Columbo (TV series)

Columbo is an American crime fiction TV series, starring Peter Falk as Lieutenant Columbo, a homicide detective with the Los Angeles Police Department. The show popularized the inverted detective story format; almost every episode began by showing the commission of the crime and its perpetrator. The character first appeared in a 1960 episode of the television-anthology series The Chevy Mystery Show. This was adapted into a stage play, and a TV-movie based on the play was broadcast, in 1968, as the pilot for a series. The series began on a Sunday presentation of the "NBC Mystery Movie" rotation, which included "McCloud," "McMillan & Wife," and other whodunits. The series spawned a similar format on Wednesday nights with fare such as, "The Snoop Sisters," "Hec Ramsey," and "Banacek." "Columbo" aired regularly on NBC from 1971 to 1978, and sporadically on ABC from 1989 to 2003.

Columbo is a scruffy-looking cop who is usually underestimated by his fellow officers, and by the murderer du jour. Despite his appearance and superficial absentmindedness, he solves all of his cases and manages to come up with the evidence needed for indictment.


Police Lieutenant Columbo is a shabbily-dressed, seemingly slow-witted police detective (once described as rumpled, but loveable) whose fumbling, overly polite manner makes him an unlikely choice to solve any crime, let alone a complex murder. However, as the perpetrators eventually learn, appearances can be deceptive -- Columbo actually only uses his deferential and absent-minded persona to lull them into a false sense of security. Columbo often engages the suspect's assistance in his investigations, using their connection to the crime as a basis for their insights in his investigations; while they believe they are steering him away from the truth, they are actually confirming their own culpability. Columbo solves the case by paying close attention to tiny inconsistencies in the suspect's story, and by relentlessly hounding the suspect (with increasing forcefulness as time goes on) until he or she ends up confessing to the crime or otherwise by clearly doing something which establishes guilt.

Columbo's signature interrogation technique is to politely conclude an interview with a suspect and exit the scene... but to then stop in the doorway (or even return a moment later from outside) and ask the suspect "just one more thing" or "there's just one thing that bothers me, sir." The "one more thing" always brings to light the key inconsistency in the suspect's alibi. When the suspect tries to explain it away, the explanation either does not make much sense or Columbo would then torpedo it with a nonrefutable rebuttal.

A prime example would be "Candidate for Crime" when Columbo points out the inconsistency in the time of death of the victim. The call to the police was recorded at around 9:23pm. The victim's watch which was smashed put the time of death at around 9:20pm establishing the suspect's alibi as being at home with his wife and friends at that time. (He had actually been murdered an hour earlier.)

Columbo discovered that the nearest pay phone which was at a local gas station was actually seven minutes' driving time. So the suspect came up with a logical explanation, that the victim liked to set his watch five minutes forward so that he would never be late, making the time of death at about 9:15pm giving the killer enough time to smoke a cigarette and find a pay phone. Columbo said it was logical except the phone was inside the gas station and that it had closed early that day about two hours earlier.

In the end most of the killers either stand stunned when they are caught or even go so far as to congratulate Columbo himself for solving the case. On at least three occasions the killer tries to kill Columbo as in "Lady in Waiting", "Murder under Glass", or "Rest in Peace, Mrs. Columbo". In several cases, the killer hands Columbo his prized possessions, such as in "A Matter of Honor".

The character of Columbo was created by Richard Levinson and William Link, who claimed that Columbo was partially inspired by the Crime and Punishment character Porfiry Petrovich as well as G. K. Chesterton's humble clerical detective Father Brown. Other sources claim Columbo's character is based on Inspector Fichet from the classic French suspense-thriller Les Diaboliques (1955).

History of the character

The Columbo character first appeared, portrayed by Bert Freed, in a 1960 episode of the television anthology series The Chevy Mystery Show entitled "Enough Rope". This episode was adapted into a 1962 stage play called "Prescription: Murder" with Thomas Mitchell in the role of Columbo. "Prescription: Murder" then became a made-for-TV movie in 1968, with Peter Falk as Columbo. Falk continued in the role when the TV series began in 1971, and played the role until 2003.

Bert Freed as Columbo

The character of Columbo first appeared in 1960 in an episode of the NBC anthology series The Chevy Mystery Show, where he was played by Bert Freed, a character actor with a thatchy grey mane of hair. The episode, entitled "Enough Rope", was adapted by Levinson and Link from their short story "May I Come In" (originally entitled "Dear Corpus Delicti"), in which the character of Columbo did not appear. Link's name was listed first in the billing for the writers at the beginning of the show.

Freed wore a rumpled suit and smoked a cigar to play Columbo, but played the part somewhat straighter than either of his two successors in the role, with few of the familiar Columbo mannerisms. However, the character is still recognizably Columbo and uses some of the same methods of misdirection on his prey. During the course of the show, the increasingly frightened murderer brings pressure from the district attorney's office to have Columbo taken off the case, but the detective fights back with his own contacts. There is one particularly visible mistake in the live telecast (aside from the usual constant boom microphone shadows), with a momentarily flustered Columbo introducing himself to a receptionist as "Dr. Columbo", but she magically deduces that he's actually "Lt. Columbo" when she notifies her supervisor.

Although Bert Freed received third billing, he wound up with almost as much screen time as the killer, once he appeared immediately after the first commercial, several minutes into the show (more or less exactly the same formula used in most of the later Falk shows). Unlike many live television shows, this one continues to exist and is available for viewing in the archives of the Museum of Television and Radio in New York and Los Angeles.

