Columbo episode review: Strange Bedfellows

Columbo Strange Bedfellows opening titles

Almost a year to the day after the dismal Undercover aired, Lieutenant Columbo was back in business – and this time he brought Norm from Cheers along for the ride.

Starring man mountain George Wendt as an unlikely double killer and Oscar-winning actor Rod Steiger as a menacing mob boss, Strange Bedfellows burst onto screens on May 8, 1995.

Can it be as comforting an experience as entering a bar where everybody knows your name? Or are we at the stage in Columbo’s screen career where we fear the worst every time a new episode rears its head? It’s time to place your bets and find out…

Columbo Strange Bedfellows cast

Dramatis personae

Lieutenant Columbo: Peter Falk
Graham McVeigh: George Wendt
Vincenzo Fortelli: Rod Steiger
Teddy McVeigh: Jeff Yagher
Bruno Romano: Jay Acovone
Sergeant Phil Brindle: Bruce Kirby
Rudy: Don Calfa
Lorraine: Linda Behringer
Tiffany: Karen Mayo-Chandler
Barney: John Finnegan
Directed by: Vince McEveety
Written by: Peter S. Fischer (as Lawrence Vail)
Score by: Dick DeBenedictis

Episode synopsis

Gargantuan race horse breeder Graham McVeigh would be living his best life if it weren’t for his pesky, wastrel of a baby brother, Teddy. The floppy-haired cool cat has racked up gambling debts in the region of $200,000 and big Graham is sick of picking up the tab.

Help appears to be at hand in the svelte form of Graham’s racehorse Fiddling Bull, who has been deliberately held back so his secret stunning form can see him romp to an unexpected victory in some big money race. If the horse – a long shot at 20-1 odds – can secure the victory, Teddy’s inside information to his gambling den pals can wipe his debt clean. HURRAH!

Graham, however, wants a more radical approach to dealing with his troublesome brother. On race day, he dopes his own horse, leading it to sink without trace in the big race. Devastated, Teddy now fears his very life is in danger from the shadowy Bruno Romano, a restaurateur and bookmaker with mob connections, who very much wants to call in the bloated debt.

Columbo Strange Bedfellows Graham McVeigh
McVeigh’s bearded lady disguise was the talk of the town

Playing Teddy like a fiddle, Graham claims he will speak to Romano on his brother’s behalf and clear as much of the debt as he is able. He will do nothing of the kind. Instead, he dons a comedy beard and hat and creates a commotion at Romano’s restaurant, freeing a mouse in the ladies’ bathroom and using the diversion created by a screaming patron to sneak into Romano’s office and phone home to speak to Teddy. He offers his brother reassurances that all is well, but is really establishing a phone link between Romano and Teddy that will tie into his overarching, murderous scheme.

As Romano and co. continue to fret about the rodent incursion, Graham makes good his escape and returns home to Teddy. He spins a cock-and-bull story about how they need to head out to a secluded roadside location to meet Romano and hand over a cash payment. Trusting Teddy agrees, and the pair split in the younger brother’s car.

Upon reaching the supposed rendezvous point, Graham gets out to ‘stretch his legs’, but actually slips a gun out of the cash bag (which he bought earlier at a pawn shop) and approaches Teddy’s driver side window. Pretending to have seen a flicker of car lights approaching, Graham fools Teddy into sticking his head out of the window, at which point big brother blows him away! Remembering to wipe his prints off the car doors and interior, Graham even has the presence of mind to remove a tell-tale cigarette butt from an ashtray before tootling off on a ridiculously undersized fold-up bike he’d stashed in the trunk.

The next morning, Teddy’s body is found and a decidedly poorly Lieutenant Columbo is amongst the detectives sent to investigate. Poor Columbo has had a bad experience with clams the night before (reading between the lines, he’s definitely spent all night sitting on the porcelain throne) and is in a wretched state, but, true to form, that doesn’t stop him noticing things the other cops miss.

Frisking the corpse, Columbo finds betting receipts in Teddy’s wallet. Even more interestingly, there’s a receipt for a deluxe car cleaning job that was carried out at lunch time the day before. The snooping sleuth then discovers ash in the car ashtray, which is sent off for analysis. Swigging pepto-bismol by the litre, Columbo then makes a beeline for the McVeigh horse stables to break the bad news to Graham.

