A blockbuster curtain-raiser for Season 5 of Columbo, Forgotten Lady ushered in Hollywood royalty Janet Leigh to take centre stage as fading film star Grace Wheeler-Willis.
In a unique move for the series, what first appears to be a common-or-garden murder of a miserly husband by an ambitious and shallow diva turns into a harrowing tale of lost love, protection and a hidden mortal illness, rendering Grace unable to even remember committing murder by episode’s end.
The pathos-packed finale tugs audience heart-strings like few other Columbo cases with even the ever-professional Lieutenant allowing the culprit to go free and live out the remaining weeks of her life at home rather than behind bars. As a result, this episode is a hit with fans and was even one of Peter Falk’s personal favourites. What are its highest highs? Here’s my take…
5. The shambolic entrance
As TV detectives go, Columbo is easier than most for the common man to connect with – never more so than during his introduction in Forgotten Lady’s 24th minute.
Summoned to the crime scene at the dead of night, the poor Lieutenant was in such an addled state that he failed to even dress properly, forgetting to put on his suit jacket and subsequently being without his police badge upon arrival at Wheeler-Willis HQ.
While awaiting a cup of coffee from the housemaid, poor Columbo can’t keep his eyes open and appears to actually be asleep on his feet until the revivifying liquid is served. Although the scene does nothing to propel the plot forward, it’s a highly authentic moment and one that affords Peter Falk another chance to show off his comedic skills with understated aplomb.
4. A Diamond geezer
There are few greater pleasures in TV life than watching Columbo encounter stars from stage and screen that he has grown up admiring – so you better believe his meetings with both Grace and her erstwhile dance partner Ned Diamond are going to tickle us pink. In particular, his quick catch-up with Diamond absolutely sparkles (pun one jillion per cent intentional), with both men on fine form and benefitting from an excellent script.
The morning after the killing, Columbo shows up to interview Grace but is cock-a-hoop to encounter Diamond first. “My wife dragged me to every musical you were ever in,” the detective enthuses. “I’m sorry you had to be dragged,” Diamond deadpans back.
Better follows when the Lieutenant seeks dancing advice from the musical legend. “My wife is a terrific dancer, but I got two left feet when it comes to dancing in public so she always has to sit out,” the detective laments. “What can you do for a problem like that?” Ned’s response is pointed and brilliant: “Become a critic.”
It’s not all bonhomie, though, as it becomes crystal clear that old Ned is going to be absolutely uncompromising in his support of Grace, warning the Lieutenant that he’ll be keeping a very close eye on the investigation to make sure her wellbeing is paramount. It sets the stall out early that the honourable Diamond will do whatever it takes to protect the love of his life – and so it will prove in unforgettable fashion.
3. Dodging the bullet(s)
In another nod to the excellence of the writing, Columbo’s willingness to ultimately let Grace go is nicely foreshadowed by the subplot surrounding his pistol test.
We know from previous episodes that Columbo hates guns and never carries one. We learn here that he hasn’t taken his gun test for 10 years – something that ought to earn him immediate suspension. To avoid this, he pays a colleague to take the test for him. Although these scenes raise a smile, they mask a serious aspect of his character: Columbo will bend the rules if they do not align with his moral compass. Sure enough, he does the same when he later lets Ned take the rap for the murder of Henry Wheeler.
The Lieutenant also pokes some straight-faced fun at the no-nonsense Sergeant Leftkowitz, who tracks him down about his pistol test. When she comments she’s never seen him down at the homicide department he shoots back: “Well I don’t get there too much. None of the murders take place there, you know.” She doesn’t appreciate the joke, but we certainly do…
2. Social climbing
Columbo’s leap from Dr Willis’s balcony onto the adjacent tree, as Grace welcomes a gaggle of lovies to a home cinema screening, combines ace deductive reasoning with Falk’s natural comic gifts to deliver a scene that works on multiple levels.