Thomas Mitchell as Columbo

The "Enough Rope" teleplay in turn was adapted into a stage play called Prescription: Murder with revered character actor Thomas Mitchell in the role; the 70-year-old Mitchell had previously played the drunken Doc in John Ford's Stagecoach (1939), for which he won an Academy Award, as well as Scarlett O'Hara's father in Gone with the Wind that same year, and also portrayed the absent-minded Uncle Billy in Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life (1946). The stage production starred two veterans of Orson Welles's Mercury Theatre and Citizen Kane: Joseph Cotten as the murderer and Agnes Moorehead as the victim.

Up to this point the writers had regarded Columbo as only a supporting role, but with Mitchell playing the part they soon found that he was deftly stealing attention away from the stars. Mitchell died of cancer while the play was touring in out-of-town tryouts; Columbo was his last role.

Peter Falk as Columbo

Finally, the play was made into a two-hour television movie that aired on NBC in 1968. Mitchell had died, and the writers suggested Lee J. Cobb and Bing Crosby for the role of Columbo, but Cobb was unavailable and Crosby turned it down. Director Richard Irving convinced Dick Levinson and Bill Link that Falk, who wanted the role, could pull it off even though he was much younger than the writers had in mind.

The first pilot, entitled "Prescription: Murder", has Falk's Columbo pitted against a psychiatrist, played by Gene Barry (star of the TV series Burke's Law), whose alibi Columbo breaks. The second pilot, made in 1971, is entitled "Ransom For a Dead Man", with Lee Grant playing the killer, who is also caught by Columbo.

The first pilot's script suffered from a number of conceptual flaws, and was not picked up for a series. In particular, Columbo himself did not appear until a quarter of the way through the two-hour show, after a lengthy and complex build-up to the murder, which, unfortunately, establishes the handsome and popular tv star Gene Barry as a sympathetic figure. Columbo's character in this first pilot, by contrast, is too cold and hard-bitten. He in fact harasses the principal witness and actually frightens her into co-operating with the police. The audience's sympathies were thus too much with the murderer instead of with the detective, which was not a sound basis on which to build a series.

However, the popularity of the second pilot prompted the creation of a regular series on NBC that premiered in the fall of 1971 as part of the wheel series NBC Mystery Movie. The Network hedged its bet by arranging for the Columbo segments to air once a month on Wednesday nights. Columbo was an immediate hit in the Nielsen ratings and Falk won an Emmy Award for his role in the show's first year, with the character quickly becoming an icon on American television. In its second year the Mystery Movie series was moved to Sunday nights, where it then remained, running in all for seven seasons. The show became the anchor of NBC's Sunday night line up; and a fixture of the Network's programming scheme of the period to (in the days before hundreds of cable channel choices) hold viewers in a fixed time slot each week even though their favored show did not air weekly. After its cancellation by NBC in 1978 Columbo was revived on ABC between 1989 and 2003 in occasional made-for-tv movies.

Columbo's wardrobe was provided by Peter Falk himself; they were his own clothes.

Peter Falk would often ad-lib "Columbo-isms" (fumbling through his pockets for a piece of evidence and discovering a grocery list, asking to borrow a pencil, becoming distracted by something irrelevant in the room at a dramatic point in a conversation with a suspect, etcetera), inserting these into his performance as a way to keep his fellow actors off-balance. He felt it helped to make the confused and impatient reactions of their characters to Columbo's antics more genuine.

Columbo's car

Lt Columbo's battered car is a 1959 Peugeot 403 Cabriolet convertible, which Falk selected personally, after seeing it in a parking lot at Universal Studios. When Columbo boasts that it's a rare automobile, he isn't kidding: from June 1956 to July 1961 only 2,050 were produced, and only 504 were produced for model year 1959. In the episode "Identity Crisis", Columbo tells the murderer that his is one of only three in the country.

Columbo wrecks the car at least four times: in Make Me a Perfect Murder when he t-bones one police car and is hit from behind by another while trying to repair his rear view mirror; in A Matter of Honor when he rear-ends another car; in Caution: Murder Can Be Hazardous to Your Health when it takes him three tries to crash into the killer's car; and in Old Fashioned Murder when he crashes into the back of a police car as he arrives at the murder scene. He also has many other problems with the car.

During the show's initial run on NBC, the licence number was 044-APD. The car was sold after cancellation of the series, and when the show resurfaced on ABC in 1989 the car was found in Ohio and received a new licence plate number, 448-DBZ.

Series format

The series is noted by TV critics and historians for the way it reversed the cliché of the standard whodunit mystery. TV Guide has referred to the basic plot structure as a "howcatchem", though it is more properly known as an inverted detective story, a subgenre created by British writer Richard Austin Freeman.

In a typical murder mystery, the identity of the murderer is not revealed until the climax of the story, and the hero uncovers clues pointing to the killer. In most episodes of Columbo, the audience sees the crime unfold at the beginning and knows exactly who did it and how it was done; the "mystery", from the audience's perspective, is spotting the clues that will lead Columbo to discover and expose the killer's guilt. This allows the story to unfold from the criminal's point of view, rather than that of the detective. In some episodes, Columbo does not even appear until as late as 30 minutes into the story, the preceding time being taken up depicting the complex nature of the crime, including the history between the killer and the victim.