Columbo Strange Bedfellows
After 12 hours on the bog, Columbo was in no mood for trifling

Immediately upon their meeting, McVeigh lights a cigarette before spilling the beans about Teddy’s gambling debts and the certainty that he was executed for welching on said debts. He claims that Teddy received a phone call at approx. 8.30pm the night before from a man named Bruno, which caused the younger man great angst. Three hours later, McVeigh tells Columbo he heard Teddy leave the house and drive away. When he was still gone in the morning, he feared the worst and called the LAPD.

The thrill of the chase appears to help Columbo overcome his tummy ache. He even bums a smoke off McVeigh in the first example of the Lieutenant sucking on a cigarette rather than a cigar in the series’ long history. He then effortlessly inveigles McVeigh into revealing that his brother didn’t himself smoke, giving the detective some decisive intel very early in the investigation.

Left to his own devices, McVeigh puts part 2 of his plan into action. He rings Bruno Romano and says he’s willing to pay off Teddy’s debts in order to safeguard his own future. If Romano will meet him at the horse farm that night, he’ll hand over the loot. Romano duly agrees, and turns up, armed, under cover of darkness. When he’s inspecting the cash, however, McVeigh takes the upper hand, whipping out a large calibre revolver and busting a cap in his foe’s chest.

Romano goes down face first on the rug, and for the piece de resistance, McVeigh takes the gun he used to kill Teddy and places it in the dead man’s hand. He takes Romano’s own gun and safely squirrels it away before calling the police to report the beastly incident. Columbo is once again in the working detail and knowingly remarks about how fortunate it was that McVeigh was able to get to his own gun in time to use it first against such a dangerous man as Bruno Romano – no doubt the same Bruno who phoned to speak to Teddy the night before.

As is typical of his investigative style, Columbo drops a bombshell on McVeigh before he departs. He reveals that he found the car cleaning receipt in Teddy’s wallet, and that the ashes found in it came from the same brand of cigarette that McVeigh himself smokes. How can that be if McVeigh wasn’t in the car with Teddy at any stage that day, as he claims? Certainly someone other than Teddy was in the car with him at some point after it was given a thorough cleaning. And that person just happened to have puffed on McVeigh’s preferred choice of smoke. That’s quite a coincidence…

Columbo Strange Bedfellows
Are we having fun yet?

Widening his search, Columbo visits Romano’s restaurant the following day where he speaks to cynical waitress Lorraine. She casts major doubt on Romano’s involvement in the killing of Teddy by claiming she was in the sack with him at the time he was allegedly out committing murder. Even if the ballistics of his gun match the one used to kill Teddy, Romano cannot have been the one who fired it. She can’t disprove, however, whether Romano made a menacing call to Teddy from his office phone.

As Columbo mulls this over, he overhears the restaurant barman braying down the phone to a pest control company. Two weeks ago, they had been in to secure the premises against rodent incursion. Why, then, were there two mice in the ladies’ bathroom two nights ago? Intrigued, Columbo goes so far as to rummage in the bins to find the corpse of one of the mice. It’s a rather large, unusual-looking specimen, which you can bet the house will have a material bearing on his investigation.

Shortly after this, the Lieutenant is abducted by two hoods and packed into the back of a black limo. He is taken to the palatial beach-front dwelling of mob boss Vincenzo Fortelli (Rod Steiger, paunchy), who sits Columbo down to a fine lunch to discuss the case. Fortelli and Romano were pals, it turns out, and the old villain isn’t in the least happy to hear of his demise.

Fortelli lays his cards out straight: Romano didn’t kill anyone and the gun found in his hand wasn’t his because it has different ballistics to the gun he always carried. Police have a ballistics report on Romano’s real gun from the prior year. The only person that could have placed the murder weapon in Romano’s cold, dead hand was McVeigh, ergo McVeigh is a double murderer!

