The final Columbo episode of the 90s, Ashes to Ashes premiered on October 8, 1998, and brought series COLLOSSUS Patrick McGoohan back for his fourth and final tilt as a killer.
With a cast simply awash with household names, Ashes to Ashes promised to be the sort of blockbuster Columbo experience all too rarely witnessed since the Lieutenant’s 1989 comeback. But is it an episode worthy of eulogising, or is it another shovelful of dirt on top of the series’ creaking coffin? Let’s find out…
Lieutenant Columbo: Peter Falk
Eric Prince: Patrick McGoohan
Verity Chandler: Rue McClanahan
Liz Houston: Sally Kellerman
Rita: Catherine McGoohan
Sergeant Degarmo: Richard Riele
Eddie Fenelle: Ron Masak
Roger Gambles: Spencer Garrett
Sheik Yarami: Richard Libertini
Mrs Lerby: Edie McClurg
Awards bash singer: Ken Weiler
Dog: As himself
Directed by: Patrick McGoohan
Written by: Jeffrey Hatcher
Score by: Dick DeBenedictis
Eric Prince, undertaker to the stars, finds himself facing ruin when ex-lover and investigative/gossip journalist Verity Chandler lines him up to be her next big scoop.
Verity (absolutely not hung up on Prince after he dumped her) plans to expose Prince’s shady past dealings on her next show, due to be aired in a few days. The killer revelation promises to be that, years before when he was a mere mortician, Prince stole a diamond necklace from the corpse of Hollywood darling Dorothea Page. He used the gains from selling the necklace to buy into the funeral home – the first in a chain of such businesses he owns across the USA. Yes folks, when it comes to undertaking there’s no bigger name in the business than Eric Prince.
Unable to resist the chance to let Prince know in advance of the shame she’s about to heap on him, Verity shows up to his business address on the day of the funeral of war hero and movie star Chuck Houston. She confronts Prince in his embalming suite to gleefully and spitefully let him know that his days are numbered. Bad move, Verity! Taking up a trocar embalming tool, Prince cracks her on the back of her swede as she attempts to leave. He then wonks her again for good measure and hides her body in his cold storage facility.
After narrowly avoiding being walked in on by his assistant Rita, Prince joins the congregation for the Houston funeral. Once the mourners are safely off the premises, Prince goes into action. He switches Verity’s corpse for Houston’s and incinerates her in his lieu – taking her handbag, earrings and shoes to use later in his wicked scheme. Once Verity has been reduced to ashes, Prince gives these to Houston’s widow Liz, who illegally scatters them over the Hollywood Sign on a helicopter ride, believing them to be the last mortal remains of her dearly departed husband.
Under cover of darkness, Prince lets himself into Verity’s home to set up the next part of his plan. As well as setting up a scene that suggests Verity was working (and boozing) at home before being forcibly removed by unknown assailants, Prince also accesses her home computer, deletes the story she had written about him and replaces it with some generic swill about the burgeoning cocaine business in Beverly Hills. Importantly, Prince unsets and resets the computer’s clock as he does this, which will suggest Verity was hard at toil at a time that he himself has a rock-solid (ahem) alibi – hangin’ with Mrs Houston, his secret lover!
Police are alerted to the mysterious disappearance of Verity Chandler the following morning by her prissy and irritating underling Roger Gambles, who hadn’t heard from his boss since the previous morning, and who had found her home to be a scene of apparent unrest when he called by to check on her. It looks for all the world like Verity was working on the cocaine story at 8.37pm – and was subsequently kidnapped, possibly by hoodlums related to the very story she was typing up!
Typically, little things start to bother Columbo. A note in Verity’s diary says PH SB, but no one knows what it means. He’s also troubled when he finds 11 photos of a puppy on Verity’s desk. Why 11 and not 12 photos, as per the number of negatives on the desk? His musings are interrupted by Gambles making a fuss over Louella – the puppy from the photographs, who has been left in a locked room with no food and water since the previous day. Tellingly, the pup hadn’t been given its evening treat – an oddity given that Verity appeared to have been home and well able to give said treat to said adorable pup.
Columbo does find out where Verity had gone to attend the Chuck Houston funeral, so heads over to ask a few questions. Prince, meanwhile, has found a way to rid himself of Houston’s body without raising any eyebrows. The recently widowed Mrs Lerby (Grace from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off!) hates her husband, and was about to be granted a divorce. He blew himself up in some sort of gas boiler explosion and his wife doesn’t care what happens to him. Prince thoughtfully offers to cremate what’s left of Mr Lerby and have his ashes placed in an urn and scattered over the ocean. It’s a win-win for everyone – especially Eric Prince!
The Lieutenant is awaiting Prince once this meeting is adjourned, although he asks nothing to overly trouble the master mortician. Yes, Verity had been at the funeral, but she was there only briefly and only spoke to Mrs Houston before leaving. She usually drove a red Mercedes, but on this occasion had arrived in a cab. Assistant Rita even points out that she had seen Verity pick up a funeral home pamphlet and put it in her handbag – and that she’d even planted a smacker on Chuck Houston’s corpse, leaving a lipstick mark which Rita had dutifully rubbed away with her handkerchief. This piece of evidence is handed over to the detective.
Returning to the crime scene, things are most certainly not adding up for Columbo. For one thing, there’s no sign of the funeral home pamphlet in Verity’s handbag, nor her desk. The missing photograph has been accounted for after the crime lab reprinted all the negatives from her desk. It’s an ornate gateway to an unidentified house. But where’s the original photo of it that would have been printed alongside the 11 pics of the puppy? And he’s still no closer to cracking the PH SB mystery.
Seeking help, Columbo calls Liz Houston to Chandler HQ. She duly arrives with Prince in tow and it’s not long before the duo are asked to account for their whereabouts at the time of Verity’s death. After some umming and ahhing, they admit to having been together, although a shame-faced Liz, not wanting to be considered an unfeeling Jezebel, claims that Prince stayed with her overnight to administer GRIEF COUNSELLING, and certainly not booze-fuelled hanky-panky. Got that?
