If a measure of a man’s detective prowess is in solving mysteries most folk didn’t even realise were mysteries, then author David Koenig could give the good Lieutenant a run for his money.
David, whose sensational behind-the-scenes book Shooting Columbo was released last September, has cracked a case that many Columbo fans – myself included – didn’t know needed cracking: that of the true identity of the officious Tricon lady from An Exercise in Fatality.
Even if you think you know who this is (based on IMDB and fan commentary on this blog), you probably don’t really, so I’ll pass things over to David to take you through all the steps he took to identify the actress behind this beloved character, who has remained uncredited since 1974…
One great perk of conducting research for my recently released book, Shooting Columbo, was that it allowed me to play detective.
I could solve mysteries that fellow Columbo fans have wondered about for 50 years: Did Peter Falk really ad-lib his tumble in The Greenhouse Jungle? How in the world did Columbo come to play the tuba in Sex and the Married Detective? Who was Falk’s doppelgänger in Dead Weight and Lady in Waiting? And, of course, who played the nude model in Suitable for Framing (read up on that particular case here)?
But there’s one mystery that I was unable put to rest: in An Exercise in Fatality, who played the snooty clerk at Tricon Industries (“Tricon is always happy to cooperate with the authorities”). She memorably keeps Columbo cooling his heels by unhurriedly retrieving his information on the slowest computers and printer imaginable. Like other fans, I’d always assumed the actress was Susan Jacoby, who is referred to in the end credits as playing “Rose.” Although our Tricon beauty doesn’t announce her name or wear a nametag, hers is the only female role of any size unaccounted for. The clerk simply must be Susan Jacoby… or must she?
In early December, I received an email from Steve, a Columbo superfan, who asked if I knew the true identity of the actress. I admitted I was not 100% certain, but vowed to investigate further. I first headed to IMDB.com. Perusing the credits for An Exercise in Fatality, I was struck by another oddity: Dennis Robertson and Eric Mason, who played Jerry and Fred, the used car dealers that Columbo visits to check Milo Janus’ alibi, are credited—even though their entire scene was deleted from the show (recounted in a new book the title of which eludes me at the moment). Might Rose have also been cut?
I pulled out a copy of Peter S. Fischer’s original script. I flipped first to page two, which is where Columbo scripts usually print a list of characters. No sign of Rose—only “Female Clerk.” I thumbed to the infamous Tricon scene. Never in the script is she referred to by name—only as “very pretty female clerk” or “clerk.”
So I returned to page one and decided to put my fine-tooth comb to use, to see if there was a Rose I had missed earlier. I diligently searched, page by page, until I reached the beginning of the final showdown at Milo Janus Spas. The scene begins:
INT. CORRIDOR – DAY
The elevator door opens and Milo gets off. A Woman passes by.
Good morning, Mr. Janus.
He crosses to his office and goes in.
Aha! I’d watched the episode a dozen times and had never noticed that before. So I queued up my DVD to the scene. Milo enters and passes a tall, beautiful brunette, who’s walking away from us. She greets him, “Good morning, Mr. Janus.” He replies, “’Morning, Susan.”
Is this our Susan Jacoby? I headed to her IMDB page. What I discovered is that the Susan Jacoby IMDB page is a mess. It contains, I soon learned, credits for at least three different people. One, a Susan Jayne Jacoby born in 1962, was part of a well-known acting family. Her siblings Laura Jacoby, Scott Jacoby, Robert Jayne, and Billy Jayne all enjoyed successful show-business careers, including recurring roles on numerous television series. With both stage and TV credits, Susan can most easily be spotted as one of the teenagers in an episode of Eight Is Enough—shot about four years after An Exercise in Fatality. She not only looks nothing like our Tricon hostess, but would have been about 12 at the time. She certainly wasn’t employed at Milo Janus Spas.
Further research took me to a raven-haired model, also named Susan Jacoby, who was born about 1950 and, based on old yearbook photos, appears to be a perfect match for Rose from the hallway.
This, of course, begs the question: why would someone who simply says hi as she walks away from us, vanishing after mere seconds, receive screen credit? There’s literally no purpose for the encounter nor any reason to give her character a name… until you recall that the Columbo crew was notorious for casting friends and family. Falk regularly hired his buddies and, on six occasions, his wife. Almost certainly this role was written into the script expressly to give someone’s special friend her first TV credit. And my best guess is that someone was Robert Conrad. Remember, he’s the one who accidentally calls Susan by her real name. He wasn’t nodding at a random extra. They must have known each other before filming!
The realization left me momentarily satisfied, but ultimately back at the drawing board. I restudied my remaining clue: the same actress also appeared in The Rockford Files episode This Case Is Closed. It’s an even larger role and one that also went uncredited. So I called on expert Ed Robertson, host of TV Confidential and author of 45 Years of the Rockford Files, who knows more about Rockford than about anyone. Ed confirmed that this was almost certainly the same actress, but he did not have access to a production report or casting memo to identify her.
Then who would? A little more nosing around brought me to UCLA Special Collections Library, repository of the Robert Luthardt Papers. Luthardt was a longtime art director, whose projects included several episodes of The Rockford Files. Among the holdings were a script and “cast list” for This Case Is Closed. Optimistically, I assumed the list would name the actors hired for each role. I immediately contacted UCLA to arrange a visit. I began daydreaming of the fancy announcements I would have printed up, declaring my grand discovery.
Unfortunately, due to Covid, UCLA libraries have remained off-limits to researchers for nearly two years. Instead, the staff agreed to scan the cast list for me, with the understanding that (a) there was a stack of requests in front of mine and (b) all employees were getting ready to head out for Christmas break.