His tree-dangling and cavorting with Dog warm the cockles, but the core of the scene is the glimpse we’re given into Grace’s increasingly shaky grasp on reality. She ought to be feeling the heat of a detective essentially proving that her husband could have been murdered – by her. Instead, she assumes Columbo is only there because of her magnetic allure and his attraction to “the MAGIC of show business!“
All credit to Janet Leigh, whose wide-eyed portrayal of Grace becoming ever more lost in a world of her own is fantastic – and increasingly heart-breaking.
1. Saving Grace
The poignant conclusion to an episode packed with pathos is arguably the single most heart-wrenching scene of the 70s’ series.
Ned, who has been protecting Grace from harm throughout the episode, is racked with grief as he comes to accept that his long-time love is both a murderer and mortally ill. Rather than allowing her to face what little time she has left alive behind bars, he steps up to take the rap for the killing of Henry and calms Grace’s desperately fraying nerves.
“It’s a seriously hard-hearted viewer that doesn’t feel tremendous sadness at Grace’s fate.”
Combining gentle tones with utterly convincing body language and expressions, it’s as believable a display of love as you’ll ever see on the small screen. Forgotten Lady marked John Payne’s final screen appearance. He certainly went out on a high.
Janet Leigh is almost as good at her portrayal of a woman whose mind has slipped away from her without her even knowing it. Whatever you might have felt about Grace throughout this episode, it’s a seriously hard-hearted viewer that doesn’t feel tremendous sadness at her fate here as she sits transfixed at her own image on the movie screen as her two male companions determine her fate.
Ned’s unshakeable faith in Grace makes him an excellent barometer for the audience. Even when Grace is at her worst, he offers patience and support. If he can love her for all her failings, she surely deserves some understanding from us.
That’s your lot for today, folks. As always, I’d be most interested to hear from you on your own personal episode highlights, which always make for an interesting debate.
If you’re keen for a deeper dive into Forgotten Lady you can read my full-length episode review here. You can also check out where Grace Wheeler ranks in my list of most sympathetic Columbo killers here.
Until next time, adios muchachos – and keep outta trouble.
This sounds like a great episode, and I look forward to
But from the remarks posted thus far, Columbo doesn’t
‘let’ Ned take the rap for the murder. He has to disprove
his confession, before he can move onto Grace as a
Whom he knows will never be convicted anyway, since
there’s no way it can be proven now that her mental
deterioration didn’t prevent her from realizing the
illegality of her act. Out of this practical consideration,
he may delay clearing Ned and charging her, without
bending any rules.
It’s been well established that Columbo’s moral compass
does not allow him to let a killer get away. And because
of her terminal illness, neither does Grace.
One observation and one question:
I think it’s NED’s fate that is actually sad. Here’s a healthy guy going to jail for probably the rest of his life. At least 20 years, no? Or has Columbo made a deal that as soon as Grace dies, Ned gets out of jail?
Also, are we SURE that Grace didn’t even realize she had killed her husband at the end of the episode?
Columbo suggests to Ned that it’ll take him just long enough to disprove Ned’s guilt for Grace to see out her final weeks in comfort and dignity. Ned won’t be going to jail. We can’t be 100% sure Grace had forgotten she’d killed Henry, but we’re certainly given enough indicators that that’s the case.
A lot of people argue that Grace isn’t really that sympathetic, because she still committed a cold-blooded murder even if she forgot about it. To my mind, the question is whether her mental condition may itself have induced her to commit murder. In real life, people with degenerative brain diseases often show huge personality changes as their condition deteriorates, and lose the ability to think rationally or make sensible decisions. So it’s entirely possible that she’d never have considered murdering her husband if she’d been in her ‘right mind’, as it were.
Wonderful to see you writing!
This may rank in Columbo’s top five difficult cases on a couple of levels. First, a person loved by him and his wife. Second, the watching and realization that the murderer is also in one way a victim.