Liz is able to provide further valuable intel to the Columbo regarding lipstick marks. When fixing up the crime scene, Prince had refilled an existing glass of scotch on Verity’s desk that had a very obvious lipstick mark on the rim. However, when comparing the handkerchief lipstick stain from the Houston funeral with the glass, Liz is adamant: the two shades are distinctly different. Why would Verity wear one shade of lipstick to the funeral, then come home, take off her earrings and shoes, and apply a different lipstick? The final question Columbo has for the pair is whether they recognise the gate in Verity’s photograph. We know that Prince knows it to be the home of Dorothea Page, but he sensibly holds his peace.
Back at the mortuary, Prince disposes of what he hopes will be the final evidence relating to the Verity Chandler case. He lobs the remains of Messrs Lerby and Houston into a single cardboard coffin and sends them up in smoke. The ashes of the two men are placed into an urn for Mrs Lerby to collect at her leisure.
Columbo, meanwhile, is seeking new leads. He tracks down ex-con cabbie Eddie Fenelle, who gave Verity a ride to the funeral home, but fails to elicit any intel. He does get lucky, though, when he overhears some taxi driver slang on road abbreviations. Looks like the SB in Verity’s diary could stand for Sunset Boulevard. Sure enough, when he goes for a spin there the Lieutenant finds a gateway that matches the one in Verity’s photo – meaning the PH likely stands for photograph. Clever boy, Columbo!
After finding out from the homeowner that Dorothea Page used to live there, Columbo gets another lucky break. Three days prior (on the same day as the Houston funeral), a woman matching Verity’s description had been spotted taking a photograph of the front gate. When challenged by security guards, she fled in a taxi cab – a revelation that leads the detective straight back to cab driver Fenelle. Now willing to open up, Fenelle confirms that he had been helping Verity with her enquiries into Dorothea Page’s missing diamond necklace – and that Eric Prince was suspected of being involved in fencing the necklace nearly 20 years earlier. If Verity has been killed, Columbo has a viable suspect who might’ve wanted her to be kept quiet permanently.
Tracking Prince down to the the Funeral Director of the Year Awards bash (where he’s just been named Man of the Year), Columbo pumps his suspect for information. Prince recounts the day of Dorothea Page’s death, and how police believed a diamond necklace had been left on her corpse when it was delivered to him at the mortuary. He claims there was no necklace, and a police search of the premises failed to uncover one. Columbo also makes Prince listen to a short extract on Verity’s dictaphone, which references ‘grisly undertakings on Sunset Boulevard’ in relation to her upcoming show. Was she planning to accuse Prince of stealing the necklace on live TV? Prince scoffs at the suggestion.
There’s no way Prince is going to confess to anything based on the scant evidence against him, leading Columbo to visit Roger Gambles at Verity’s TV studio set. While being shown how Verity’s email and phone pager system interconnect, a telling incident is unearthed. At 12.32pm on the day of her disappearance (and right after the Houston funeral ended), the link between email and pager was severed. What could have caused it? No one seems to know, but Columbo has his suspicions, which lead him back to the Prince Funeral Home, where he overhears Mrs Lerby discussing her plans to dispose of her husband’s ashes over the ocean later that evening.
Meeting Prince, Columbo outlines his case against the man in a good-natured way. He believes Verity was killed at the funeral home, her corpse switched with Chuck Houston’s and cremated alongside her personal affects – including her pager. His confidence on a high, Prince is able to make light of the insinuation. “Since there was only one cremation that day and I performed it,” he chirps, “that would make me the murderer. Do tell me, do you have any bodies?” Columbo admits he does not. “No bodies, no case,” Prince playfully retorts.
But Columbo ain’t about to give in. Arranging an evening meeting with Prince, the Lieutenant is again on the attack. He accuses Prince of having placed Dorothea Page’s necklace in her mouth to avoid the police finding it, and retrieving the diamonds after her cremation. Of course, he can’t prove this but he is planning to make an arrest tonight regarding the Verity Chandler case. And the sound of the funeral home’s helicopter landing outside is his cue to kick into action.
Columbo has had the Lerby helicopter ride over the ocean grounded. He makes the pilot hand over the still-full urn to him and goes full-on Sherlock, playing out a thrilling demonstration that he believes will prove Prince did not cremate Chuck Houston as he claimed on the day Verity Chandler went missing. To prove his point, Columbo shakes the Lerby urn, which gives a distinct rattle. Fishing into the urn, the detective removes a twisted piece of metal – shrapnel that x-rays will prove had been in Chuck Houston’s leg since World War 2.
If Mrs Houston had tipped her husband’s ashes over the Hollywood sign after his cremation, how could this 50-year-old piece of shrapnel have ended up in the ashes of 48-year-old leisurewear salesman, Mr Lerby? Acknowledging the Lieutenant’s mental acumen with a chuckle, Prince voluntarily enters into police custody as credits roll…
My memories of Ashes to Ashes
You know the drill by now, I haven’t watched this one for donkey’s years so as to come at is with fresh eyes, but Ashes to Ashes is one of a small proportion of new Columbo adventures that I remember with a decent level of fondness.
Much of the minutiae of the episode escapes me, but I do have good vibes about the rapport between Falk and McGoohan, the brutal nature of the killing, the unique nature of the funeral parlour setting, and some delightful directorial and cinematographic touches by McGoohan – including what I can only assume is his deliberate similarity to Identity Crisis alter ego Steinmetz from 23 years earlier.
Naturally, there’s much more than that required to make for a bona fide classic, but prior to this review I associate Ashes to Ashes with being the last great Columbo episode – and the point at which the series should arguably have bid adieu to the watching world with its head held high. Here’s hoping this one really will live up to the mental hype…
While I’ve always felt more of a connection with Jack Cassidy and Robert Culp, I’m not immune to the eccentric charms of Patrick McGoohan and recognise his Columbo comeback in Ashes to Ashes to be an event worthy of jubilation.
Here, McGoohan became the series’ first four-time killer – eclipsing Cassidy and Culp in the process – as well as assuming directorial duties for the fourth time. His chemistry with Peter Falk remains pleasingly undimmed, almost 25 years after they first collaborated so effectively in Season 4’s By Dawn’s Early Light. For those reasons alone, Ashes to Ashes must be regarded as an important milestone in the ‘new Columbo’ era that has consistently fallen short of the standards the show set in the 70s.