However, there are interesting exceptions to this. For instance in the episode Double Shock (Season 2, Episode 8) the story begins in the usual manner, but as the plot unfolds the murderer is revealed to have an identical twin with an equal motive to commit the murder, leaving the audience uncertain as to the identity of the killer.

A Columbo mystery therefore tends to be driven by the characters, rather than by technical procedures or the gathering of clues. The audience observe the criminal's reaction to the ongoing investigation, and to the increasingly intrusive presence of Lt. Columbo. Initially Columbo's personality and manners are disarming and non-intimidating, so that the killer feels safe and 'helps' Columbo with his investigation (but in so doing, frequently backs himself into a corner by building up too detailed an alibi). Inevitably, the murderer discovers too late that the Lieutenant is not nearly as simple-minded or scatterbrained as he appears; and the murderer's level of irritation, arrogance or panic escalates as the noose begins to tighten.

Columbo typically manipulates the killer into incriminating himself, often using extremely unorthodox and unpredictable methods. This unpredictability and the quirky mannerisms of Columbo – which are partly his natural personality, partly an affectation to give him an edge in his investigations – are part of the attraction of the series.

In several instances, the killer is more sympathetic than the victim, mostly in episodes where the killer is a woman (such as Ruth Gordon's avenging mystery writer, Janet Leigh's mentally ill diva, and Vera Miles' besieged industrialist), but also including Donald Pleasence's vintner. Never again, however, would the series repeat the mistake of the first pilot in making the killer more sympathetic than the Lieutenant himself.

Columbo rarely displays anger toward the (usually well-to-do) suspects; and in an impromptu speech to a ladies' club meeting hosted by Ruth Gordon's character, at which he shows up uninvited, he admits that over the course of many of his investigations he grew to like and respect the suspect.

By the same token, Columbo rarely carries a gun, and is never required to exercise physical force. When the final arrest comes, the killer always goes quietly (though at least two suspects try to kill Columbo in the end, only to find their means of doing so has been circumvented by him beforehand). However, he will drop his usual disarming act and become openly aggressive and intimidating if the circumstances require it.

A telling example of this comes late in 1973's "A Stitch in Crime," in which a surgeon has intentionally botched an operation to replace a colleague's defective heart valve by using the wrong type of sutures, to ensure that he would appear to die of an unrelated heart attack at a later date. Columbo realizes that the only way to save the man's life is to manipulate the surgeon into performing another surgery. When his efforts prove futile, Columbo drops the facade, reveals all of his cards, and angrily promises that if the patient dies, the body would be immediately seized and autopsied to collect the evidence required to put the doctor in jail.

The episodes are all movie-length, between 70 and 100 minutes long, excluding commercials. The series was and remains very popular in Britain, where the similarity to the British model of the drawing-room mystery was much appreciated, as was the use of several British guest stars (in the original series). However, most British fans find the episode Dagger Of The Mind, which finds Columbo on placement with Scotland Yard, to be cliched and embarrassing; on one UK TV screening on Channel 5, a sarcastic warning was made beforehand about it containing "mild violence, and very dodgy British accents". Falk is on record (in Mark Dawidziak's book The Columbo Phile) as disliking the episode himself.

Peter Falk, who played Columbo, has a glass eye and it remained a mystery for 25 years whether this glass eye "played the part of a real eye" (i.e. did the character, as opposed to the actor, have one or two eyes), until 1997's Columbo: A Trace of Murder, where upon asking another character to revisit the crime scene with him he jokes: “You know, three eyes are better than one.”

Columbo's wife

During the first incarnation of the series, between 1971 and 1978, it was widely believed in Hollywood that Columbo's "wife" was a fictional ploy used only for conversation with his prey, and that the character actually lived alone in a furnished room. Falk is reported in magazine profiles to have strongly believed this.

However, in the episode "Troubled Waters" other characters describe meeting and speaking to Mrs. Columbo, though she never appears on screen. In three further episodes ("An Exercise in Fatality", "Any Old Port in a Storm" and "Rest in Peace, Mrs. Columbo") Columbo is seen talking on the telephone with her. And in the episode "Identity Crisis" the character played by Patrick McGoohan bugs Columbo's home and learns her favorite piece of music.

In the episode "Rest in Peace, Mrs. Columbo", Columbo's unseen wife is herself targeted by a deranged killer (played by Helen Shaver). During the investigation Columbo states that his wife loves Chopin, and describes her as being busy with church, volunteering at the hospital, watching her sister's children, and walking the dog five times a day. He mentions that she has a sister named Ruth, and later while talking with his wife on the phone he refers also to her having another sister called Rita. This episode is to some extent an extended joke with the audience, in which we are teased as to whether or not Mrs. Columbo has actually been murdered. It also teases the audience by featuring prominently displayed photographs of Mrs. Columbo, apparently finally disclosing her appearance to viewers. However, for a very important reason in the storyline, the photos turn out not to be of Columbo's wife after all.

Psychologically, the audience came to want the mystery of Mrs. Columbo to be the one mystery the series never solved. She was an element of the show's format, as important to the series as Columbo's shabby raincoat, ancient car, and extraordinary hound dog.

After cancellation of the original Columbo series in 1978, Mrs. Columbo was the lead character in a TV detective series of the same name, in which she was played by Kate Mulgrew (later of Star Trek: Voyager) (see below).

Peter Falk's real-life wife, Shera Danese, appeared in six Columbo episodes in various roles.

