The curious case of ‘Columbo Takes the Rap’

What would Columbo have made of the 2000s hip-hop scene?

The Columbophile blog is frequented by many of the most knowledgeable Columbo fans on the planet, but I suspect that only a tiny fraction will have even heard of Columbo Takes the Rap – the short-lived stage production written by character co-creator William Link in the early 2000s.

While I myself was aware that it happened, I knew nothing more about Columbo Takes the Rap than its title, the brevity of its stage run and the hip-hop scene backdrop hinted at in its name. That’s why I’m so pleased to be able to bring you all this fascinating deep-dive into the production by Glenn Stewart, whom regular readers will recognise as a frequent commentator and occasional guest blogger.

Glenn has done some sterling sleuthing into the history of Columbo Takes the Rap, a play that no-less heralded a publication than the New York Post believed was destined for Broadway fame after its debut in 2007. That it instead disappeared almost without trace is a mystery of Mary Celeste proportions and I thank Glenn for shedding some light on this almost-forgotten page of Columbo history…

BY NOW, most Columbo fans are familiar with the genesis of the Lieutenant’s character as he assumed his prominent place in the annals of television detectives. After a performance of Richard Levinson and William Link’s production of Enough Rope in 1960 for the U.S. television anthology series The Chevy Mystery Show, it became a stage play in 1962 titled Prescription: Murder, with Thomas Mitchell (“Billy” of It’s A Wonderful Life) essaying the Columbo role.

This production toured America and Canada for five months in 1962, and while never making it to Broadway, it was successful enough to be confidently retooled by Levinson and Link for the 1968 TV movie that launched Peter Falk in the Columbo role. Many of us know this, the story of that first stage iteration of Columbo, quite well. Most fans, however, do not know the story behind the second, and final, stage iteration of Columbo, written years after the end of the 90s series. For many, the very existence of another Columbo play is surprising. Why is this production not a part of the Columbo legend?

After all, Columbo Takes The Rap was written by the co-creator of Columbo, the legendary William Link. The classic character is unchanged, but in a modern backdrop, investigating a rap star’s murder. It hits the classic formula notes – no Undercover shenanigans here. It didn’t try to introduce us to a young “Mrs. Columbo”, it didn’t give the lieutenant an eager sidekick, it wasn’t set in Tucson or Topeka.

The play was performed at the inaugural International Mystery Writers’ Festival in Owensboro, Kentucky, in 2007, where it was described at the time as a big success. Then, on July 11, 2007, the New York Post breathlessly told its’ readers, “LT. COLUMBO SOLVES B’WAY”. It described how the play would be touring the United States in anticipation of a run under the bright lights of Broadway. The founder of the Mystery Festival, veteran stage producer Zev Buffman, proclaimed, “I must consider it a contender”.

Link himself was effusive about the discovery of the “new” Columbo – a Chicago stage actor named Norm Boucher. Peter Falk was not considered for this. “I love Peter, but he’s a bit long in the tooth [80],” explained Link. He added, “Norm was so good, Peter would have been jealous.”

The following day, on July 12, the “Columbo On Broadway” headlines blared through theatre media – Broadway World, Playbill, NY Tix, even TV Guide. And then… nothing. The play managed to make it to the Vertigo Theatre in Calgary for a three-week stint in 2008, with someone else entirely as the star. That’s it. No American tour. No published script. No acclaimed kudos for a new Columbo actor. No Great White Way. Columbo Takes the Rap died on the vine with barely a whine.

Where did it all go wrong?

What happened? To track the story, I had the help of a Mannix DVD, grainy Festival rehearsal video, and first-person accounts of the play itself.

Norm Boucher is now a voice talent coach at Acting Studio Chicago. He has filmed roles on Chicago Fire and Chicago PD, as well as two Super Bowl commercials among others, and has been on the stage extensively in the Chicago area. Widely touted post-Mystery Festival as the “next Columbo”, Boucher has a unique perspective on the Columbo Takes The Rap saga.

Norm Boucher Columbo Takes the Rap
Norm Boucher AKA Lieutenant Columbo in Columbo Takes the Rap

“It was important to Ron [Parson, play director] and Mr. Link that I not do Peter Falk,” Boucher told me in a telephone chat as one of the Acting Studio plays was being staged nearby. “It was me doing my New York Guy. They showed the crime first, then the lights went out, then they come back on, and there I am in the raincoat and the cigar, and I would get big entrance applause. Now, I know that they were applauding for the raincoat and the cigar. But of course, I happened to be standing there. It was the best entrance I’ve ever had.”

“There was such a good template already that I didn’t feel like I had to add much of anything,” says Boucher about bringing his own personality to the role. “As long as you have a cigar in one hand, a notepad in the other, scratch your head and ask ‘one more question’… otherwise just stay out the way. It would be a disservice to do anything other than be that Italian guy from New York. It wasn’t a personal spin so much as trying to keep up with the intricacies of his mind.”

