I don’t think I’ve ever been so touched by the death of an actor as when Peter Falk died last month at age 83.
Forty years ago, Falk starred and won awards as detective Lt. Frank Columbo. Each of the 69 movie-length episodes features his unforgettable persona: swath of thick wavy brown hair, which, back then, was allowed to gray subtly, his caterpillar-thick eyebrows, and of course his trademark raincoat and ’59 Peugeot.
Not to mention his gravelly voice with the same lazy L’s as Tom Brokaw.
What is it about the old Columbo shows that make it such a wonderful “watch” even today, as we’ve slipped into the “brave new world” Orwell predicted.
The day Peter Falk died I devoured Wikipedia and other sites, including YouTube, to get the flavor of the show again. While doing so, I had an epiphany: Put in a request from the library for an interlibrary loan for old Columbo shows.
Three days later, my boyfriend Scott and I sat in his darkened living room and watched the first two episodes from season one, courtesy of the Luddington Library in Bryn Mawr.
The first episode, from 1971, was clearly a masterpiece. Everything worked. Since we missed the opening credits while we were divvying up the popcorn, we were shocked to learn at the end who the director was: Steven Spielberg. The editing was superb. I really never understood what “editing” meant, until I watched this Columbo episode.
Is it fair to say, editing is a visual equivalent of adding a new paragraph?
The killer in the first episode, “Murder by the Book,” was the wonderful Jack Cassidy, who was usually type-cast as the smuggest, most eloquent and detestable of villains.
Watch him in the video above. Isn't he the smirkiest of villains, the guy you love to hate?
The real Cassidy, who was once married to Shirley Jones, died five years later, victim of a truly horrendous life of alcoholism.
Scott and I watched “Murder” several times, pointing and repeating lines, like fans of the Rocky Horror Picture Show. We marveled: “Look at his delicate hands...” “There’s a clue right there!”... “Would they be able to smoke on network TV today?” (the first 8 seasons were on NBC).
And, finally, we’d mutter, “Watch, he’s gonna come back in, and say “One more thing.”
Ah, yes, “One More Thing.” Another Columbo trademark.
Constantly questioning his suspect, showing up when least expected, and doing time-consuming legwork, were some of the ingenious techniques he used to catch the suspect.
Columbo was one detective who would always pinpoint the suspect at the crime scene. Proof was all he needed.
“Genius,” was the word applied to him by some of the killers he finally caught. He trapped them in their own web of lies.
And the viewer is right there with him. Laughing and applauding. Such is our innate love of justice.
The show was so popular with the Hollywood crowd that top stars were easily recruited.
Would you believe Frank Sinatra, Johnny Cash, Jackie Cooper, Ed Begley Jr., Ruth Gordon, Lindsay Crouse, among others?
Yesterday I picked up the Second Season of Columbo, also from Luddington. We watched the first episode, which was great, but not as good as the first season.
What does that say about debut shows? Scott disagreed. But then we've gotta have something to argue about, other than who has the most popcorn.
Scott mentioned that one thing that makes the show unique is “There are no car chases, no gore, no cleavage, and the suspect always gives up at the end when he’s presented with the facts.”
Unique, a different sort of mystery show. Reminds me a bit of MacGyver, remember Richard Dean Anderson who didn’t own a gun? MacGyver was one of my son’s favorite shows and gave him the desire to become a stuntman when he grew up. He’s a web developer, whatever that is.
Oh, one more thing. I’d love to hear what your favorite old shows are. I’m a terrible elitist, as my friends will testify. I only watch public television and Turner Classic Films. But I must travel to do so.
I don’t own a TV.