Guest contributions


Steven Spielberg and Jonathan Demme each directed episodes of the show during its first run. Jonathan Latimer and Steven Bochco were once writers.

Ben Gazzara directed episodes "Troubled Waters" (1975) and "A Friend in Deed" (1974).

Peter Falk himself directed the last episode of the 1st season, "Blueprint For Murder".

Nicholas Colasanto, who acted in Raging Bull and Cheers (as Coach), directed some episodes, including "Swan Song" with Johnny Cash. However, "Étude in Black", which is credited to Colasanto, was actually co-directed by its co-stars John Cassavetes and Peter Falk as a favor to their friend Colasanto. This has given rise to the false rumor that Cassavetes sometimes directed under the pseudonym Nicholas Colasanto.

Patrick McGoohan directed five episodes (including three of the four in which he played the murderer) and wrote and produced two (including one of these).

Vincent McEveety was a frequent director, and homage was paid to him by a humorous mention of a character with his surname in the episode "Undercover" (which he directed).

Guest stars

Columbo was noted for its high-profile guest stars. Frequently, viewers were treated to seeing their favorite film and television stars as either the murderer or victim. See miscellaneous (below) for actors who played other roles, such as friends, relatives, witnesses, etc., rather than murderers or victims.

Noted actors appearing on Columbo include:

Murderers Anthony Andrews, Eddie Albert, Richard Basehart, Anne Baxter, Gene Barry, Ed Begley, Jr., Theodore Bikel, Honor Blackman, Ian Buchanan, Stephen Caffrey, Johnny Cash, John Cassavetes, Jack Cassidy, Susan Clark, Billy Connolly, Robert Conrad, Jackie Cooper, Robert Culp, Tyne Daly, Faye Dunaway, Dick Van Dyke, Hector Elizondo, José Ferrer, Ruth Gordon, Lee Grant, George Hamilton, Laurence Harvey, Louis Jourdan, Richard Kiley, Martin Landau (as identical twin brothers), Janet Leigh, Ross Martin, Roddy McDowall, Patrick McGoohan, Vera Miles, Ray Milland, Ricardo Montalban, Leonard Nimoy, Donald Pleasence, Clive Revill, Matthew Rhys, William Shatner, Helen Shaver, Fisher Stevens, Rip Torn, Trish Van Devere, Joyce Van Patten, Robert Vaughn, George Wendt, Oskar Werner, Nicol Williamson Patrick McGoohan appeared in a record four episodes of Columbo. Robert Culp and Jack Cassidy both appeared three times as murderers. Culp appeared a fourth time as the father of a collegiate killer. Ray Milland, Dean Stockwell, George Hamilton, William Shatner and Robert Vaughn and Ed Begley, Jr. all appeared in two episodes. Hamilton and Shatner played the killer both times; Vaughn played both a killer and a victim, and Milland played both killer and the husband of the victim (Pat Crowley, killed by Culp). Begley played both an innocent third party and a killer.
Victims Lola Albright, Sian Barbara Allen, Richard Anderson, Sorrell Booke, Barbara Colby, Anjanette Comer, Pat Crowley, John Dehner, Bradford Dillman, Greg Evigan, Joel Fabiani, Nina Foch, Anne Francis, Charles Frank, Will Geer, Leslie Nielsen, James Gregory, Deidre Hall, Wilfrid Hyde-White, Sam Jaffe, John Kerr, Jack Kruschen, Ida Lupino, Chuck McCann, Rue McClanahan, Martin Milner, André Lawrence, Rosemary Murphy, Tim O'Connor, Nehemiah Persoff, Martha Scott, Pippa Scott, Martin Sheen, Mickey Spillane, Dean Stockwell, Forrest Tucker, Robert Vaughn, Lesley Ann Warren, John Williams, Jeff Yagher, Calum Willins Ida Lupino appeared twice, once as a victim and once as the spouse of a victim. Leslie Nielsen appeared twice, once as the victim and once as the boyfriend of the murderer. Barbara Colby, a newcomer, played a victim, albeit not the intended victim, but rather a potential blackmailer who is killed for that reason. Sian Barbara Allen was also killed for her attempts at blackmail.

Miscellaneous guest stars

Actors such as Diane Baker, Priscilla Barnes, Kim Cattrall, Sondra Currie, Jamie Lee Curtis, Samantha Eggar, Blythe Danner, Fionnuala Flanagan, John Fraser, Jeff Goldblum, Valerie Harper, Mariette Hartley, Joyce Jillson, Bruno Kirby, Walter Koenig, Donald Moffat, Pat Morita, Richard Pearson, Suzanne Pleshette, Barry Robins, Gena Rowlands, Katey Sagal (whose father Boris Sagal directed several episodes), Cynthia Sikes, James B. Sikking and Vic Tayback, among many others, had roles of varying sizes early in their careers.

Peter Falk's real-life wife, Shera Danese, appeared in six Columbo episodes in various roles.

More seasoned actors to appear, later in their careers, included Don Ameche, Maurice Evans, Bernard Fox, Jane Greer, Julie Harris, Edith Head (as herself), Celeste Holm, Kim Hunter, Jessie Royce Landis, Robert Loggia, Myrna Loy, Patrick Macnee, Juliet Mills, Sal Mineo, Julie Newmar, Leslie Nielsen, Janis Paige, John Payne, Vincent Price, Kate Reid, Madeleine Sherwood, Rod Steiger, David White, Roddy McDowall and William Windom (who appeared in the first pilot, in 1968).

