Will Peter Falk don the raincoat one last time? September 6, 2007Posted by jackal in : TV , trackback
A story has been floating around news sites for a few months now: namely that NBC-Universal TV have a script, Columbo’s Last Case, which is envisaged as a series finale and fond farewell to the character who first appeared on screens (as played by Peter Falk, anyway) in 1968’s Prescription: Murder. The studio are keen, Falk himself likes the script, and given his age - 80 next week - and 2008 being the show’s 40th anniversary, now is unquestionably the time for a proper send-off.
ABC, however, aren’t interested. Columbo’s home network for 20 years has turned down Universal’s proposed movie, apparently because they’re now focused on young audiences and, to paraphrase NBC-Universal’s head of programming, no network wants to buy a movie with an 80-year old lead. It’s a bizarre decision, given the solid ratings achieved by the last movie, Columbo Likes the Nightlife. It won’t cost much, and people will tune in, so why not make it? Cable network USA, along with several others, turned it down as well, leaving NBC-Universal and Columbo fans alike thinking “well, ain’t that fucking marvellous.” Actually, series co-creator William Link puts it rather more eloquently in the article linked above: ”Ageism is rampant in Hollywood, at all levels, but this might be more than ageism. The detective shows on the broadcast networks are all police procedurals dominated by endless discussions of forensic evidence. Columbo was a classy, clever, witty show that challenged you to use your mind. It wasn’t something designed to just race across your retina. It didn’t rely on violence or technical jargon. It was a talky show, and there was an elegance to the talk, and that’s just the kind of thing that terrifies the networks these days.”
The idea of making a new instalment of a comfortable, old-fashioned show like Columbo, with an octogenarian lead, is on many levels dubious, but that’s simply not the point. The show lost any trace of reality years ago, as Falk continued to don the raincoat and pound the streets throughout the 1990s and into the new millennium. Even Columbo fans know it’s ridiculous to bring Falk back again, now grey-haired and grizzled like an old fisherman, but viewers deserve a proper farewell. Hell, I only grew up watching repeats on afternoon TV in the 80s and 90s; there are people who’ve watched this show for four decades. This is the chance to finally send the character off into retirement with a little class and warm sentiment. But no. Let’s make another reality show. About rabbits. In jetpacks. On the moon.
Anyway, how about a little history? Despite the original Columbo pilot being produced in 1968, it wasn’t until 1971 that it became a regular on TV screens. As part of NBC’s “Mystery Movie” revolving schedule, Columbo was greenlit, and aired every three weeks, originally alternating with McCloud and McMillan and Wife. It blossomed into a hit for NBC, although they were concerned about the reliance on a single character. Asked to give Columbo a partner, the series creators reluctantly agreed, and created the lieutenant’s now-famous comic sidekick … his nameless, bone-idle bassett hound, known only as “dog”.
The show, meanwhile, went from strength to strength, powered by talented young directors such as Steven Spielberg and Jonathan Demme, and penned by writers like Steven Bochco and Jonathan Latimer. Guest stars piled up like (for want of a better metaphor) garbage: a steady flow of big names, most admittedly past their peak, but still impressive catches. I can’t think of another show that boasts anything remotely close to this array of guests: Anthony Andrews, Eddie Albert, Don Ameche, Diane Baker, Gene Barry, Richard Basehart, Anne Baxter, Theodore Bikel, Honor Blackman, Johnny Cash, John Cassavetes, Jack Cassidy (thrice), Billy Connolly, Robert Conrad, Jackie Cooper, Lindsay Crouse, Robert Culp (thrice), Jamie Lee Curtis, Tyne Daly (twice), Blythe Danner, Faye Dunaway, Dick Van Dyke, Samantha Eggar, Maurice Evans, José Ferrer, Nina Foch, Anne Francis, Jeff Goldblum, Ruth Gordon, Lee Grant, George Hamilton (twice), Laurence Harvey, Edith Head (as herself!), Arthur Hill, Sam Jaffe, Louis Jourdan, Richard Kiley, Martin Landau, Janet Leigh, Robert Loggia, Myrna Loy, Ida Lupino, Ross Martin, Kevin McCarthy, Roddy McDowall, Patrick McGoohan (four times - he and Falk are good friends), Vera Miles, Ray Milland (twice), Sal Mineo, Ricardo Montalban, Leslie Nielsen (twice), Leonard Nimoy, John Payne, Donald Pleasence, Suzanne Pleshette, Vincent Price, Clive Revill, Ron Rifkin, Martin Sheen, William Shatner (twice), Mickey Spillane, Rod Steiger, Dean Stockwell, Rip Torn, Trish Van Devere, Robert Vaughn (twice), Oskar Werner, John Williams, Nicol Williamson, Burt Young, Anthony Zerbe and probably more that aren’t listed on Wikipedia, and that I can’t recall offhand.
Althouth Columbo was a stalwart for NBC throughout the 1970s, the rotating nature of the format meant that only 45 movies in total had been produced by the time it was cancelled in 1978. At its peak, in movies like Murder by the Book, Try and Catch Me or Murder Under Glass, Columbo was superb television drama: tightly plotted, directed, beautifully acted by seasoned veterans, and with occasional moments of comic genius, usually involving the dishevelled lieutenant being mistaken for a hobo or other undesirable character. On occasion, the murderer is a more sympathetic character than the victim, leading to an odd split in the audience identification as he is slowly pinned down by the lieutenant. The fine episode Swan Song is probably the best example of the “sympathetic” villain, due largely to Johnny Cash’s outstanding performance.
Cancellation was the end of the road for Columbo until, over a decade later, ABC revived the show. Rounding up Falk, his raincoat, dog and battered Peugeot (the last of which had to be tracked down across America because Universal had sold it in 1981), Columbo returned - a little older and more crumpled - in 1989, and has been on the air intermittently ever since: 24 further TV movies, the most recent in 2003, for a grand total to date of 69.
The “new” movies generally aren’t up to the original standard. The weaker ones feel like TV movies too much of the time, and the occasional lack of a big name guest star does no good. There are several solid instalments among them, though: Butterfly in Shades of Grey, Murder, Smoke and Shadows and Columbo Goes to the Guillotine to name just three. The most recent movie, Columbo Likes the Nightlife, with a 75-year old Falk, is for my money the best episode of Columbo since the 1970s. It bodes well for a grand finale, and what would be the show’s 70th movie. Whether we’ll get it, or whether the lieutenant will just be left hanging, remains the big question. NBC-Universal’s plan now is to round up sufficient interest from foreign TV sales that a US network will agree to fund the difference. As Mark Dawidziak remarks at the end of his article linked above: No killer, no matter how ingenious, ever defeated Lt. Columbo. The insidious combination of ageism and demographics might manage this trick. And that would be a crime.