Certainly this episode has a much more celebratory feel about it than the tepid A Trace of Murder, which was actually marketed as a special episode to mark the 25th anniversary of Columbo’s first season airing. Trace was an episode screaming out for a big-name guest star in line with its illustrious ambitions. It had none. Welcoming McGoohan back to the fold for Ashes to Ashes goes some way to off-setting that disappointment. While I wouldn’t say that Eric Prince is McGoohan’s most captivating Columbo baddie, he is a suitably mischievous and menacing character who gives the Lieutenant a good run for his money and seems to be having a jolly good time in the process.
At time time Ashes aired, both its leads were in excess of 70 years of age (Falk was 71, McGoohan six months past his 70th birthday). Indeed, McGoohan became the series’ second oldest killer behind only Ruth Gordon, who was 81 when Try & Catch Me aired in 1977. This was potentially a risky move for a network show looking to attract a wide audience, but McGoohan’s idiosyncratic energy and his revitalising effect on Falk gave ABC sufficient confidence that they had a ratings hit on their hands.
Sadly for all involved, Ashes was trounced in the ratings to achieve (according to David Koenig’s Shooting Columbo) the lowest ever first-run ratings in the series’ history. In a world where the awful No Time to Die was a ratings winner, this seems like rough justice on Ashes. Because, buoyed by each other’s company, the confrontation between Columbo and Prince hit heights rarely seen since the 70s, making Ashes to Ashes, for the most part, thoroughly entertaining viewing.
What helps Ashes stand out is the unique nature of its funeral parlour backdrop. We’ve seen plenty of funerals in Columbo (usually involving the Lieutenant ruining the occasion in one way or another), but setting the killing itself within the embalming room of a high society mortician was a new and interesting play for the series.
The killing itself, while not premeditated, was a brutal and shocking one, involving Prince thwacking gossip journo Verity Chandler over the head with a blunt metal embalming tool. The severity and swiftness of Prince’s actions were highly reminiscent of Nelson Brenner’s slaying of Geronimo in Identity Crisis from 1975 – the first time McGoohan doubled up to star in and direct a Columbo episode. Eric Prince may be nearer the grave than the cradle himself, but he’s a desperate and dangerous man when cornered, making him a pretty tasty proposition as a villain.
In a comparative rarity for the era, Prince’s character is also nicely fleshed out. His backstory reveals him to be a failed actor who financed his current funeral home empire by stealing and selling a movie star’s priceless diamond necklace after she ended up on his mortician’s table 20 years before. He’s been an unscrupulous git for decades, so it rings true that he would kill to defend his secrets and his lavish way of life.
As for his victim, well, what can we say? Verity Chandler obviously doesn’t believe in the old adage that revenge is a dish best served cold because she’s boiling with vitriol when she confronts Prince in his embalming suite to give him advance warning that her forthcoming live show is set to blow the whistle and expose the jewellery-stealing skeletons in his closet.
While the old victim-can’t-resist-blabbing-about-how-bad-they-gon-burn-da-killer-leading-to-their-own-death trope is as old as the medium itself, it’s done well enough here. It turns out that Verity was romantically spurned by Prince some years before and has been looking to expose his shady past dealings ever since. Her desire to let him know how much pain she has in store for him has overcome her common sense: a tragic flaw of the sort that has that signposted a victim’s fate since Shakespeare’s day.
In another casting coup, Rue McClanahan plays Verity and her presence gives the episode a further shot in the arm. Forever remembered as the feisty Blanche in Golden Girls, McClanahan gives Verity a similar level of spunk, making her several minutes of screen time highly enjoyable. Her flamboyant nature, in keeping with a tabloid journo and TV reporter, puts Verity at centre stage wherever she goes – notably even planting a smacker on deceased movie star Chuck Houston’s corpse (eeeeew!) in full view of a room of mourners before her showdown with Prince. Verity is hardly a sympathetic victim, but she packs a punch and is certainly one of the more memorable victims of Columbo’s later days.
In terms of covering up the crime, Prince does a sound job given how little time for planning he had. After stuffing Verity’s corpse in cold storage, he does a switcheroo with Chuck Houston’s body, cremating her stiff in place of his and presenting the ashes to Mrs Houston for dispersal over the Hollywood Sign. Nice work, Eric! No matter what happens from now on, Verity’s body will never be discovered.
Prince’s attempts to set up a scene suggesting Verity was kidnapped by a drug cartel hint further at his Machiavellian mindset. He not only deletes Verity’s tell-all story about him from her computer, but replaces it with a nondescript yarn about drug dealing in Beverly Hills and tampers with the computer’s clock to suggest she was working on the story when assailed later in the evening – conveniently at a time when Prince was ‘comforting’ the recently widowed Mrs Houston. He’s a very clever boy…
Even the mistakes he does make (failing to notice the lipstick stain on a glass of scotch isn’t a match for the shade Verity was wearing at the funeral; not realising she had a new puppy in an anteroom that needed feeding) don’t amount to much in the grand scheme of things. Even for a cop as shrewd as Columbo, proving Verity Chandler is dead at all is a big ask; proving Eric Prince killed her an even bigger one.
Unfortunately, that aspect is what causes Ashes to Ashes the most problems in the long-run. Columbo makes some clever deductions throughout the course of the episode that make Eric Prince a deserving chief suspect in the supposed killing of Verity Chandler. At episode’s end, we viewers know that Columbo has seen through Prince’s entire charade and accurately traced his every fiendish move. But in criminal terms he has proved absolutely nothing against Prince.
The ‘crucial’ evidence that Columbo unveils during the episode denouement is that a piece of shrapnel that had been in Chuck Houston’s leg since World War 2 was in the ashes of a random 90lb weakling who was cremated by Prince at a later date, and who never had a shrapnel war wound. It’s a decent bit of sleuthing but, really, what does Columbo prove here? He still hasn’t established that Verity Chandler is dead, or was murdered by Eric Prince. In itself, the shrapnel doesn’t prove that Verity was cremated in Houston’s place either.
Although Prince acknowledges Columbo’s smarts with a smile and a “very good” before turning himself over to police custody, he doesn’t make the mistake of confessing there and then. And why should he? It took me approx. 0.005 seconds to come up with a plausible explanation for the shrapnel being in the wrong ashes and I don’t claim to be half as brainy as Eric Prince.
