Synopsis of TV Show
Many detectives have graced the television airwaves over the years, but few are as beloved as Columbo. Shabby-looking, cigar-chomping Detective Columbo worked his way into the hearts of millions around the world with his unique combination of shaggy-dog charm and razor-sharp detective skills. The end result was a show that became a smash 70’s hit and has continued to stay popular for well over two decades.
The genesis of Detective Columbo actually stretches back to a 1961 episode of The Sunday Mystery Hour. Creators Richard Levinson and William Link later decided to revive the character for a play called Prescription: Murder. When the play was adapted into TV-movie form in 1968, the Columbo role went to veteran character actor Peter Falk. This turned out to be a very wise choice, as Falk’s interpretation of Detective Columbo made the character popular on an international scale.
Unlike its fellow 70’s detective shows like Kojak and Baretta, Columbo wasn’t shown weekly and didn’t use the standard hour-long series format. Instead, its film-style 90 minute episodes were rotated with other series like McMillan And Wife and McCloud as a part of The NBC Mystery Movie. Fans appreciated these aspects of the show for two reasons: the expanded length allowed a greater level of detail in the characterization and plotting, and the rotating schedule made every Columbo feel like an event.
Columbo also differed in style from your average detective show. Instead of setting up each crime with a mystery culprit, every episode of Columbo began with a crime (usually a murder) being committed in full view of the audience. The show also allowed viewers to get to know the guilty party in detail. Thus, the suspense of the show didn’t revolve around who the culprit was, but rather when Columbo would catch the person in question.
On the surface, Detective Columbo didn’t inspire a lot of confidence in anyone. With his rumpled overcoat and perpetual case of ‘bed-head,’ he was the walking definition of the word “disheveled.” Columbo’s manner didn’t help things, either: he acted as absentminded as he looked and often seemed confused. But this apparent mental fog was all a clever ruse for a very keen and incisive detective’s mind.
While his scatterbrained act lulled the culprit into a false sense of security, Columbo methodically searched out the clues necessary to solve the case. He also pestered his prey with seemingly inane questions (including queries about their shoes) until he found the hole in their story that would reveal their guilt, adding one question after another with the phrase “Oh, one other thing...”
By the end of the show, the now-exasperated wrongdoer would confess his/her guilt after Columbo read off the laundry list of bizarre clues. Columbo also had the special ability to trap his prey with his own methods: for instance, he’d get a magician to reveal his malfeasance by performing a magic trick.
These many interesting elements formed the basis of a great show, but it was Peter Falk’s performance as Detective Columbo that brought it all home. His combination of off-kilter humor and shabby charm made the character instantly appealing in an underdog sort of way, making his eventual victory over the villain (usually a snooty society type played by someone like Robert Vaughn or Dick Van Dyke) all the more satisfying. This one-of-a-kind performance clicked with audiences and helped make Columbo a standout among the rest of the NBC Mystery Movie choices. It quickly became a ratings favorite, enjoying a lengthy stay on television that covered most of the 1970’s.
Columbo ended its successful run in 1978 after seven impressive seasons’ worth of witty, intricately plotted mysteries. By that time, Columbo had moved from successful show to pop-culture touchstone. It had also inspired a spin-off, Kate Loves A Mystery. Thus, it was no surprise when Columbo returned in 1989.
The new Columbo lasted only a season, but TV movies built around Detective Columbo and his unorthodox style have continued to be made steadily since that time. This enduring popularity proves that Columbo is a true institution in the television-detective world.
Release History of Prime Time Show9/15/71 - 9/1/78 NBC
2/6/89 - 7/28/90 ABC