The success of Columbo as a show is due in no small measure to the sheer likability of a large proportion of its characters.
The Lieutenant himself is inherently lovable, being a man of principles driven by a desire to see justice done in a world where the rich and famous think themselves above the law. But the excellence of the writing even gave us an abundance of murderers whom we could really like and quietly root for – in spite of their crimes.
And on top of that, there were dozens of supporting stars that won our hearts – the fabulous Goldie, the noble Ned Diamond, and Columbo’s ever-faithful Dog chief amongst them. Some of these great roles had only a few minutes of screen time but managed to create a lasting impression on the minds of millions of viewers.
Less frequent, but no less memorable, are characters on the reverse side of the coin: those that make our skin crawl through their words and actions and who – by accident or design – we can’t wait to see the back of. From squealing alcoholics and office busybodies to gurning simpletons and self-obsessed fools, we encounter more than a few exasperating companions on our Columbo journey – and it is that group of characters I’m focussing on today.
Below, you’ll find chronicled my thoughts on the most annoying Columbo characters of the 70s. However, please be assured that my finding these characters irritating on-screen doesn’t mean I don’t rate the actors’ performances. It can take great talent to be this annoying. I’ve also limited this list to the show’s classic era (1968-78) because otherwise it would be filled with hateful dunderheads from the 80s/90s, such as Darlene the Mermaid (Murder of a Rock Star), sex pest Charlie Lenz (Sex and the Married Detective) and the entire cast of Murder in Malibu. Ain’t nobody got the energy for that…
NB – If you’re expecting to see vociferous housekeeper Mrs Peck on this list, you’re in for disappointment. Because I rate Jeanette Nolan’s performance so highly, I have nothing but love for the Peckster. You’ll find her on this list of awesome Columbo supporting stars instead. Similarly, there’s no space for bewigged bellower, Jarvis Goodland. His manner can be grating, but he’s so good at delivering stinging put-downs that I just couldn’t justify his inclusion.
Now it’s time to dive in and see how closely your thoughts tarry with mine. Please note that these are listed in no particular order except the last entry – who is in my opinion by some distance the most annoying Columbo character of them all.
Miss Sherman – Blueprint for Murder
“Miss Sherman, is your voice grievously prissy?” “Yes, it is.” “Is your officious manner irksome to viewers?” “Yes, it is.” “Is your personality absolutely devoid of humour?” “Yes, it is.” “Is your face permanently set in a scowl?” “Yes, it is.” “Is ‘Yes, it is‘ the only thing you can say?” “Yes, it is.“
I think I’ve made my point.
Tony Goodland – The Greenhouse Jungle
When looking at Tony Goodland’s expressionless visage, one gets the impression he knows characteristics such as ‘common sense’ and ‘self-preservation’ by reputation only, as he certainly doesn’t possess so much as an ounce of either.
Like a simple-minded child, Tony willingly walks into a trap cooked up by his wicked uncle Jarvis that will rob him of both his riches and his life – and at no stage does he suspect foul play until the very moment Jarvis fires the gun to end his wretched life. Tony died as he lived: with a look of docile incomprehension on his face. It’s hard to pity such an irritating fool.
Joanna Clay – Last Salute to the Commodore
The most alcoholic of the many alcoholic housewives of Columbo, Joanna Clay lurches from hangovers to drunken squealing fits more times in one episode than many livers are forced to put up with in a lifetime. An incoherent, raving SHAMBLES, Joanna is hated by her father and husband, and scorned by everyone else for her infuriating histrionics – which I suspect raise the heckles of a high percentage of viewers.
I squirm with embarrassment for Diane Baker having to play the role of such a train-wreck, but also marvel at her abilities in committing so fully to the role. Either she’s the best actress the show has ever seen, or she was absolutely smashed in every scene she filmed.
Captain Gibbon – Troubled Waters
For a man sporting shorts and knee-length socks, and who skippers a pleasure liner rather than a warship, Captain Gibbon has an awfully high opinion of himself – and his surly, obstructive demeanour towards Columbo (who is giving up his holiday time to help investigate the death of singer Rosanna Wells) quietly makes him one of the series’ most grating presences.
Just lose the ‘tude, dude, and start caring more about a grisly murder taking place on your watch than whether a well-meaning detective says ‘boat’ instead of ‘ship’. If I were Columbo I’d have had Gibbon clapped in irons, flung in the brig and placed on a diet of hardtack and swill for the rest of the journey. How else will he learn?
Angela the book store clerk – The Conspirators
She may look like, well, a stereotypical book store clerk, but underneath the all-beige ensemble is a wanton temptress whose romantic interests undoubtedly run to the exotic.
After winking and suggestively gesturing at a window-shopping Columbo, the minx tries to tempt him into parting with $55 for a sexy book he’s been eyeing – even hinting that such a bold purchase would score him brownie points with his wife. After the detective leaves, our Ange casually flips through the same book, doubtless squirrelling away some inspiration for later contemplation.
Perhaps it’s the introvert in me, but Angela’s smart aleck demeanour and knowing, in-yer-face leering trigger my fight-or-flight reflex. If I were to encounter such a clerk when next browsing the shelves at Dymock’s I’d be galloping out the door before you can say “erotic art”.