Recurring actors/roles

Actors J. P. Finnegan (6 times), Robert Culp (4 times), Michael Lally (40+ times), Vito Scotti (6 times), Bruce Kirby (8 appearances, 4 of them as Sergeant Kramer), Bob Dishy (as Sergeant Wilson in two episodes), Dr. Benson (Columbo's dog's vet, played by Michael Fox in two episodes) and Burt (the chili dispenser at Columbo's favorite greasy spoon, played by Timothy Carey) played recurring characters.


The very idea of a show about Mrs Columbo was opposed by series creators Levinson and Link, as well as by Peter Falk. In an interview with Columbo Phile author Mark Dawidziak, published prior to the 1989 Columbo revival, Richard Levinson joked, "If there was ever another Columbo we were going to have him say, 'There's a woman running around pretending to be my wife. She's changing things. She's a young girl. I wish my wife was like that. She's an imposter.'"

Nonetheless, a spin-off TV series titled Mrs Columbo starring Kate Mulgrew was aired in 1979, but it received a dismal reception and was swiftly cancelled. It especially disappointed fans of the original series, in which Mrs Columbo was often referred to but never seen. The mystery of what Columbo's oft-talked about wife was "really" like was an important part of the original show's appeal, and showing an actual Mrs Columbo seemed to take something away from the Columbo mystique. Columbo himself was never seen on Mrs Columbo. However, certain obvious connections were made to the original Columbo series, notably the presence of Columbo's beat-up car and pet dog in the show's opening sequence. And references were made to Kate's husband being a police lieutenant. However, there were also notable discrepancies between the two shows. Kate's physical appearance did not match with certain descriptions Lt Columbo had provided of his wife in various Columbo episodes over the years — the actress playing "Mrs Columbo" was too young (Mulgrew was 24 at the time), and too thin to be the wife described in the Columbo episodes.

Furthermore, in the episode "Double Exposure", Lt. Columbo declared that his wife "had no head for crime" and that she "always picked the wrong guy as the murderer" whenever they watched a mystery movie. Kate's mystery-solving exploits in this series ran counter to that description.

Due to the negative critical and public reaction to the show, the producers fairly quickly started making changes. The spin-off was renamed Kate Columbo, followed by Kate the Detective, and finally Kate Loves a Mystery. The main character was likewise renamed "Kate Callahan", and all references to and ties with the original Columbo show were dropped — the character was no longer supposed to be Mrs Columbo or to have any connection with him at all. Despite (or perhaps because of) all the attempts to fix it, the series lasted only thirteen episodes.

An episode of Mrs Columbo was included as a bonus feature on the Region 1 DVD releases of the third, fourth and fifth seasons.

The "true" name and identity of Mrs Columbo has in fact been provided by the Lieutenant himself. In a 1978 episode of the NBC series "Dean Martin's Celebrity Roasts" (released on DVD in 2003) the man of the hour is Frank Sinatra, and one of the guests paying tribute is Peter Falk, entirely in character as Lt Columbo. Columbo pesters Sinatra into autographing a napkin, to be signed to himself and Mrs Columbo. He then asks him to change it, putting "the missus" name first... before finally settling on "actually, even better... just put 'to Rose'". In the episode "Rest in Peace, Mrs Columbo" he notes that his wife has a sister named Ruth, and later while talking with her on the phone, refers also to her sister Rita. His wife and her two sisters may thus have been named Rose, Ruth and Rita.

First name

Columbo's first name was never mentioned in the series, and became as celebrated a mystery as his never-seen wife. In the episode "Columbo: Undercover", as an in-joke, when asked for his first name he replies "Lieutenant".

The "Philip Columbo" myth

Several sources cite the lieutenant's name as "Philip Columbo," variously claiming that the name was either in the original script for Prescription: Murder, or that it was visible on his police badge. For instance: A rumour that Columbo's first name—which is never mentioned by him in any episode—is actually "Peter" has been denied by the star; if he has a name at all, says Falk, it is "Philip," which was the name used in the original story, Prescription: Murder. Peugeot even ran an advertising campaign that mentioned "Lt Philip Columbo" as the most famous driver of the Peugeot 403 convertible.

The name, "Philip Columbo," was, in fact, invented by Fred L. Worth, in whose book, The Trivia Encyclopedia, the fictitious entry about Columbo's first name was actually a "copyright trap"—or, a deliberately false statement intended to reveal subsequent copyright infringement.

Ultimately, however, Worth's ploy was not successful. In 1984, he filed a $300 million lawsuit against the distributors of the board game, Trivial Pursuit, claiming that they had sourced their questions from his book, even to the point of reproducing typographical errors contained in the book. Worth's suit revolved around the use of the name, "Philip Columbo," included in a game-question about Lt Columbo. The makers of Trivial Pursuit did not deny that they sourced material from Worth's book, but argued there was nothing improper about using the book, as one of a number of other references, in the process of building game-questions. The judge agreed, ruling in favor of Trivial Pursuit, and the case was thrown out.

Columbo's first name – revealed?

Probably the closest thing to a definitive answer came to light following the release of the first series on DVD. In the episode "Dead Weight", when Columbo introduces himself to General Hollister the audience is shown a brief close-up of Columbo's badge, complete with a signature. Though difficult to read when viewed at normal speed, when the image of the badge is paused the signature appears to read "Frank Columbo". The same ID badge is seen in numerous other episodes, and the signature "Frank Columbo" is clearly visible in the season 5 episode "A Matter of Honor".