After each cremation, ashes are manually swept from the oven’s concrete shelf down a grate and into a small drawer from which they are retrieved and placed in an urn. Is it not conceivable that Prince, hurrying to get the job done in order to enjoy nookie with Mrs Houston/catch his favourite TV show/gallop to the bogs after some dodgy clams (delete as applicable) might have mis-swept the oven, allowing the shrapnel to remain there and only be collected after the next cremation? You bet your life it is! There’s no way any sane jury will convict him on such trifling evidence.
To me, that makes the conclusion of Ashes to Ashes distinctly underwhelming. I know Columbo ain’t Law & Order, and for most viewers simply knowing that the Lieutenant has outsmarted his foe is good enough. Personally, though, I always find it more satisfying to feel like the criminal has absolutely had their comeuppance and will spend the majority of the rest of their life rotting in a jail cell. That’s 100% not the case here. Even if he hires a bungling trainee lawyer, Prince will sidestep justice.
I liken the finale of Ashes to that of 1972’s Requiem for a Falling Star, where Columbo never actually solves the killing of poor Jean Davis off his own back. He instead solves an earlier crime (the murder of Al Cumberland, Nora Chandler’s deceased husband) and relies on Nora confessing to killing Jean to close the case. Prince’s lack of a guilty admission doesn’t even offer us that kind of closure. He’ll be a FREE MAN enjoying the trappings of his ill-gotten fortune before you can say I am not a number! That’s a let-down.
While a flimsy gotcha doesn’t necessarily damn a Columbo episode, it undoubtedly takes some of the shine off Ashes to Ashes, which is, for the most part, a diverting addition to the canon. It does have a few forgettable aspects as well, however, which are both symptomatic of the production standards of the day and of McGoohan’s penchant for absurdity.
As was typical of McGoohan’s involvement in Columbo, he did a lot of tinkering with Jeffrey Hatcher’s original script and some of his amendments are an acquired taste, to say the least. During one funeral scene, McGoohan added a tap dancer in the background to act as a visual interpretation of the mental ‘dance’ going on between Columbo and Prince in the foreground. I simply find it distracting and irksome but then again I HATE tap dancing with a passion few can understand, so perhaps I’m not the best judge of this scene’s merits?
Far, FAR worse than this is the sheer ghastliness of the musical medley that accompanies the action at the Funeral Director of the Year awards bash, where our mate Eric has landed the coveted gong. In yet another example of ‘new Columbo’ having to shoehorn in minutes of SWILL to ensure episodes could reach the 90-minute running time, McGoohan masterminded and wrote the lyrics for this wickedly bad set that includes ‘side-splitting’ sepulchral variations on such crowd pleasers as For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow and She’ll Be Coming Round the Mountain.
Being serenaded by this dirge would make any living human want to shrivel up and die due to the medley’s unholy trinity of being camp, jaunty and deeply unfunny. Too much of this and the viewer may even start yearning for the sweet, silent embrace of the crypt, placing it amongst the most cringe-inducing scenes ever to feature in Columbo, and one in which Falk looks vaguely embarrassed to be part of. Soak it all in below if you dare…
On top of this, the awards ceremony is also being frequented by some absolute buffoons, notably a trio of deviant berks who are harassing a barmaid with vaguely lewd tales and then yelling with laughter at their own hilarity. I would gladly have seen these three clowns buried alive later in the episode, or at least given a down-dressing by an appalled Columbo. Sadly, neither eventuality dawns.
Elsewhere, there are some feeble attempts to inject humour into proceedings by having Columbo manhandled by some goons as he loiters at the gate of former movie goddess Dorothea Page’s Sunset Boulevard mansion (she whose necklace Prince purloined years earlier). The strapping six-footers even put the Lieutenant through the ignominy of lifting him up so that his little legs kick in the air like a naughty child’s as he yells his displeasure. Dignified it ain’t…
Ashes to Ashes is a big improvement on most of its stablemates from the mid-to-late 90s.
To make matters worse, Dorothea Page’s house is now owned by a movie-loving Sheikh, who is played by Richard Libertini – a man whose antecedents are 100% Italian and 0% Arabian/Indian Subcontinental. It’s been 23 years since Columbo dallied in Middle Eastern affairs in A Case of Immunity, but the clichés haven’t evolved one bit. I accept that times have changed since the 90s, but this is a scene and characterisation that has dated terribly.
Despite these criticisms, Ashes to Ashes is a big improvement on most of its stablemates from the mid-to-late 90s. While I haven’t gone into great detail on the supporting cast, it’s an episode notable for providing strong roles for senior actors. Besides Falk, McGoohan and McClanahan, there’s also a significant (and fun) supporting role for 61-year-old Sally Kellerman (best known for her Oscar-nominated turn as ‘Hot Lips’ Houlihan in the movie version of MASH) and another for 62-year-old Murder, She Wrote veteran Ron Masak.
Patrick McGoohan’s daughter Catherine even gets a reasonably juicy role as Prince’s funeral parlour sidekick, Rita – a part she excels in, enabling any claims of nepotism to be easily deflected. Fans of 80s cult movies will also love seeing Edie McClurg pop up in a small role as a widow absolutely unmoved by the loss her husband. Granted, it’s not an iconic role like Grace in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, or the hire car counter clerk in Planes, Trains and Automobiles, but McClurg’s presence adds depth and familiarity to what has been the strongest Columbo ensemble in years.
In summary, Ashes to Ashes is a decent effort by 90s Columbo standards but falls some way short of greatness. It’s lovely to have a legendary villain return to the series, and the way Falk and McGoohan bounce off each other goes a long way to papering over the episode’s cracks, but ultimately it feels a little bit disappointing – especially the unconvincing gotcha.
The poor ratings for Ashes to Ashes threatened to be the series’ death knell.
The episode’s funereal theme would have made it a fitting end point for the entire series, and Ashes to Ashes would indeed be McGoohan’s final physical screen appearance of any kind, although he would do subsequent voice work on The Simpsons and Disney animation Treasure Planet. Columbo would go on, though, as would McGoohan’s involvement in the series as he agreed to direct the following episode, Murder With Too Many Notes.