Props to Janet Leigh. Took courage to take on this role and she plays it so well, with such complexity. And what a dilemma. Leave her with her last few weeks of life on earth broken, taking away the last drip of fame from her life? Yes, I can see he couldn’t do it.
And props to John Payne, what an actor! I’ve gone back and found him in movies and realized he was in some of my favorites. He lived with his own pain as well, living with a life cut premature and living with his love marrying someone else.
It’s a great story on so many levels. And couldn’t have ended any other way. A Columbo master stroke.
An episode that has stayed with me since I first saw it when it aired in 1975 (yes, I am that old).
Janet Leigh is so daring in playing an aging star, and in addition to Payne, Maurice Evans and Sam Jaffe. in supporting roles.
One touch I always liked is that Columbo has to direct his continuing questions to those around Grace Wheeler, and not Grace her self, since rather than hiding the truth, she does not remember it. A nice bit of writing.
This episode never fails to lightly tug at my heartstrings and empathy. However, another part of me says, if Grace were in her right mind, this would be a fully intentional murder to gratify her own success and career. It still was, she just forgot she did it! And it was very surprising that Columbo got away with taking his gun test for 10 years. I believe most around him know he’s cheating, but he’s so intelligent, and successful on his cases they let it slide.
Great to see you writing again too! I need to get back to reading.
A special shout-out to the wonderful Maurice Evan’s, playing the vedy British butler/chauffeur.(this custom-bodied Bentley S1 was recently named a top 10 Columbo car!) Mr. Evans was a distinguished Shakespearean actor who spent most of WW2 entertaining the troops, in his “G.I. Shakespeare” show. He is best know as Samatha Steven’s father, “Maurice” on “Bewitched” with the equally marvelous Agnes Moorehead, who would have made a hellofah droll Columbo character, herself. Evans and Moorehead played TV’s first divorced couple, in the mid-60’s, which was considered OK, because they were witches!?!
I would also like to add, that this classy, Tudor mansion sits near the entrance to Pasadena, and was the 1975 Philharmonic Design house, much of that post-flower-power decor can be glimpsed in this episode. (Pasadena is a popular Columbo filming site) across from the fabulous Norton Simon Museum of art. It can easily be seen from the 134 Freeway. Built circa 1900 for a local “Silver Queen” (a precious metal heiress, not a turn-,of-the-century Gay gentleman) this home was visited by President Theodore Roosevelt!
This is one of my favorite episodes.
Janet Leigh gives an excellent performance.
I liked all the screening room stuff and how it connects with the timing of the murder.
John Payne was in “Miracle on 34th Street” when he was younger.
CP rates “Forgotten Lady” as #29 in his 70s Episode Rankings, which reflects how most viewers – including myself until recently – underrate this episode. But as with many Columbos, it rewards repeat watching, and deserves more respect and consideration as an A-lister. Repeat viewings are essential to really appreciate how sensational Janet Leigh is, not just in the little clues being dropped to her condition, but in how she interacts with Peter Falk.
In the usual cat-and-mouse between Columbo and Guest Star Killer, the villain is working overtime with smarm, charm and some alarm to try to throw Columbo off the trail. But Grace is not trying to fool him with fake leads and bogus explanations. As CP infers, since she really believes that her husband committed suicide, she hasn’t a clue that Columbo is after her. Instead of pushing back, she reacts with bafflement and confusion to the idea that Henry might not have taken his own life.
This requires a delicate performance balance from Leigh – it can’t be too subtle, but it can’t be over-the-top. She nails it, and Peter Falk is at his most charming and natural. Repeat watching lets us appreciate the chemistry between Leigh, Falk, and John Payne. This is vital to the resolution, as I contend that the Gotcha isn’t what it appears to be. In a standard Gotcha moment, Columbo squares off with the killer, who is confronted with the proof that he/she is the murderer. We watch, and the Gotcha has to convince us, too, or we’ll be disappointed as the credits roll. The presence of Ned alters the equation.