Universal Studios, in the boxset release of seasons 1-4 under their Playback label, included a picture of Columbo's police badge on the back of the box, with signature "Frank Columbo" and the name "Lt Frank Columbo" in type. This appears to be a different badge from the one seen in "Dead Weight", with a different signature.

Nonetheless, Columbo creators Richard Levinson and William Link, as well as star Peter Falk, have always insisted that Columbo's first name was never revealed. Its apparent disclosure on the badge, therefore, may have been unintentional.

Biography of Lt Columbo

The following details of Lt Columbo's life have been gleaned from statements the character has made or observations of the character's behavior in the show. He may have been lying about any or all of these to establish a rapport with the person he was speaking to, though some facts, like his marriage, have enough other support to establish them as definitely factual.

Columbo was born and raised in New York City in a neighborhood near Chinatown. In the Murder under Glass episode he revealed that he ate more egg rolls than cannelloni in his childhood. The Columbo household included the future policeman's grandfather, parents, five brothers and a sister. His brother-in-law is a lawyer. His father wore glasses and did the cooking when his mother was in the hospital having another baby. His grandfather "was a tailgunner on a beer truck during Prohibition" and let him stomp the grapes when they made wine in the cellar. He is Italian on both sides, though he professes to be "the only Italian who can't sing."

Peter Falk has stated during an interview on Inside the Actor's Studio that he wasn't truly sure how many relatives Columbo had aside from his wife.

Columbo's father, who never earned more than $5,000 a year, taught him how to play pool, an obsession that stuck with the future detective. His boyhood hero was Joe DiMaggio, and he also liked gangster pictures.

Hardly a model child, Columbo broke street lamps, played pinball and ran with a crowd of boys that enjoyed a good prank. The trick of putting a potato in a car exhaust — which purportedly prevents the car from starting without causing permanent damage — served well on one of his cases. He became a cop in part to make up for these juvenile pranks.

During high school, he dropped chemistry and took wood shop. While dating a girl named Theresa in high school, he met his future wife. After serving in the Army during the Korean War, Columbo joined the New York City police force and was assigned to the 12th precinct. He trained under Sergeant Gilhooley, a genial Irishman who tried to teach him the game of darts. He moved to Los Angeles in 1958. While studying to make Detective, he acknowledged that he had nowhere near the smarts of his fellow candidates. But he determined that he could even the odds by working harder than any of them... by reading all of the books and paying attention to every detail.

He is compulsive about little details. Little things keep him awake at night and he likes to bounce ideas off his wife. They have an unknown number of children, and a basset hound named Dog.

He hates guns and almost never carries one. He has such low confidence in his ability to pass a routine departmental marksmanship test that in the episode Forgotten Lady he convinces a fellow officer to take the test for him, saying he himself could never hit the target.

He prefers to drive his trademark dirty 1959 Peugeot 403 convertible (which is equipped with a police radio), rather than an official LAPD car while on duty. He rarely visits the Police Department in downtown Los Angeles, and in fact some members of the Department have never seen him there, a criticism to which he responds in the episode Forgotten Lady by commenting, "That's rarely where the murders take place!"

His reputation among his superiors tends to vary from person to person. Some regard him with poorly-hidden distaste, put off by his apparently slipshod techniques. Yet he is often specifically assigned to high-profile cases that require the Department's most skilled investigator. He is uniformly respected and defended by people who have worked with him to the conclusion of a case.

His trademark costume (raincoat over salmon-colored jacket and pants, with bone-colored dress shirt and green rayon tie) never varies from case to case or year to year. When "on duty" he is never seen without it, except in rare cases when circumstances (such as a formal event) require alternate attire. He takes his "uniform" so seriously that when a murder was committed while he was enjoying a Mexican cruise with his wife, Columbo changed out of his cruisewear and wore his familiar suit exclusively until the case was solved.

He's prone to airsickness and seasickness, and he cannot swim — though he has been known to row a boat. He is squeamish, and does not like hospitals or autopsies, or even looking at photographs of 'messy' murders. He is also afraid of heights. "To tell you the truth," he explained to an FAA investigator who offered him a job, "I don't even like being this tall." In another episode when asked with his name he would be at home on a boat, he responded, "It must have been another branch of the family."

He is not good with numbers. He likes cooking, limericks, Westerns, Italian opera, Strauss waltzes, golf (which he is very good at), classical music, bowling, and American football on television. He also plays the tuba. He is a self-proclaimed expert at tuning-in TV sets. In 1972, he earned $11,000 a year. He is extremely stingy and for his 25th wedding anniversary, rather than buying his wife silver he considered taking her camping. His parents and his grandfather are dead.

His favorite food is chili with crackers ("It's the crackers that make the dish", he comments in "Ransom for a Dead Man"), which he eats at a greasy spoon. In early episodes (served by Burt) and in later episodes (served by Barney himself) he gets his chili at the famous -- and very real -- Barney's Beanery. In later episodes he is found eating chili at various different places, but he is a "regular" at each chili spot that we see him patronize, and is familiar to the staff, with whom he often chews over a case. He also eats raisins and candy, which he has been known to carry in his pocket and offer round — especially at uncomfortable moments during one of his unassuming interrogations.

