Episode review: Columbo Ashes to Ashes

Columbo Ashes to Ashes opening titles

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…

Columbo Ashes to Ashes cast

Dramatis personae

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

Episode synopsis

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.

Columbo Ashes to Ashes
Eric Prince, planning to jam his tool where the sun don’t shine

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 Ashes to Ashes puppy
The pup was given a pair of glasses in a weak attempt to make it look more intelligent

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?

Columbo Ashes to Ashes Sally Kellerman
What self-respecting home DOESN’T have five decanters of whisky available at all times?

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.

Columbo Ashes to Ashes Ron Masak
Cabot Cove’s Sheriff Mort Metzger was going WAAAAAY undercover on this one

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 Ashes to Ashes end titles
Get a room!

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.

Columbo Ashes to Ashes Steinmetz Eric Prince
I’ll eat something in the shape of a hat if the likeness between Steinmetz and Eric Prince is accidental

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…

Episode analysis

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.

Columbo Ashes to Ashes
Name a longer-lasting bromance than this. I’ll wait…

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.

Columbo Ashes to Ashes Eric Prince
Now THERE’S a man who’s dedicated to his profession

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.

Columbo Ashes to Ashes Rue McClanahan
Kiss the corpse’ was a favourite party game in the Chandler household

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.

Columbo Ashes to Ashes
Tea but no sympathy: Columbo is determined to bring Eric Prince down

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.

Columbo Ashes to Ashes
Cheer up Eric, there’s no chance of a conviction!

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.

Columbo Ashes to Ashes

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.

Columbo Ashes to Ashes
Go on Eric, shove him in! You know you want to…

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.

Columbo Ashes to Ashes Catherine McGoohan
<cockles of heart noticeably warming>

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.

  1. Columbo Goes to College — top tier new Columbo episodes —
  2. Agenda for Murder
  3. Death Hits the Jackpot
  4. Columbo Cries Wolf
  5. Ashes to Ashes
  6. It’s All in the Game
  7. Rest in Peace, Mrs Columbo
  8. Columbo Goes to the Guillotine — 2nd tier starts here —
  9. Sex & The Married Detective
  10. Caution: Murder Can Be Hazardous to Your Health
  11. Butterfly in Shades of Grey
  12. A Bird in the Hand…
  13. Murder, A Self Portrait
  14. Columbo and the Murder of a Rock Star — 3rd tier starts here —
  15. Murder, Smoke & Shadows
  16. Uneasy Lies the Crown
  17. A Trace of Murder
  18. Strange Bedfellows — 4th tier starts here —
  19. No Time to Die 
  20. Grand Deceptions
  21. Undercover
  22. Murder in Malibu
Columbo Ashes to Ashes
“Come on along, come on along, Ashes to Ashes ain’t episode of the yeeeeeeear!”

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.

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Columbo Ashes to Ashes
High heels, earrings, lipstick and whisky… just a regular Saturday night for Lieutenant Columbo
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