Columbo Strange Bedfellows
Fortelli’s jazz hands left Columbo unmoved

Columbo can’t deny that Fortelli makes a strong case, but he still has to follow due process. Fortelli agrees to give the Lieutenant time to bring McVeigh to justice, but if he doesn’t see swift results he’ll take matters into his own hands. I.e. McVeigh will find himself sleeping with da fishes. The convivial dining experience is sadly ruined at this stage, when Columbo discovers he’s been eating CLAM SOUP and has to gallop off to the bogs (click below for suitable sound effect for this calamitous occurrence).

Tracking McVeigh to the race course, Columbo crashes his fancy luncheon to share more news from the case. Phone records do show a call from Romano’s office phone to McVeigh HQ. However, the commotion over the mice means they can’t prove Romano himself made the call. Further to that, the mouse Columbo retrieved from the trash is of a species not native to Los Angeles. Instead, they dwell in the mountains where the McVeigh horse range is located. Coincidence?

Starting to feel the pressure, McVeigh decides to stash Romano’s actual gun away from potentially prying eyes. Instead of lobbing it into the ocean or a lake, he buries it in a shallow gravel grave under a birdbath in his back garden. It’s one of the worst examples of hiding evidence since Abigail Mitchell hid Edmund’s keys in a sand-filled ashtray in Try and Catch Me 17 years earlier.

He was right to start feeling a little tense mind you, because he is paid a visit by Fortelli in person the next day. Accompanied by two goons, Fortelli gives McVeigh an ultimatum: hand over a controlling interest in the ranch by 6pm the following evening or he’ll be a dead man. McVeigh runs crying (not literally) to Columbo seeking help, but the detective shows but scant concern merely offering to look into getting him a police guard. When McVeigh is subsequently accosted by Fortelli’s heavies, who attempt to run him off the road, only a call to the cops from his cell phone saves his skin.

Columbo later reports that the police have put Fortelli ‘on notice’, which ought to prevent any further threats to McVeigh’s life. If this brings some crumbs of comfort to McVeigh, they are quickly dispelled. Asking to borrow a lighter, the Lieutenant comments on how similar it was to a mystery, bearded man’s who was seen drinking at Romano’s restaurant on the night of Teddy’s death. This unknown male also drank scotch and soda ‘easy on the soda’ – the exact way McVeigh favours the drink. This same man is now believed to have been the one who made the call from Romano’s office to Teddy. Rattled, McVeigh orders Columbo off his property.

Columbo Strange Bedfellows
This sketch gives a realism to the beard entirely absent in the actual disguise

While trying to bury his woes by focussing on his day job, McVeigh is informed that Columbo has left a message for him requesting his company for dinner at a posh restaurant at 9pm that night. McVeigh, like a good citizen, shows up – but is disturbed when Columbo does not, leaving his date hanging for a good hour. At this stage, McVeigh notices that the barman is the same one from Romano’s restaurant. Finally smelling a rat, he makes to leave but is alarmed to see two of Fortelli’s goons out front and the mob man himself in the kitchen! McVeigh makes a desperate call to Columbo, who promises to be there in 20 minutes.

When the Lieutenant arrives to escort McVeigh away, Fortelli’s goons apprehend them. Columbo is slammed against a wall, while McVeigh has to deal with some severe blows to the kidneys. Fortelli emerges to call off his attack dogs, but this respite threatens to be brief. Backhanding McVeigh, Fortelli rails against the slow progress of the police investigation and threatens to deliver justice his way. “This guy belongs to me now,” he tells Columbo with some heat.

The only loose end Fortelli now has to deal with is the Lieutenant, hinting broadly that if Columbo doesn’t walk away there’ll be two dead bodies to tidy up. After an eternal pause, Columbo turns tail. “I’m sorry, sir,” he says to McVeigh. “They don’t pay me enough for this kind of stuff.”

Driven to desperation, McVeigh screams out that he’ll confess to the double homicide if only Columbo won’t leave him to die. No deal, replies the detective. As soon as I get you out of here, you’ll recant. I need hard proof that you killed the two men and I just don’t have it.

