Lieutenant Columbo was never averse to securing a little treat for his wife during the course of his investigations. A flower blossom here, a recipe there seemed certain to please.
On occasion, the Lieutenant even collected signatures of the rich and famous for Mrs Columbo, who was said to be a “very big fan” of a high percentage of people her husband encountered during his work. Her autograph collection included Alex Benedict, Congressman Mackey and even Frank Sinatra. Almost certainly others, too. An enviable haul of signatures, all in all.
Today, however, we’re considering a different type of signature: the signature styles employed by the series’ most prolific writers, who’s oft-unsung heroics play a vital role in helping us connect with and remain hooked on the show. The man behind this article is occasional guest blogger and regular commentator Rich Weill, whose deep understanding of the series, as well as the minutiae of mystery writing, virtually guarantee an eye-opening read for devout fans. Take it away, Rich…
Those of you who have followed The Columbophile Blog for a while, perhaps reading my prior guest essays and various post comments, may already know my special area of Columbo-related interest. It’s the Columbo writers and how they did what they did. I’ve written here about the elements of a “perfect” Columbo script, proposed a revision to one of the most vilified Columbo episodes, and recounted the journey of an unknown Columbo writer trying to get his story on the air. Our intrepid blog host also has written of my mystery play Framed, and my pilot script (Curtains) for a proposed Columbo prequel series, Det. Columbo, NYPD.
Efforts to press my prequel proposal are continuing (a story for another time). I’ve now written the first four episodes: Curtains, Bumped Off, Kill the Story, and In Concert, featuring as respective guest murderers: a Broadway theater director, a 1950’s TV quiz show contestant, a New York newspaper publisher, and a visiting Russian concert pianist.
It’s been said that certain authors tend to write the same story over and over again. Edgar Allan Poe wrote a dozen or more stories and poems about a beautiful young woman who dies prematurely. He even confessed explicitly: “The death of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world.”
I hope I haven’t fallen into that trap. Yes, in two of my Det. Columbo, NYPD scripts, the killer unwittingly reveals guilty knowledge. But even these occur differently. In only one does Columbo trick his prey into confessing. I’m doing my best to mix things up.
Which brings me to the principal focus of this piece: did those with multiple Columbo writing credits leave their own personal signatures behind? Is there something distinctive about a Jackson Gillis Columbo versus a Peter S. Fischer Columbo, for example? Did Richard Levinson and William Link themselves have tell-tale plot preferences? Twenty writers received credit for more than one Columbo teleplay and/or story. Who left a literary trail for the Lieutenant’s trained nose to follow?
The Gillis twist
Jackson Gillis was the most prolific Columbo writer, with 11 stories and/or teleplays to his credit. And, sure enough, he left a signature as obvious as John Hancock’s.
David Koenig, in his book Shooting Columbo, offers a great name for Gillis’ signature technique. He calls it the “Act II Switcheroo.” In most Gillis Columbo scripts a major plot reversal occurs midway. Invariably, it is something the killer knows that we don’t. Strictly speaking, that violates the rules of an “inverted” mystery (what Columbo purports to be). In an inverted mystery, the killer hides nothing from the viewer. No surprises. But Gillis loved surprises.
Here are his Act II Switcheroos: –
- In Suitable for Framing, we assume that Dale Kingston murdered Uncle Rudy because Dale was the heir to Rudy’s art collection. After Rudy’s will is read, we find out that Dale always had another plan in mind entirely.
- In Requiem for a Falling Star, we don’t know whom Nora Chandler really wanted to murder until quite late.
- We see the murderous glint in Emmett Clayton’s eyes as he pushes Tomlin Dudek into a grinding and seemingly lethal trash compactor in The Most Dangerous Match and assume Dudek is a goner.
- We also assume Dexter Paris killed Uncle Clifford singlehandedly in Double Shock, a Gillis story, until Norman Paris appears.
- The murder of Charles Clay in Last Salute to the Commodore is the ultimate Act II Switcheroo. Then again, very little in Last Salute to the Commodore is an inverted mystery (although Gillis cleverly creates that appearance for the first two-thirds of the episode).
- We’re told that Wayne Jennings shot a dead body in Murder in Malibu.
- And in A Bird in the Hand …, Gillis gives us three mid-episode twists: the hit-and-run death of Big Fred, the scene between Harold and Delores where we learn (fairly convincingly) that Delores did the hitting and running, and finally, the demise of Harold McCain. We begin with one murderer; we end with another.
That’s seven out of 11 Gillis Columbos. And on the other four (Short Fuse, Dagger of the Mind, Lovely But Lethal, Troubled Waters), Gillis was working with a collaborator on the story or teleplay. The compromises of collaboration.
Jackson Gillis’ Columbo output is a mixed bag. It includes one of the consensus all-time best Columbo episodes; it includes some ranked among the worst. But his “Act II Switcheroos” are always intriguing. The murder of Charles Clay in Last Salute to the Commodore may be the only moment of that episode worth remembering—but it is (and ranks No. 71 among The Columbophile’s top 100 moments of the 1970s). Fourteen years later, when Columbo learns from the preliminary autopsy report that his prime suspect shot a corpse, we know a creative mystery mind is at work—even if everything else about Murder in Malibu borders on the unwatchable.
