When Columbo was released on DVD in the mid-2000s, Universal’s failure to include any bonus juicy material alongside the episodes has been a sore point for fans ever since.
It’s even rumoured that Peter Falk himself was disgusted not to have been invited to provide commentary and recollections on the highs and lows of shooting the series, making Universal’s decision not to really go to town on the series’ boxset extremely hard to fathom.
As well as Falk’s input, fans were denied the opportunity of hearing from the myriad guest stars of the series – all too many of which have passed on to the ‘movie lot in the sky’ since the DVDs were released. It leaves Mark Dawidziak’s 1989 tome The Columbo Phile as the best single source of intel on the Columbo experiences of the A-Listers (including Leonard Nimoy, Roddy McDowall, Patrick McGoohan, Nicol Williamson and Theo Bikel) who helped elevate the show to iconic status.
What a treat it is, therefore, to be able to immortalise the Columbo recollections of no less a star than WILLIAM SHATNER on this humble blog. The two-time guest murderer first appeared in 1976 caper Fade in to Murder, and returned to the series 18 years later in Butterfly in Shades of Grey. He shared his reminiscences of his time on the show with writer, director, and diehard Columbo fan Joshua Brandon, the co-author of Shatner’s new book BOLDLY GO: Reflections on a Life of Awe and Wonder.
As is often the case, not every passage of the draft manuscript made it into the finished book. Cuts made to BOLDLY GO included Shatner’s recollections of his two appearances on Columbo. As a treat for his fellow fans, Joshua Brandon has exclusively released those passages to the Columbophile blog rather than see them lost to the ether. For that, I am truly grateful.
So, how did Mr Shatner enjoy working with Peter Falk? How does he feel knowing he’s part of a select group of actors who played multiple Columbo killers? And, most pertinently, what did he make of the ludicrous, colour-changing moustache he was sporting in Butterfly in Shades of Grey? Was he in on the joke, or an innocent victim of a makeup malfunction? Those questions will be answered below…
Fade in to Murder, 1976
“Talk about there being something in everything, there was everything in everything when it came to appearing on Columbo, which I was lucky enough to do twice. The first was in the show’s sixth season. The episode was called Fade in to Murder and was, in some ways, the writers getting very meta with the success of Columbo itself.
“Peter Falk had made the show enormously popular and had been rewarded with many industry awards and ever-fatter pay checks to keep coming back for additional seasons. The writers created the guest character of highly paid TV procedural actor Ward Fowler (whom I portrayed); Fowler himself played the titular character on the popular TV series Detective Lucerne. In-jokes abounded, such as the studio arguing about the obscene amounts of money Fowler was demanding to renew his contract. ‘Ward Fowler is not the first actor on this network to win an Emmy,’ one of them remarks, an all-too-obvious poke at Peter Falk, who had won back-to-back Emmys for the two previous seasons of the show.
I felt honored to be asked to be on Columbo. It was a prestigious show in the public consciousness.William Shatner on his appearance in Fade in to Murder
“Columbo was a difficult show to write for, since the audience already knew who the killer was within the first twenty minutes and before the erstwhile detective appeared on the scene. The challenge was to keep the audience entertained as they watched Columbo figure out what they already knew. This challenge is one of the reasons they only produced as many episodes as the writers and Peter felt they could do well. Season six featured only three, for instance.
“The key to the show’s success was Peter Falk, who was a terrifically nice guy and a joy to work with. He knew that character inside out—not just what worked, but why it worked. The writers may have joked about paying Peter such an exorbitant salary but he was worth every penny, and the studio knew it.
“I felt honored to be asked to be on Columbo. It was a prestigious show in the public consciousness and the Nielsen ratings, but more importantly, it was considered a New York actor’s show. It was filmed in the days when you could be a working actor there: there were plenty of film, television and theater opportunities in New York, and you could also get a job in LA and just hop on a plane to go shoot it. (Obviously you can still do that now, but New York isn’t quite the TV town it once was.)
I heard that because of my background on Broadway and in regional theater, I had been considered part of the New York acting milieu. Even though I’d lived and worked in Los Angeles for some time, the producers of Columbo considered me a “New York actor,” which was a huge compliment.
“For the Columbophiles out there, you will know that Ward Fowler was one of the few killers on Columbo who came out looking somewhat sympathetic. After all, Fowler was being blackmailed by his abusive manager/lover! What was a boy to do?”
Butterfly in Shades of Grey, 1994
“Years after Columbo ended on NBC, ABC brought it back for a series of TV movie-length episodes that ran from 1989 all the way to 2003. Legend has it that Peter Falk had chosen a script for a final episode in 2007 that he hoped to make shortly thereafter but he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 2008, which put an end to the idea of Columbo returning for a last hoorah; Peter sadly passed away a few years later.