Boucher’s ability to inhabit the role was certainly noticed by William Link, who was part of the audition process and a presence at play rehearsals. Link was very flattering in his praise for Boucher on a 2008 DVD commentary for the pilot episode of Mannix, of all places. [Levinson and Link created the original Mannix concept, sold it to Desilu Studios, then hustled off the project with their pilot re-written and the original concept watered down and tossed out entirely for Season 2. But they got their check!]

In noting the hope for a national rollout of Columbo Takes The Rap on the DVD, Link said of Boucher, “I have a new Columbo who’s terrific, nothing like Peter. Forty years old, a little paunchy, losing a little bit of hair, charming, very clever, brilliant actor.”

So what about the national tour and Broadway fame? “They did dangle that carrot in front of me,” says Boucher. “The way I caught wind of it, it came out in the NY Post, then Regis & Kelly were talking about it on their show. I certainly got excited because that would have been a big ticket for sure.” But rather than get word through anyone in charge that the plans were scrapped, Boucher simply didn’t hear anything else about it. “My heart beat fast for just a minute, and that was the last I heard of it.”

Ron OJ Parson Columbo Takes the Rap
Ron OJ Parson directed Columbo Takes the Rap

Ron OJ Parson was the director of Columbo Takes The Rap, and recently helmed Boucher’s appearance in Arsenic and Old Lace at Chicago’s Court Theatre. Parson was in regular communication with William Link, and his own take on the story mirrors Boucher’s.

“Oh yeah, they had big plans,” Parson told me. As for why the play didn’t leave Owensboro, “I wouldn’t know. William and I talked about the NY Post thing – it might do this, it might do that – but then it fizzled out. Norm figured they wouldn’t come to him, they would come to a star, and I figured they wouldn’t want me to direct, they would have gotten one of the majors to direct, so I kinda lost touch with it.” Festival awards were named after Angela Lansbury, and Parson won the Director’s Angie for Columbo Takes The Rap. That was the end of his involvement. “And you move onto the next thing.”

Says Boucher, “I can’t begin to assume what was on their minds, but I think that they [the play producers] wanted someone who was a name to play Columbo, whereas the way Mr. Link and Ron were talking about it at the beginning they wanted me, a relative unknown to play Columbo, then perhaps put in a star as the rap artist.” Alas, festival creator/producer Buffman passed away in 2020 without leaving Boucher or Columbo fans an answer.

Parson has been in-demand, directing countless plays in regional theatre across the country, now concentrating on his role as an acclaimed artist in residence at Court Theatre. He has fond memories of his unexpected association with Columbo history. “Zev Buffman was the producer of the festival, and he had William Link’s people call me, which freaked me out because I’m not on the internet. But Mr. Link said they had been watching me online, and he thought I would be a good person to direct his play.

“So they sent it to me, and it was intriguing because I was a Columbo fan. We became friends and he told me all the stories, the whole history of Columbo. He told me some of his favorite episodes, and I told him some of mine. He wanted to do something contemporary and hip-hop was becoming popular. He thought this would be a good story, and it was. We had fun doing it. We stayed in touch for a while. I admired him so much, and I was so honored to actually know William Link before his death. He loved what I did with the play, and that was good enough for me.”

Behind the scenes

Fortunately, the play’s production has not been totally lost to 2007 posterity; there is a video time capsule that can help us visualize Columbo Takes The Rap on stage. Kentucky Educational Television (PBS) captured the preparations for each of the six plays being presented at that first International Mystery Writers’ Festival (IMWF), conceived by Buffman as a launching pad for brand new mystery plays. The IMWF was hyped as a big deal; founding festival members included William Link, Sue Grafton (the Kinsey Millhone “alphabet mysteries”) and Ira Levin (Rosemary’s Baby, The Stepford Wives). Ed McBain of “87th Precinct” fame contributed a script (hopefully it turned out better than his Columbo adaptations).

Over the ensuing years, the success of the Festival would ebb and flow, with financial issues eventually sinking the endeavor in 2013. But KET was there to document the very first fest with a fuzzy behind-the-scenes peek at walk-through and dress rehearsals, plus actual stage performances of Columbo Takes The Rap. We get a glimpse of the plot machinations, what Columbo-in-the-round looks like, and Boucher’s comic timing, which results in an oddity for Columbo fans – belly laughs from the viewing audience. Certainly, we know that Columbo has humor, but hearing a room full of hoots after a Columbo line is definitely a new experience.

The video also lets us see Columbo interacting with a whole new set of individuals largely untouched in the 69 television episodes – black characters. As director Parson explains to viewers, “Not that it’s based on Biggie Smalls and Tupac, but it has a lot of similarities in its’ rivalry. The record producer [villain] is trying to pit one against the other.” Seeing our hero interact and adapt in the rap milieu is absolutely unique.

Columbo Takes the Rap
The Lieutenant talks himself out of a tight spot in the finale of Columbo Takes the Rap

But was it also a missed opportunity? The murderous record producer is white. As Columbo scholar Amelie Hastie has noted, William Link never used a black villain in the TV show, not wishing to contribute to the perception that African-Americans were criminals. But for Columbo Takes The Rap, it’s 2007, and seeing a white person as the protagonist in the rap world may appear incongruous. The actor playing the killer, George Keating, seems at least obliquely aware of this in the KET video. “I play Carson Luck, a high-powered record producer of rap music, of all things…I don’t know how much he knows about rap.”

