Columbo is one of the most beloved crime dramas in television history. It ran from February 1960 to January 2003, spanning 35 years and 69 episodes (including not one but two pilots). It has been broadcast in 44 countries
From 1971 to 1978, the show ran as part of the NBC Mystery Movie (wheel) and then, following an 11 year hiatus, returned as part of the ABC Mystery Movie from 1989 to 2003, its last episode airing as part of ABC Thursday Night at the Movies.
The show was created by writers Richard Levinson and William Link. The (first) series pilot, Prescription: Murder, was based on their stage play of the same name.
Two other actors portrayed Columbo before Peter Falk made the character his own. Bert Freed was the first actor to play the part in a 1960 episode of The Chevy Mystery Show. Two years later, Oscar-winner Thomas Mitchell played Columbo in the stage version of Prescription: Murder.
Eight years later when Levinson and Link were looking to cast the role for the small screen, the first actors considered for the part were Lee J. Cobb (star of The Virginian) and Bing Crosby (who passed because he feared the commitment would interfere with his golf game).
The role eventually went to actor Peter Falk who would go on to win four Emmy Awards for his portrayal of lovable, disarming, rumpled detective.
Falk provided his own wardrobe for the show which included the famed trademark disheveled raincoat he had bought in New York for $15.
Falk was a perfectionist, insisting on repeated takes to ensure the performances were their best. His attitude earned him the respect of his guest stars, and the animosity of studio executives who had to swallow the cost overruns.
Occasionally, Falk would ad-lib during his performances – searching his pockets, becoming distracted – to keep his fellow actors on their toes and, in the case of murder suspects, palpably frustrated.
Unlike the Whodunit, Columbo was a Howdunit, with the murderer revealed in the opening and our Columbo himself not making an appearance until after the first act. It was a format the network initially hated…but grew to love.
The show was an immediate hit and became a worldwide sensation. According to Falk, at one point during the show’s run, he was asked by the State Department to record a reassuring message for Romanian fans who had threatened to riot, suspecting their government was holding back on new episodes.
Early contributors to the show’s success included a young Steven Spielberg who directed seasons 1’s “Murder by the Book” and Hill Street Blues creator Steven Bochco who scripted several episodes including the aforementioned.
Columbo’s catch-phrase, “One more thing…”, is as quintessentially Columbo as his raincoat, but it wasn’t originally scripted.
According to Levinson “we had a scene that was too short, and we had already had Columbo make his exit. We were too lazy to retype the scene, so we had him come back and say, ‘Oh, just one more thing.’ It was never planned.”
Columbo’s first name was never revealed and his wife, who often referenced, was never seen. His dog, a basset hound named Dog, who has the distinction of being the most featured recurring guest star with 23 appearances.
Numerous actors made multiple appearances on the show and a handful returned to play several murderers.
Patrick McGoohan played 5 different murders over the franchise run, Jack Cassidy and Robert Culp 3 a piece, while George Hamilton and William Shatner each played two murderers. Shatner’s killers were especially deliciously devious.
In 2007, Universal shopped just one more Columbo episode to the networks. Titled “Columbo’s Last Case”, it would have been the rumpled detective 70th and final outing. But it never came to be as the networks passed on the 80-year-old Falk’s swan song.
In 2014, Columbo and his dog, Dog, were commemorated with a statue in Budapest, Hungary.
For a deeper dive into Columbo, check out –
Shooting Columbo by David Koenig
The Columbo Phile by Mark Dawidziak
The Columbo Companion by @columbophile
A great article on Columbo’s enduring legacy:
Tomorrow: Mrs. Columbo – A Brief History