For about four decades, Peter Falk entered living rooms around the country (and the world) as Lieutenant Columbo. After two pilot episodes in 1968 and 1971, the show aired on NBC from 1971 to 1978. But over a decade later, it made a comeback on ABC from 1989 to 2003, to be enjoyed by the same or even the next generation of mystery lovers.
The unconventional L.A. homicide detective, known for his raincoat and cigar, was a hit among both fans and critics. Falk won four Emmys for the role, and the series remains a staple of TV crime dramas. The thing is, series creators William Link and Richard Levinson had a different idea for their main man.
Bing Crosby Turned Down the Role
The co-creators had an entirely different plan when it came to the protagonist of the series. Columbo’s iconic role was originally supposed to be a smooth crooner – basically the opposite of the inelegant Peter Falk. And as it turns out, that crooner was going to be played by one of the biggest crooners of all, Bing Crosby.
Richard Levinson and William Link’s first choice to play the low-key detective was Bing Crosby. The singer actually loved the script and the character, but he was worried that a commitment to a TV series would interfere with his true passion — golf. Perhaps it was a fated decision to turn down the role, seeing how Crosby died in 1977 while the series was still a hit on NBC.
Peter Falk: The Unexpected “It Guy”
Falk wasn’t even the second actor eyed for the role. In fact, Lee J. Cobb was considered for the role after Crosby turned it down. Eventually, Falk called co-creator William Link after getting his hands on a copy of the script from his agents at William Morris. Falk told Link that he would “kill to play that cop.”
Creators Link and Levinson knew Falk from their days of working in New York, and although he was the opposite of everything they envisioned for Lt. Columbo, they agreed on one thing: Falk had something that both men and women liked. The female demographic considered him to be “sexy,” while the males liked his unthreatening, humble, and blue-collar underdog character.
Columbo Needed a Sidekick
When Columbo was renewed for its second season, NBC execs had a request: They wanted to give the lieutenant a sidekick. Link and Levinson weren’t gung-ho about the idea of having a young rookie detective learning the ropes, but the network pressured them.
The creators deliberated with Steven Bochco, the scriptwriter for the season opener, “Etude in Black,” and the trio hatched the idea of giving Lt. Columbo a dog as a partner. Falk didn’t like the idea at first; he felt that his character had enough gimmicks with the raincoat and cigar. But once he met the drooling Basset Hound they rescued from a pound, Falk knew he was the perfect sidekick for Columbo.
The Puppy Replacement Needed Makeup to Look Older
Sadly, the original dog passed away in between the series’ end on NBC and its renewal on ABC. The new puppy was visibly younger than the original hound, so production put the pup in the makeup chair to make him look older.
Speaking of special co-stars, another cast member was dear to Peter Falk’s heart – his own wife. Falk met Shera Danese, the woman who became his second wife, on the set of the 1976 film Mikey & Nicky. The film was being shot in Danese’s hometown of Philadelphia, and the aspiring actress landed a role as an extra.
Mrs. Falk Made Some (Scandalous) Appearances
Falk and Danese married in 1977, and she was able to put some extra oomph into her resume by appearing on some episodes of her husband’s Columbo. Her first few appearances were small walk-on parts, like the secretaries or sexy assistant.
Once the series was resurrected in the early ‘90s, she was given larger roles. At first, she auditioned for the rock star’s role in 1991’s Columbo and the Murder of a Rock Star, but her husband steadfastly refused because the role included a scene of her in bed with a much younger man. Instead, she played the role of a co-conspiring lawyer and also sang the hit song of the murdered star.
The Raincoat Was His Own
What viewers most likely don’t know about Columbo is that his trademark raincoat was his very own. The original wardrobe proposed for the lieutenant struck Peter Falk as totally wrong for his character. To get closer to the vision he had in his head for Columbo, the actor dove into his closet and found a beat-up old coat.
