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!