Season 6 opener Fade in to Murder may be something of an acquired taste, but there’s no doubting that the effervescent presence of William Shatner makes it a memorable adventure for Lieutenant Columbo.
Peppered with in-jokes at the expense of Peter Falk’s own tense relationship with Universal Studios and featuring a typically bonkers turn from Shatner as the pseudo-sympathetic murderer Ward Fowler, Fade in to Murder is a fun-filled romp that is not to be taken too seriously.
What are its most successful moments? That’s what I’m considering today. Ready? Then let’s boldly go where no Columbo episode has gone before…
5. The restaurant showdown
Sid and Claire Daley, the producers of the ultra-successful Detective Lucerne show, flex their negotiating might during a meeting with studio executives in a scene that must have felt painfully close to the bone to many real execs at Universal Studios.
It’s crystal clear from this scene that the Ward Fowler character – the highly-paid, Emmy Award-winning star of the most successful detective drama on TV – is the Columbo universe equivalent of Falk himself: a man who had on often fraught relationship with studio suits when it came to renegotiating his contract.
Fade in to Murder was filmed mere months after Falk was convinced to stay in the role by one of the highest-ever TV pay cheques of $300,000 per episode (the equivalent of $1.35m today). So the scene in the restaurant when Sid and Claire are discussing the future of Detective Lucerne (and Fowler’s wage demands) with studio fall guys is very likely not far off the actual conversations that took place between Universal and Falk’s representatives.
The short scene is enlivened by sharp scripting which delights in taking playful digs at Falk himself. “Who does Ward Fowler think he is?” asks one exasperated stooge. “As a representative of this studio, I will not stand for this precedent. There is no actor in the business who is irreplaceable.” His flustered colleague chimes in: “Ward Fowler is not the first actor on this network to win an Emmy!” – a barb unmistakably aimed at Falk, who won back-to-back awards in 1975-76 for his portrayal of the good Lieutenant.
4. Fowler’s forward-thinking alibi
Killers making use of jaw-dropping new technologies to cover their tracks is one of the bedrocks of the Columbo formula – and Ward Fowler’s use of a cutting-edge VHS to help establish his alibi is one of the series’ most ingenious efforts.
Fowler naughtily spikes the drink of his ‘gofer’ Mark (a recovering alcoholic), who passes out in moments as the two watch a live baseball game. Fowler uses this opportunity to dash into town to kill Claire at her favourite sandwich shop before returning home to complete the illusion that he was in Mark’s company all along. He turns back his digital clock an hour and a half and rewinds the video tape of the game he has just filmed before waking Mark and creating the illusion that only seconds have elapsed since Mark conked out.
At a time when such pricey gadgetry as a home VHS was but a pipedream for the average TV viewer, this clever crime would have seemed staggeringly modern for the audience of the day.
3. Chekov checks in
Fade in to Murder’s in-jokes were not only aimed at Peter Falk. William Shatner’s career-defining role as James Tiberius Kirk was also celebrated by the presence of Walter Koenig, forever known as Star Trek’s Russian underling Pavel Chekov.
Koenig, cast as Columbo’s crime scene sidekick Sergeant Johnston, has a small role in which he talks the Lieutenant through the tragic events leading to Claire Daley’s death – a fun scene in which Timothy Carey’s deli owner Tony pokes some gentle fun at Columbo’s tiny stature after the minuscule detective describes himself as being of average height.
This remains the only time I’ve ever seen Koenig on-screen not using a Russian accent. His presence allows viewers to imagine that Kirk and Chekov have had to travel back in time to right a wrong from earth’s ancient past. For Koenig, it was also a very welcome gig at a time when he was finding it hard to secure acting roles in the hiatus between Star Trek’s TV cancellation and its big-screen comeback in 1979.
2. Idiot ruins take!
You’d think that a man who has spent so much of his career investigating showbiz crimes would be a bit more careful when wandering about a TV set. You’d be wrong.
Columbo somehow ends up behind the scenery on the set of Detective Lucerne as Ward Fowler’s fictional sleuth is investigating a crime of his own – ruining the take in the process. As well as the humour derived from Columbo’s bumbling, William Shatner’s typically hammy posturing as the cane-wielding, fedora-wearing Lucerne are guaranteed to raise a smile.
This scene does a fine job in exemplifying the fun and games that lie ahead as TV’s greatest fictional detective enlists the help of TV’s greatest fictional fictional detective in his most self-referential adventure to date.
1. Playing at Lieutenant
Finding himself alone in Ward Fowler’s trailer, Columbo can’t resist a little snoop – and what he finds will have a material bearing on the case.
The wily detective notices that the shoes Fowler wears in Lieutenant Lucerne mode are platforms, handily giving him a lift of a few inches in height. Given that the eye witness to the killer stated that it was a man of average height or below, Fowler now becomes a very real physical fit for the murderer of Claire Daley.
Far more enjoyable, though, is Falk’s playing of the scene. He slips on the shoes himself, seemingly enjoying the height advantage they provide. He then proceeds to place Lucerne’s trademark white fedora on his head, and take up the TV detective’s ever-present cane.
When busted by Fowler, who has returned silently to the trailer and is now looking on with a straight face, Falk’s reaction is a delight, providing one of those unforgettably human moments when we see Columbo for who he truly is – an abashed fanboy caught out in the heat of the moment. He’s rarely been more adorable. Fowler’s lapse into good-humoured laughter also highlights the genuine camaraderie and warmth between the two leads – arguably the strongest thread running throughout the entire episode.
“Falk’s reaction is a delight, providing one of those unforgettably human moments when we see Columbo for who he truly is.”
That’s all from me, folks. Do share your own thoughts on the highlights of this fun-filled episode. If you need a refresh on the episode overall, you can check out my full episode review here. You can also find out where Ward Fowler ranks in the list of sympathetic Columbo killers right here.
Until next time, live long and prosper…
Staying on the subject of William Shatner, his new book BOLDLY GO: Reflections on a Life of Awe and Wonder was published this month through Atria Books.
In the book, Shatner reflects on the interconnectivity of all things, our fragile bond with nature, and the joy that comes from exploration in an inspiring, revelatory, and exhilarating collection of essays.
Boldly Go was co-authored by writer, director, and diehard Columbo fan Joshua Brandon. You can order a copy online, or find it at all major book sellers.