An aspect of Columbo’s revival era that paled in comparison to the show’s golden age was in the creation of interesting supporting characters.
The 70s’ series was absolutely chock full of ’em. Think or Mrs Peck and Elizabeth Van Wick, Goldie and Ned Diamond, Frank Simpson and Helen Stewart, Sergeant Wilson and Ruth Stafford – countless characters in sometimes tiny support roles that offer great depth, personality and intrigue to keep viewers entertained and the stories ticking over.
Fast-forward to 1989 and beyond and that pool had shrunk by Cyclopean standards. It became a comparative rarity for the show to feature a truly fascinating and well-written side character – just as it became a rarity to see a household name cast as a killer.
However, as I near the end of the marathon journey of Columbo episode reviews, I have come to realise that there are several supporting characters to treasure from the Lieutenant’s ABC years. They may not always be big-name actors, but these are the characters that helped keep things interesting at a time in the Lieutenant’s careers when the series was dishing up more misses than hits. For that, I thank the actors sincerely.
Please note, this list doesn’t feature any killers and is ranked in no particular order except for the top 3. Dog also isn’t included, cute as he is. If you haven’t immediately clicked off elsewhere, read on!
Rose Walker – Murder, Smoke and Shadows
Boy-wonder movie director Alex Brady hates his aged secretary Rose – and the feeling’s more than mutual. However, when the youngster attempts to jettison her from her job – and his life – it’s evident who wears the trousers in the relationship.
Rather than accepting Brady’s broad hint that she should tender her resignation, Rose instead reminds her boss that she fielded a call to him from murder victim Lenny Fisher just days earlier – a fact that makes a mockery of Brady’s claim to Lieutenant Columbo not to have heard from the man for three years. Mysteriously, she adds, the phone records sheet from that day has gone missing.
Stung into action, Brady is forced to backtrack entirely. Instead of firing Rose he instead agrees to cover the costs for her to go on a long, paid vacation. It’s a complete defeat for the young maestro, but his day is about to get worse when Columbo reveals he and Rose are in cahoots and her testimony against him is going to be extremely damning.
Rose’s disdain for her egocentric boss is depicted in wonderfully icy fashion by veteran actress Nan Martin. Her obvious pleasure in being so openly duplicitous means she’s easily the most interesting secondary character in this hit-and-miss adventure.
General Padget – Grand Deceptions
Featuring grown men playing with toy soldiers – repeatedly – and a mathematical gotcha explanation that sends viewers to the land of nod, Grand Deceptions is arguably the single most boring Columbo episode ever committed to celluloid.
The closest it gets to a saving grace is the presence of General Padget, a revered US war hero that actor Stephen Elliott manages to steer well clear of cliché. In an understated performance, Elliott accentuates Padget’s physical frailty by delivering a vulnerable and heartfelt turn as a man deeply hurt by his wife’s betrayal. His cordial relationship with Columbo adds to the likability of a character that could have easily been a tiresome stereotype.
Simply put, Padget is the only character (Columbo excepted) to care about in the whole episode, so all credit to Elliott, who generates a good deal of sympathy – especially when you consider his previous Columbo appearance was as the wife-beating Karl Donner in A Deadly State of Mind 14 years earlier.
Vito – Murder, A Self Portrait
There aren’t many Columbo bit-part players who generated as much love from the fanbase as Vito Scotti, who graced five 70s’ episodes in roles as varied as a noble alcoholic bum (Negative Reaction) a prissy tailor (Candidate for Crime) and a pushy funeral salesman (Swan Song).
Scotti had that rare gift of turning what could have been disposable parts into three-dimensional characters of great humour and warmth. He made a successful jump into the new Columbo era by dishing up more of the same in Self Portrait as the eponymous owner of Vito’s Bar, whose earnest affability endears him to detective and viewer alike.