He also loves coffee and drinks it black. He rarely drinks alcohol but has been known to have the occasional beer, or a glass of wine or spirits, and is not above sharing one last drink with someone he is about to put away.

When called to a case in the early hours he brings a hard-boiled egg to serve as his breakfast. He loves cigars (usually of the stubby, very smelly, "Toscano" variety), which he smokes regularly (although more than once he gives up smoking during the series, only to restart in the next episode). He speaks Italian (though he states he does not to the Italian mob in an episode where he is kidnapped by the mob), and a little Spanish. In the Murder under Glass episode he spoke Italian to Mario (played by Antony Alda).

He is a whistler — in almost every episode of the ABC revival he is heard whistling the children's song "This Old Man". If he does not whistle it, it appears somewhere else, such as in the underscore. Its significance comes from the line "knick knack paddywhack, give a dog a bone" in the lyrics, since Columbo's standard tactic is to worry at a case like a dog worries at a bone. The motif also ties in with his basset hound, Dog, whom he acquires as a companion in the ABC shows.

In How to Dial a Murder he says that he loves billiards, but never gets the chance to play. He considers the comedian W. C. Fields a genius, and Citizen Kane a terrific movie.

Comparison of the original series to the later revival

A major difference between the original Columbo series and what has come to be known as the "new" Columbo, is the fame of the guest murderer-of-the-week. In the original series, in almost all cases the featured villain was well known in show business and easily recognizable by the public at large. In many, though not all, of the new episodes the guest villain is relatively unknown to the public and not easily recognized by the audience.

In a standard mystery series, on the usual Hollywood principle of "follow the money", the expensive guest star in an episode will normally turn out to be the murderer. This tends to be a give-away in plot terms, and thus a source of problems for a show. In Columbo, however, because the identity of the killer is known to the audience from the outset this was never a problem.

Another difference is that 'new' Columbo occasionally plays tricks with the famous format established by the 1970s episodes (where the murderer carries out a complex plan in the first act, and the remainder of the episode follows Columbo's efforts to prove them guilty). For instance, the 1992 episode A Bird In The Hand starts out in the time honoured fashion, with the planning of a murder, only for the intended victim to be killed by someone else immediately before the plan was about to be executed.

Future of Columbo

In May 2007, it was announced that Peter Falk had chosen a script for one last Columbo episode, titled Columbo: Hear No Evil. The script was renamed Columbo's Last Case. ABC, the network which has aired the new Columbo series since 1989, declined the project. In response, producers for the series announced they were attempting to shop the project to foreign production companies.

List of episodes

DVD releases

Universal Studios Home Entertainment released all of the initial 45 episodes of Columbo on DVD in Region 1. In April 2007, Universal released five episodes from the series' later run under the title "Columbo Mystery Movie Collection: 1989," but has announced no releases since.

Title Ep Region 1 Region 2 Region 4
The Complete First Season 9 September 7 2004 September 13 2004 December 3 2004
The Complete Second Season 8 March 8 2005 July 18 2005 July 13 2005
The Complete Third Season 8 August 9 2005 November 14 2005 July 20 2006
The Complete Fourth Season 6 March 14 2006 September 18 2006 September 19 2006
The Complete Fifth Season 6 June 27 2006 February 12 2007 Unknown 2007
The Complete Sixth & Seventh Seasons 8 November 21 2006 April 30 2007 May 2 2007
The Mystery Movie Collection 1989 (R1)
The Complete Eighth Season (R2)
5 (R1)
4 (R2)
April 24 2007 March 31 2008 June 4 2008
Seasons 1 - 4 31 N/A November 20 2006 N/A
Seasons 1 - 7 45 N/A October 22 2007 N/A
Seasons 1 - 8 - N/A October 13 2008 N/A

Other appearances

  • Falk appeared as Columbo in a faux episode of Alias produced for a 2003 TV special celebrating the 50th anniversary of ABC. Featuring most of the regular cast of the spy series, the skit began with Jack Bristow preparing agents Sydney Bristow and Michael Vaughn for a mission, and informing them that they will have a new partner - Detective Columbo. Columbo proceeds to wreak havoc at CIA headquarters, accidentally shooting Vaughn with an anesthetic dart and volunteering to wear a skimpy bikini intended for Sydney during the mission. Columbo reveals that his mission is not to aid the CIA but rather to help Walt Disney Company/ABC head Michael Eisner better understand the show. His work completed, Columbo departs, leaving Jack Bristow to utter a confused, "Dear God, that was strange."
  • Falk also appeared as Columbo in the 1977 Dean Martin Celebrity Roast of Frank Sinatra.
  • Falk appears as himself (but dressed as Columbo) in the Wim Wenders films Wings of Desire and Faraway, So Close! In the first he appears as a actor in a film about Berlin's Nazi past, and in the second he pretends to be scouting locations for a movie in order to distract some security guards.

Music score


A Columbo series of books were published by MCA Publishing in 1972 by authors Alfred Lawrence, Henry Clement and Lee Hays, mostly adapted from the TV series.

Columbo was also used as the protagonist for a series of novels published between 1994 and 1999 by Forge Books, an imprint of Tor Books. All of these books were written by William Harrington.


