Casting Columbo: the gargantuan unseen effort

Columbo Murder a Self Portrait
“I got 50 names on this casting list, who you wanna go for?”

One of the great joys of watching Columbo – to this very day – is the magnificence of its star-studded casts.

Even some of the lesser episodes had the strength in depth of cast to make other shows green with envy. Think of Short Fuse, with Roddy McDowall headlining and bit-part roles for talents as extravagant as Ida Lupino, William Windom, Anne Francis and James Gregory – all well-known faces to millions at the time.

The lucky viewer at home could simply revel at spending time in the company of such luminaries. For the series’ producers, though, casting was one of the most arduous aspects of the job – and one which often went right down to the wire.

David Koenig, author of 2021 behind-the-scenes epic Shooting Columbo, sheds some light on what an exhaustive and, at times, fraught process it could be to cast Columbo – using Season 4’s Negative Reaction as a case in point…

THE MOST important factor to Columbo’s success was the casting of Peter Falk. Yet each episode’s murderer often received as much—if not more—air time than the cop. So frequently casting just the right actor in the role could mean the difference between satisfactory and sensational. 

Over the years, there were a number of close calls. As detailed in my book Shooting Columbo, looking back at how the show was cast presents a delicious game of “What If?” Can you imagine Orson Welles as the Great Santini in Now You See Him? (The show couldn’t afford him.) Or Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire in Forgotten Lady? Anthony Hopkins in The Last Salute to the Commodore? (They all declined.) Or what about Ed Asner as Colonel Rumford in By Dawn’s Early Light? (He said yes, but—after much drama—backed out.)

Columbo Forgotten Lady casting
Fred and Ginger turned down ‘Forgotten Lady’, paving the way for Janet Leigh and John Payne to star

In fact, Team Columbo considered up to three dozen different actors for every role in every episode. For a typical 1970s Columbo, the casting started with the producer. Three to four weeks before the scheduled start of filming—about the time he hired his director—the producer would compile a list of actors he thought would be right for each part. He’d also send the script to several talent agencies, to get their suggestions. Executives from Universal Television and from NBC would also weigh in. And, finally, the producer would bounce his options off of the director and Peter Falk.  

Casting just the right actor in the role could mean the difference between a satisfactory and a sensational episode.

Back in Season 1, Falk seemed only concerned with working in bit parts for his film buddies and regular stand-ins, Mike Lally and Dick Lance. But within a few years, as he realized how the reputation of the week’s guests influenced how the entire series—and he—was viewed, Falk began pushing for more prestigious co-stars. 

Ultimately, though, the decision was the producer’s to make. According to Everett Chambers (producer, Seasons 1, 4-6), “I never got approval in casting from anyone, not Peter or the network—except for Lady in Waiting, (when) Link and Levinson cast the lead women and changed the set dressing while I was on location, and I quit. And on the mess with Elaine May (Old Fashioned Murder).” 

Approval, no. But as the production notes for any episode demonstrate, suggestions—some quite adamant—yes. Let’s look back at one of the most contentious episodes to cast, Negative Reaction

With the episode scheduled to begin shooting on June 7, 1974, producer Chambers hired his director, Alf Kjellin, in mid-May. Chambers then began scribbling on a yellow memo pad his ideas for each role. Usually 15 to 20 names would come to mind to play the villain. To play murderous photographer Paul Galesko, he jotted down 25, among them Alan Arkin, Orson Welles, Martin Balsam, John Cassavetes, Joel Gray, Tony Randall, James Mason, and Donald Pleasance. On his list, Chambers circled his eight favorites—Hal Holbrook, Patrick McGoohan, Tony Franciosa, Richard Benjamin, Louis Jordan, Robert Duvall, Arthur Hill, and Peter Sellers—to check on their availability and, once the list narrowed, to gauge their interest.

Columbo Negative Reaction casting
What was vs what might have been. Negative Reaction’s cast of Dick Van Dyke, Antoinette Bower, JoAnna Cameron and Don Gordon could have been Robert Duvall, Nan Martin, Farrah Fawcett and Don Rickles under different circumstances

Among his 16 thoughts to play the victim, Frances Galesko, were Antoinette Bower, Jessica Walter, Vera Miles, and Rosemary Murphy (who’d just been bumped off by her husband two episodes earlier, in A Friend in Deed). To play ex-con patsy Alvin Deschler, Chambers wrote down 19 names, including Don Rickles and Bert Freed (the actor who first played Lieutenant Columbo 14 years prior on an installment of The Chevy Mystery Show). Chambers circled his favorite five of the possible Deschlers, including the future Sgt. Kramer, Bruce Kirby. 

Continuing to brainstorm, Chambers jotted down eight women to consider as Mrs. Moyland the housekeeper, seven as Lorna the secretary (Joanna Cameron, Leslie Ann Warren), nine as Dolan the wino (such as Vito Scotti), four as police Sgt. Hoffman (such as Kirby), five as Sister Maria Anita (favoring Brett Somers), and so on. 

Team Columbo considered up to three dozen different actors for every role in every episode.