The poor ratings for Ashes to Ashes, however, threatened to be the series’ death knell. Despite being filmed in 1998, ABC didn’t have the confidence to air Too Many Notes until the spring of 2001, at which point Ashes was but a distant memory. History, though, has been kinder to the episode than audiences of the day were. Ashes to Ashes is now generally considered to be a stand-out latter day Columbo and a suitable eulogy to the strength of the enduring friendship between Falk and McGoohan that brought so many fans so much pleasure over so many years.
Did you know?
If my reckoning is correct, Patrick and Catherine McGoohan became only the third parent-and-child combo to appear together in an episode of Columbo.
The other two occasions took place in Season 4, way back in 1974. Mike Lally and Michael Lally Jr. both had small speaking roles in Negative Reaction, while Bruce and Bruno Kirby shared the limelight in By Dawn’s Early Light.
Janet Leigh and Jamie Lee Curtis also both appeared in the series, but in different episodes – Forgotten Lady for Janet and The Bye-Bye Sky High IQ Murder Case for Jamie, while episode director Boris Sagal secured daughter Katey a small role in 1973’s Candidate for Crime.
How I rate ’em
Ashes to Ashes deserves its reputation as one of the best efforts from Columbo’s beleaguered second run, although it has some considerable failings in its storyline that are nicely obscured by the sheer pleasure of watching McGoohan and Falk rekindle their epic bromance. Although slightly underwhelming, it’s still one of the must-see episodes of the revival era.
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.
- Columbo Goes to College — top tier new Columbo episodes —
- Agenda for Murder
- Death Hits the Jackpot
- Columbo Cries Wolf
- Ashes to Ashes
- It’s All in the Game
- Rest in Peace, Mrs Columbo
- Columbo Goes to the Guillotine — 2nd tier starts here —
- Sex & The Married Detective
- Caution: Murder Can Be Hazardous to Your Health
- Butterfly in Shades of Grey
- A Bird in the Hand…
- Murder, A Self Portrait
- Columbo and the Murder of a Rock Star — 3rd tier starts here —
- Murder, Smoke & Shadows
- Uneasy Lies the Crown
- A Trace of Murder
- Strange Bedfellows — 4th tier starts here —
- No Time to Die
- Grand Deceptions
- Murder in Malibu
Now it’s over to you! What are your thoughts on Ashes to Ashes? How much do you dig seeing McGoohan strut his stuff once more? And how easy is it for you to overlook the lack of damning evidence and just enjoy the ride? Tell it like it is in the comments section below…
It’s now time for me to beat it (like Eric Prince cracking Verity Chandler’s head), so I will bid you farewell and hope to see you again on the penultimate step of my Columbo journey when I return to review Murder With Too Many Notes a few short weeks from now.
I thought this episode was great fun, and as for the musical stylings at funeral director awards shindig, methinks Columbophile perhaps missed the point — it was intentionally, brilliantly awful, and something I could absolutely see occurring at a morticians’ gathering. I was dying laughing. I’m definitely on Patrick’s humour wavelength for this one. This might get my vote for #1 comeback episode. I even liked the gotcha; very clever, and, as with quite a few classic series gotchas, no, it probably wouldn’t hold up in court in the real world, but thankfully Columbo doesn’t take place in the real world.
Also, I’m surprised you didn’t mention the fabulous Aubrey Morris, love that guy!
My personal favorite tidbit of trivia in “Ashes” is the name of Verity’s puppy, “Louella”. Being an “old” Hollywood fan, I loved that a Hollywood columnist (Verity) bestowed her new puppy with the name of Hollywood golden years gossip columnist, “Louella” Parsons. A wonderful little nugget of fun squeezed into the script.
Superb catch on that funny reference, DP. This viewer did not even register the dog’s name.
Great review. Just to add, the other songs parodied in the medley are: Maybe This Time, After The Ball, and Alexander’s Ragtime Band.
Falk and McGoohan are close to cracking up in every scene they address one another – love that. McClanahan and McClurg are very, very clearly acting on a comedy level. Hot Lips was almost the same character as Back to School so she was on a comedy footing as well. The rest of the cast has their giddies on too. All in all, a comedy episode, in an ostensibly non-farcical episode that is actually a farce, in a way that can best be described as super-this-kinda-shit-only-happened-in the-90s-unintentional-intentional-proto-meta-comedy-not-comedy. Don’t-laugh/not-funny–murderer/evil–bodies/dead-people. I digress, but not really. Super watchable once you are comfy with that wacko vibe! However, the awards ceremony shoulda been cropped out before the film was developed, brutally and unforgivably horrible. The tap scene was also indefensibly horrible, some sort of miserably failing wannabe David Lynch shit. Both added as outright directorial protest to network demand for longer time length format? Who cares, these scenes sucked. But like a bad dream, the music from comes back at the end. “Oh the pain, the pain”, to quote doc what’s his name. Maybe better than the the “This Old Man” ending them but both are just ruinous. Back to funny stuff — most importantly, and based on screen time for shots of the control panel, DO CREMATION KILNS REALLY HAVE A friggin “AFTERBURNER” SETTING? Was the broken jet nozzle repairman sent from Lockheed Skunkworks? Does it share components with the F-22? If so, I need to know this. What about a cremation performed where AFTERBURNER is not specified? Indeed, the funeral home and house of passage to the afterlife is a brilliant, downright inspired setting for our cast of giddy death-type people (homicide investigators, undertakers, freshly minted widows, et cetera). This episode goes well with a plethora of amber liquors for many reasons, especially how it was meta before that was even a thing.
Hello Colombophile – do you have an address where I can send you a message privately? I can’t find one on the site. I have posted here before. I was a close friend of Patricia Mattick. You can send me an email. Thanks.
Hi Iva, you can email me at email@example.com 👍🏼
Not much to add here.
Falk seemed to be playing “overplaying it”…particularly with making sure the dog is fed.
The Main thing for me is this might be the episode where the killer does not seem to become agitated with Columbo (at least outwardly) at any point. Can’t remember another one with so little open frustration.
Mediocrity at its finest.
Oh, and I got a chuckle out of Prince providing “grief counseling” overnight with Mrs. Houston.
Columbo almost never makes a case that would stand up, and quite often doesn’t really make a case at all. My favorite example of this is the gotcha in the Janet Leigh episode being that ten minutes were unaccounted for. All she had to do is say that she fell asleep on the couch.