Columbo Strange Bedfellows
“Romeo, Romeo…”

It’s the straw that breaks the camel’s back. McVeigh admits to having hidden Romano’s gun under the birdbath in his garden. A quick call to Sergeant Brindle at the McVeigh Ranch turns the gun up in a hot minute. Fortelli will allow Columbo to take McVeigh into custody but warns the murderer against trying to beat the rap. “I think what he’s saying, Mr McVeigh, is that if you get some fancy lawyer to save you on a technicality, he won’t be saving you.”

McVeigh submits and is permitted to leave by Fortelli, who shares a colossal thumbs up with Columbo. As McVeigh is driven away in a police black and white, the conversation between law enforcer and criminal kingpin confirms that they had planned this entire charade together. Even Fortelli’s henchman were undercover cops. Despite this comradeship, Columbo refuses the offer of a farewell drink with Fortelli. “It’s just that I’m a cream soda type guy… and you’re not,” he says. With that, the Lieutenant takes his leave as credits roll…

My memories of Strange Bedfellows

One of the Columbo episodes I have seen least (possibly only once or twice ever), Strange Bedfellows takes up extremely limited space in my memory palace. Going into the viewing, my only real recollections are of believing George Wendt to be horribly miscast; finding his beard disguise laughable; enjoying Rod Steiger’s role; and, most importantly, being aghast that Columbo would ever enter into a deal with the mob to achieve case closure.

Columbo Graham McVeigh
I have a crazy memory of Fozzy Bear being in this episode…

Details of either murder escaped me (I didn’t recall Bruno Romano at all), I couldn’t remember anything about the support characters beyond George and Rod, and overall cannot escape the vague impression that this is a woeful late Columbo offering with little to recommend it. Could I be surprised by a blockbuster adventure upon a fresh viewing after a very long hiatus? Don’t bet on it…

Episode analysis

Ever since we’ve known him, we’ve known that Lieutenant Columbo is not averse to playing games with his suspects in order to catch them out. Indeed, some of his most memorable cases involved him acting in ways that pure-hearted viewers may have found hard to stomach.

He blatantly plants evidence to expose killers in Death Lends a Hand and Dagger of the Mind. He creates false evidence to draw a crucial mistake from Paul Galesko in Negative Reaction. In A Matter of Honor, he stages a set piece with a killer bull that could genuinely endanger the life of his chief suspect. During Ransom for a Dead Man, he conspires with young Margaret to terrorise Leslie Williams in her own home and get her to part with the hidden ransom cash that will prove her involvement in murder.

The events of A Case of Immunity see the Lieutenant collude with a King and leave the threat of death hanging over Hassan Salah in order to get the First Secretary to waive his diplomatic immunity. And in Mind Over Mayhem, he stages the phony framing and arrest of an innocent son in order to elicit a confession from the father. There are some seriously murky acts in that list, but for many viewers Columbo’s actions in Strange Bedfellows represent the unpalatable nadir of his career.

Columbo Strange Bedfellows
I guess those Italians have gotta stick together…

The Lieutenant has made some unlikely allies in his time, but surely none compare to a hardened criminal like Vincenzo Fortelli: a man whose shady past has mixed him up in prostitution, gambling and, y’know, murder. Columbo willingly enters into a pact with Fortelli that will ultimately ensure Graham McVeigh pays for his actions in the eyes of the law, but do the ends justify the mean? Or to put it another way, does the moral gain of bringing McVeigh to justice outweigh the moral loss to Columbo’s character of putting his key suspect through the physical and emotional wringer – however abhorrent his crimes?

How the viewer feels about this critical question will likely have a significant impact on their enjoyment of the episode. If you believe Columbo was just employing his ‘shop-worn bag of tricks’ to turn a difficult case to his advantage, Strange Bedfellows may be right up your alley. If you hold the Lieutenant to higher moral standards, the episode may be one that you can never entirely take to heart.

It perhaps won’t surprise readers to hear that I fall into the latter camp. For all the things Strange Bedfellows does well (and there are a few decent highlights to be found), almost all the goodwill it garners evaporates by the time credits roll due to the deeply unethical charade Columbo embroils himself in. Make no mistake about it: Columbo’s complicity in the mental and physical torture of Graham McVeigh is several steps further into the abyss of immorality than we’ve ever seen him take before.

