The evolution of Columbo

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.


  1. sonofrojblake says

    The business with his wife is an odd one. In the original series she is indeed like Maris, Niles Crane’s wife in Frasier, a Ghost ( character, never seen on screen.

    Oddly, however, she got her own series -- in which her husband is The Ghost. There were only 13 episodes across 2 seasons, and the show is most notable nowadays for being an early role for Kate “Captain Janeway of Star Trek Voyager” Mulgrew.

  2. sonofrojblake says

    (Creepy aside: the established canon of the spinoff is that Mrs. Columbo (played by Mulgrew aged 24), has an eight year old daughter. So the over 40 year old Lieutenant Columbo canonically knocked up a 15/16 year old. It was, as they say, a different time.)

  3. Rob Grigjanis says

    Morse’s first name is explicitly mentioned once only (IIRC) in Inspector Morse. He is pressed by a love interest to tell her his first name, and he eventually responds with a cryptic crossword type clue: “My whole life’s effort has revolved around Eve. Nine letters”. IOW, it’s an anagram of ‘around Eve’.

    She solves it at the end of the show, in the presence of Lewis.

  4. steve oberski says

    Peter Falk is working pretty hard to stay in character during the offer of a new coat scene.

  5. Mano Singham says

    The ‘Mrs Columbo’ of the spin-off TV series was not his wife, as this article explains.

    The official pronouncement of everyone associated with “Columbo” is that the character played by Kate Mulgrew, in the series initially called “Mrs Columbo,” was married to some other cop who happened to also be named Columbo.

    “Mrs Columbo” was the brainchild of NBC entertainment president Fred Silverman, who hoped to carry on a little of the “Columbo” mystique without Columbo, soon after “Columbo” ended its NBC run.. Richard Levinson and William Link regarded the idea as heresy, but Silverman said he’d do it without them. “The magic of Columbo’s wife is that you never see her,” Levinson protested.

    The “Columbo” creators wanted no part of the concept, but they urged Silverman that if the show had to be done at all, a suitable actress would be Maureen Stapleton. Fred Silverman refused, insisting that Mrs Columbo would be young and gorgeous. Link and Levinson stormed out, and the talented but miscast Kate Mulgrew got the role.

    Mulgrew’s Kate Columbo was a part-time reporter for a pennysaver newspaper, who often found herself engaged in crime-solving.

    Peter Falk was blunt: “It was a bad idea. It was disgraceful.”

    The show ran from February, 1979 through December, 1979. In that short time, the show underwent several major overhauls and had four titles, going from “Mrs Columbo” to “Kate Columbo” to “Kate the Detective,” then “Kate Loves a Mystery.”

    The show was long gone before the real “Columbo” made his return on ABC, but Levinson and Link had an idea of how to treat this series on “Columbo”. They wanted to have Columbo complaining, “There’s a woman who’s running around pretending to be my wife. She’s a young girl. She’s charging things. I wish my wife was like that. She’s an imposter.”

    Apart from the off-camera statements by the “Columbo” creators, the shows themselves provide evidence that the Kate Mulgrew character was not the wife of the famous Lieutenant. In one of several major changes over the series, Kate Mulgrew’s character was DIVORCED and took on the name Kate Callahan. But it is clearly known in “Columbo” that the Lieutenant has never been divorced — “Heaven forbid!”

    As further proof that Mulgrew’s “Kate” was not married to the “Columbo” character, consider her age. Even if we accept Fred Silverman’s notion that Columbo married a younger woman, Kate was so young that the marriage not only would be a stretch — it would be illegal almost anywhere in America!

    Kate Mulgrew was age 24 when cast by Silverman in 1979, which means that when we first heard Columbo discussing his wife in “Prescription: Murder,” she was 13 years old.

    So, “Columbo” fans are welcome to enjoy the Kate Mulgrew show on its own merits, or as an amusing footnote in “Columbo” history. But do not be fooled — the real Mrs Columbo has never been seen, and probably never will be.

  6. mordred says

    Hu, it seems Columbo’s wife is another hint for me how human memory works.

    I never had much interested in crime stories, but my mother does and so I saw a lot of crime shows on the family TV when I was a kid. Columbo is one of the view I remember somewhat fondly as I really liked Peter Falk’s character -- but I never rewatched it as an adult.

    Anyway I could have sworn I had seen Columbo’s wife on the screen, in a scene where she runs after him when he leaves the house because he forgot something important, which gives him a clue the crime of the week. I can see the scene with Peter Falk in my memory!

    It probably was some other crime show with a different detective that my memory replaced with Columbo because he left a much stronger impression on me than the other character.

    Makes me wonder what other, more important memories I edited…

  7. brightmoon says

    I also remember a Mad Magazine parody ghat they called Clodumbo . I loved the show and vaguely remembered that the parody was funny . I tended to call the show Clodumbo after that but I still liked it

  8. sonofrojblake says

    @mano, 5:
    I guess it depends on who you believe, the people who wrote it or the network who produced it -- from the Wikipedia article:
    “The information NBC released about the show was unambiguous about the fact that Mrs. Columbo in the new series was in fact the previously unseen wife frequently mentioned on Columbo.”
    Obviously, given that the entire thing is fiction, they can both be “true”. Something something multiverse something something. NBC Columbo knocked up a teenager and got divorced, ABC Columbo is incensed there’s a woman pretending to be his wife, to whom he’s still very much married. They’re two different but physically indistinguishable guys. Or something.

    Silverman refused, insisting that Mrs Columbo would be young and gorgeous

    One out of two ain’t bad.

    Also, this hilarious detail (my emphasis in what follows):

    Kate was so young that the marriage not only would be a stretch — it would be illegal almost anywhere in America!

    […]when we first heard Columbo discussing his wife in “Prescription: Murder,” she was 13 years old.

    Gotta love that “almost anywhere”. Land of the free, home of the brave, haven of the child-marriers.

    @mordred -- that’s the Mandela effect, right there.

  9. Doyle says

    I had the privilege to work with Michael Pasternak, a Columbo impersonator here in Los Angeles. He works for conventions and get-togethers.
    Absolutely dead-on impersonation. And he, in his “interrogation”, makes fun of various people in the organization. Great fun.

  10. says

    “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.”

    It’s not extraordinary. It’s actually a fairly standard tactic, used by reference works which collate RealWorld data, for copyright protection. If some evil person plagiarized a map made by mapmaker Rand McNally, the plagiarizer could claim that they’re just accessing all the same public data Rand McNally did, independently of Rand McNally. But if the plagiarizer’s map includes a *fictitious* feature (a fake street, say) from the Rand McNally map, the “same public data” defense is clearly not valid. If memory serves, this sort of “copyright trap” was used by Fred Saberhagen as the gimmick in one of his Berserker stories.

  11. says

    While I was an undergraduate in the early ’80s, the college television station ran Alfred Hitchcock Presents after the 10 o’clock news. Part of the fun of the show was seeing young, unknown actors making an appearance. One of the most memorable was Peter Falk who plays a lay preacher in the season one episode, Bonfire. What was fascinating for me was that Falk, in December 1962 played the role in the same way he played Columbo. You can watch the entire episode here:

  12. sonofrojblake says

    @12: “The Annihilation of Angkor Aperion”, iirc. Pretty good story.

    See also the Capaldi Doctor Who episode “Face the Raven”. (

    I do recommend you find that episode on whatever streaming service you can. Not for it’s own quality, which is high, but because it leads directly into one of the best episodes of anything I’ve ever seen -- “Heaven Sent”. See it. It’s amazing.

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