Surprised no one has commented on very obvious link with The Prisoner (unless I have overlooked!) – the presence of the fruity-voiced British character actor Aubrey Morris, who appeared in the great Prisoner episode The Dance of Death. I presume he was a friend of McGoohan, as he was in The Quare Fellow, and Danger Man, as well as Prisoner.
I like this episode, I mean come on…it’s Patrick. He’s great. But my “only in the Columboverse” (that is to say things we basically accept in Columbo but would never wash in real life) things is the gotcha with the metal from the cremation in the wrong urn. It’s a clever little gamble (but aren’t they always) but in real life it turns out that stuff gets mixed up all the time in crematoria. If you think you have your loved one and ONLY your loved one and ALL of your loved one in an urn, you’ve sadly got another thing coming. By coincidence when my father was cremated and I was given his remains (or some of them anyway) I shook the container sort of like how a parent wiggles a baby in the air to say “hello!” I was in mourning so I can’t pretend I was being particularly rational. In any case, some time later I realized I didn’t hear the expected “clink” of the titanium screws he had installed a year earlier. I have not dug through the ashes to find them, but through repeated “shakings”, I never heard them. (Sorry dad!) It wouldn’t surprise me if one, two, or all three screws were missing. They’re titanium, so many they are recycled? I have no idea.
But my suspicions were somewhat confirmed by my friend who works as a funeral director/mortician. She said that the cremation process is imprecise, not clumsy per se or even disrespectful. But it’s fire, it’s obliterated bones (not truly “ashes” as we think of them) and it’s a mess. I hope most people realize it is the symbol of your loved one that matters, and not their 100% complete and uncontaminated remains in an urn because I think that’s rarely the case.
But for the episode? It was a pretty good ending.
An excellent post, thanks Kevin. This fully endorses my belief that Eric Prince will get off Scot free!
Yes, I think the defense has a pretty solid case.
And now that I re-read my own post I am red with embarrassment over several typos and errors.
Kevin, as CP mentioned, great observations! This is the only Columbo episode that made me queasy simply because of how McGoohan dispatches his victim. Thank heaven we didn’t get to see the gory details but it still shook me up when I first saw it. Like when McGoohan murders his prey in Agenda For Murder: totally cold and callous to the bone!
Can’t really add anything to what hasn’t been said. One of my favorites of the second era. The lack of a succinct ‘gottcha’ did not bother me as much as it did some. The playfulness between Falk and McGoohan make it an episode I can watch anytime.
I watched the medley video. It’s not that bad. Don’t be so smug. The control booth scene was far, far worse (and longer).
Where’s the smugness?
There was none.
I hate this episode and my late father did also and he loved patrick mcgoohan especially in Identy crisis and agenda for murder paticullary and by dawns eearly light but theres enough grief iand death inthe world so why watch anepisode centered aroud cremations burials and undetakers columbo shouldbe trying to cheer people up ob a sunday or at least i thought not depress them wich is all this episodr does plus i just finnd it boring likes the nightlife is far better in my opinion ashes to ashes how can thN a
But there is grief and death in every Columbo episode, so why do you watch the show at all?
Exactly! MOF, this episode, because of the interplay between Falk & McGoohan, plus the silly undertakers’ awards show, etc. was less grim and more fun than several other episodes. I found it entertaining and not at all dark in any serious way — except of course, for the quick, but brutal murder scene. But, because of the TV code at the time, not a drop of blood on-screen, despite what would have been a very bloody outcome of such a blow to the head with that weapon. A very entertaining and fairly fun episode!
I just never liked this one it gets aired nearly every couple of weeks on 5 US A
Wich says enough becase they normally
Play trashy episodes
Regulary and hold back on classics
I rate the funeral scenes in all the other episodes such as negative reaction death hits the jackpot
Murder under glass ransom for a dead man etc i l absolutley love mcgoohan espeically in agenda and identity crisis and by dawns early light
But not this it also goes on for ages its silly a lot of the time and its a caper i just never bothered myself with sorry
I fully agree with you!
The fates aligned on this one … I caught the episode by chance from the beginning on live TV here in the UK on one of the Channel 5 channels and then after it had finished our gracious Host’s email pinged into my inbox to announce he had uploaded his review to the site.
I can add nothing to either Columbophile’s excellent review nor indeed to everyone’s comments, not least Mr Weill, all of which is spot on (buy and read Mr Weill’s novel ‘Last Train to Gidleigh’ by the way, it is nicely crafted and very enjoyable – and no, we’re on opposite continents so he has not paid me to say that and in Great Santini-style we have never met). Without disagreeing about the ‘camp’, what I would say for McGoohan’s singular direction when he himself is onscreen in this 90s era (I do not count Too Many Notes in this as a direction-only job) is that (1) it holds the interest when watching (unlike many other 90s efforts) and (2) the sheer eccentricity (I’ve edited myself there from “bat-s**t craziness’) just occasionally hits pay dirt with genuinely amusing results – Oscar Finch’s unique response ‘laughing’ at Columbo’s fax joke in Agenda and the scene here in Ashes where Columbo ever-so-slowly walks out on Prince whilst they are having a conversation at the funeral parlour ending with Prince asking “have you gone?” (or similar words!). Made me laugh anyway.
Wow! Thank you, ing869. (If I knew your actual name, I could verify that we’ve never met. I do spend significant time in the UK annually, and know many Brits, but probably not you.) I’m especially pleased that a Brit enjoyed my book, and wasn’t put off by any improper use of British vernacular. I tried my best to give it the correct local flavor (or rather, flavour).
There’s been a recent uptick in sales of “Last Train to Gidleigh.” I wish I could give your comment credit, but it happened before you posted. Maybe your comment will help it to continue. Thanks again. And to anyone else listening, go to: https://www.amazon.com/dp/0991351282/.
Columbo said PH stood for photograph? I’m not disputing it, I’m not going to Peacock for a view, but I thought it stood for Page House, Sunset Boulevard. Why would Verity write, “photograph”? To remind her she took a photo of it? Page house describes what it is on Sunset Boulevard that’s important.
As a juror, I’d give as much or more credence to the shrapnel than to Columbo’s fingerprints on the painting found in Aunt Edna’s house. After all, Columbo could have found the painting in a previous search and set Kingsley up. Not enough to convict. I buy the gotcha and I think the episode is one of, sadly, only a few winners in the second series.