Aged almost 72 at the time this episode aired, Scotti’s presence was a welcome hark back to the show’s golden era and remains a lovely Easter Egg for fans today. There’s a lot wrong with Murder, A Self Portrait, but Scotti’s reassuring presence delivers a sweet shot of positive endorphins.
Clifford Calvert – A Trace of Murder
Like Boss Hogg on steroids, Clifford Calvert is a cigar-chompin’, 10-gallon-hat wearin’ southern force of nature brought to cartoonish life by the irrepressible Barry Corbin.
In what is a poor episode with largely forgettable guest stars, Corbin gives his all as the unlikeable, misogynistic and crude Clifford Calvert. It’s hardly a subtle performance, as he seems to have been directed to dial up every angry cowboy stereotype to 11, but Corbin at least injects some energy into a tale that sorely needs it.
The best aspect of the performance, however, comes as Calvert’s attitude towards the Lieutenant softens towards the conclusion, notable in the almost mately scene where Calvert ribs Columbo about his style of cigar smoking. A little more of this burgeoning comradeship would have been a most welcome inclusion.
Dian Hunter – Columbo Cries Wolf
I wasn’t planning to include any victims in this list, but Dian Hunter is such a shero that she left me with no choice.
The absolute brains behind the success of the Bachelor’s World naughty magazine empire she raised with Sean Brantley, Hunter concocts the scheme in which she is suspected of being killed by her business partner prior to a trip to London – only to reappear in LA at the height of Columbo’s investigation. The resultant publicity adds millions to the value of the business and for once Columbo is entirely outsmarted. That’s some special skill, ma’am.
Hunter’s subsequent plan to stab Brantley in the back and sell the business to a publishing rival ultimately ends in her actual murder, but by that time Dian Hunter has left an indelible mark on the series – and not solely because of her eye-bursting, all-orange ensemble she sports when seemingly reappearing from the dead.
Sergeant Habach – Columbo and the Murder of a Rock Star
Ask yourself: how many times has Columbo had a significant sidekick who’s also a woman? If you’re mind’s coming up blank, you won’t be the only one. That’s why Sergeant Habach represents at least some sort of significant milestone in the series.
Not only is Sondra Currie’s Habach an intelligent officer, she’s also something of an action hero, being involved in one of the show’s ultra-rare action sequences when wantaway drummer Neddy Malcolm escapes police clutches via leaps through a window and off a balcony into a swimming pool below!
The wife of episode director Alan J. Levi, Currie’s casting isn’t mere nepotism. She’s a talented actress who could have excelled in meatier roles – including the types all too often given to a certain Mrs Peter Falk…
Fernando – A Bird in the Hand…
There’s simply no more heart-wrenching new Columbo killing than that than of dear, sweet Fernando – the entirely innocent and blameless victim of attempted avunculicide gone wrong.
The Mexican gardener was just trying to be helpful when he produced a spare set of car keys and cheerfully jalloped off to move hit-and-run victim Big Fred’s Rolls Royce out of the way of a queue of cop cars. Little did the groundskeeper realise that a home-made pipe bomb, planted under the car by Big Fred’s good-for-nothing nephew Harold McCain, would send him to a fiery death as soon as he turned the ignition.
The senselessness of Fernando’s death was made all the harder for kind-hearted viewers to accept by the fact that none of the episode’s significant characters mourn his loss, and Columbo never even mentions him again. That’s rough justice..
Vicky Chase – Butterfly in Shades of Grey
Here, in her second Columbo appearance after starring as Alex Brady’s lover Ruthie in 1989’s Murder, Smoke and Shadows, Molly Hagan brings her girl-next-door charms to a role that could have been forgettable but ends up being one of the more compelling of the show’s revival.
The foster daughter to villainous shock jock Fielding Chase, Vicky knows she has been mistreated and held back by her guardian, but is never pathetic, peevish or vengeful. It’s a sensitive turn from Hagan, who does enough to convince us that Vicky has the moral fibre to make her dreams come true once freed from Chase’s obnoxious clutches.
