Detectives and Columbo

By Mark Maynard

Up until about the age of 10, I was a member of a small, suburban gang of kids in Atlanta. Our time was spent riding around shirtless on dirtbikes, listening to Kiss, throwing lit firecrackers at cars, and doing our best to avoid getting beaten up by the knife-wielding teens who were always smoking in the woods. Life back then was a chaotic and sweaty endeavor, fraught with risk. And it was wonderful. That period of my life, however, ended abruptly when I was about to enter the fifth grade. 

My parents, for reasons that must have made sense to them at the time, decided to relocate our family to rural New Jersey. And, just like that, I stopped leading what I thought of as a normal life. I went into a kind of pupal state for about five years. There were no bikes. There were no friends. There was just me, sequestered in my room, curled up with a geriatric sheep dog, watching the black and white television I’d been given by one of my more sympathetic grandparents. 

While we were too far outside of New York City to get any of the real benefits, the antenna on our roof was able to pick up most of the city’s broadcast stations. So I lived on a constant diet of the Bowery Boys, Abbott and Costello, and gritty New York dramas like The Seven-Ups, and the Taking of Pelham 123. And, of course, there was Columbo. There was always Columbo.

I was born on February 11, 1968, just nine days before the groundbreaking detective drama made its network debut. My mother and I were living with her parents at the time, in Lexington, Kentucky, as my father had been drafted to fight in the Vietnam War. I don’t know for certain that I watched that first episode as it aired on February 20, but, as I have very clear memories of watching Columbo with my maternal grandmother later in my childhood, I think it’s probably pretty likely. And I love the idea that, at nine days old, I was being passed around in front of the television set as the made-for-tv movie “Prescription Murder” unfolded in front of me, imprinting on my newly minted brain. I think that must have been when the seed was planted. 

Regardless of when I first became aware of Columbo, I think it’s safe to say that, by the time I’d reached puberty, I’d pretty much adopted the unassuming, but always calculating, detective as my cultural avatar, the character in popular culture with whom I most closely identified. 

I’ve heard black women in the sciences speak about how impactful it was when, as children, they first saw Nichelle Nichols as Lieutenant Uhura on the deck of the starship Enterprise. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that my experience with Columbo was quite that dramatic. There was, at that time, an endless sea of would-be role models on TV who looked like me. You couldn’t turn on the television in the ‘70s without encountering a white, male protagonist. None of them, however, resonated with me. None of them caught my interest as a kid growing up with what, many years later, would be diagnosed as Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. 

I didn’t know what it was about me that made me different, but I had a pretty good sense that, whatever it was, Columbo shared it. I thought that, in him, I’d finally found someone who not only had what I had, but someone who had figured out a way to harness it, and wield it to his advantage. 

In the second episode of the series, when Columbo really started to come together as the fully-formed character we know today, he said something that made a huge impression on me. It was something incredibly small. I doubt most people even noted it. “I’m a worrier,” he said. It might not mean much to you. But, to a kid with OCD, who worried about every little thing, it was a revelation. Here was this person on television who had found a place in the world not in spite of his incessant worry, but because of it. He used his constant worry as a tool to take on the rich and powerful, and bring them to justice. And I loved that. I don’t know that I completely understood it at the time, but it resonated in a way that nothing had before. 

Here was a character who, unlike most everyone else in popular culture at the time, wasn’t tough, or threatening. He was a cop who didn’t carry a gun. He was kind, self-deprecating, and unassuming. He wasn’t stronger or faster than anyone else. He may not have even been smarter. But he had one thing that no one else had – his mind never fucking stopped. No matter how small it might be, when he encountered an inconsistency, he worked at it. And he never gave up. He kept asking questions, and running over things in his mind, until he got what he was after, and that was something I hadn’t seen before. In a world of Dirty Harrys, here was this other, beautiful model for adulthood that writers Richard Levinson and William Link had come up with, and Peter Falk had so perfectly brought to life. 

When people ask why I love Columbo like I do, I often cite the episode “Any Port in a Storm,” which first aired in 1973. Donald Pleasence is the celebrity killer in that episode. (Every episode of Columbo, for those of you who haven’t seen the program, begins with a murder being committed by a special guest star.) In this episode, Pleasance takes the life of his brash and reckless brother, who, if left to his own devices, would have destroyed their family business – a California vineyard. Over the course of the 90-minute episode, Columbo predictably solves the mystery of the brother’s murder. In the end, though, he doesn’t just cuff Pleasence, and push him into a squad car to have him taken to jail. Instead, the detective breaks out a bottle of dessert wine, and two glasses, and the two men stop for a drink beside Columbo’s car, as they look out over the vineyard that this man had killed his brother to protect. 