He had bought it years earlier when he was caught in a rainstorm on 57th Street. He then had one of the blue suits chosen for him dyed brown. The unflatteringly drab outfit would ultimately become one of the trademarks of his character for decades.
When the New “Kid,” Steven Spielberg, Showed Up on Set
“Murder by the Book” was the second episode filmed in the series, but it was the first one that aired after the show was picked up as a series. Filming was delayed for a month, however, when Falk refused to sign off on some new guy — a 25-year-old “kid” named Steven Spielberg — who wanted to direct the episode.
But then Falk watched a few of Spielberg’s previous credits – all TV episodes – and was impressed by his work on one short-lived series called The Psychiatrist. Filming for the Columbo episode began, and Falk was again impressed by the techniques the young director used…
He Was “Too Good” for Columbo
Spielberg was pulling off different filming styles, like shooting a street scene with a long lens from a building across the road, which wasn’t common back then. Falk later admitted to the series creators that Spielberg “is too good for Columbo.”
The name Columbo, by the way, ended up becoming the subject of a lawsuit. Fred L. Worth, a writer of books and trivia facts, had a feeling that people were using his meticulously researched facts without ever crediting him. So, what he did was set up a “copyright trap.”
The $300 Million Lawsuit
Worth decided to put a fake fact in one of his books: that Lt. Columbo’s first name was Philip. And, sure enough, a 1984 edition of the Trivial Pursuit board game cited “Philip” Columbo as an answer on a card. That seemingly innocuous card ended up leading to a $300 million lawsuit filed by Worth.
The Trivial Pursuit creators admitted in court that they took their Columbo fact from one of Worth’s books, but the judge determined that it wasn’t an actionable offense.
Fun (real) fact: Years later, when Columbo was airing reruns and HDTV was an option, viewers were able to freeze-frame a scene where the lieutenant extended his badge for identification purposes (in the episode “Dead Weight”) in order to determine that his first name was actually Frank.
The Good Ole’ “HowCatchEm” Mystery
The premise of Columbo is what is referred to as the “inverted mystery.” In other words, it’s a “HowCatchEm” instead of the regular “WhoDunIt.” Every episode begins with an actual crime being played out, meaning the audience already knows who did it.
What people want to know is how Lt. Columbo slowly zeroes in on the perpetrator. This kind of format didn’t come easy for the series’ writers, who sometimes found inspiration in the most unlikely places. One such place was the Yellow Pages. One of Falk’s favorite episodes called “Now You See Him” was born from the phone book…
The Yellow Pages Were an Inspiration
Falk’s favorite episode was born from the writers’ flipping through the Yellow Pages as they were looking for a possible profession for a Columbo murderer. If you remember, all of Columbo’s victims and criminals were of the Beverly Hills variety, so they weren’t the typical Starsky and Hutch kind of thug.
One of the pages listed professional magicians, which caught their eye and led to a classic episode with Jack Cassidy playing the role of a former German officer who worked as a nightclub magician. When the Jewish club owner recognized him and threatened to expose his identity… well, you can guess what happened next.
The Spin-Off That Was… and Then Wasn’t
The 1979 series Mrs. Columbo was not officially related to the original Columbo. In fact, Levinson and Link were opposed to the entire concept of the show. It was NBC head honcho Fred Silverman who ended up giving the green light to use the Columbo name.
Kate Mulgrew was the implied widowed/divorced wife of the famed homicide detective (the show actually changed names and backstories more than once during its short run). Mrs. Columbo was never mentioned by name in the original series, but Falk possibly slipped and revealed her name as “Rose” when he appeared at the Dean Martin Roast.
When Jeff Goldblum and Jamie Lee Curtis Showed Up
In the episode “A Case of Immunity,” Columbo had to solve a crime at the embassy of the fictional country Sauria. Outside the gates of the embassy, protestors were marching with signs. The tall guy in a dark windbreaker with sideburns and spectacles was none other than Jeff Goldblum – a first television appearance that went uncredited.