“In 1994, the new version of Columbo was in full swing. I had just a few years ago finished up the last of the six Star Trek films starring the original cast, and I was trying to be more selective with my roles. It was one of the rare times in my career in which I felt secure enough to do that, and sadly, it’s a feeling that rarely lasts long. To my surprise and delight, I was invited to return to Columbo, which absolutely fit the bill of the kind of work I wanted to do. Last time, I had played a somewhat sympathetic actor, this time I was anything but sympathetic as the villainous talk-back radio host Fielding Chase.
“I went back to review some of the footage and I have to tell you, I lost track of the dialogue so quickly because I became simply riveted by the terrible, pencil-thin prosthetic mustache they put me in. Go back and look at the episode and tell me you’re not distracted by that thing! Not only was it a poor mustache, but in half the scenes it sags to the left or the right.
“How the makeup folks—and I, for that matter—could have allowed that to happen, I will never know. The episode is fun, and it was a treat working with Peter again, but that mustache… that mustache…”
I went back to review some of the footage and I became riveted by the terrible, pencil-thin prosthetic mustache…William Shatner on Fielding Chase’s moustache in Butterfly in Shades of Grey
Well my friends, that’s all for today. The excerpts above may not be gargantuan in length but they are extremely important nonetheless, offering an increasingly rare first-hand Columbo retrospection to an audience far removed from the filming of the series. Once again, my sincere thanks go to Joshua Brandon for sharing these passages and ensuring William’s Columbo memories weren’t lost to time.
You can read my full reviews of Fade in to Murder here and Butterfly in Shades of Grey here.
William Shatner’s new book BOLDLY GO: Reflections on a Life of Awe and Wonder was published in October 2022 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.
You can order a copy online, or find it at all major book sellers.
Wonderful! The impressions other actors had of Falk and the show always adds depth.
And frankly, the cheesiness of the mustache sort of fits into Shatner’s persona. It should have been mentioned in the credits.
Who knew the Shat’s Stash would take over the Columboverse. It should have won an Emmy!
Oh myyyy…this is simply the best treat posted by Columbophile. Mr. Shatner comments on his portrayal of Ward Fowler AND Fielding Chase. I love the bit about the mustache. There seem to be 3 or 4 different color and size versions of it throughout the episode. And to hear the Shats say it riveted him from the dialogue in the episode screening. William Shatner starred with 2 other Star Trek people in “Fade In” – Walter Koenig and occasional series extra Ed McCready. There was an interview with Walter Koenig where he recounts the “Fade In” scene where he is at the murder crime, how his back of his head was to the camera during most of the scene and how Falk made him do takes of the scene until 2:30 am. He also recounts being inside a golf cart on the way to LUNCH! and that Shatner didn’t even remember his name or talk to him!! Good times!! Parallels in both episodes are the walls of Fowler’s mansion and Chase’s studio replete with Shatner headshots, which showcases each character’s tremendous ego (the Ward Fowler TV room sports a pencil drawing of a first season Captain Kirk, suggesting that Ward Fowler played the lead in a science fiction series within the Columbo universe). By the way, does anyone pick up on how Ward Fowler drives a beige Plymouth Valiant? Was this Universal’s way of repurposing Duel rolling stock?
Columbophile also commented on series stars going to the big movie lot in the sky…perhaps the next best thing would be to reach out to their kids (Adam Nimoy, ie, and other children of the passed on actors) and the few villains and non-villains who are still around (Vera Miles, George Hamilton, Mariette Hartley, Blythe Danner, Dabney Coleman) for interview purposes. The best find would be an interview with the absolute king of all guest stars, Timothy Agoglia Carey’s kids (he had six) for some Columbo memoirs and tidbits.
He didn’t mention he got Cherkov on one of the episodes as well, what was his name again?
Walter Koenig was Chekov and cast as Sergeant Johnston in Fade in to Murder. That was a producer’s decision and had nothing to do with Shatner. According to Koenig, when the two shared a ride to have lunch at the studio during filming, Shatner didn’t even recognise him nor speak to him.
Poor Chekov! To be not remembered by his own Captain must have really hurt. But at least he endured a horrible alien creature attacking his brain for the good Captain when Khan wreaked havok across the galaxy. Thank you, Pavel!
An exclusive, yay!