  • The character of Robert Goren (a knowledgeable and detail-obsessed man who intentionally comes off as distant and oblivious to suspects) from the NBC program Law & Order: Criminal Intent, is partially inspired by Columbo. Other television detective characters that were possibly inspired by Columbo include the neurotic Adrian Monk (from Monk) and the street-savvy but irresponsible Shawn Spencer (from Psych), both of whom also solve crimes by noticing small, seemingly irrelevant things.
  • The children's educational show Sesame Street featured a sheep detective named "Colambo".
  • Columbo has been parodied four times by The Simpsons. In "Simpson Tide", Homer Simpson attempts to do a Columbo impression, which consists simply of saying "one more thing" in a gruff accent repeatedly (and a single wandering eye). On a different episode, Chief Wiggum attempts to defend his position as a police officer by saying that he was "able to solve an episode of Columbo". On being told that they show who committed the crime at the start of the episode, Wiggum replies "Yeah, but you have to remember." In The Simpsons Treehouse of Horror XVIII Kodos says to Bart, "Well duh, Columbo." In Dial "N" for Nerder, the normally dim Nelson Muntz plays Columbo-style detective to investigate a supposed murder.
  • Columbo's style of interrogation was also parodied in an episode of the anime Sonic X, where Vector the Crocodile, a detective character, was doing a number of famous detective impressions. One of these impressions was of Lieutenant Columbo, where he immediately dons a trenchcoat and quotes Columbo's "one more thing..." line. In the dub version of the anime, part of the interpretation, namely the cigar Vector was holding in his right hand, was edited out.
  • "The Columbo Effect" is a term popular amongst British doctors for patients' habit of only stating what really worries them just as they are about to leave, in the manner of Columbo's interviewing technique.
  • The Character of Baldwin "Bulletproof" Vess in the cartoon series C.O.P.S. was usually seen wearing a Columbo-style raincoat and suit in most episodes and in the accompanying toy series and comic book.
  • In an episode of the sitcom Bosom Buddies, the character Henry Desmond (Peter Scolari), performs a Columbo impression as part of an elaborate revenge scheme.
  • In an episode of Channel 4's Peep Show, Mark walks away from a shop assistant after enquiring about a girl he's interested in and, just as he reaches the door, urges himself to "do a Columbo". He turns and says "Just one more thing". He later reflects on "good old Columbo. Just the one technique of course, still, shits on Quincy."
  • Issue 172 of Viz comic (February 2008) includes a parody cartoon strip titled Loo Attendant Columbo, in which a Columbo-lookalike janitor attempts to solve the mystery of a blocked lavatory at LAPD headquarters, rather than simply clean it up as instructed.
  • The French satirical news programme Les Guignols de l'info, which uses latex puppets of famous people to comment on the news, has a puppet of Columbo. This latex Columbo has been used to question puppets representing politicians, including Nicolas Sarkozy and Michèle Alliot-Marie, and expose their alleged hypocrisy and lies.
  • The popular British sketch comedy Benny Hill parodied Columbo on occasions, played by the role of Jackie Wright each time. He would constantly forget what he was trying to say, snapping his finger and contradicting himself every time he attempted to remember. He would also show up seconds after leaving the room, making fun of Columbo by having him show up in the most unusual places (once showing up on the hanging hook of a door, and notably popping out of a fireplace, even after the suspects said they did it while he was in hearing range and still pestering them).
  • Columbo is mentioned several times in the British sitcom One Foot in the Grave and provided some of the inspiration for the writer David Renwick's subsequent series Jonathan Creek. In the episode "The Eyes of Tiresias" Jonathan Creek compares the mystery to a Columbo plot.
  • Columbo, both the character and the show, are referenced by the Beastie Boys, on their 1986 album Licensed to Ill, specifically on the track The New Style.


! Country
! Foreign title
! Translation
! Network(s)
! Notes

Arab World Columbo
Subtitled MBC 2 Not currently airing
Dubbed Retro
None TV1
Dubbed ORF1

Subtitled vtm, VijfTV

Dubbed RTBF, RTL-TVi, AB4
Коломбо (Columbo)
Dubbed Fox Crime
None Sun TV (Canada) Shown in rotation with the other "NBC Mystery Movies"
Catalonia (Spain) Colombo
Dubbed TVC
Subtitled HRT
Dubbed TV Nova
TV Prima
Subtitled DR1
Subtitled MTV
Dubbed TF1
TV Breizh
Galicia (Spain) Columbo
Dubbed TVG
Dubbed Super RTL
Dubbed Magyar Televízió
None RTÉ One
Dubbed Rete 4
Subtitled/Dubbed Super Channel
The Mystery Channel
Subtitled RTL 4
Subtitled NRK1
Dubbed Shalimar Television Network
Dubbed TVP
Dubbed TV Markíza
STV 1 - Slovenská televízia
None A Kanal, Pop Tv
Subtitled RTP1
Subtitled/Dubbed Antena 1
Коломбо (Columbo)
Dubbed Channel One
Dubbed TVE
Subtitled SVT, TV3
Dubbed Télévision Suisse Romande the show is still shown on Télévision Suisse Romande, a French language Swiss TV channel in Zweikanalton (French/English)
Komiser Kolombo
(Lieutenant Columbo)
Dubbed TRT 1
Dubbed Inter
None ITV
Movies 24
Sky Movies
Hallmark Channel
the show was originally broadcast on ITV, nowadays it is shown on ITV, ITV3, BBC2, Five, UKTV Gold, Movies 24, Sky Movies and the Hallmark Channel

See also


Dawidziak, Mark. The Columbo Phile: A Casebook. The Mysterious Press, 1989.


External links

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