Vincenzo Fortelli – Strange Bedfellows
Thank goodness for the presence of Rod Steiger as Vincenzo Fortelli in the dismal Strange Bedfellows. The character’s a Mafia cliché, of course, but Steiger’s performance is electrifying, veering from snarling menace to fatherly affability with ease and grace. Some critics say he was dialling in his performance here, but I just can’t agree. He’s comfortably head and shoulders above the rest of the supporting cast and brings the best out of Peter Falk.
Fortelli’s raging at both McVeigh and Columbo during the restaurant showdown is masterful – regardless of it ultimately being a sham performance. Steiger makes it easy for the viewer to believe that both men are viable candidates for assassination, and overall he’s much more dangerous an opponent than just about anyone the Lieutenant has encountered since Hassan Salah in 1975 – despite their pally exchange at episode’s end. A whole episode of Columbo vs Fortelli would have been a mouth-watering prospect.
And now for the big three…
3. Dorothea McNally – Undercover
The best of the bunch when it comes to women supporting stars in the new Columbo catalog is QUEEN Tyne Daly, who steals the show in Undercover despite having only 8 minutes of screen time.
Cast as down-on-her-luck floozy Dorothea McNally, Daly has that rare gift of endearing herself to viewers and co-stars alike and she’s such fun to watch. Her scenes with Falk were all shot in a single day and it’s a testament to the rapport between them that they are amongst the most watchable and enjoyable of the whole episode. Viva Tyne, she’s a national, nay a global, treasure!
2. Sergeant Arthur Brown – Undercover
If you thought Tyne Daly was on the only good part of Undercover, I’d urge you to reconsider, as another actor to come out of the deplorable 1994 adventure smelling as sweet as African violets was Harrison Page, AKA Sergeant Arthur Brown.
Throughout the show’s long lifespan, I’ve time and again had reason to lament that Columbo had very few significant black characters. Brown is just the tonic. He swiftly establishes himself as one of the Lieutenant’s most capable and agreeable sidekicks, whose relationship with his superior officer seems genuine.
The two cops seem to ‘get’ each other and are sufficiently at ease with one another for Brown to poke some gentle fun at Columbo’s appearance and smirk away during some of the older man’s more eccentric moments. But Brown also has a big heart, showing genuine concern for Columbo’s wellbeing after finding him unconscious in a trashed apartment, and later in breaking him out of the hospital.
Yes folks, Sergeant Brown is a keeper, a character to treasure regardless of televisual era and a guy I’d have very happily seen return to the series in a future instalment. I’d even go so far as to say he’s second only to Bob Dishy’s lovable Sergeant Wilson in my list of favourite Columbo colleagues – high praise indeed.
1. Jordan Rowe – Columbo Goes to College
How good was it to see Bobby Culp back as a bad guy – if not a killer – in this satisfying romp from 1990? In short, very, very good!
As we all know, ‘new Columbo’ could be rather hit and miss but with a seething Culp back, essentially validating the reincarnation of the show, all seemed right with the world. As unpleasant and short-tempered as ever, Culp stole the show in every scene he graced while reminding long-term fans of Columbo‘s awesome heritage.
If anything, the three-time 70s killer was slightly underused in this episode (it would have been so satisfying to have him present to witness his son’s eventual downfall), but it’s so nice to have him back in Columbo colours that’s it’s easy to overlook this and simply revel in his badassery like ’twere 1973 all over again. Indeed, he’s the only new Columbo character I included in this previous list of the show’s greatest-ever supporting stars.
Well folks, that’s today’s countdown complete, so please share your thoughts on the best secondary characters of Columbo’s second coming. Have I missed any bit-part players that make your heart sing? Conversely, are there characters on my list that make you gnash your teeth with angst? All opinions are welcome – as long as they stay respectful to your fellow fans.
I’ve now got to make like a tree and get outta here. Make sure you come back and play again soon!