Swanny – Last Salute to the Commodore
The all-singing, all-joking, ivory-tinkling Swanny is highly skilled… AT GOOFING OFF! In all seriousness, he’s the kind of guy I could really dig… A GRAVE FOR! Yes folks, Swanny Swanson is a fiendishly annoying berk from a fiendishly annoying Columbo episode. It would have been better for everyone if he’d drowned aboard his mini Titanic in the episode’s opening scene.
NB – Any similarities between the above paragraph and the script for The Simpsons Season 4 episode Homer’s Triple Bypass are purely coincidental.
Audrey – Etude in Black
Has anyone ever liked precocious, sassy child characters in anything? No, me neither,* which is why my gorge rises whenever Audrey is on screen in Etude in Black. The type to sarcastically pick fault in others and deliberately attempt to shame or embarrass a goodhearted detective in public, Audrey may be intelligent but she lacks the social niceties to endear her to viewers.
When push comes to shove, the prickly pre-teen can’t even help Columbo in his investigations, making her essentially useless, annoying baggage in the episode. As such, Audrey joins the likes of young Anakin Skywalker (The Phantom Menace), Scrappy Doo, Danny Torrance (The Shining), D.W. (Arthur), Kevin McAllister (Home Alone), Hermione Grainger, Rachel Ferrier (War of the Worlds) and Tim Murphy (Jurassic Park) in the Little Oiks Hall of Shame.
* Wednesday Adams excepted
Nick Frame and Lily Stanhope – Dagger of the Mind
These two come joined at the hip, so count as one, being two halves of the same self-obsessed walnut. The “ham and the tart” take buffoonery to outrageous heights as they blunder through attempt after attempt to conceal their involvement in the accidental killing of Sir Roger Haversham.
Whether it’s crocodile tears at a funeral, raving like a madman when collared or bickering like an old married couple, almost every second of screen time these boobies share seems designed to shepherd the viewer towards screaming aloud in frustration.
Roger Stanford – Short Fuse
A smirking, juvenile imp, Roger Stanford doesn’t appear to have realised that schoolboy pranks (e.g. spraying silly string in colleagues’ hair) were supposed to have been left in the classroom decades prior. He also seems oblivious to the fact that his idiotic japes are both inappropriate for the workplace and unbecoming of a supposed genius.
How a man so annoying was ever able to survive as long as Roger did without being slain by a schoolmate or co-worker is one of the greatest unanswered Columbo mysteries.
And the winner is…
Phyllis Brandt – Old Fashioned Murder
When comedy fainting appears in Columbo, you know the series has hot rock bottom and that’s very much the case with many aspects of Old Fashioned Murder.
A dog’s dinner of a production, the episode script was continually being tinkered with during filming, so whoever Oscar-winning actress Celeste Holm thought she had signed up to play was cast unceremoniously into the trash. Instead, Holm’s Phyllis Brandt became a shallow, narcissistic imbecile who single-handedly attempts to undo the women’s lib movement, while passing out at mere mention of the word ‘homicide’.
Not only a disgraceful waste of Holm’s talent, Phyllis’s antics do nothing but exasperate – to the extent that I’m longing for her to be assassinated mere seconds after meeting her. My hatred for Phyllis and everything she represents places her well ahead at the top of my rankings – surely the only list Old Fashioned Murder will ever have a 1st place in.
There are too many other irksome Columbo players to end things quite there. Here are a few others close to making the top 10…
Margaret Williams – Ransom for a Dead Man
A wronged party she may be, but young Margaret is still acutely peevish and petulant – plus she tries to clobber the Lieutenant when her scheming goes awry! Naughty girl…
Joe Devlin – The Conspirators
A beer and whisky guzzling, poetry-reciting, laugh-a-minute scamp, Joe Devlin is the sort of man folk either love or want to strangle. On the right day, he’d be a riot. On the wrong day, a holy nightmare.
Tricon receptionist – An Exercise in Fatality
The smiling, contemptuous face of 70s corporate culture, Tricon lady’s passive aggressive politeness in the face of a busy detective’s desperate drive for info sets this viewer’s teeth on edge.
Mac – Last Salute to the Commodore
He’s a drip. He’s not funny. He’s a rubbish detective. Thank goodness we never see hide nor hair of him (or his newly acquired fanboy raincoat) ever again.
Nadia Donner – A Deadly State of Mind
Fragile, overly dependent and replete with a raft of daddy issues, Nadia is absolutely not to be relied on in a tight spot – which is a shame because that’s exactly where Dr Collier leaves her after killing her husband.
Frances Galesko – Negative Reaction
Many a viewer considers Paul Galesko’s killing of nagging wife Frances to be justifiable homicide, such is the extent of her chiding and nagging in her few minutes’ screen time.
That’s all for now, folks. Do take a moment to share your thoughts on this subject in the comments section below. Who else might have warranted inclusion? And is there anyone on my list who would be nowhere near your own? If so, tell us why.
I gotta run now. I have a date with William Shatner’s colour-changing moustache in order to prep for my review of Butterfly in Shades of Grey. Keep sharing the Columbo love, and I’ll see you all again real soon…