Just One More Thing…
Tripwire continues its list of its Top 30 Crime and Police shows, selected by its editor-in-chief and senior editor. Counting down to its first choice at the end, here’s its 23th entry, NBC’s Columbo…
Creator: Richard Levinson and William Link
Stars: Peter Falk, Bruce Kirby, Patrick McGoohan
Columbo’s considerable, long-term success is a rum thing – the title character and the series itself being as reassuringly cosy and predictable as anything throughout the ‘70s, it follows a strict formula that it rarely if ever strays from – a shambling middle-aged detective with an unseen wife who mumbles a lot, wears a tired-looking beige mac and refuses to leave the murderer alone until the antagonist, out of sheer exasperation, admits his or her culpability. Hardly what one could call challenging or cutting edge television, but of course that is not the point. The formula, like Peter Falk’s passively earnest detective, is the thing – we learn everything up front, so what’s left to guess is not a whodunit, or whydunit, but “howcatchem”, a term that a quick glance at the internet confirmed. One could say that Falk’s Columbo had a remarkable track record when it came to hunches, always zeroing in on the perpetrator like clockwork, at the beginning of the second act.
What the series had, apart from the welcome presence of Falk was a roster of A List guest stars, from Johnny Cash to John Cassavetes, to Billy Connolly (?), Laurence Harvey, Ray Milland, Roddy McDowell, Rip Torn, Janet Leigh and Faye Dunaway. In other words, star and character actors who were no strangers to this genre, and in many cases had worked with Falk before. Perhaps the best-remembered guest name was Patrick McGoohan, who turned up in three episodes, always playing the same sinister demagogue whose clipped, measured tone barely belied his annoyance at the relentless Columbo’s presence.
The character of Columbo had been around for over a decade before NBC opted to turn a stage version of the detective into a two hour television movie. Two actors had already played the role, and Peter Falk, who was very keen to take it, was by no means the first to be offered the part. In the end, the network took him on board even though he was nothing like they had envisioned. In the pilot, Falk played the character in a far less sympathetic manner, who held open contempt for the murderer in what was a far more melodramatic take on the show. After the first few episodes, Falk and the producers changed direction, switching from a whodunit, inverting the narrative and turning the hardened version of the protagonist into a more folksy, genial and unflappable everyman that, although seemingly out of his depth amid all the intrigue and snobbery of the wealthy (many of his chief suspects were based in or around Beverly Hills) would casually sail through all the red herrings and false trails before uttering the immortal phrase, “Just one more thing”.
Falk, who the producers thought was very similar to the character he portrayed, never seemed concerned about being typecast, despite his strengths as an actor, and he was happy to play the role, on and off, for 35 years. The denouement may have been 80% of each episode, but it was the quality, both in the acerbic, dry scripts and the characterization, that always won through with viewers.
Columbo is on now on Channel 5 in the UK and on The Sundance Channel In The US