The TV series Columbo created one of the most endearing police detectives in TV history. It was extremely popular, with Peter Falk playing the rumpled, hair disheveled, trench-coat wearing, cigar smoking detective who had a perpetually befuddled expression and apologetic manner that was discarded only at the end of each episode when he confronts the murderer with convincing evidence of the crime. He drives a junky beat-up Peugeot Cabriolet and when asked if he has another car, sometimes replies “I do have another car, which my wife uses. It’s nothing special, just for transportation.”
This hilarious scene from episode 2 in Season 4 in 1974, captures the nature of the character when a kindly nun (played by Joyce Van Patten), who runs a homeless shelter, mistakes Columbo for a homeless person, when he has merely gone there to interview a homeless person who was a witness to a crime.
In the same episode, he is turned away from a junk yard by someone thinking he has brought his car to abandon it.
The character was originally supposed to be a one-off that aired in February 1968 that was then proposed as a series with a pilot in March 1971 that led to the first season beginning September 1971. As I watched the series from the beginning, it was interesting to see how the character changed over time from the pilot episode. In the beginning, he wears a good suit, his tie is done straight, his hair is combed, he carries the trench coat, and has a regular car. He is more confident, even aggressive, in his behavior and does not give the impression of being perpetually puzzled or confused.
There are other quaint things from the period of the old shows. The settings always involve wealthy people, with Columbo always overawed by the opulence in which they live, and the cars shown are huge American cars, mostly two-door models, with big hood ornaments and no seat belts. (It was Ralph Nader’s work that led to hood ornaments that could impale pedestrians in accidents being forbidden and seat belts being mandated.) People are smoking all the time. There is no violence shown at all and no blood, to the point of absurdity. In the first episode, a person is shot and killed near the door to a bedroom but is supposedly dragged to a place near the French windows but there is no blood anywhere, not on the body or along the path the body was dragged.
In most TV detective shows, they feature a well-known guest star for each episode and they are often the murderer since that is often the biggest role. apart from the recurrent characters. This removes some of the suspense in most shows but not in Columbo since in that show we know right from the beginning who is the killer and the fun of the show is watching Columbo play his cat-and-mouse game with the killer, slowly tightening the net until there is no escape. I noticed that if the villain is a well-liked personality like Johnny Cash or Dick Van Dyke, the writers make the victim (usually the spouse) into a nasty person so that one does not feel the same sense of anger towards the killer as would be the case with an innocent or likable victim.
Columbo has many quirks. He has a Bassett hound whom he calls ‘Dog’. He works entirely alone, with no assistant. He is almost never shown in the office doing paperwork or dealing with superiors or colleagues, but is always in the field. He constantly relates anecdotes about various family members to make a point but it is never clear if the relatives really exist or if he has made up the stories as part of his trap to catch the killer. He speaks incessantly of his wife (whom he refers to as ‘Mrs. Columbo’), so much and so often that we feel that we know her well but she never appears in any of the shows. This absence has led some to speculate that she did not exist either but this exhaustive article analyzes the series to argue that there are many reasons to think that she at least was not a figment of his imagination, though he may well have created fictitious anecdotes about her.
His first name is never explicitly mentioned in the show (like the British TV detective Inspector Morse) but there is this little anecdote.
Columbo’s first name is notably never mentioned in the series, but “Frank Columbo” or “Lt. Frank Columbo” can occasionally be seen on his police ID. This ambiguity surrounding Columbo’s first name led to the creator of The Trivia Encyclopedia, Fred L. Worth, to include a false entry that listed “Phillip Columbo” as Columbo’s full name as a copyright trap. When the board game Trivial Pursuit included “Phillip” as the answer to the question, “What was Columbo’s first name?”, Worth launched a 300 million dollar lawsuit against the creators of the game. The creators of the game argued that while they did use The Trivia Encyclopedia as one of their sources, facts are not copyrightable and there was nothing improper about using an encyclopedia in the production of a fact-based game. The district court judge agreed and the decision was upheld by the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in September 1987. Worth asked the Supreme Court of the United States to review the case, but the Court declined, denying certiorari in March 1988.
It seems extraordinary to me that someone can post a bit of fake information on a website and then sue someone for copyright infringement for using that fake information. But this is a very litigious society.