cut-out of his face? ”
–> Hugh & Trish are painted as a dishonest, corrupted pair of lawyers cheating on a regular base to win at all cost. They are painted are cheaters (like in his performance in the court room scene). It’s very consistent that she does the trick without asking because she smells a rat she would be later to bargain at her benefits, like against the partnership position she dreams to get. (also nothing says that she didn’t ask and he gave her an excuse, linked to another case..)
Finding these issues so frustrating, while ignoring the huge editing issue ruining the plot gotcha of “Goes to College” sounds unfair! 😉
I loved Coleman subtitle performance all over the show, to render this Egoic lawyer, and giving the change to Columbo to allow the delightful signature “Big Ego vs. Humble Columbo”, this enhanced by the chief requesting to indulge Hugh’s (illegal) requests to access evidences! It really balances the few unnecessary weaker scenes.
The diner scene where Columbo take advantage to enjoy the expensive menu items is for me one the best “soft revenge” wink that Columbo did over the years: (isn’t a subtile gotcha is part of the Columbo signature!).
A good Columbo moment! 🙂
Question. Who led Colombo to Sam Marlow? Did I miss something? Or is this a huge hole?
Colombo saw the dust and assumed there had been a camera in the vent. So what? The camera could have been placed there by anyone in Los Angeles.
Who told Colombo that Sam Marlow was a private eye hired by Creighten and that it was Marlow who had hidden a camera in the room?
The plot – Colombo meets Little Richard and then talks to Neddy. Neither one told Colombo about Marlow. Next scene – Colombo is at Marlow’s place. How? Why?
I’ll take a crack at answering this. But first, the character’s name Sam Marlowe is an amalgamation of two fictional gumshoes Sam Spade (created by Dashiell Hammett) and Philip Marlowe (created by Raymond Chandler).
Now that I’ve gotten that out of the way, your question is: How did Columbo figure out that attorney Hugh Creighton hired Sam Marlowe to secretly record the afternoon trysts between Marcy Edwards and her boyfriend Neddy Malcolm?
One of the important aspects of writing Columbo teleplays is that the writer not show every step of the investigative process. Columbo does a lot of work behind the scenes that we only learn about or infer through his interactions with other characters, most often Columbo’s chief suspect, the murderer.
So, you basically want to know what specific steps Columbo took prior to the scene where he entered Marlowe’s office to talk to him. You’ve got the first part down, where Columbo discovered the white dust, which led him to the air vent and the inference that a camera video was perfectly positioned to record the afternoon trysts in the bedroom.
But the next steps aren’t shown. They can only be inferred from information given in the dialogue between Columbo and Creighton. Since Columbo’s other behind the scenes work established that many witnesses saw Marcy’s car and a motorcycle parked at the beach house several times a week during the same time periods, Columbo didn’t believe that Creighton didn’t know about the trysts.
Columbo, therefore, figured out that Creighton must have hired a private detective to plant the camera in the vent, but concealed that information from him. Now, who would Creighton have hired to do this job? It would have to be someone he could trust absolutely. It would have to be someone he already knew well. It would have to be a private detective he had previously hired for other sensitive investigations and who had a proven record of discretion.
How could Columbo find that person? Many of the best private investigators are former cops. So, if Columbo didn’t already know about Marlowe (which was unlikely at this stage of his career), another path would be to ask other detectives for leads. (Recall that Columbo had already met several private investigators in connection with other cases, such as Brimmer from “Death Lends a Hand” and Ralph Dobbs in “The Most Crucial Game”.) Columbo could have also contacted other top criminal and divorce lawyers for leads on the best private investigators they knew or worked with.
Or maybe a witness spotted a 1947 Packard parked near the beach house a week earlier — leading Columbo to the inexorable conclusion that time-traveling, 1940’s-style private eye Sam Marlowe must have been on the case. Who else could have dropped that “Dewey for President” campaign button on the floor under the air vent? The real question is: how did Marlowe know about miniature surveillance video cameras? They weren’t invented when gumshoes carried roscoes and pay phones cost a nickel.
