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“I know who the murderer is!”
Columbo is a fictional homicide detective with the LAPD, and the star of a long-running TV show. Taking advantage of the LAPD's plain-clothes policy for detectives, Columbo habitually wears his own clothes. He has exactly one set of these, and is known to wash them every few months whether they are dirty or not. They include a white trench coat (gone yellow with age), knee-high leggings made to resemble rumpled trouser legs, a gravy-stained shirt and tie, and a pair of basic black shoes that he bought from a Salvation Army thrift store. Columbo smokes cigars, drives a dilapidated car, and has been mistaken for a bum on many occasions. In the pilot episode Columbo spoke in a southern drawl, had the first name 'Tommy' and his catchphrase was 'I'm not just a pretty face'. These character traits were later dropped.
Inept, inefficient, and hopeless - but extremely lucky
Promoted to his level of incompetence so as not to impede the work of real police officers, Columbo often forgets to ask important questions during murder investigations. He is regularly forced to return to a suspect with "Just one more thing" or "Just one more question". Columbo is the embodiment of government inefficiency and bureaucracy. Columbo's political beliefs are uncertain, but given that all of his murder suspects are rich, famous and powerful white people (usually men), it seems likely that he is a fan of Michael Moore and engaged in some form of private class warfare.
Columbo is disliked by his superiors, who regularly prevent him investigating spurious allegations of murder made against their golfing buddies. He has also attracted many complaints for persistently using his professional credentials to harrass movie stars and businessmen in the Beverly Hills area.
However, Columbo does have a redeeming characteristic: he is almost unbelievably lucky. His inept harrassment has broken many cases, gaining confessions from murderers who decide that prison is preferable to being stalked by a smelly man in a raincoat. Columbo's autistic manner has put many murderers off-guard, causing them to become overconfident and make mistakes that even Columbo will notice.
Columbo often tells colleagues and suspects about his wife and extended family. Tragically, none of these people actually exist, as all of his co-workers are well aware. They always listen sympathetically and help poor Columbo to maintain his fantasy of a happy home life while he is at work. Columbo's colleagues also frequently provide assistance with the more difficult parts of his job, such as checking that the murder victim is actually dead, or figuring out how an Nazi war criminal posing as a stage magician could have murdered his boss while locked inside in a metal box.
The Original Columbo: 1968 to 1978
Columbo himself was played by a number of actors during the show's run, including Lee Falk, Peter Falk, Lee J. Cobb, Bing Crosby, and Thomas Mitchell. Luckily, all of these actors look exactly the same, which saved writer Steven Bochco from having to come up with some sort of homicide-related face transplant/regeneration subplot. Two of the actors were reportedly sacked by the show's producers for insisting that Columbo get a change of clothes. In his autobiography, producer William Link stated that Peter Falk had been particularly annoying in this regard, constantly inventing new mannerisms and even trying to compose a theme tune for the show. By the end of the seventh season, Peter Falk had become obsessed with the theory that Columbo was actually a crime-fighting genius who merely pretended to be stupid, an hypothesis that Link dismisses as "nonsense".
Each episode of Columbo would feature a different guest star as the murderer. Notable murderers include:
- Number Six appeared in four episodes as the murderer - more than any other guest star. He also got the best roles, as the headmaster of a boy's school, a corrupt lawyer, a spy, and as the Undertaker, the well-known fake wrestler.
- Johnny Cash appeared in one episode. As himself. During the episode he murdered his blackmailing manager, but then found Jesus with the help of Columbo. (Jesus turned out to be hiding inside a log near an airplane crash site.)
- Spock and Captain Kirk both appeared as murderers. During Kirk's second appearance, he played Rush Limbaugh and murdered a gay man to prevent his daughter becoming the next Ayn Rand.
- Sonic the Hedgehog appeared as a murderer. In this episode, he murdered Amy Rose and attempted to frame her as the kingpin (queenpin?) of a multi-million dollar cocaine trafficking operation. Modern audiences were baffled when Columbo couldn't make a connection between the chili dog that Sonic was eating and the chili dog sauce on Amy's body.
- Captain Janeway appeared in the spin-off series Mrs Columbo. This was unbelievably awful - so bad that the Columbo name was actually dropped from later repeats in order to avoid sullying the brand. Janeway would later find much more success with Star Trek: Voyager. For all its faults, Voyager hasn't yet been disowned by the Star Trek franchise.
The Appeal of Columbo
Viewers enjoyed most episodes because they were fond of spotting clues that Columbo overlooked while obsessing about insignificant red herrings, and how to get the gravy stains out of his shirt and tie. Producers Richard Levinson and William Link attributed the success of these episodes to the audience’s enjoyment of their sense of superiority, coupled with the inability to smell Columbo's stale clothes and cigar smoke through their television sets.
Dozens of fans wrote to Universal Television to suggest ways in which Columbo could become a better detective, such as “collect evidence at the crime scene, especially the murder weapon” and “identify and interview more than one suspect.” The tone of the fan letters was always the same -- condescending. Viewers thought they were much brighter than Columbo and enjoyed being patronizing in offering their advice as laymen to a true professional, forgetting that it's pretty easy to solve a murder if you see the murderer actually do it during the first half hour of the show.
Columbo ran for seven seasons and two pilot episodes. The episodes have been praised for their exacting attention to period detail, particularly the stunning recreation of Los Angeles circa 1970.
The Young Lieutenant Columbo Chronicles: 1989 to 2003
Columbo returned in the late 1980s for a further series of TV movies. This time, the bumbling detective was played by River Phoenix. These episodes are generally thought to be lower in quality than the original seasons, as many were recorded on videotape rather than film.
The writing quality of some episodes was also particularly poor:
- "Murder Can Be Hazardous To Your Health" centres entirely around evil Big Tobacco executives and their evil campaigns to kill everyone in the entire world using cancer, second-hand smoke, third-hand smoke and fourth-hand smoke.
- "No Time For This Shit" doesn't even include a murder. Columbo goes to a wedding and misses most of the reception due to severe diahorrea.
- "Columbo Goes To The Guillotine" is set in Paris, featuring Macbeth as the murderer and an incompetent Inspector Clouseau as Columbo's French sidekick.
- "Sex And The Married Detective" includes almost no sex at all and you never see anything. Very disappointing.
- "Murder With Too Many Notes" stars Billy Connolly.
- "Revenge of the Jocks" is a piss-poor teen sex comedy by Ed McBain, with minimal rewrites to include Columbo. Two jocks take revenge on a nerdy Professor by murdering him with a remote-control car when he, like, totally tried to flunk their asses for cheating on the finals, even though they were both, like, captains of the football team. Columbo catches them with the help of the partially-dressed girls from Alpha Gamma Fucka.
The Return of Columbo?
Universal Television are reported to be "in talks" with a production company regarding the rights to produce a feature-length Columbo movie. As a "reboot" of the show, the new Columbo movie will be a radical modern-day re-imagining of the original Columbo concept. It will keep the Beverly Hills setting, but in a move described by Vanity Fair as "fresh and truly inspired", Columbo will be re-cast as a maverick homicide cop who will stop at nothing to see justice done. "Just one more thing, motherfucker!" he will yell from his helicopter as he fires his twin Uzis at the Russian terrorists. Magneto has already signed up to play the part of serial-murdering mastermind Harold Shipman.
Johnny Depp and Mos Def have both been suggested as "possible choices" to play the haggard detective, and following his success with Sherlock Holmes, Guy Ritchie is the obvious choice to direct. One change likely to be unpopular with fans is the total removal of all references to cigar smoking.