At work today, one of my co-workers casually mentions “Columbo died.”
I was a bit stunned, I love Columbo. “Peter Falk died?” I asked him back quickly…
Here’s how he answers, he laughs and says, “You know the dude’s name?”
Obviously, we haven’t been working together that long. But even if he should have known I’m a movie and tv freak, he also should have known that Columbo was played by Peter Falk.
Its a sad fact though. Pop culture fades with time. As we get older, fewer and fewer of the stars that we know and love now will be rembered by the younger generations. Think of how it is for the generation before us. Unless you’re a hardcore movie fan, you probably know Marilyn Monroe, Marlon Brando, Liz Taylor, Paul Newman, maybe a small handful of other actors and actresses by name. But the cinemas were full of entire troupes of actors back then just as they are now. Hundreds of actors. And all those B Listers and C Listers and many, many A Listers that were common names then – people have no clue about now. It’s certainly not the saddest thing about getting old, but its part of it, for sure.
So I spent some time today reading about Peter Falk (never knew he got his start in acting in CT. Go CT!) and watched a couple of episodes of Columbo on Netflix and felt I needed to write something. But the question I kept coming back to is…
Why should anyone give a shit nowadays about Columbo?
I know, it’s more crass than Peter deserves today, but its not just about him. Anytime you talk about something old. Something classic. There HAS to be a reason to go back to it. There has to be something worthy of revisiting. The prime element of Pop culture is Popularity… if something is no longer popular, where does that leave it? Historical Culture? There has to be something of value in that piece of work to go back and look for it, brush it off, and keep it alive in the discussion.
And in “Columbo’s” case, it’s the lead character.
Lieutenant Columbo (we’re never actually given his first name) is one of the most unique and unforgetable television characters we’ve ever been given. And not in the way you would think. He wasn’t handsome or charming, glib or overly charasmatic… instead he was just the opposite. And that’s what made him memorable. Columbo was a schlub. He was always hunched over and unkempt, running from place to place wearing the same beige trench coat and brown sport jacket underneath. He struck me as a grown up Charlie Brown. He was a slob, too! He’d always be smoking cigars everywhere and dropping ashes or shells from his hard boiled eggs all over a crime scene. His car was a beater like you wouldn’t believe. At least once an episode they’d have him empty out his pockets to look for a note or some matches or something and he would just start pulling out all this crumpled up shit everywhere, it was hysterical.
See? Columbo was the anti-star. No glitz, no glamour. Just a cop with a job to do. I dont think he ever pulled a gun or got in a car chase… I could be wrong but I dont think he did either one ever.
Of course, he was still incredibly good at his job. This guy put Sherlock Holmes to shame. In the format of the tv show, they’d open with the killer (one of the litany of great guest stars the show had – this was back in the day when tv revolved around great guest stars) comitting the crime. Now the audience knew who did it and how, and all that was left was for us to watch how Columbo figured it out.
Thing is, though – he always knew instantly. I swear, in every episode, the first time Columbo meets the killer, there’s always one shot in that scene where you can see him think in his head “MURDERER”.
The rest of the show is comprised of Columbo beating people into confessing. And this is where the rest of the character’s charm lies. See, not only did they make Columbo out to be a schlumpy slob, they made him out to be absent minded doofus, too. He was always forgetting what he was going to say, or asking grade school level questions, acting like he didnt know anything about anything. Of course, 95% of it was a put on and he was really as sharp as a tack. But the killers wouldnt know it. Here’s this disheveled guy in a trench coat, smoking cigars all over their houses, asking questions and getting distracted by shiny objects (“Oh, my wife loves these…”) and he never seemed to go away. He’d find excuses to come back, he’d come back for things unrelated to the crime – I swear, he’d say things like, I just wanted to get that recipe you mentioned, or my cousin was thinking about getting a car like yours, what do you think – or he’d come back to get help. Those were great, too. Like, say the killer was an architect, he’d be like, “Ohhhh… as an architect…. you’d have very unique insight into this case… do you mind if I ask you some advice as the case goes on?” And before you know it, the killers are tricked into helping him track themselves down (William Shatner was the best example of this ever btw. He throws himself into finding himself with GUSTO). And of course, just when the door closes, and the killers are breathing a sigh of relief, thinking he’s gone for the day, the door pops back open, and there he is, cigar in hand, saying “Oh, there’s just one more thing…”
By the end? His killers confess because he’s broken them psychologically.
At the end of the day, all the credit for this phenomenal character goes to Peter Falk. I’ve heard all kinds of things that he deserves credit for, from the trench coat to ad libbing in order to frustrate his co-stars, but the truth is, he deserves credit for everything. Even if the lines were written and the stage was set, it was still Peter Falk who brought the character to life for us to enjoy. Of course, part of the magic of the silver screen is that Columbo is still here even though Peter Falk has passed on. The character is indelible. And in my opinion, he’s earned a permanent spot in the pop culture discussion of the greatest tv characters ever.