A little over two months later, a PDF of the cast list arrived. My hopes were dashed. It listed none of the actors, only the names of the characters. (Incidentally, “Kathy Tillison” was listed 11th and failed to get billing while 13 others did.)
Despondent, I consoled myself with a bowl of chili as I tried to figure out my next step. Was this an exercise in futility? Our mystery woman had two decent-sized roles, one right after the other. I couldn’t believe she had only these two jobs, then abruptly abandoned her acting career. She was on the Universal lot. She must have appeared in other series. I began analyzing the cast lists of the other 15 series Universal was filming at the same time, from Amy Prentiss to Marcus Welby, M.D., and comparing any unfamiliar names to screenshots and available publicity photos. Again, no luck.
I figured my only hope was to see if I could find any connections between An Exercise in Fatality and This Case Is Closed. I found precisely one: both shows were directed by Bernie Kowalski, back to back in the summer of 1974. Kowalski had three daughters—perhaps one of them got the part? I reached out to Bernie’s son, Peter, for help, but he had no idea who the actress was. Still, he said, “My father was very loyal. He definitely had a pool of actors he would use on many of his shows.”
Emboldened, I decided to seek out other programs Kowalski worked on during 1974, and go frame by frame to see if I could spot Miss Tricon in the background. Immediately before An Exercise in Fatality, Kowalski directed In Tandem, the pilot for a proposed trucker drama to be called Movin’ On (at time of writing, you can view it on YouTube here). About 20 minutes into the show, co-star Frank Converse visits his girlfriend, who is the spitting image of Tricon’s finest, right down to the same hair style. Fortunately, she had a major role and received sixth billing. Her name? Ann Coleman.
Quick peeks at other Coleman appearances—including Kojak, Get Christie Love!, and Baretta (again for Kowalski)—confirmed my suspicions. Unfortunately, Coleman’s TV and film credits stopped cold in 1975 and then resumed, sparingly, in the 1980s. I scoured old newspapers for more clues, but was able to find just two mentions: a 1972 photo of her vacationing on Mykonos with a Greek playboy and a 1975 blurb about her dating Warren Beatty.
Alas, absent additional biographical data, I knew chances were slim of me finding the right Ann Coleman out of the hundreds of Ann Colemans spread out across the United States.
In desperation, I texted an informant. We’ll call him Charlie. (Actually, everyone calls him Charlie because his name really is Charlie.) Whenever I’m stumped by a real puzzler, Charlie can usually uncover some fresh lead that rekindles my search. Sure enough, Charlie noticed that Coleman had a lot of Greek connections—the trip to Mykonos, work on Kojak with Telly Savalas, the movie Summer Lovers (set in the Greek isles with some Greek actors), Sweet Country (with several Greek stars), and her last film, the Greek epic The Attack of the Giant Moussaka. Maybe I was looking for her on the wrong continent.
Searching for “Ann Coleman” + “Greece” led me nowhere. However, searching for “Ann Coleman” + “Mykonos” resulted in two matches: (1) a wedding notice for Ann Beth Coleman, originally from Connecticut, who in 1965 married a Greek national… on Mykonos. And (2) the 2011 obituary for Florida-based writer John Ney, who “leaves behind his great love, Ann Coleman, with whom he shared the last 15 years of his life on the Isle of Mykonos and in Port Salerno.”
I located an old phone number for an Ann Beth Coleman in Florida and left my desperate plea by voicemail. The next morning, Ms. Coleman called. It was her. Hallelujah! Even better, she could not have been sweeter. So where has she been all these years? Coleman explained that she first fell in love with Greece while studying abroad in France. The islands, particularly Mykonos, had a strong pull over her for the rest of her life.
“I was an actor (in television) until about 1975, when I went to do a play and then bought a house in Greece,” Coleman recounted. “I returned to Hollywood in 1982 (to resume my acting career). I was 38 and was told I was too old. So I returned to Greece, until about 2000 when we moved to Florida.”
She does hold fond memories of her early days in acting. “The best I ever worked with was James Garner in The Rockford Files,” she said. “He was a sweetheart.”
And what about Columbo? Coleman shared: “People say, ‘It must have been marvelous to work with Peter Falk!’ And I say, ‘I wouldn’t know.’ He was never there when I was filming. They’d say he was out to lunch, as if that were par for the course. It was awful, because that’s very difficult to do as an actor.”
Coleman actually filmed several brief shots with Falk as she stood behind the counter (namely when he walks up and when he leaves), but the vast majority of footage was taken separately. She was filmed filing papers and reacting to a character who wasn’t really there. Falk then returned later, after Coleman had left, to film his business. The separate filming sessions allowed Falk to perform take after take, trying out new looks and gestures and lines that displayed his character’s growing frustration. Falk’s improvisations, inspired by his adventures at the building permit office in Blueprint for Murder, extended the scene from two script pages (which should have lasted two to three minutes) to nearly six minutes in run time.
So with such a memorable role, why didn’t she receive billing? “I don’t know,” Coleman said. “Someone knows I was on Columbo, because I still get residuals. I just received a check for 33 cents.”
My guess is that the credits were based on how much the actors were featured in the script (Rose’s cameo not withstanding). No one had any idea that Falk’s ad-libs would transform Coleman’s part from throwaway to unforgettable. Even if, for nearly half a century, no one knew it was her.
California-based David Koenig is the Editorial Director of 526 Media Group and the author of eight books, including the best-selling Mouse Tales: A Behind-the-Ears Look at Disneyland and last year’s Shooting Columbo. If you haven’t already got a copy of Shooting Columbo, do yourself a favour and grab a copy now – it’s essential reading for serious fans!
Meanwhile, you can check out Ann’s IMDB page here. It’s been updated to include her Columbo appearance, so everyone’s a winner.