Virtual awards ceremony: recognising the best of Columbo’s ABC years

Our finalists are dressed to the nines and hopeful their efforts will earn official acclaim

There’s nothing like a glitzy awards ceremony to bring folk together, amirite? And I can assure you that the following article is nothing like a glitzy awards ceremony, but I hope it will be a talking point for the Columbo community nevertheless.

Having recently completed my eight-year mega journey through all 69 of the dear Lieutenant’s televised escapades, I’m finally in a position to award gongs to the best aspects of Columbo’s ABC years, which comprised 24 episodes over a span of 14 years.

Columbo Wade Anders
Please welcome your host for tonight… from TV’s Crime Alert, it’s Wade Anders! Let’s give him a BIG Hand! Oh, wait… looks like his hand is big enough already :/

In lieu of said glitzy awards bash, you’ll have to put up with a simple list in which I present 15 virtual awards that recognise the best aspects of new Columbo’s chequered history. These include such accolades as Best Episode; Best Killer; Most Brilliant Crime; Most Sympathetic Killer and so on.

All selections are based purely on my personal preferences, not a public vote, so please don’t jeer too loudly if your favourites aren’t included. Now, let’s wish good luck to all our plucky nominees and get cracking with the awards…

Best Episode – Columbo Goes to College

Columbo Goes to College
Intergenerational conflict makes Columbo Goes to College an episode for the ages

When Columbo returned to the screen in 1989, a new generation of viewers was given the chance to uncover the charms of the Lieutenant for the first time: a generation perhaps entirely unfamiliar with the concept of the show. For this new audience, one can imagine them tuning into the comeback episodes at the behest of their parents, thinking to themselves: “Who is this clueless Columbo dude? How’s he ever gonna crack the case?”

This is precisely why Columbo Goes to College works. Our frat boy protagonists Justin and Cooper are the very embodiment of that new, skeptical viewer. They look scornfully at the bumbling Lieutenant because they’re young, fearless members of the cool club who believe in their own hype. No way is this doddery old fossil going to outsmart them.

Such a blinkered mindset is the perpetual curse of youth, and it brings our conceited villains down in glorious fashion. But a quality episode needs much more than just a riveting finale and, happily, Columbo Goes to College delivers the goods in just about every category that matters – including a punch-the-air-good appearance by Robert Culp.

A high-energy, hugely enjoyable inter-generational conflict between old hound and young upstarts, this isn’t just good by new Columbo standards – it’s an A-Grade episode regardless of era, and one that definitively proves how sharp and relevant the show and character could still be in this brave new world.

Read my full episode review here.

Highly CommendedColumbo Likes the NightlifeAgenda for Murder

Most Watchable Killer – Leon Lamarr (Death Hits the Jackpot)

Columbo Leon Lamarr
It’s to Rip Torn’s unending credit that he made this costume SING

Rip Torn emerges from a messy episode opening to give us one of the most memorable, entertaining and diabolical antagonists of Columbo’s comeback era.

With his hypnotic southern drawl and craggy expressiveness, Torn’s Leon Lamarr is the most fun we’ve had with a killer since the impish Joe Devlin limericked and boozed his way into our hearts in 1978’s The Conspirators. A better comparison, however, would be Jack Cassidy as Riley Greenleaf in Publish or Perish. Both he and Torn were having an absolute scream filming their respective episodes and the joie de vivre is contagious.

Torn feels especially energising after the array of lacklustre killers encountered since the Lieutenant shambled back onto screens two and half years earlier. I doubt that any actor in Columbo’s proud history could have pulled off committing murder while dressed as King George III with such aplomb.

Highly Commended: Oscar Finch (Agenda for Murder), Justin & Coop (Columbo Goes to College)

Best Gotcha – Columbo Goes to College

Columbo Goes to College
Justin and Coop: likely contenders for worst dressed villains of the 90s

Never you mind that it’s essentially a rehash of the gotcha from 1974’s A Friend in Deed – the exciting finale to Columbo Goes to College is terrific TV in its own right.

