Question: What was Lt. Columbo's first name? — Chris R., Little Neck, N.Y.
Televisionary: You've managed to hit upon one of the few mysteries never solved on the show, Chris (another being why the upper class seemed to view homicide as a pastime). Columbo, which rotated with Dennis Weaver's McCloud and Rock Hudson and Susan Saint James's McMillan and Wife to form the NBC Mystery Movie from September 1971 to September 1977 before showing up on ABC's ABC Mystery Movie from February 1989 to February 1993, never quite said. Instead, the lovable, disheveled detective (Peter Falk), whose odd manner and dog-in-the-rain demeanor fooled many a murderer into underestimating him, was known simply as Lt. Columbo.
It wasn't until February 1979, when NBC spun Columbo's heretofore unseen wife into a series starring Kate Mulgrew (Star Trek: Voyager), that Columbo's name was uttered: Philip. Unfortunately, that was the only thing worth noting about the show, which debuted as Kate Columbo before being called Kate the Detective and then Kate Loves a Mystery — that last one creating the new, truly baffling head-scratcher over what the heck the network was thinking. No matter. None of the changes worked — Kate's last name was even changed to Callahan and all mentions of her hubby excised — but the audience didn't love her anyway. Kate was gone by year's end.
When Columbo first hit the air, a key mystery to industry types who favored pretty-boy stars was how a one-eyed character actor — Falk lost his eye to a tumor condition when he was a child — with a by-no-means-cover-boy mug managed to charm America and outpace McCloud and McMillan to the point where he was pretty much carrying them. In fact, NBC's first choice for the role was Bing Crosby, but Der Bingle turned it down.
It was the concept and the writing — seeing evil-doers, who were usually snotty society types, undone by the unkempt LAPD cop never failed to delight — that set the stage for success. But it was Falk, clad in a signature raincoat that was sandpapered, bleached, softened, besmirched with cans of dirt, splattered with mineral oil and washed over and over behind the scenes to give it that signature slob look, who made the character the stuff of TV legend (nominated for an Emmy 10 times, he won four). He pulled off the bumbling, sorry-to-bother-you, just-one-more-thing act beautifully. (As TV Guide reviewer Cleveland Amory wrote in 1972: "Behind all this lackadaisical exterior, he's a daisy. In our judgment, he can act with anyone on the stage or screen today, and as a reactor, still in low key, he's the best.")
The biggest mystery for the Hollywood types, however, was the actor's take-it-or-leave-it view of the bigtime. Falk didn't want to shoot too many Columbo films per year, he insisted on quality scripts and he demanded that they pay him what he was worth. If the network didn't want to meet his demands, the former efficiency expert for the State of Connecticut Budget Bureau, who only started acting when he was 28, had no problem walking away. Getting paid a lot less money to shoot an indie film like A Woman Under the Influence for pal John Cassavettes was just as satisfying.
As I've stated in this space before, if you can say "no" in this town — and after declining the Emperor of Japan's request for an audience in 1975 because he was "too busy," Falk qualified — you've got the suits beat... or at least confused. "No question about what he's got. A way of walking, a way of talking, the kind of mannered behavior people read things into," an NBC programming exec told TV Guide in 1976. "But you have to be a doctor or a psychiatrist to figure out what makes him behave the way he does."
Not really. The man enjoyed playing Columbo, but it was a way to make a very nice living, not his reason for being. And when the show picked up critical plaudits and an enthusiastic fan base early on, Falk used that as leverage to "ask" (he didn't show up for work) for a raise from $40,000 an episode to $100,000. The next season it was $137,000 and then he sued Universal, the studio producing his show, for breach of contract in 1974 because they got on his nerves. All the while, he cut down on the number of Columbos he wanted to do, until his contract ran out and he didn't want to do anymore for NBC.
"This doesn't mean I don't like Columbo. I love the guy," Falk said in 1978, after bidding farewell to the peacock network. "But there is only so much you can do with it. I love pork chops y'unnerstan'. It's just that I don't wanna eat pork chops every day for the rest of my life."