Want to identify a Gillis Columbo? Watch for the “Act II Switcheroo.”
Fischer’s dupe-ndable trademark
Second only to Gillis, Peter S. Fischer wrote nine Columbo stories or teleplays. Fischer, a big Columbo fan before he was a Columbo writer, came to the producers’ attention when he wrote a never-used “spec” Columbo script (“for my own amusement and enjoyment,” he said) that he showed to poker buddy Steven Bochco who forwarded it to executive producers Dean Hargrove and Roland Kibbee. They recognized in Fischer someone with a firm grasp on the Columbo formula—a grasp that left behind almost as many identifiable fingerprints as Gillis gave us.
What do Publish or Perish, A Friend in Deed, Negative Reaction, A Deadly State of Mind, and Old Fashioned Murder (or, more accurately, Fischer’s original script for this episode, In Deadly Hate) have in common? They all have a dupe. Eddie Kane, Hugh Caldwell, Alvin Deschler, Nadia Donner, and Milton Shaeffer (Lou or Lew Schafer in Fischer’s original) are all someone the killer needs to co-opt—either to execute a plan or, in Nadia Donner’s case, to get away with his crime. And Hugh Caldwell is the only one of these Fischer dupes not to be killed by the person he helped.
Even in An Exercise in Fatality, Fischer’s only other “classic” era Columbo script, Milo Janus must dupe his assistant Jessica Conroy into serving as his alibi witness. She, and she alone, must answer the telephone in Janus’ living room—and hear a recognizable voice say: “Hi, Jessica. Gene Stafford. Can I speak to him?”
When Fischer re-emerged in the 1990’s with Rest in Peace, Mrs. Columbo, his old signature returned as well, with a slight twist. As with prior Fischer villains, Vivian Dimitri needs a dupe to help her kill Mrs. Columbo: the dupe being none other than Columbo himself. A dupe whom she also wants to watch die, like so many Fischer dupes of old. But not this time.
If you focus on Fischer’s three best episodes—A Friend in Deed, Negative Reaction, and A Deadly State of Mind—you’ll see another common thread. In each, Columbo sets up an elaborate falsehood in order to trap the killer into tipping his hand. In A Friend in Deed, it is the phony address in Artie Jessup’s police file, coupled with Columbo renting a run-down apartment in a fleabag rooming house. In Negative Reaction, it is reversing the enlargement from an original photo that, as the story goes, then is accidentally dropped in acid. And in A Deadly State of Mind, it is swapping the sighted brother Morris for his blind twin. Three of Columbo’s best gotchas, all involving a touch of fraud, and all by Peter S. Fischer.
Well, almost. In his book, Koenig reveals that Fischer could not come up with an ending for A Deadly State of Mind. The blind witness idea was one Richard Levinson had had since Any Old Port in a Storm, but a gotcha that never fit until A Deadly State of Mind.
Indeed, this revelation feeds directly into another signature pattern: –
The Levinson & Link prescription
Richard Levinson and William Link wrote only two Columbo teleplays: the original TV movie, Prescription: Murder, and the Emmy-winning Season 1 script, Death Lends a Hand. In one sense, these are very different stories. Prescription: Murder is the quintessential carefully planned “perfect crime.” Death Lends a Hand is just the opposite—the only true Columbo (i.e., excluding the McBain adaptations) where there is no premeditated murder.
Other Columbo episodes include rash, unplanned, spur-of-the-moment acts of violence. We see (or learn of) them in Dagger of the Mind, Requiem for a Falling Star, Lovely But Lethal, Any Old Port in a Storm, A Friend in Deed, A Deadly State of Mind, and Columbo Likes the Nightlife—including one (in Requiem for a Falling Star) that occurred years earlier. But in each case, a premeditated murder follows, either to finish the job (Any Old Port in a Storm), complete a related plan (A Friend in Deed), or silence someone who knows. Only in Death Lends a Hand is the unplanned homicide the only homicide. It is not a signature moment, but a unique Columbo crime.
No, the Levinson and Link imprint isn’t on the murder, it’s on the ending. That’s why Koenig’s disclosure about Levinson’s role in the Deadly State of Mind gotcha is so revealing. It fits the pattern perfectly. L&L liked tricking killers into confessing (in words or by their conduct). Think of Joan Hudson’s “drowning” in Prescription: Murder. Or the phony contact lens in the trunk of Brimmer’s car, that Columbo disabled with a potato, in Death Lends a Hand.
Then look at the episodes where Levinson and Link wrote the story, though not the script: Ransom for a Dead Man, where Columbo and stepdaughter Margaret conspire to force Leslie Williams to part with some of the ransom money; Dagger of the Mind, where Columbo plants a false tell-tale bead to drive Frame and Stanhope to confess, if not to lunacy; and the trick with the silent trash compactor in The Most Dangerous Match. Columbo doesn’t find the smoking gun in most Levinson and Link stories; rather, he cons the killer into handing him the smoking gun.