Staying on topic-wise, my comment is above. But to the point of catching Mr. Shatner’s memory of the experience is so valuable and enjoyable! Forget rumors and assumptions, what better source! I wish there was more opportunity to hear from the major actors involved. Particularly in “Commodore” (controversial) and “Troubled Water” (curiously) regarding Robert Vaughn. But nothing was mentioned in his book and couldn’t find references in other places, or via trivia. Although perhaps there’s something in the Academy of Television Interviews. Has that been checked?
The actors who talked about Columbo in these interviews were: Tyne Daly, Hector Elizondo, Lee Grant, Kim Hunter, Walter Koenig, and Suzanne Pleshette.
Cool article, Columbophile! 🙂
I have to agree with William Shatner that the mustache is super-distracting and almost ruins what is otherwise a great episode. Look at him in that last photo. He looks like President Skroob!
Hahaha. Why didn’t someone TELL him his arse was so big!
Can I make a confession? Being a fan of both mr Shatner and Butterfly in Shades of Grey, I must have watched this episode, say, 20 times (which is below average when it comes to Columbo episodes for me) and I never even noticed the moustache. I mean, I noticed him having a moustache, but the irregularities in the make up have escaped my attention completely. Never knew about all the moustache commotion surrounding this episode either until reading about it, of course, on this blog.
Maybe I lack attention for detail. It could also have been because I’m always so drawn into the story that I take a moustache for granted.
Similarly here David.
Yes! I was thinking exactly the same thing. I thought it was just me. Such a big fuss over his moustache. What? Haha. I noticed it, but figured it was all part of his outlandish and shady character. It certainly never detracted from the character of Fielding Chase and how he amusingly interacted with Columbo, not for me anyway. I really get into a Columbo episode and appreciate the murder case and performances to a point where such a superficial cosmetic nuance is not going be a source of such significant distraction. I can understand Shatner himself being critical of it looking back, maybe with some embarrassment, but I think that if the audience can’t get past that moustache, then they can’t be properly absorbed in the episode!
The mustache fiasco is unfortunately a perfect example and metaphor for the lack of attention to detail from the entire New Columbo team throughout its’ 90s run.
This was fun to read … and I loved Shatner’s comments about Peter Falk.
Shatner mentions Columbo’s affinity for “New York actors.” Shatner’s two noted Broadway roles were in “The World of Suzie Wong” (1959) and “A Shot in the Dark” (1961). His co-star in the first was France Nuyen (“Murder Under Glass”), and in the second was Julie Harris (“Any Old Port in a Storm”). Shatner also starred in a short-lived 1965 TV series, “For the People,” shot in New York. His co-star there was Jessica Walter (“Mind Over Mayhem”).
Your comments are always so interesting (in a good way of course 😉) and thank you for all the contributions!
In this one are you suggesting Mr. Shatner is over-inflating his stage experience (I am neither in defense nor objection to it). I am guessing however, that it might be the quality of the performance rather than the quantity of productions. For example “Suzie Wong” played for a long time, and the author of “Shot in the Dark” was notable. WS has been interviewed to say that a regular and steady income was very important to him for supporting his growing family and expensive hobby interests. Perhaps NYC wasn’t a convenient permanent location. However, he possessed the talent for doing theater work (discipline and interpretation of characters) and I believe he was involved with Shakespeare (in Canada?) and wide breadth of experience in general.
I could be wrong, and welcome clarification 😉.
I’m simply pointing out the coincidence of Columbo also casting Shatner’s principal New York co-stars, thus substantiating Shatner’s assertion that Columbo “was considered a New York actor’s show.”
It wasn’t until I saw Robert Culp’s Wiki page that I realized he’d been married to France Nuyen.
It wasn’t until I read this comment that I realized he’d been married to France Nuyen! 🙂
Robert Culp (to me) is second only to Jack Cassidy as a top Columbo villain.
This comment applies to all the Columbo repeat offenders: How often did Cassidy or Culp or McGoohan or Hamilton or Shatner play sharply different characters on Columbo? Is Ken Franklin that much different from Riley Greenleaf or The Great Santini? Are Brimmer, Hanlon, and Kepple truly distinct? Nelson Brenner, Oscar Finch, and Eric Prince? The only true standout in my view is Col. Lyle Rumford in “By Dawn’s Early Light.” He resembled no other McGoohan murderer. (And, of course, Martin Landau played two distinct Columbo murderers in “Double Shock.”)
I wonder if actors who spend long stretches on the stage are more vulnerable to such makeup miscues. I assume a slightly saggy mustache is unnoticeable sans camera closeup and day-to-day consistency is also irrelevant. One might get used to looking in a backstage mirror and thinking, “that’s good enough!”
Or, everyone on set was coked out of their gourd. Either way, funny stuff.