Ha-ha, Richard. But Sam Marlowe’s much to shrewd to park an easy-to-spot 1940’s style vehicle near the beach house. A fellow that deep into the noir gumshoe tradition would have parked a truck advertising “Acme Cleaning Serivce” on the driver’s side panel and “Bob’s Plumbing Service” on the passenger side, to cause contradictory witness testimony in case the vehicle is reported.
Maybe Sam was also driving the white “Rainbow Plumbing” van tailing Columbo in “Identity Crisis.”
Dabney’s defense attorney from Idaho in the DA office scene I believe was a shout out to Gerry Spence. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gerry_Spence
I enjoyed this episode overall, but it has cringe-worthy elements. One is the trial, where Creighton is is EVER-so-subtlely undermining the prosecutor’s argument to the jury. But the prosecutor’s argument is cringe-worthy, because I’m sure that the jury doesn’t need or want to be reminded that the defendant stabbed his victim not one time, not two times, not three times, not four times, etc. (Would he have actually have counted out the number of stabs in full if Creighton hadn’t interjected himself into the argument?)
With all its faults and implausibilities and reservations regarding Ms. Denese’s skills, my dear Columbophile rates this several notches higher than the “Uneasy Lies the Crown” (a favorite of mine) with Hollywood stalwarts like Paul Burke as the protagonist’s father in law, I can only assume that he has to acknowledge that this is a lot more fun watch. This one doesn’t need the tricky insertion of a card game sequence with some recognizable TV actors to beef up its entertainment value.
Shera Danese is quite attractive. Peter Falk was a lucky man.
Anybody know what the tune Little Richard was playing in Murder of a Rock Star? $500.00 to the person who tells me.
The Shazam app identifies audio music selections, and is pretty reliable. Even Shazam can’t figure out what Little Richard is singing. It sounds like a pretty standard boogie woogie piano progression, which LR could improvise off in his sleep, which I suspect is exactly what happened here. Pay attention to the lyric snippet…”Looking for my friend but my friend can’t be found”. That’s precisely why Columbo is at the club, and close to the explanation he gives Little Richard!
Now about that $500…..why not scroll up to the red/pink rectangle on this page and use part of my proceeds to buy CP an expensive cup of coffee?
(And if you’re looking for more boogie woogie variations, I highly recommend Long John Baldry’s “Don’t Try to Lay No Boogie Woogie on the King of Rock and Roll”)
I love your writing and love Columbo… I’ll say 2 things that pop to mind about this episode:
1st, the victim being a rock star (in her past) has hardly anything to do with the murder or the investigation – she could as well be an ex-model, an ex-chef or an ex-philosopher. Columbo used to investigate the world of the victim or the suspect and draw conclusions based on it. not here.
2nd, the scene with the mad housemaid is sooo lame – not because of the hat but because of the rain! Columbo comes in from the pouring rain with an umbrella. 2 minutes later in the back yard – no rain, no clouds, no puddles and the sand is extremely raked and tidy… even though it’s been heavily raind on some minutes earlier
Please note the excellent writing where Shera Danese’s character Trish Fairbanks responds to Lt. Columbo’s news of the murder of Marcy (Cheryl Paris). Here’s the scene:
Normally, a person would respond, “Murdered? What happened? How?” or, if in a denial frame of mind, “You’re joking, right?” But, instead, Trish asks, “When. When did it happen?” That’s not a normal response.
But to someone who has a gut feeling that she may have been used to manufacture an alibi and as an unwitting accessory, the time of the murder is the most important thing on her mind, not the circumstances that any normal, completely innocent person would be concerned with.
Although the reason for Trish’s intense concern about the time of the murder isn’t made clear to us until later in the story, you can be certain that the extraordinarily perceptive Lt. Columbo picked up on that anomalous “tell” and filed it away in the back of his mind. Or, in more classic Columbo fashion, he later wrote it down with the question, “Why was Trish Fairbanks, Hugh Creighton’s assistant attorney so concerned about the time of Marcy’s murder?”
For those who’d like a refresher on how precisely this anomalous “tell” comes into play later in the story, here it is: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2DtQy15pGmI.
These two scenes, by the way, should make Columbophile’s “5 Best Scenes From The Murder of a Rock Star” one day.