As gotchas go, it’s a bit of a double-whammy. Firstly, Columbo shows the crowd of criminology students how the murder was committed, with a car door remote firing a gun through the air vents on Coop’s rad Hilux hood to shatter a dummy’s head into a million pieces. This elicits not a flicker of a confession from the dastardly duo, of course, and the other dim-witted students seem strangely incapable of deducing that this experiment essentially totally proves they did it!

It’s not until Columbo reveals that the car Justin and Coop had planted the murder weapon in (to incriminate a hired goon) was really Mrs Columbo’s car that the wily Lieutenant had tricked the boys into using that their guilt is made crystal clear. Only Justin and Coop had information on the car, ergo only Justin and Coop could be guilty of the crime.

Given the context of the episode placing Columbo in a position of educator to would-be defence or prosecution lawyers, his falling back on to a method he used to trap his own boss in one of his most triumphant cases of the 70s seems entirely apt.

Highly CommendedRest in Peace, Mrs Columbo, Agenda for Murder

Most Underrated Episode – Columbo Likes the Nightlife

Columbo Likes the Nightlife could have been terrible but was anything but

An episode that’s easy to write off as a flashy attempt to compete with the CSIs of the world while appealing to a younger demographic, Columbo Likes the Nightlife’s underground rave scene backdrop and techno soundtrack is unlikely to appeal to purists.

Despite that, though, Nightlife successfully rolls back the years and cuts the gimmicks to deliver a fast-paced and taut murder mystery that plays is straight and reinstates Lieutenant Columbo as the razor-sharp lone wolf we knew and loved in the 70s.

It was Falk’s best performance in years and allowed the Columbo character to enter into televisual retirement with his head held high. If you’ve not watched this one for a while, it’s well worth revisiting with an open mind.

Highly CommendedColumbo Cries Wolf

Best Non-Gotcha Scene – Dimitri’s despair

Fast forward to 56.50 minutes into Rest in Peace, Mrs Columbo and you’ll encounter four remarkable minutes of television that put the plight of one of the series’ most ostensibly despicable killers into stunning perspective.

A quiet, slow-burner of a scene shows us that Vivian Dimitri – the woman who tries to kill Columbo and his wife – is so much more than a common-or-garden bunny boiler with vengeance issues. Instead, she’s a vulnerable, desperate creature who is riven with despair following the death of her husband in jail some years earlier.

In a rarity for the series, a pivotal character moment is given adequate time to breathe and to allow the viewer to see the villain laid bare to their very soul. First, she sheds lone tears as she watches a montage of images of her with her late husband during happier times. Then, after a phone bust-up with her current squeeze, the despondency within Vivian gushes forth as she sways rhythmically to a sax-laden rendition of It Had to Be You before crumpling to the floor in tears.

With gorgeous direction that has Vivian dancing in the light of a projected image of her husband, the scene has a cinematic majesty that is unique for the series, and which gives a startling – and disturbing – insight into the mental state of a woman who will never get over the cruel hand that life has dealt her.

Highly CommendedAgenda for Murder – ‘You call that a lining?’; Columbo Goes to College – Columbo crashes the frat party

Most Brilliant Crime – Columbo Goes to College

Columbo Goes to College
That’s how you celebrate murder in 1990

One can only imagine what Justin and Coop could have achieved had their used their incredible brain power for good, not evil. Cancer cures, world peace, faster-than-light travel were all within their grasp. Yet instead they turned their minds to committing remote controlled, televised murder. Ingenious? Yes. A positive contribution to society? Not so much…

Caught cheating on a test by their irascible but brilliant criminology professor, the best buds are facing an uncertain future. They’ll either be flunked out of the course, jeopardising their very futures, or dobbed into their folks, causing them no end of parental grief. Rather than being contrite, the lads decide to get even. So, staging a reason for the professor to head out to a fictional appointment – during a lecture by no less a dignitary than Lieutenant Columbo – their brilliant plot comes to fruition.

Turns out they’ve parked Coop’s rad Hilux truck millimeter-perfectly opposite the professor’s car in the faculty parking lot. A gun has been set to fire through the air vents of the hood at the professor’s exact height, which is fired by the car door remote control being activated once the professor’s head is in the gun sights – as viewed live from the lecture hall via Coop’s handheld TV!