Then, in another season, in the episode called “The Bye-Bye Sky High IQ Murder Case,” another future famous face made an appearance. When Columbo was chatting with a man in a restaurant, a rude waitress showed up. It was Jamie Lee Curtis in her third-ever screen appearance.
Captain Kirk Made a Cameo Appearance
William Shatner stole the scene as a devilish killer in the episode “Fade into Murder.” He played an actor who must have starred in Star Trek since a headshot of Captain Kirk was seen framed behind his character’s living room couch. It only begs the question: Are Star Trek and Columbo set in the same universe?
Another cameo appearance was made by NBA legend Pat Riley. In “The Most Crucial Game” episode, Columbo questions Paul Hanlon (Robert Culp) on a basketball court. In the background, the Los Angeles Lakers were playing. The guy in the white T-shirt with the mustache is guard Pat Riley, who went on to coach the Showtime Lakers, the New York Knicks, and the Miami Heat.
Before He Became Lt. Columbo
Peter Falk wasn’t such a far cry from the character he played on screen. In real life, he also tended to be disheveled and always misplacing things. He was known for losing his car keys and having to be driven home from the studio by someone).
He was intelligent, though, having earned a master’s degree in Public Administration from Syracuse University. He then worked for the State of Connecticut’s Budget Bureau as an efficiency expert until acting became a real option. Falk was typically underestimated due to the way he looked, which wasn’t his fault…
What Happened to Peter Falk’s Eye?
Falk had lost his right eye to cancer at the very young age of three. It was removed as a matter of necessity to save his life from a malignant tumor. Many of his eventual college drama teachers warned him of his limited chances in the film industry because of his cockeyed stare.
After a screen test at Columbia Pictures, Harry Cohn dismissed him, saying, “For the same price, I can get an actor with two eyes.” Falk was, indeed, an unlikely Hollywood star: He was under 5 feet 6 inches with a right glass eye.
The CIA Laughed Him Out of the Building
Although he acted in school plays, he didn’t start acting professionally until he was 29. The son of wealthy parents, Falk had drifted for years just seeking adventure. Apparently, he wanted to be a CIA agent, but he had worked building railroads in (Communist-controlled) Yugoslavia for half a year.
And then there was the issue of his glass eye… Sadly, the CIA laughed him out of the building when he applied to be a rifleman. Falk later joined the Merchant Marines but hated every second of it. That was when he found his way to becoming an efficiency expert for the Budget Bureau of the state of Connecticut.
“He Didn’t Even Remember Columbo.”
Peter Falk passed away in June 2011 at the age of 83 after struggling with Alzheimer’s disease. Sadly, his last public appearance wasn’t a flattering one. Disheveled and disoriented, he wandered the streets of Beverly Hills as cars had to swerve to avoid hitting him, that is until police pulled him to safety.
Falk was in the throes of a disease that left him completely unaware of the 35 years that he had spent as Lt. Columbo. “He didn’t even remember Columbo,” his doctor, Stephen Read, revealed. To add insult to injury, his second wife was left fighting his children in a bitter battle for his $100 million fortune.
69 Episodes of Columbo Eclipsed His 58 Films
The illness robbed Falk of memories of a truly remarkable life, which were captured in a biography called Beyond Columbo (by Richard Lertzman and William Birnes). The book detailed the actor’s early life and how his own father warned him, “You are going to paint your face and make an ass of yourself all your life.”
His career included two Oscar nominations and a total of 58 films, yet his 69 Columbo episodes eclipsed all of that. “Falk loved playing Columbo, never feared being stereotyped, and was planning on making more episodes right up to his death,” wrote Lertzman.
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly Side of Peter Falk
While Columbo loved his cigar and his dog, Falk chased some more scandalous vices. According to his biographers, he “drank and smoked incessantly.” The man who loved to booze with his friends was an “inveterate womanizer.” Clearly, his biography painted the whole picture – the good, the bad, and the ugly side.