The detective allows the life of his key suspect to be recklessly endangered several times. Two officers masquerading as Fortelli’s thugs bash bumpers with McVeigh during a high-speed chase – an act which is impossible for anyone to predict the outcome of. The terrified McVeigh could easily have lost control of his vehicle (especially while using his cell phone), flipped his vehicle and been barbecued in a car explosion.

Columbo Strange Bedfellows George Wendt
Inept boob he may be, but can we condone Columbo’s treatment of big Graham McVeigh?

Later, in the restaurant showdown, McVeigh is properly roughed up by the same undercover cops and then savagely backhanded by Fortelli and menaced in such a way that he must have believed his life was about to be ended. Again, Columbo could have no idea how such a scenario might pan out. A hefty fellow, McVeigh’s heart could have packed in under such duress, killing him outright. Or he might have had a gun stashed on his person and started firing indiscriminately in a last-gasp bid to save his own hide. Would any of those outcomes be acceptable to the Lieutenant we know and love? Not a chance.

And before anyone rolls their eyes and whispers “geez man, it’s just a TV show, get over it,” I’ll put on the record again that I hold Columbo to higher standards than other run-of-the-mill police dramas. The inherent goodness at the heart of the Columbo character should be sacrosanct. In Strange Bedfellows, Columbo doesn’t just fall below his expected standards of conduct – he doesn’t appear to feel a shred of remorse about his actions.

Think back to Negative Reaction. After tricking Paul Galesko into incriminating himself, Columbo couldn’t look the man in the eye. Similarly, he apologised for the arrest of Neil Cahill to father Marshall in Mind Over Mayhem. And when the King of Suari flashed him a thumbs up at the end of A Case of Immunity, Columbo looked downright ashamed of himself. We could see in each of these examples that the man himself was not immune to the consequences of his actions. He had achieved his vision of victory, but took little pleasure in doing so.

In Strange Bedfellows, the treatment of McVeigh was far more extreme and far less forgivable than any of the above cases. Yet Columbo trades friendly thumbs up gestures with Fortelli once McVeigh is firmly in his clutches, and the pair then have a perfectly civil chinwag before a friendly parting of the ways. Sure, Columbo turns down Fortelli’s offer of a drink, but he hardly seems to be beating himself up about his actions. That hurts the character, and it hurts me to see it.

Columbo Strange Bedfellows
More than 25 years’ integrity up in smoke with one simple gesture

Columbo supporters could claim that he genuinely believed the only way to prevent McVeigh’s execution was to partner with Fortelli to scare the man sufficiently to make him divulge the location of the elusive evidence (Romano’s gun) that would prove his guilt. And because this scheming took place off-screen we’re not party to how the discussions played out. Perhaps Columbo strenuously disagreed with the plan, but was overruled by a superior officer. However, his lack of overt unhappiness at the conclusion of the case would tend to dispel this notion.

I would think it would be truer to the Lieutenant’s nature to have an honest discussion with McVeigh about how his only chance of survival would be to make a clean breast of it, admit his guilt and take his punishment. Given Columbo’s everyman appeal, this approach seems as likely as any to result in a conviction without having to traumatise McVeigh in the process. Still, that perhaps mightn’t make for the most gripping TV and it can at least be argued that Strange Bedfellows delivers an action-packed finale by the series’ standards.

If Columbo’s dalliance with the dark side is the episode’s most questionable element, it’s not the sole reason why Strange Bedfellows falls well short of vintage status. For one thing, it’s awfully repetitive, dredging up all sorts of boring TV tropes and repurposed plot points from earlier Columbo outings. Feuding brothers struggling to see eye to eye over the benefits of a shared inheritance, leading to one bumping off the other is highly reminiscent of Any Old Port in a Storm. Even McVeigh making his getaway on a silly little fold-up bicycle is a straight lift from the 1973 classic.

The finale is like the gotcha from A Case of Immunity on steroids, while the tedious and unimaginative gambling backdrop plunges the episode into a miasmic melding of elements from Columbo episodes old and new. Young, useless Teddy McVeigh is as addicted to trouble and betting as Harold McCain in A Bird in the Hand, while his love of the gee-gees conjures up unwelcome comparisons to Uneasy Lies the Crown killer Wesley Corman. Personally, I find nothing more boring than excess gambling used as a plot device in murder mysteries, so Bedfellows had me offside right from the start.