Columbo suggested that PH might stand for photograph before he realised it was more likely to be a house on Sunset Boulevard.
Arthur Duncan(the tap dancer from the funeral who made a lasting impression on CP:) just passed on January 3rd, 2023. He was on The Lawrence Welk show for about 20 years as the only African American. It was very nostalgic to see him tapping again. He was also on the very old Betty White show from the 50’s. She kept him on and even increased his time performing on the show despite upsetting southern states. Her show was then apparently pulled off the air.
Long-time reader first-time commentor! I’m a big fan of this episode but an even bigger fan of your writing! From the eulogising/creaking coffin introduction to the beating it like Eric Prince cracking Verity’s head outro I enjoyed every word of this. Thanks for the effort you go to to making the reviews as enjoyable (sometimes more so) as the episodes themselves
Many thanks, and welcome to the commentators community! BTW, I think your cigarette machine is out of order 😉
A minor point that always intrigues me whenever I see this episode…
As noted in the review, Columbo gets the clue about SB being Sunset Boulevard after overhearing the taxi driver talk about road abbreviations.
But later in the episode when talking to Prince, the Lieutenant tells him that he learnt about it from his taxi driver nephew/brother in law/cousin…it’s been a while so without checking I can’t remember which exactly but obviously you know the drill!
The point being though that it does beg the eternal question about how much Columbo tells the truth when he talks about his ever extensive family members. Or as Dead Weight’s Helen Stewart asks on behalf of every fan, “Just between us….Do you really have a niece?!”
Too funereal for my tastes I’m afraid. By the way diamonds burn at cremation temperature but this plot hole could be fixed having Prince simply snatching and hiding the jewelry. McGoohan as the mortiferous mortician Prince is great, though.
I totally agree. With its themes of death and mortality, and a famous guest villain returning, this should have been the final Colombo episode
Jeff, I completely agree! In the perfect Columboverse, Ian Buchanan’s hot nymphs could have made a cameo and the episode retitled Asses To Ashes!
Thanks, Charles! I know I’m being an a-hole but we need more laughter in our lives. I’m sure even Peter Falk would agree! Besides, he did look like he had a fun time with those hotties…hehe
As New Columbo creaks to the finish line, the only reason that “Ashes” remains slightly passable is the presence of Patrick McGoohan as villain. Unfortunately, that does not overcome the limitations of McGoohan the director and McGoohan the script doctor.
In creating “The Prisoner”, McGoohan always wanted to craft an intelligent show, not one for the masses. Yet his directorial style leans way into what Rich describes below – camp. Definitions of camp usually have some variation of “wildly exaggerated”, and unfortunately, the broad vaudevillian routines of “Last Salute” were not an outlier for director McGoohan. The outsized Jessica Rabbit lipstick imprints, the absurd ballooning cigar smoke clouds, the goofball funeral party, all have the subtlety of a Benny Hill sketch. All that’s missing from the scene where the sheik guards lift Columbo are the cartoon “air running” sound effects, ala Shaggy after he pops into the air upon seeing a monster ghoul.
There are writer contrivances all over this episode. I’ve never been to a Beverly Hills funeral, but do they really keep detailed records of the cars that the stars arrive in? The script needs to use this plot device to have Columbo find the cabbie. Why do the sheik’s guards notice a single woman in red simply snapping one photo of the mansion gates – it’s been established as a celebrity landmark with constant tourist visits anyway. Oh, that’s because the writer needs to sic Columbo on the cabbie a second time for more motivation exposition about Prince. It’s a writer convenience.
Peter Falk’s old man-nerisms are now unavoidable. He’s repeating questions and answers, he’s gesticulating, he’s raising his voice unnecessarily. If Falk trusted McGoohan as a director so much, you’d think McG could have offered some friendly advice to dial it back a bit. But perhaps they’re both into elderly performance art, and McGoohan is complicit with Falk’s exaggerated embellishments – Columbo Camp.
Oh my, “Murder With Too Many Notes” is next.
I think the scene with Richard Libertini as Sheik Yarami at Dorothea Page’s former Beverly Hills home was mostly played for laughs and was also an in-joke.
Among Peter Falk’s favorite films that he worked on was “The In-Laws” (1979), in which he co-starred with Alan Arkin. Richard Libertini played a comic character named General Garcia. I’m sure the casting of Sheik Yarami in “Ashes to Ashes” was Peter’s idea.
Here’s a clip from “The In-Laws”:
Hi, Jeff Hatcher (the writer) was a neighborhood kid about a year younger than I am. I touch base with him once in a great while. I think he commented that about 90% of his script was edited. That might be a bit of an exaggeration. I enjoyed seeing at least one “Easter Egg” he sneaked in there apropos Steubenville.
Hatcher’s remaining 10% undoubtedly included the minister rehearsing his eulogy in the first moments. It’s the classic mystery writer’s hint at the final clue: Chuck earned a Purple Heart for his wound from a piece of an exploding grenade, i.e., shrapnel, in the South Pacific during World War II. There it is. Clear as day. Planted at the very top, where its significance wouldn’t be noticed. So that when, after the attention-sharpening murder and during the actual funeral, we could fade away from the minister just before his repetition of the “exploding grenade,” without anyone later accusing the writer of playing unfair with the audience.
I never understood why he had to switch the bodies to begin with. If he can cremate Chuck Houston together with Mr Lerby, why didn’t he simply burn him together with Verity Chandler?
The idea is that Lerby is little, so the volume of ashes won’t be very noticeable. But, Prince could just take some ashes out and flush them, so no, he didn’t have to switch bodies to begin with, but then there’d be no gotcha and it would have to be written more thoughtfully. Maybe then the shrapnel would have been in what was flushed and it stops up the toilet and Columbo tracks down the plumber. 🙂
Camp. The 90’s Columbos were loaded with camp. “Ashes to Ashes” is loaded with camp. The mortician’s convention is camp. The Columbo-security guards confrontation is camp. Sally Kellerman’s Liz Houston is camp.
