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.
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.