Columbo Strange Bedfellows McVeigh brothers
Adrian and Ric, V2.0

McVeigh’s general uselessness as a killer is another point of contention. He easily fulfils the membership requirements to joins the Bungling Columbo Killers Club so feeble are his efforts to remain inconspicuous and unconnected to the crimes. Like Marshall Cahill, Joe Devlin and Eric Mason years before, McVeigh is so inept that it would be harder not to suspect his direct involvement in cold-blooded murder.

Based on my Columbo-watching experience, a golden rule of murdering someone is to ensure that at no stage during the build-up, the crime and the clean-up should you do any of the things you would normally do. So if you’re at a bar in a daft disguise, don’t order your usual drink in the exact same way you always order it. Instead, choose an outlandish concoction like pink gin and lemonade or Malibu and milk – something that you’d never normally drink in a million years.

If you must feed your tobacco addiction, smoke a pipe of scented, apple tobacco and light it with matches, not an ornate and highly memorable golden lighter. Similarly, if you’re in the victim’s car with them immediately prior to ending their existence, go a few minutes without smoking, or at least leave a huge Cuban smouldering in the ashtray to fool the po-po.

McVeigh not only makes these stupid, avoidable mistakes – he carelessly exacerbates them by openly smoking in front of Columbo seconds after meeting him, and later ordering his trademark whisky and soda ‘easy on the soda’ within earshot of the detective, just as he did at the bar of Bruno’s Ristorante on the night of Teddy’s death. He may as well have just printed and worn an XXXXXXL-sized t-shirt with I’M GUILTY emblazoned all over it.

As well as these basic howlers, McVeigh also acts in an illogical manner. I mean, why even bother taking the risk of killing Romano at all when the death of his brother ought to be enough to grant him the easy life he seems to crave? And why on earth would he hide Romano’s gun in his garden when he could have flung it in a river or hidden it in mountains near his home? Such a move only serves to give him wriggle room to avoid execution later but no actual killer would be so cavalier with such damning evidence.

Columbo Strange Bedfellows George Wendt
It would take 4 Columbos to fit into McVeigh’s sports jacket

The credibility of the McVeigh character isn’t helped by casting George Wendt in the role. I’ve nothing against the guy, but his limitations as a dramatic actor are clear as day here. Immortalised as Norm from Cheers to tens of millions of viewers over 270 episodes of the sitcom between 1982-93, Wendt is much more at home in comedic roles and he has nothing like the gravitas required to make for a believable Columbo killer.

The episode writing also makes Wendt’s casting extra puzzling. Graham McVeigh lamely disguises himself twice during the episode – firstly to buy the gun from the pawn broker, and again later when he glues some fluff to his face and frees some mice in the ladies’ bathroom at Bruno’s restaurant. However, the most remarkable and memorable aspect of Wendt is his massive bulk. Tall, wide and round, he’s a whole lot of actor. It therefore stretches credibility that witnesses who remember his lighter and favourite drink don’t appear to have passed comment on his sheer size.

Columbo’s key suspect is a bearded, hatted man who uses an ornate gold cigarette lighter (just like McVeigh’s) and who drinks whisky and soda ‘easy on the soda’ (just like McVeigh does). Throw in a description of the man also being as wide as a wardrobe and Columbo could collar him straight away. And before I’m accused of being fattist, nothing could be further from the truth. I just feel that the killer in this episode ought to have been an unassuming, unmemorable type who could fade into the background wherever he goes. Wendt can never do that, making his casting another example of new Columbo shooting itself in the foot.

Wendt’s not alone in struggling to deliver the goods in the lofty company of Peter Falk and Rod Steiger. In a tiny role as Teddy’s love interest, Tiffany evidently studied at the Dick Van Dyke School of English Accents, dishing up such aural treats as “‘Ere, don’t be a bleedin’ pain, alright?” lest viewers fail to realise she’s supposed to be British. Cast as Teddy, Jeff Yagher is every bit as underwhelming as his career credits suggest, while Jay Acovone’s Bruno Romano makes so little impression on the episode that I’d wager he’s the series’ single least remembered victim.