On May 21, casting suggestions arrived from at least three talent agencies. Not surprisingly, many of their suggestions were their own clients. As Galesko, the agents had been instructed to look for a “smooth operator.” Contemporary-Korman Artists suggested Gig Young, Cameron Mitchell, John Colicos, Ron Moody, or Ray Milland. Agent Mary Oreck pushed for McGoohan or Bill Macy. And Claire Miller mentioned Richard Anderson, Arthur Hill, Ed Nelson, or Mitch Ryan. 

For Frances, casting wanted someone “shrewish.” Among the agents’ ideas: Jessica Walter, Rosemary Murphy, Beverly Garland, and Gloria DeHaven. For Lorna, proposals included Sondra Locke and Sharon Gless. For Deschler: Abe Vigoda, Carmine Caridi, Simon Oakland. For Dolan: George Gobel, Henry Gibson, Henry Jones, Kenneth Tobey. One agent also suggested Joanne Worley as Sister Maria Anita, and Alan Abelew, Johnny Fiedler, or George Furth as driving instructor Mr. Weekley. 

NBC was predominately concerned with the guest star, wanting it to be the most familiar face possible. The network submitted its own wish list: –

  • Bill Bixby
  • Richard Boone 
  • Lloyd Bridges 
  • James Caan 
  • Glenn Corbett 
  • Robert Culp 
  • Tony Curtis 
  • Sammy Davis Jr. 
  • Glenn Ford 
  • Jim Franciosa 
  • Ben Gazzara 
  • Michael Condon 
  • Jerry Lewis 
  • Jim Nabors 
  • David Niven 
  • Anthony Quinn 
  • George Segal 
  • William Shatner
  • McLean Stevenson 
  • Robert Vaughan
  • James Whitmore
  • Efrem Zimbalist Jr.
  • Hersehel Bernardi 

Incorporating additional ideas from his bosses at Universal, Chambers had his secretary type up a formal master list of possibilities then began working through them, one by one. 

New names added would include: as Galesko, Alec Guinness, David Niven, Christopher Plummer, E.G. Marshall, Fred Astaire, Hume Cronin, Roddy McDowall, Burgess Meredith, Peter Ustinov, James Coco, Tony Curtis, Oskar Werner, and Dick Van Dyke. As Lorna, Joan Van Ark, Donna Mills, and an up-and-comer named Farrah Fawcett. And as Weekley, Conrad Bain, Norman Fell, Joe Flynn, Bruce Kirby, Kenneth Mars, and Larry Storch. 

Peter Sellers wanted $360,000 to play the part of Paul Galesko

As Chambers’ staff began reaching out to agents, they learned Peter Ustinov was not available to play Galesko. Everyone liked the idea of Cassavetes, except apparently Cassavetes. Franciosa, Gig Young, and—NBC’s top choice—Bill Bixby were all available, and had the support of everyone—just not the enthusiasm of Chambers. He kept looking. 

Falk was all in on Peter Sellers, but the comedian wanted $360,000—18 times the most the show had ever paid for a guest star. The budget also disqualified Omar Shariff (who sought $100,000) and Glenn Ford ($50,000). The one name on the list Falk specifically did not want: Danny Kaye. 

Falk, however, seemed more passionate about getting bit roles for his pals. He requested his stand-in Mike Lally play a bum, mumbling a few lines so he’d get bumped up from Screen Extras to Screen Actors Guild pay. Falk also wanted a part for his buddy’s son, Michael Lally Jr., who read for the role of the doctor, but instead was cast as the police department prop master in two scenes (“Just want the envelope?” and “Yes, I am, sir.”). Falk wanted a line for his other stand-in, Dick Lance. As in A Friend in Deed, Lance ended up as a policeman for one scene (the finale: “Yes, sir.”). Chambers also cast his and Falk’s mutual friend Fred Draper as the police lab man. 

Columbo Negative Reaction
Peter Falk was pivotal in securing speaking parts for Dick Lance (left) and Mike Lally Jr. (centre)

With just days left before filming was to begin, Chambers zeroed in on an easy-to-overlook name on his list: Dick Van Dyke. Though known as a light-hearted, comic actor, Van Dyke had recently earned rave reviews for playing an alcoholic in the intense TV drama The Morning After. The support was unanimous. 

On June 4, Chambers and Kjellin interviewed nine actresses for the three lead female roles. (Interestingly, they tested no one for the male parts). Alice Backes and Fran Ryan tested to play the housekeeper; Joanna Cameron, Karen Lamm, Robin Milan, Kathy Quinlan, and Pamela Hensley to play the secretary; and Antoinette Bower and Nan Martin to play the wife. In all three cases, the first woman to read for each part got it. And with no time to spare, the episode was finally cast. 

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. He has previously supplied an article about tracking down the Tricon Lady from Exercise in Fatality for this blog.

There you have it, folks, the inside line on the gargantuan effort it was to cast any episode of Columbo. I doff my cap to the likes of Everett Chambers, Dean Hargrove and Richard Alan Simmons, who contributed so much energy and time to ensure the Columbo viewing experience was as riveting as it could possibly be. The success of their endeavours is evident in the fact we are still talking about and appreciating the show decades after it first aired.

Read my article on the stars I wish had been cast as Columbo killers here.

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More of the many actors considered for ‘Negative Reaction’