The extra 15 minutes running time of “Walking My Baby” seems to be the Gotcha – what was Grace doing while the film was broken? For us viewers, this isn’t really compelling – she simply could have fallen asleep. But it doesn’t matter because I don’t think that’s meant to be the clincher. Instead, the Real Gotcha is intended for Ned – Grace’s medical report and the reveal of her condition. This is evident by the delay of this information until the finale, when it’s sprung as a surprise to both us and Ned. It’s clear that Columbo knew of Grace’s condition when he had his prior confrontation with Ned at his dance studio, yet he saved this for the movie showing. Because Ned has seen some of Grace’s recent confusion and breakdowns, that’s the convincer for him – the broken film clue is necessary but quite secondary. Columbo doesn’t intend for Ned to “confess” to the crime, just to be there to support Grace, who by that point is clearly delusional. That final Gotcha moment is not for Grace, or for us – it’s all for Ned’s benefit.
I could go on about what else you’ll get out of repeated viewings, including the terrific direction from Harvey Hart, who uses the camera and room mirrors to sweep through locations with the fluid ease that Grace uses in her dance routines. Please do yourself a favor and go watch “Forgotten Lady” again.
(And, as episodes can change in enjoyment with re-watchings, perhaps a blog column re-ranking some episodes can get “Forgotten Lady” bumped up to the A-list…just a thought!)
I will watch this again and with an open mind (not that I hated it the first time around). But, even if the comments shared here do help some like me re-appreciate FL, I’d suggest that the qualities of some episodes simply don’t lend themselves to viable comparisons, making their “ranking” almost besides the point.
The ending to this episode is certainly sad and certainly powerful, but by veering from the trope of Columbo gloriously taking down an evil/arrogant/scheming/etc killer, the viewer misses out on a very Columbo-specific joy, an element so common that I would argue it’s part and parcel to defining the series. So where to “rank” FL vis a vis Now You See Him, Suitable for Framing, Greenhouse Jungle, etc? Even if you think the former is “better TV,” is it “better Columbo,” in light of all that we know that show to entail?
I’m not saying weirdo eps shouldn’t exist — they can be good in their own right and also serve to provide ballast for more formulaic episodes — but I can’t get too upset when their ranking placements feel unavoidably arbitrary. Apples to oranges yada yada yada.
In this sense, I feel CP’s pain for serving as the arbiter of an imperfect system.
This may be my favorite episode– certainly among the top two or three. The last scene is brilliant. Not just the writing and acting, but the staging and directing as well. The juxtaposition of Grace’s comments about the old programs, etc., with Columbo’s explanation to Ned supported by the changing camera angles is like a well orchestrated and choreographed ballet.
What’s a “moment”? Because I’m a big fan of the whole of the last 16 minutes of this episode, beginning with: “I think she did it. She invited me to her house tonight to watch a film. I’m going. If she means anything to you, you ought to be there. Cause I think she did it. Eight o’clock” — imediately followed by a snippet of a Hollywood-like crescendo. And then the entire last scene: Columbo’s piecemeal exchanges with Diamond (“What difference does it make? It doesn’t mean anything.” “Oh, it means a great deal, sir. It goes to the very heart of the matter.”); through the reenactment of Grace repairing the broken film (“How do we account for the remaining eleven minutes? It has to be one of four possibilities.”); and then the episode’s conclusion that is No. 1 on CP’s list. Sixteen terrific minutes. But is it a “moment”?
One unrelated observation: I note a name change. From “the columbophile” to “the columbophile blog.” I’m curious why? Confusion with Mark Dawidziak’s “The Columbo Phile”? At this late date?
Delighted to see you picking up on writing your articles again! My favourite moment has always been the ending as well – simply heartbreaking. I wonder if Peter Falk ever watched Any Old Port in his own private home cinema, being in his late 70’s or so…
This is definitely one of my favorites💜
Great read, as always!
Thank you, CB.
I also like the moment when Ned Diamond says to Columbo: “become a critic”.