Sunday, January 2, 2005


To kick off the yearlong birthday honors list of inductees into the TV Crossover Hall of Fame, and because the theme for January is TV Classics, we have chosen the most famous TV detective known only by one name - Columbo.

He's been a legendary TV icon for over 30 years, recognized the world over by his shabby raincoat, cheap cigar, and the shuffling demeanor that has tripped up nearly all of his suspects.

In the TV Universe, Lt. Columbo (as played by Peter Falk) first appeared in a pilot movie 'Prescription Murder' which was based on a Broadway-bound play by Levinson & Link. (This play had earlier been made for TV as "Enough Rope", an episode of 'Suspense' with Bert Freed as Columbo.)

A second pilot was ordered which brought forth 'Ransom For A Dead Man'. This led to the inclusion of 'Columbo' into the 'NBC Sunday Night Mystery' wheel, along with 'McCloud' and 'Macmillan & Wife', among others.

Years after 'Columbo' finally left the airwaves of the Peacock network, the police lieutenant showed up, older and even more rumpled, at ABC in a series of specials that continue to this day.

There is a format to 'Columbo' that can be as tradition-bound as some religious ceremonies. For instance, in the best episodes, the murderer is tripped up by either that which he killed for in the first place, or by something that he loves the most.

Those few experimental episodes that have strayed from the classic style ('Undercover' being the best - or rather, the worst - example) have not been too successful.

When an episode remains true to form, there's no more compelling TV, no matter how many times you view it.

The secret was never in the actual mystery. 'Columbo' dispensed with the conventional 'whodunnit'; it was more of a 'how to figure it out' mystery. In fact, because you always knew who the murderer was and because you followed his or her story first before ever meeting Columbo, it could be said that the guest murderer was the star role and Columbo a supporting player.

The secret to the longevity of 'Columbo' is the interplay between the adversaries; as best explained by the title of a later episode: "It's All In The Game".

Some might argue that despite two pilot films and two versions of the series on different networks, 'Columbo' should count as one long run. And therefore the Lieutenant doesn't meet the requirements of three different appearances.

I disagree. I do see these as four separate entries, and thus, more than eligible for induction.

As for the Bert Freed version and the Falkless "spin-off" first known as 'Mrs. Columbo', I brush them aside. The episode from 'Suspense' took place in an alternate TV dimension, and Kate Mulgrew's character was married to a different Lt. Columbo in the L.A. police force. (There's no law saying there could be only one.)

But there are two other appearances by Lt. Columbo, as played by Peter Falk, which I do include as part of his overall contribution and which therefore would make him eligible to the naysayers. But there is some fancy footwork involved, which is why the Lieutenant is being inducted this year rather than by the usual means.

First up, there was a convention for police detectives in Hawaii which was seen in an episode of the CBS TV show 'Magnum, P.I.'. There were several detectives at that convention who were unnamed, but it was obvious by their appearance that they were famous TV characters from other shows. Lt. 'Kojak' was one, recognizable by his bald head and lollipop. And another was 'Columbo'.

These little cameos weren't by the original actors playing them, of course. But the camerawork tried to stay far enough away to be good enough for the instant recognition without giving away too much detail.

The other appearance by Lt. Columbo took place during an episode of 'The Dean Martin Celebrity Roast of Frank Sinatra'.

Columbo made a surprise appearance on the dais to salute Ol' Blue Eyes, and never once was he identified as Peter Falk. He remained true to the character, going on and on about how the Mrs. loved Sinatra, and the fact that they came from the same place.... All of it was pure Columbo, just delivered in a humorous fashion.

It shouldn't be too surprising that Columbo would be so entertaining in front of the cameras like that. He had experience on TV before, when he appeared on Norman Paris' cooking show.

And it's not surprising that Sinatra and the others act as though they knew who he was. By that point in his career, Columbo had investigated several very high-profile cases in which those involved - like publisher Arthur Kennicutt or psychiatrist to the stars Ray Flemming, - might have been friends to these celebrities. And then there were always those cases Columbo investigated which we never saw on screen!

So, questionable yet basically legitimate appearances in a rival network's detective show and a comedy roast; add those two to the more accepted output of 'Columbo' and the character deserves one more accolade to go with all of the others (which include being in the Top Ten most memorable TV characters of all time).

Just one more thing....

As will be established later this year, 'Columbo' did make a theoretical connection to another TV show with the episode "Identity Crisis". The murderer was Nelson Brenner, a double-agent played by Patrick McGoohan.

It's our belief that this character was none other than Number Twelve, the spy who was brought into "the Village" as a look-alike to 'The Prisoner' Number Six. Now, it looked like that character was killed off by "Rover" AKA Orange Alert, but as we learned from the last two episodes of 'The Prisoner', Death wasn't always permanent due to their scientific advancements.

And that's a fourth qualification, if accepted. And since this year's inductions are in celebration of my birthday, what I say goes.

Therefore! By the powers invested in me, I name Lt. Columbo a member of the TV Crossover Hall of Fame. This old man got the call. Now he can play "Knick-Knack" in the Hall.

Knick Knack, Paddywhack.


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