I was curious if Parson had his own thoughts on the play casting, as a black director. “I didn’t even think about that,” replies Parson. “I wasn’t thinking about race in the play… It wasn’t something that I thought about back then. He [Link] wrote the play about rap, to show the way producers control that world – and ironically, a lot of them are white. But maybe now, with the world as it is, it might be something to think about and talk about dramaturgically, but I will say that William Link was very progressive.”

Parson points to Link’s creation (with Richard Levinson) of Tenafly for the NBC Mystery Wheel starring Columbo supporting actor James McEachin. The program debuted one day after the TV version of Shaft in 1973, making both series the first dramatic shows headlining an African-American protagonist (not merely co-starring, as Bill Cosby did with old Columbo friend Robert Culp in I Spy). Laments Parson, “America wasn’t ready for Tenafly yet”.

Judging by some of the play’s lines we see delivered in the KET video, Columbo Takes The Rap directly acknowledges at least a few of the more famous tropes that have become attached to Columbo through the years: “That dude is a bigger con artist than me,” says a rapper of Columbo, and later, “Man, you told me you were gonna take off that damn raggedy raincoat!” The villain holds a gun on Columbo at the finale, and as the lieutenant makes, evidently, yet another Mrs. Columbo reference, the killer wails, “My God, you are still at it!”

While these might be fun self-referential moments, it is actually jarring to hear Columbo try to talk his way out of the bullet end of the producer’s gun by saying, “You’re a rich guy, you’ve got the best defense lawyers money can buy… chances are you can still beat this in a trial!” Even allowing for the weapon being pointed at him, this is like Columbo spilling the beans to at least half the 70s killers on how to sidestep the traps the episode writers laid for them.

Gone for good?

THERE REMAINS an intriguing coda to this tale. Against all odds, despite the abandoned Broadway run and the years that have passed, there may still be a glimmer of hope that Columbo Takes The Rap will somehow see the light of day again.

Gianluca Ramazzotti is an Italian theater and television actor who has had a three-year ambition of bringing the play to the stage for his own interpretation of the character. Interest in Columbo, “an iconic hero for Italy,” remains strong, explained Ramazzotti. He noted that Netflix and several Italian broadcast networks have been replaying Columbo for years, and told me that he has confidence in a successful production because “ours would be the first time to see him live on stage.” If he can secure the production rights, Ramazzotti would be looking to make it “a star vehicle” for a killer to pair with Columbo, and targets October 2024 for a Rome opening, followed by a tour of other regions of Italy.

Thanks to Ramazzotti, hope may yet spring eternal for this project. But after it’s abrupt 2007 disappearance, its fate remains, for now, as the red-headed stepchild of Columbo works – a member of the Columbo family that he won’t even use for an invented “homey anecdote” for Leslie Williams. 

Columbo Takes The Rap remains a unique and almost-forgotten curio in the Columbo universe.

It’s now been over 15 years since Columbo Takes The Rap, and Norm Boucher is good-humored about his brush with Columbo fame. “I really did have a blast doing that. The only downside was, I actually started getting a taste for cheap cigars… stinky White Owls, just the worst.”

My relaying of Link’s Mannix DVD praise for Boucher’s work was, in fact, the first that he had heard of it. Quite appreciative, he harbors no animosity toward William Link about the play’s Broadway come-on (“He could not have been a nicer guy”) and referred to him respectfully as “Mr. Link” throughout our conversation. Boucher still catches a lot of Columbo episodes in the Chicago TV market, and thought that Columbo Takes The Rap “did a great job of modernizing the world Columbo lives in.”

As for today, Boucher says, “Anybody’s who’s waving a check around, I try to show up.” Many actors have played the Columbo role in touring productions of Prescription: Murder across the globe since its’ San Francisco debut in 1962. But none of those men have the very rare distinction of playing the lieutenant in William Link’s second Columbo production. Columbo Takes The Rap remains a unique and almost-forgotten curio in the Columbo universe. What might have been one for the Broadway footlights instead became no more than a Kentucky footnote.

Glenn Stewart spent 25 years in the music radio business across the United States specializing in classic rock. For the past 15 years he has been working in History, English, Education Assessment, and writing Social Studies curriculum for the juvenile justice system. He has also taught “Issues In Media Industries” as adjunct faculty at a New England university. His favorite pre-1980 TV rewatchables are Columbo, Mission: Impossible, Batman, The Prisoner, and The Twilight Zone. You can access Glenn’s other Columbophile Blog contributions here.

See, I told you. FASCINATING stuff from Glenn Stewart, who I offer my wholehearted thanks to for unearthing so much intel on so little known a Columbo case. If there’s anyone out there in the readership who was lucky enough to see this live, we’d LOVE to hear your thoughts on it.

Until next time, stay clear of the thug life and remember to peace out at every opportunity…

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Columbo Takes the Rap
Short-lived 2000s rap sensation Lil Lumbo in action
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