Did Levinson and Link instil this predilection in Peter S. Fischer? L&L certainly set the example. And the three like-minded writers enjoyed a fruitful post-Columbo relationship, including on Ellery Queen and co-creating Murder, She Wrote.
Levinson and Link renewed this “prescription” in their television mystery writing after Columbo. They didn’t create the story for their TV movie Vanishing Act; it is one of the enumerable adaptations of the French play Trap for a Lonely Man by Robert Thomas (that also includes TV movies Honeymoon with a Stranger and One of My Wives Is Missing, and the 1965 Broadway play Catch Me If You Can). But, knowing their penchant for trickery, one can readily understand why they were drawn to pen the latest adaptation of this trick-laden mystery. Likewise, their TV movie Rehearsal for Murder uses an elaborate ruse to force a murderer into revealing himself.
Suspects be warned. Don’t blink with Levinson and Link. You’ll wind up confessing to a crime.
What about the rest?
The third most credited Columbo writer is Steven Bochco. But none of Bochco’s Columbo scripts was his work alone. Even Murder by the Book, credited solely to Bochco, was based on a Larry Cohen idea and has Levinson and Link’s “thumbprints over every word of it,” according to Bochco. Personally, I don’t see a pattern in Bochco’s Columbo scripts. Maybe others do.
As you get down to writers with only two or three Columbo stories or scripts in their credits, you’re naturally less likely to see distinctive patterns. But three of these writers deserve special mention.
Stanley Ralph Ross (who, quite unlike Peter S. Fischer, never even watched a Columbo episode before being hired to write one) received writing credit for both Any Old Port in a Storm and Swan Song. These episodes featured two of the most likable Columbo murderers, oxymoronic as that phrase may be. At the conclusion of each, Columbo is extraordinarily kind to both Adrian Carsini and Tommy Brown. In turn, both are more than willing to confess their crimes.
But the similarity doesn’t end there. Consider how each of these crimes is solved. “I planted a seed that has to take,” Columbo said in Swan Song. Not an outright fabrication à la Levinson, Link, or Fischer, but something true. The Ferrier Vintage Port 1945 was spoiled by heat. Boy Scouts and forest rangers could start combing the mountainside the following morning. And both seeds send the murderer into the outdoors late at night: Carsini to the rockbound coastline; Brown into the wilderness. It is there that Columbo nabs them holding something that proves their guilt. Side by side, the two endings have striking similarities.
Second, there are Howard Berk’s two scripts: By Dawn’s Early Light and The Conspirators. What motivates Col. Lyle Rumford? What motivates Joe Devlin? In both cases, a cause, a higher purpose, something greater than themselves. You may not agree with their causes. You certainly may not think their political aims justify murder. But it is hard to put Rumford and Devlin in the same category as the parade of self-centered wife killers, avaricious playboys, and blackmail victims with shady pasts whom Columbo is usually pursuing. To Rumford and Devlin, achieving their goal is much more important than getting away with their crime. About what other Columbo murderer can you say that?
It has been rumored that Berk had a treatment for a third Columbo awaiting production when the series ended. It would be interesting to learn if Berk’s third murderer also was fighting for a cause.
Finally, there is Larry Cohen. Cohen received “Story by” credit for Any Old Port in a Storm, Candidate for Crime, and An Exercise in Fatality, and is consistently (although unofficially) credited with conceiving the premise for Murder by the Book. As Cohen did not write scripts or story treatments for Columbo, but only two-page story ideas, it is not entirely clear where his ideas left off and the work of successor writers began. Nonetheless, looking at the threshold murderer-victim relationships in these four stories, there is a definite pattern. All of the murderers have a business relationship with their victims, with the murderer getting all the glory while the victim suffers behind the scenes; until the victim decides at long last to seize control—a decision that gets him killed.
In Murder by the Book, Ken Franklin is the face of the Mrs. Melville mystery team on television and in interviews while Jim Ferris toils away at the actual writing, until Ferris decides to break free. In Any Old Port in a Storm, Adrian Carsini lives the extravagant life of an elite winemaker while his brother Ric must beg for spending money, until Ric decides to sell out. In Candidate for Crime, Nelson Hayward is the glamorous political candidate while campaign manager Harry Stone “buries bodies” for him, until Harry lays down the law about what Nelson must do. And in An Exercise in Fatality, Milo Janus is the celebrity franchiser, raking in the profits, while Gene Stafford is the oppressed franchisee, until Gene decides to blow the whistle on Milo’s corrupt business practices. Each premise follows a consistent pattern. A mere coincidence or a Cohen signature?
That’s the lot. Interesting? Not interesting? Obviously, I’m in the former camp. Perhaps I’m not alone. No doubt, I’ll find out below and hopefully I’ll learn from several of you something relating to this topic I hadn’t yet considered.
Rich Weill is a New York-based lawyer/playwright/author/former prosecutor. He has written several articles for this blog, which you can access here.
My thanks to Rich, and my assurance that I certainly found this interesting and educational – as I suspect many an avid reader did, too. There’s plenty more great content on the way to the blog, including further episode reviews as I close in on Columbo’s final adventures. Check back in soon, and stay outta trouble in the meantime…