When people talk about Columbo, they talk about the rumpled raincoat, the cigar, the old car, and his insistence on talking about off-screen family members who may or may not really exist, but those are just the elements on the surface. The truth that motivates his character isn’t merely the conglomeration of these characteristics, as awesome and interesting as they may be. The real truth – the bedrock that grounds the character – resides in these quiet moments, where you witness his genuine kindness, and empathy. 

Columbo is more of a confessor than a cop. His job isn’t just to solve the mystery, but to understand why it happened, and to lead the murderer to a point where he or she feels the need to unburden themselves. While he doesn’t accept the actions of those who come into his orbit, he understands them for what they are – the actions of flawed human beings. It’s not moralistic. It’s not vindictive. It’s humanistic. 

And that’s why I love this final moment that’s shared between Peter Falk and Donald Pleasence. Columbo is essentially saying,  “You’re a human being, and you did something wrong. It’s been my job to find out what happened. And, now that I’ve done that, let’s just have this moment to reflect.” It’s like they just finished a chess match. Maybe it goes too far to say that there’s a respect for the criminal. But there’s an empathy and an understanding that’s rare in the genre, and it’s this humanity that keeps me coming back. (Episodes of Columbo aren’t always like this. In several, the killers aren’t at all sympathetic. Those, however, aren’t the ones that I keep coming back to.)

Some people argue that Columbo holds up because of the unique gimmick, which came to be known as the “anti-whodunit,“ or the “howecatchem,” where the journey we take as viewers isn’t about finding out who the killer is, but how they’re caught. And it is a hell of a gimmick. (It’s being employed to great success right now in the new series Poker Face.) But I think it’s Falk’s presence that makes it magical. There was definitely great writing by Levinson and Link, but Falk’s choices as an actor are so interesting, compelling, and unexpected, that they elevate the work to a level rarely reached in American television. 

Not too long ago, the Film Archives at UCLA restored the original depiction of Lieutenant Columbo as he first appeared on television, on July 31, 1960. It was on an episode of the “Chevy Mystery Show” on CBS. It was an hour-long, live production. And Columbo was portrayed not by Peter Falk, but by actor Bery Freed. The production was titled “Enough Rope,” and, in large part, it’s the same as what we’d see eight years later in “Prescription Murder,” when Peter Falk took over the role. The plot is essentially the same. An arrogant psychologist kills his wife in their apartment, stages her murder to look as though it had been perpetrated by an intruder, and, then, with the assistance of his young lover, who happens to look like his wife, gives himself what he thinks is a perfect, air-tight alibi. The 1968 version runs about 30 minutes longer, and Levinson and Link make great use of that additional time. Scenes were added, and the story benefited greatly from it. But the big difference is what Peter Falk brought to the role of the cigar-smoking, trench coat wearing detective. Even when the dialogue was exactly the same, the difference between what Freed and Falk brought to the part is night and day. 

Freed played the role like a traditional cop. Every acting choice he makes seems to have been informed by the detective fiction of the 40s and 50s. While there was this sense of intellectual gamesmanship between Columbo and the killer, there was a clear subtext of menace on the part of the detective. Freed, who was a much larger man than Falk, was imposing in both size and attitude. Falk, for whatever reason, decided to come at it from a completely different place. And it’s that choice, I think, that explains why his portrayal of Columbo still rings true. It’s much more nuanced, and there’s a sensitivity that just didn’t exist at that point in time. It’s the opposite of intimidation. He hangs his head, demurs bashfully, and avoids eye contact. (Falk, as Columbo, did lose his temper in that first episode, yelling at the doctor’s lover, in hopes of coercing a confession, but that was an isolated incident, and we don’t see that from the detective again.)

Later in my life, once I left my parents’ basement, and created a life for myself as a writer and publisher, I had the occasion to know Peter Falk in a very small way. They say you shouldn’t meet your heroes, as they’ll invariably let you down. My experiences with Falk, however, were nothing but positive, and they gave me some insight as to why his portrayal of Columbo resonated so deeply, not just with me, but with so many viewers. He was, to a very large degree, that character. He was kind, sweet, humble, generous, infinitely curious, and just a little mischievous. The show, I think, rang true because he brought so much of his own truth and humanity to the role. It had nothing to do with the rumpled raincoat, the cigar, the references to the off-screen wife who may or may not have really existed. It had everything to do with the humanity of the man behind the character. And I think that’s what keeps the show relevant. That and the fact that everyone likes to see the rich and powerful underestimate their foes, and get what they deserve.