His biography also asserted the unflattering truth that Falk was a “negligent husband and an absentee father.” Yet, he managed to become one of the most iconic stars of his generation. And behind (or beside) every icon is a special woman…
His Wife Turned a Blind Eye at First
Falk courted his college sweetheart Alyce Mayo for 12 years before the two married in 1960. He then went on to relentlessly cheat on her. Lertzman described him as an “incorrigible philanderer.” Apparently, on every film set Falk was on, he pursued other women.
At first, Mayo turned a blind eye to his infidelities. Eventually, though, it hurt too much, and she had enough. Falk and Mayo divorced in 1976, and the following year, he married his longtime mistress, actress Shera Danese – the one who showed up on Columbo – who was also 22 years his junior.
A Pair of “Fighting Falks”
Falk had noticed Danese walking around in Philadelphia three years earlier and reportedly chased her down to beg her for a date. “She wasn’t interested,” he later recalled. “I kept at it. She conceded to a hello over a cocktail.”
Yet even though he found, fell in love with, and adored his second wife, Falk’s adultery continued. And the results were explosive. Lertzman noted that in Hollywood, the couple was known as the “Fighting Falks” because they were always arguing, breaking up, and getting back together. Like, what the Falk?
Despite It All, They Were Married for 32 Years
Falk lived his life to the fullest; he loved women and his hit TV show. But, at the end of the day (or his life, rather), he couldn’t remember any of it. Believe it or not, his marriage to Danese lasted 32 years and survived two divorce filings.
Shera confessed: “We went through a really hard spell. I don’t know why, but we didn’t agree on anything. Then, we made concessions, and we accepted the bad habits of the other.” While she made it seem like they made amends, no woman really succeeded in taming his wild side.
A Man’s Man
Falk loved his women, but he was a true man’s man. He and his buddies would drink, play poker, hang by the pool, and “behave badly” more often than not. “He was never happier than when he was out drinking with his friends,” his biographers claimed.
The man who became synonymous with Columbo was actually not too excited to sacrifice so much for it. His biographers mentioned that Falk didn’t want to be tied down to a series but that he had been swindled out of $100,000 by his manager and was allegedly desperate. “He took the job he didn’t want because he was financially nervous.”
His Breakthrough Role
Falk was a Broadway star who earned Oscar nominations for his breakthrough role in the 1960 gangster film Murder, Inc. The next year, he turned heads in the dramatic comedy A Pocketful of Miracles. While he was in the features Robin and the Seven Hoods and The Great Race, Falk still felt that his movie career was stalling.
Then, in 1968, he was offered the role of Lieutenant Frank Columbo. As was mentioned earlier, Falk supplied his own wardrobe, and he wore that crumpled brown suit and old trench coat in every episode.
He Made $500,000 Per Episode
One of the show’s creators, Dick Levinson, said, “It used to drive people crazy because it made a lot of noise. In the middle of the scene, there would be this great ruffling noise. It was that raincoat.” Falk eventually became TV’s highest-paid actor, earning a solid $500,000 per episode by the final season.
What may come as a surprise to his fans is that he never enjoyed acting. “It’s never been fun for me,” he confessed once. “Creating is so hard.” Despite that, his success went to his head, and he grew obsessively controlling over every role.
He Made Life Hell for Directors
Brines wrote that Falk made life “a living hell for TV and film directors,” as he would dispute every line and every camera angle. Ultimately, his reputation was affected, and he became notorious for delaying filming, which would send budgets soaring.
In fact, many studios stopped approving a project if Peter Falk was attached to it. He simply burned too many bridges and was considered an unwelcome person by many producers. His secretary, Janet Saunders-Raein, admitted once in an interview that her boss “really was sometimes his own worst enemy.”
He Started Losing His Memory in 2006
Falk leveraged his Columbo role to get film roles like The In-Laws, The Princess Bride, and Wings of Desire. He never stopped trying to make more Columbo movies, but his 2003 outing proved to be his last. Starting in 2006, five years before his death, Falk started losing his memory.
