Peter Falk, who died yesterday at 83, made Columbo the icon that he is. TV detectives and cops come and go, but Falk’s Columbo was as distinctive as Sherlock Holmes. A squinty-eyed look (Falk had a glass eye), a rumpled trench coat (from Falk’s own closet), a beat-up old car (a ’59 Peugeot convertible), a half-smoked cigar and a distinct New York accent (the show was set in LA) all made Columbo a stand-out among TV’s cookie-cutter sleuths.
Falk didn’t create the character, but he breathed life into it. A masterful actor, he once explained his character as an anti-heroic Sherlock.
“Columbo has a genuine mistiness about him. It seems to hang in the air . . . [and] he’s capable of being distracted. . . . Columbo is an ass-backwards Sherlock Holmes. Holmes had a long neck, Columbo has no neck; Holmes smoked a pipe, Columbo chews up six cigars a day.” (Source)
I haven’t seen any Columbo episodes or movies in more than 30 years, but I can still give you the basic framework. We see a murder, and we know whodunit. Of course, none of the characters know. The detective assigned to the case is Columbo. He checks out the crime scene like he has no idea what he’s doing. He interviews people associated with the victim, asking them low-ball questions while partly muttering to himself about unrelated topics. He’s really absent-minded, so apparently clueless that you wonder how this guy ever got promoted to plain-clothes detective. The murderer is lulled into a false sense of security, confident that this incompetent runt (Columbo was kinda short, and he hunched over besides.) could never pin the crime on him.
Then, at the last moment, Columbo comes out with some zinger of a question, usually preceded with the words, “Oh, there’s just one more thing …” Some small inconsistency in the investigation has come to Columbo’s attention, and he challenges the suspect to explain it for him (since Columbo is pretending to be dumb). Of course, the crook can’t and Columbo solves the crime. Game over.
Explained like this, the show sounds really formulaic and predictable. (Aren’t most TV shows?) But Falk’s acting made it all believable, and entertaining. We know Columbo will catch the crook. The fun was watching him do it, and seeing the murderer squirm at the final gotcha question. And, to get right down it, Columbo was a little bit like us — an every-man’s detective.
Falk had a long, award-winning career on stage, in film and on TV. He was a superb comedic and dramatic actor, and apparently, a nice guy. I hope you have a chance to view some his work.