It’s a scheme of breath-taking audacity, and if only the televised footage hadn’t freakishly been broadcast and recorded by a local viewer, they’d surely have gotten away with it. You don’t have to like Justin and Coop, but you’ve got to grudgingly admire their innovative approach to problem solving.

Highly CommendedUneasy Lies the CrownSex and the Married Detective

Most Sympathetic Villain – Lauren Staton (It’s All in the Game)

Columbo Lauren Staton

Although Lauren Staton’s methods of trying to avoid police suspicions (i.e. smooching with the chief investigator) may alienate her from a proportion of viewers, her motives for murder are probably more relatable than any other murderer in the show’s 35-year run.

As an individual, she’s been used by charming, young Italian gigolo, Nick Franco, who is out for her money and nothing else. If that’s not bad enough, Nick is a two-timer whose other love interest is… Lauren’s own daughter Lisa. And, worst of all, he physically abused Lisa, slashed her neck with a razor and threatened to kill her if she revealed the situation to Lauren. We have little reason to doubt he would have carried out his threat, so when the two wronged women combine to put him out of the picture permanently, there can’t have been a damp eye in the house.

In assessing how much compassion we have for Lauren, it all boils down to what you’d be willing to do to protect your child. I’d argue that the vast majority of parents could empathise with her situation – even if the sight of her planting a smacker on Columbo makes us shake our fists at the screen. 

Highly Commended: Vivian Dimitri (Rest in Peace Mrs Columbo), Dr Joan Allenby (Sex and the Married Detective)

Best Plot Twist – Columbo Cries Wolf


It’s not often we see Columbo completely floored and outmanoeuvred – but that’s exactly what we get in Columbo Cries Wolf when Dian Hunter makes a triumphant return to the LA media spotlight after being given up for dead.

So clever was the plotting between Dian and business partner Sean Brantley that the Lieutenant firmly believed she had been bumped off. Her reappearance was a genuine stunner for Columbo – as much as it was for the first-time viewer so used to seeing the detective correctly decipher what’s going on behind the scenes. They played him like a fiddle – and he ain’t in the least pleased about it.

Not just a jaw-dropping twist by new Columbo standards, this arguably sits alongside Charles Clay showing up dead in Last Salute to the Commodore as the greatest sleight of hand in the entire series.

Highly commended: Lauren and Lisa’s true relationship revealed (It’s All in the Game); Dolores being the hit-and-run killer of Big Fred (A Bird in the Hand…)

Most Sympathetic Victim – Fernando (A Bird in the Hand…)

Columbo Fernando
That’s what you get for trying to be helpful, Fernando

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.

Highly Commended: Gabe McEnery (Murder With Too Many Notes), Freddie Brower (Death Hits the Jackpot)

Best Supporting Male – Robert Culp as Jordan Rowe (Columbo Goes to College)

Columbo Jordan Rowe
If barely controlled rage has a name, it must be Robert Culp

How good was it to see Culp back as a bad guy – if not a killer – in this satisfying romp from 1990? In short, very, very good!

Columbo’s ABC years were decidedly hit and miss, but with a seething Culp back, essentially validating the reincarnation of the show, all seemed right with the world. As menacing and short-tempered as ever, Culp stole the show here, while reminding long-term fans of Columbo‘s awesome heritage.

If anything, the episode could have used a few more minutes of him, but just having Culp sharing the screen with Peter Falk again is reward enough for most.

Highly Commended: Vito Scotti as Vito (Murder, A Self Portrait); Harrison Page as Sergeant Brown (Undercover)

Best Supporting Female – Tyne Daly as Dorothea McNally (Undercover)

Columbo Tyne Daly

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 global treasure!

Highly Commended: Dian Hunter (Columbo Cries Wolf), Vicky Chase (Butterfly in Shades of Grey)

Most Able Sidekick – Sergeant Brown (Undercover)

Columbo Sergeant Brown
Sergeant Brown was almost entirely dependable – just don’t ever ask to borrow trousers from him

One of the very few positive take-outs from the debacle that is Undercover is the presence of Harrison Page as Sergeant Arthur Brown, who swiftly establishes himself as one of Columbo’s most capable and agreeable sidekicks – ever!