What camp was in the 70’s Columbos? Nicholas Frame and Lillian Stanhope (“Dagger of the Mind”)? They were actors; emoting was in character. The Mac-drives-the-Peugeot scene in “Last Salute”? Insignificant in comparison to the endless Undertaker’s Ball. The inexplicable Steinmetz? Everything McGoohan touched after “By Dawn’s Early Light” had its eccentricities (including “Last Salute”).
The script I’ve read of “Ashes to Ashes” unfortunately was not Jeffrey Hatcher’s original. It contains three sets of revisions and is dated the day after filming began (according to David Koenig’s Case Log). I’d love to read the pure Hatcher version (i.e., without McGoohan’s meddling). Jeffrey Hatcher is a noted playwright with numerous stage mysteries in his credits. He was nominated twice for an Edgar Allan Poe Award for “Best Play” (“Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” 2009; “Sherlock Holmes and the Adventure of the Suicide Club,” 2012). More recently, he adapted and updated two Frederick Knott classics, “Wait Until Dark” and “Dial ‘M’ for Murder.” He was also a lifelong Columbo fan who always wanted to write an episode. I doubt his original had the camp of the final version.
I think if you did a CQ analysis of the 69 Columbos — camp quotient —you’d see the real difference between the two eras.
I Agree its actually one of the worst new episodes in my view id even prefer murder with too many notes than this i never choose to watch this one
Years before this episode premiered I had hoped there would be an episode that involved a mortician and suddenly there it was. I like the episode quite a bit and it was more like the original series from the 70s. At least, cremation makes perfect sense in this tale compared to what we get in Columbo Goes to the Guillotine.
The nature of the Columbo gotcha does not fit an environment using modern forensics and having a much higher standard on the evidence. I am afraid the new run of the show missed the opportunity getting new life into this by getting a bit more detailed about eg. search warrants and judges to be convinced to sign them, which would make them triggers for less fancy but instead plausible evidence. This way the detective with the brilliant mind finding details could have been kept without making it this slightly meta-thing, where apparently gentlemen follow agreed rules rather than actual law.
A technicality, but it should be noted that “deleting” a file doesn’t actually remove it from the hard drive. It merely deletes the file’s address from the file allocation table (FAT). It’s similar to requesting an unlisted telephone number. The home will still be there on the street, but it won’t appear in the phone book. In fact, there are free programs that will enable one to recover accidentally “deleted” files, and I have used one, thankfully.
On another note, I would rate Murder, Smoke and Shadows above Ashes to Ashes. Ashes is one of many later episodes that I have not been able to get interested in.
However, don’t remember perfectly, but I had seen several lines (titles), and if that by any chance was a single file that contained all the various stories, him deleting that story and saving the file again would overwrite it, meaning no chance to recover it, unless verity had a backup; furthermore, those recovery programs for deleted files aren’t always successful, especially if you delete a large amount of data, so it was at least a reasonable attempt at hiding the evidence, plus let’s not forget when the episode aired: computer technology was much weaker.
Ha, I honestly love the funeral medley. Of course it’s terrible, but it’s MEANT to be terrible, that’s what makes it such a funny scene.
Although I kind of enjoy Columbo likes the nightlife, this 67th episode should probably have been the final one, like you said, especially because of the funeral theme. And in The Netherlands 67 is the age for retirement, not back then but nowadays.
Really enjoyed reading your review as always! And I hope that meanwhile, you’re enjoying your new job.
I loved the funeral medley too. It makes perfect sense that funeral directors – forced to be solemn, soft-spoken, and dignified in their work – might behave in an entirely different way when getting together socially.
Yes, it’s like they are sort of unloading from their daily jobs. It reminds me of a former colleague of my late father, who was the most respectable, immaculately dressed civil servant imaginable from Monday to Friday, only to transform into the most fanatic tattooed hard core football fan in the weekends.
Your excuse for the shrapnel simply doesn’t work. Houston’s corpse was supposedly cremated and his ashes scattered. Even if someone missed the shrapnel during the sweeping, the man whose ashes are in the urn wasn’t cremated immediately after. How many days was that shrapnel sitting in the oven until it finally got swept into this urn?
Forensics can also determine that the weight of the ashes in the evidence urn is too great for the weight of the man supposedly cremated. How to explain that? Somebody must have done an especially bad job of sweeping to account for that extra weight!
The episode certainly could have stuck the landing a bit harder, but it’s not as sketchy a gotcha as you suggest.
You are right. Eric Prince could not have talked himself out of this the way CP suggests, because Rita tells him on the morning after Chuck Houston’s (that is in fact Verity Chandler’s) cremation that the oven has to be repaired “all day”, and that Prince would have to wait with Mr Lerby’s cremation. There is no way that during that day the repairman wouldn’t have noticed a carelessly forgotten heap of ashes in the oven.
I guess that’s the reason for this little dialogue between Eric and Rita in the 28th minute: The author wanted to prevent that the critical Columbo audience could bash the great gotcha.
The repairs could easily have been to the electrics and circuitry only. A repairman wouldn’t care of ashes had been left in the oven as long as it was working properly. No tradie has ever criticised the standards of cleanliness of my house/car after completing repairs.
Then what is this little storyline, which is even musically underscored, meant to tell us? It wouldn’t make a difference whether Eric could cremate Mr Lerby in the morning or in the late afternoon, if nobody except Eric has had a look at the crematory that day. I rather see the repairman exchanging a machine part from the inside of the oven. I imagine the questions in court, where you expect Eric to get away. I imagine the repairman will at least not be a witness to the hypothetically forgotten ashes in the crematory, which wouldn’t look too good for Eric Prince. And if the repairman had to crawl inside the crematory, he would have to testify: “I don’t remember any ashes that were left behind.” This would leave Eric with the need to invent another excuse. I’m all ears.
You could almost argue that Blythe Danner & Gwyneth Paltrow were another parent/child in Etude in Black (Danner being pregnant at the time).
Came here while watching it on 5USA this afternoon, and there’s a bleep just before Columbo is picked up by the Sheikh’s bodyguards (and the dated scene that follows). Not sure what was bleeped out – will need to get the DVDs out again.
I’ve always like this one. As always, the Falk and McGoohan are great together on screen and as you put, the murder is brutal and the cover up of it is clever. It’s easy to watch on repeat viewings with many things to enjoy about it but there are several moments that make you cringe. The scenes with the Sheik are probably the worst with “ah, a box of infidels” being one of the low points.