Shortly after Columbo ended its run on NBC in 1978, executive Fred Silverman decided to produce a spin-off series titled Mrs. Columbo despite the protests of original Columbo creators Richard Levinson and William Link.
Mrs. Columbo, who was never given a first name in the original series, would be named Kate. She would be a news reporter with a penchant for solving crime, just like her husband(!), while raising her young daughter.
In an attempt to make the best of the situation, Levinson and Link made a casting suggestion they felt would be in keeping with the character often referred to – but never seen – in the original series.
They recommended Oscar-nominated actress Maureen Stapleton for the role. NBC balked. So they suggested veteran actress Zohra Lambert. Again, NBC dismissed their request. They wanted someone young for the role. Someone beautiful. They wanted Kate Mulgrew.
Kate was 24 at the time, Peter Falk 52, which would have made it a real May-December romance. If one did the math, that would have made Kate Columbo 16 when she had her daughter and 13 when her husband first mentions her in the Columbo episode Prescription: Murder.
Undaunted, the network forged ahead and the show premiered on February 26, 1979 with the episode “Word Game”, written by Richard Alan Simmons who developed the series on the heels of writing the script for The Island of Dr. Moreau.
Early on, the hints were there to remind audiences of the Columbo connection. The rumpled detective’s familiar Peugeot appears in the opening credits and we get a glimpse of a man who looks kind of like Columbo from behind in the pilot.
The network assumed that all they had to do was slap Columbo in the title and viewers would lap it up but, like a studio rebooting Stargate without the involvement of original creators Brad Wright or Robert Cooper, they were immediately disabused of this quaint notion.
The ratings were abysmal. In an effort to save the show, the decision was made to distance it from the original Columbo series by having Kate change her name to Callahan following a divorce.
Then it was revealed that Kate was never married to the Columbo we all knew and loved. Oh, no. She was married to a completely different detective called Philip Columbo! So it’s easy to see how you could have made that erroneous assumption.
The series title also changed, going from Mrs. Columbo to Kate Columbo to Kate the Detective to Kate Loves a Mystery, all over the course of the show’s ill-fated 2 season 13 episode run.
Finally, NBC cut their losses and cancelled the show. The last episode aired on March 19, 1980 and the credited director was Alan Smithee, a pseudonym used by directors who wanted to distance themselves from a project.
The talented Kate Mulgrew emerged from the fiasco unscathed and went on to forge an impressive career with roles like Star Trek Voyager’s Captain Janeway and Orange is the New Black’s Galina “Red” Reznikov.
It was no secret that Peter Falk was no fan of the spin-off. Years later, when the original Columbo returned to ABC, it was made clear that he was still very happily married.
And in a later episode, to put the matter to rest, Columbo offers the following: “A woman’s been going round pretending to be my wife, but it isn’t her.”