Time and again I’ve had reason to lament that Columbo has had very few significant black characters, and Brown is just the tonic. His relationship with the Lieutenant 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. He also has a 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 after discovering the corpse of Mo Weinberg.

Yes folks, Sergeant Brown is a keeper, one of the few ‘new Columbo’ characters to treasure and a guy I’d have very happily seen return to the series in a future instalment. I’d 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.

Highly Commended: Sergeant Kramer (Agenda for Murder); Sergeant Goodman (No Time to Die)

Hottest Female – Vanessa Farrow (Columbo Likes the Nightlife)

Columbo Vanessa Farrow

Former model Jennifer Sky made a predictably eye-catching addition to Columbo’s farewell outing, with the svelte blonde’s strappy tops and knee-length boots making her the apple of many a red-blooded viewer’s eye.

A natural stunner, Sky’s Vanessa Farrow oozed casual sex appeal in a distinctly early 2000s style without the episode ever going overboard and objectifying her in the manner of the nymphs from 1989’s Columbo Cries Wolf. Such admirable restraint is to be applauded.

Highly Commended: Melissa Hayes (No Time to Die), Nancy Brower (Death Hits the Jackpot)

Hottest Male – Andy Parma (No Time to Die)

Columbo Thomas Calabro

Shortly before being cast in his most iconic role of Michael Mancini in Melrose Place, Thomas Calabro was honing his trade as clean-cut, hunky cop Andy Parma – nephew of the one and only Lieutenant Columbo – in 1992’s No Time To Die.

The episode may be considered amongst the very worst Columbo outings, but if you’re so inclined the sight of Calabro wandering shirtless while wrapped only in a towel – as well as looking resplendent in his wedding tuxedo – might just offset some of the disappointment the episode’s crazy plot and off-brand storytelling brings about.

Highly Commended: Harold McCain (A Bird in the Hand…); Max Barsini (Murder, A Self Portrait)

Best Easter Egg for 70s fans – Name checking Superintendent Durk

Columbo Superintendent Durk

One of the biggest disappointments of the ABC years was the lack of references to Columbo’s classic cases. Whether this was due to copyright issues is unknown, but it seems to me that the writers and directors of new Columbo missed countless glorious chances to provide long-term fans with some subtle yet rewarding Easter Eggs.

Episodes like Agenda for Murder, Columbo Goes to College and Murder of a Rock Star were simply begging to namecheck the likes of Nelson Hayward, Ken Franklin or Abigail Mitchell – yet the only true callback to the Lieutenant’s golden age was an easy-to-miss aside during the events of Columbo Cries Wolf.

After Dian Hunter goes missing during a trip to the UK, there’s no reason whatsoever for Columbo to be investigating her disappearance as an LA-based homicide detective. To get around this, writers cleverly inserted a reference to an old acquaintance from Columbo’s trip to London in 1972’s Dagger of the Mind – the stiff-upper-lipped Chief Superintendent Durk, played by quintessential Brit Bernard Fox.

According to Columbo himself, the reason he’s asking questions of Sean Brantley is because Durk is leading the investigation into Dian’s whereabouts, and he wants a reliable source in LA to check up on her possible location with her business partners. It’s a lovely moment that ties Columbo’s two televisual eras together and a few more examples like it scattered throughout the show’s remaining run would have done it a lot of good.

Highly Commended: The return of Sergeant Kramer (Columbo Cries Wolf); Eric Prince’s likeness to Steinmetz (Ashes to Ashes)

That’s all I got, gang, so now I’ll turn the floor over to you. What would your equivalent winners be in the same categories? And what other awards would you put forward that I haven’t considered here? Have some fun with your answers, because none of this is meant to be taken too seriously.

Naturally, and because for every light there is a dark, there will be another article of this ilk considering the very worst aspects of new Columbo, which will hand out virtual Razzies to the most wretched, the most stupid and the most bungled elements from the ABC years. If you have any suggestions for award categories, stick ’em in the comments section below!

Until then, keep fighting the good fight! Mwah!

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Columbo Agenda for Murder
You call that an awards ceremony? HAH!
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