Excellent catch. One of those delicious little moments you don’t fully appreciate until at least the second time through. Like Jim Ferris’ deja vu moment in “Murder by the Book.”
Excellent pick-up, sir. That passed me by entirely. Not sure if the ‘5 best…’ articles will transition into the ABC episodes given the lack of genuine highlights in many of them.
James, you’re right about the tell, but even better writing would have had Columbo clue us into it at the gotcha. Think of how Columbo reveals Paul Gerard’s tell at the end of “Murder Under Glass”. Ideally, it wouldn’t be up to the viewer to infer Columbo’s train of reasoning.
Maybe the original script did reference that, but when Shera went AWOL during filming it has to be shelved. Alas, we’ll NEVER know.
Not a fan of this episode but it would have been awesome to see that gorgeous ginger cop slap the cuffs on Shera! She really needed to be put down just like Nancy Brower. But since Mrs. Columbo was quite the diva she refused to do the scene as intended. Poor Peter!
Is it just me, or does Sgt. Habach seem to have a little crush on the good Lieutenant?
Absolutely. That little flirtatious smile of hers during the gotcha sequence, there’s no question. Given the rumors of a blow up with Shera Danese and her refusal to film the final scene, I cannot help but wonder (and this is pure speculation on my part) if Sondra Currie was taking too much of Peter Falk’s attention. Who knows? But in the fictional Columboverse, no doubt Sgt. Habach has a thing for the Lieutenant.
Not a fan of Shera Danese, because I love Peter Falk, but walking off set is the height of entitled and unprofessional. Only good quality of hers is she did take care of him in his waning years. But how she treated his daughters was vicious.
She definitely wants some alone time with Columbo out of uniform, although not as badly as that hippie chick who was drooling over him as he hugged the chimp in Death hits the Jackpot. She wanted him so bad I was embarrassed for her.
Trish! Yep, she was definitely hoping the Lieutenant would have made a late night visit for more personal questioning. And by bizarre coincedence, Trish was also Shera’s character’s name in this episode. Peter sure must have liked the name Trish!
policewoman Habach was very impressive in action chasing a
murder suspect as Columbo stands placidly by. And maybe she
does have a crush on Columbo ( and perhaps in real life )
But a question arises why did lawyer Trish willingly become an
accessory to murder ?
But a bigger question is despite his limited english, why didn’t
the Japanese gardener report his truck being stolen ?
How did he manage to find his truck so easy and how did he know it was parked 2 blocks away ?
How big is a block in American terms ?
A block is generally a group of houses setting in four connecting streets which form kind of a block. So not very big maybe a quarter mile square.
I could come up with a ton of acronyms for N.F.I., though most of them are not in good taste. His cap reminds me of Onslow, Daisy’s husband of “Keeping Up Appearances” fame (see below). He always wore an FH truckers hat. I think the FH stood for ‘Fulton Hogan’ (Company). It was strange that Columbo wore a baseball cap at all. Maybe there actually was a rare rain shower that day, and he didn’t want his hair messed up?
I also have to add that the rather rotund cleaning lady was extremely annoying. When she uttered “man, I’m glad I ain’t married to you”, Columbo obviously held back from saying “me too”, or something much, much coarser.
I wanted Hugh to walk scot-free, and he would have with the flimsy evidence. Dabney Coleman is an acting stallion, so obviously I rooted for him. But the main reason for my passion for Marcy’s demise was the horrible “music” they played that was supposed to be her.
This was the early ’90’s. The Seattle sound and other 90’s alternative rock was exploding worldwide, as well as guitar-based British rock (I refuse to call that era-sound “Brit Pop”). But Marcy was still stuck in the faux ’80’s playing actual pop drivel.
When Columbo arrived at the scene, the grunge-looking dude carrying a boom box/ghetto blaster on his shoulder was completely ludicrous.
Thanks Sue for pointing out that then red-hot (literally) Sondra Currie was the sis of Runaway’s Cherrie Currie. Nice back story CP about her and Danese being spouses of people involved with the show. What a nightmare that must have been.
Would’ve loved to have had Joan Jett (also of the Runaways) as a murderer.