Columbo Strange Bedfellows Teddy McVeigh
Worzel Gummidge and Aunt Sally vacationing in LA

Thank goodness, then, for the presence of Rod Steiger as Vincenzo Fortelli. The character’s a Mafia cliche, of course, but Steiger’s performance is electrifying, veering from snarling menace to fatherly affability with ease and grace. Some critics say he was dialling in his performance here, but I just can’t agree. He’s terrific, and comfortably head and shoulders above the rest of the supporting cast.

Regardless of whether it’s all a set-up, Fortelli’s raging at both McVeigh and Columbo during the restaurant showdown is masterful. Steiger makes it easy for the viewer to believe that both men are viable candidates for assassination such is the power of his performance, but it’s the way he shifts his tone from gravelly roar to almost a whisper when claiming to be “the judge, jury and executioner” in the McVeigh case that is most chilling. He’s a truly dangerous presence and certainly one of the most interesting supporting stars of Columbo’s revival era. A whole episode of Columbo vs Fortelli would have been a mouth-watering prospect.

As was the case with It’s All in the Game, playing opposite a titan of the silver screen (here Steiger, there Faye Dunaway) seems to have done wonders for Peter Falk. The scenes the two share are powerful, no-nonsense and playful in a way that hooks the audience, but Falk is on terrific form throughout. Regular readers will know how little I like seeing Columbo lapsing into silly tomfoolery (tuba playing etc), and there’s mercifully little of that to be found in Falk’s performance.

His interactions with McVeigh hark back to the show’s glory days, with the detective playing it all dumb and innocent, allowing his suspect every opportunity to be too helpful and then zapping him with a telling observation or impeccably timed “one more thing”. I must also pay credit to how convincingly Falk played the upset stomach card during his opening scenes. His expressions and mannerisms as he swigs the hated pepto bismol have an authenticity all too often absent in the Columbo portrayal post-1989.

Columbo Strange Bedfellows Vincenzo Fortelli
Rod Steiger is Strange Bedfellows’ shining star – even in this dodgy hat

The only real beef I have with Columbo in this episode (aside from partnering with the mob, natch) is the inconsistency surrounding understanding of Italian. When Fortelli’s goons grab the Lieutenant and deliver him to an unasked-for lunch meeting, he pretends not to understand anything the mob boss is telling him in their native tongue, although he wryly hints later on that he’s fully au fait with all that was said.

Of course, we know from episodes such as Murder Under Glass and Identity Crisis that Columbo is well able to converse in Italian. However, his fluency largely depends on the circumstances he’s in and whether or not it’s to his advantage to reveal the depth of his understanding. When Columbo tells Fortelli he doesn’t speak Italian, he’s being dishonest. It’s his way of putting a barrier between himself and the gangster. But when he fails to pick up that the Zuppa di Vongole served to him is clam soup, the scene is thrown into disrepute. Either it’s a continuity error or, more likely, a means of throwing in a cheap gag about Columbo’s dodgy, clam-intolerant guts. Booooooo, hisssssssss!

There’s further inconsistency in the rodents-in-the-restaurant subplot that caused me some confusion during this viewing. We see McVeigh place a small box into the ladies’ bathroom and later witness a patron screaming blue murder about rats having crawl all over her when she was powdering her nose. When Columbo visits the restaurant he’s informed that two tiny mice were caught in traps later that night, yet the one he fishes out of the dumpster is a hideous GIANT of a beast and certainly large enough to pass as a rat.

Are we to believe that two of these creatures were in the box McVeigh slipped through the loo door? Hardly plausible. And why would the barkeep claim they were tiny when the specimen Columbo uncovers is almost the size of a guinea pig? It’s not of major importance to the storyline but is indicative of some muddling writing that could have easily been avoided.

Columbo Strange Bedfellows
Dear God, this monster could eat Dog for breakfast!

Interestingly, episode writer Peter S. Fischer, who had been involved in the show on-and-off since the mid-1970s, wrote the initial script for Strange Bedfellows but was so unhappy with the end product (and the casting of George Wendt in particular) that he disowned his involvement and is credited under the pseudonym Lawrence Vail.