“He was unhappy, and that hastened his decline,” wrote Lertzman. Falk also had dental and hip surgery and was never the same after the anesthesia, which only exacerbated his Alzheimer’s. Regardless of his ailments, he tried to make one last Columbo movie.
The Battle Over His Estate
As Falk’s health deteriorated, his wife was battling his adopted daughter, Catherine, for control over the estate. Catherine claimed that both she and her sister Jackie were barred from seeing their father for months, as Danese slammed the door on them when they came to visit.
Catherine even accused Danese of elder abuse, but the judge disagreed and actually awarded Danese conservatorship, which limited Catherine’s visits to 30 minutes, twice weekly. According to Falk’s friend, Dabney Coleman, it “was a sad thing to see that giant soul and passion reduced to that state.”
Emotion, Sadness, and Pain
Catherine only learned of her father’s death from the media and wasn’t even allowed to attend the funeral. Absolutely devastated, Catherine said she couldn’t grieve her father’s passing because she’s “been filled with so much emotion, so much sadness, so much pain.”
Falk ultimately left the bulk of his fortune to his widow. “It was a tragic ending to a glorious life,” Lertzman said. “He lived life to the fullest, loved carousing, loved women, and loved Columbo. But in the end, he could remember none of it.”
Let’s take a look at some forgotten cameos from Columbo…
Martin Sheen in Season 3
There are more than just a handful of cameos made by celebrities (some then-current and some future) whom Columbo fans may have even missed. One of them was a rather handsome young Martin Sheen as Karl Lessing, a character who caught the eye of Viveca Scott in 1973’s episode “Lovely But Lethal” from Season 3.
He ended up getting a microscope thrown at his head because of his troubles. The character was a far cry from the man of seriousness that he would eventually become, with his iconic roles in Apocalypse Now and as U.S. President Jed Bartlet in West Wing.
Kim Cattrall in Season 7
Another future star who showed up on Columbo was Sex & the City’s Kim Cattrall, aka Samantha Jones. Her appearance in the episode of Season 7 called “How to Dial a Murder” was something of a twinkle in the eye of TV producers when Cattrall made her biggest appearance of her career as Joanne Nicholls.
She was a love interest in the episode, but that’s the only similarity to Samantha Jones. Cattrall, in this episode, was a much less confident, more troubled girl than the one she became synonymous with. Cattrall herself referenced how much of a big break this was for her. She even paid tribute to Peter Falk on Twitter.
Katey Sagal in Season 3
You recognize her now, either from Married… With Children or Sons of Anarchy, but back in 1973, she wasn’t as famous. The versatile star is also known for Futurama, Lost, and Boston Legal, but perhaps if it wasn’t for her small role in Columbo, she might not have become so successful.
She played Nelson Hayward’s secretarial team in “Candidate for Crime.” There might have been a little bit of nepotism (help from her family) involved in landing this particular role, though. The episode was directed by her father, Boris Sagal, who was also at the helm for “Greenhouse Jungle” from Columbo Season 2.
Leslie Nielsen in Seasons 1 and 5
Of course, Leslie Nielsen needs no introduction. The hilariously serious star of Airplane and Naked Gun made not one but two Columbo appearances playing, as always, a straight shooter. He was particularly good as the troubled lover Peter Hamilton in Season One’s “Lady in Waiting.”
Then, in 1975, he was cast again and against his type as something of a loopy character in Season 5’s “Identity Crisis,” where he was clubbed to death by Patrick McGoohan.
The next celebrity cameo is a little more of an Easter egg of sorts…
Gwyneth Paltrow/Blythe Danner
Did you know that Gwyneth Paltrow once appeared in an episode of Columbo? Well, it’s not in the way you think. Paltrow was in her mother, Blythe Danner’s visible belly bump in the episode “Etude in Black.”
Danner, who is the spitting image of her daughter, played the wronged wife Janice Benedict in the episode. Okay, so Paltrow didn’t actually appear as herself in the episode, but I think it still is worth adding to the list.