Quite how many alterations were made to his script are unclear, but Fischer previously adopted the Vail nom de plume when his script for 1976’s Old Fashioned Murder was torn to shreds by Peter S. Fiebleman and Elaine May in one of the most shambolic productions of the 70s. It’s a fair guess that his original draft to Strange Bedfellows was somewhat different to the version we see on screen but, alas, I have nothing concrete to back up that assertion.

Elsewhere, hardened fans will welcome the return of Bruce Kirby (in his ninth and final series’ appearance) and John Finnegan (in his 10th of 12 appearances). Kirby is playing a dependable police sidekick to Columbo once again, only this time he’s rather pointlessly cast as Sergeant Phil Brindle instead of the usual Sergeant George Kramer. Finnegan, meanwhile, is back as diner-owner Barney after also assuming the role in It’s All in the Game. As always, the mere presence of these popular character actors is a welcome call back to the show’s classic era.

If only the same could be said for the calibre of Strange Bedfellows as a whole. While it has some entertaining moments, its ludicrous elements make it impossible to take seriously despite the efforts of Falk and Steiger. Were this a standalone movie mystery it could conceivably be passable fare, but its lack of substance and gaping plot holes earmark it as a weak entry into the Columbo universe.

Columbo Strange Bedfellows Bruce Kirby

With the killer leaving so obvious a trail of breadcrumbs to his own door, the shock value of the twist in which it is revealed that the Lieutenant has sided with the mob to bring McVeigh down also has a hollow ring to it. McVeigh is an inept boob without the mettle to stand up to the rigours of a serious police investigation. The Columbo of old would simply have worked harder to get the evidence he needed when the killer’s guilt was so clearly established without ever considering – let alone actually entering into – an alliance with gangsters.

The bait-and-switch finale might seem clever on first viewing but becomes increasingly unpalatable under closer scrutiny as yet another quality of a character we treasure is carelessly tossed away. And that’s really Strange Bedfellows’ striking legacy: in seeking to provide a thrilling parting shot it manages to undermine more than 25 years of careful character curation.

How I rate ’em

Another flaccid effort, Strange Bedfellows has its moments but its many flaws see it plunge into the bottom tier of new Columbo outings. It’s not as bad as the dreaded McBain episodes, but that’s hardly a glowing endorsement. One to avoid.

To read my reviews of any of the other revival Columbo episodes up to this point, simply click the links in the list below. You can see how I rank all the ‘classic era’ episodes here.

  1. Columbo Goes to College — top tier new Columbo episodes —
  2. Agenda for Murder
  3. Death Hits the Jackpot
  4. Columbo Cries Wolf
  5. It’s All in the Game
  6. Rest in Peace, Mrs Columbo
  7. Columbo Goes to the Guillotine — 2nd tier starts here —
  8. Sex & The Married Detective
  9. Caution: Murder Can Be Hazardous to Your Health
  10. Butterfly in Shades of Grey
  11. A Bird in the Hand…
  12. Murder, A Self Portrait
  13. Columbo and the Murder of a Rock Star — 3rd tier starts here —
  14. Murder, Smoke & Shadows
  15. Uneasy Lies the Crown
  16. Strange Bedfellows — 4th tier starts here —
  17. No Time to Die 
  18. Grand Deceptions
  19. Undercover
  20. Murder in Malibu
Columbo Strange Bedfellows
Did I really let them do that to the Columbo character?

That’s all for today, friends. Do have your say on Strange Bedfellows in the comments section below. Can you accept Columbo’s actions in this episode, or do they irreparably damage the character? How do you rate George Wendt as a killer? And are there any glowing highlights I’ve overlooked that you believe warrant a mention?

I’m now going to lie down in a darkened room and try not to think about Strange Bedfellows again for the next few years. The next stop on the Columbo train is A Trace of Murder – an episode that wouldn’t air for more than two years after this one. A sign that the show is ready to call it quits, or a welcome hiatus to allow the production team to come back better than ever? Let’s wait and see…

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Columbo Strange Bedfellows Rod Steiger
Suck ’em in, gut lords! There are ladies watching!
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