The Academy of Television Arts & Sciences Foundation Presents




Columbo is a popular detective series featuring Peter Falk as Lieutenant Columbo. The character (who never had a first name), and the series are a creation of the writing/producing team of Richard Levinson and William Link. Columbo ran as a television series from 1971 to 1978, but the character had appeared in a short story, a live-television broadcast, and a stage play before making his first network television appearance in the Made-For-Television Movie Prescription: Murder (1968). Originally written for Bing Crosby, the Columbo role went to Falk when Crosby opted not to end his retirement.

The series' original run was not in weekly hour-long episodes, but as a 90-minute "spoke" in the NBC Mystery Movie "wheel" concept: each week, one of three different series was shown on a rotating basis. Columbo was interspersed with McMillan & Wife (starring Rock Hudson and Susan Saint James), and McCloud (starring Dennis Weaver). This suited Falk and the producers just fine since the pace of production would be much slower than was usually the case with weekly series. The 90-minute program length also allowed each episode to be more intricate than the typical one-hour installment, and intricacy was stock in trade for the character.

Columbo was not a "who-done-it." Indeed, the most distinguishing aspect of the series is the plot structure itself. Although this structure is just as rigid and successful as that in Perry Mason, Dragnet, or The Rockford Files, each episode is actually an inversion of the classic detective formula. In the classic formula, the crime is committed by an unknown person, a detective comes onto the case, clues are gathered, the detective solves the crime with the aid of his/her assistants, and the ability of the detective is proven true. In each Columbo plot, the crime and the culprit are shown in great detail. The audience sees the murder planned, committed, and covered up by the murderer. Since the audience knows who did it and how, the enigma becomes "how will Columbo figure it out?" The methods of the murderer are presented with such care that there is little doubt that the horrible crime will go unpunished--little doubt until Columbo comes onto the scene.

With his rumpled overcoat, stubby cigar, tousled hair and (apparently) confused attitude, Columbo rambles around in his old Peugeot, doggedly following the suspect of a homicide. The attitude and behavior, however, are all an act. Columbo is not confused but acutely aware, like a falcon circling its prey, waiting for a moment of weakness. Columbo bumbles about, often interfering with the activities of the uniformed police and gathering what seem to be the most unimportant clues. All the while he constantly pesters the person he has pegged as his central suspect.

At first even the murderer is amused at the lieutenant's style and usually seems inclined to assume that if this is the best the Los Angeles police can offer, the murder will never be found out. But whenever the suspect seems to be rid of the Lieutenant, Columbo turns with a bemused remark, something like "Oh, there's just one more thing ...." By the end of the episode, Columbo has taken an apparently minor discrepancy in the murderer's story and wound it into the noose with which to hang the suspect. Conclusions often feature a weary, yet agreeable, criminal admitting to his or her guilt as Columbo, in the form of some imaginative turnabout, delivers the final blow. If the suspect is a magician, the Lieutenant uses a magic "trick". If the crime was done by knowledge of movie special effects, Columbo uses similar special effects.

Columbo is the only regular character in the series. There is no grizzled police commissioner, no confidant with whom the case could be discussed. For Columbo, each guest villain becomes something of an ironic "Watson". Columbo and the murderer spend most of the story playing off each other. The Lieutenant discusses the twists and turns of the case, the possible motives, the implications of clues with his primary suspect, always rich, powerful, and arrogant, always happy to match wits with the apparently witless policeman on the doorstep. In the end the working-class hero overcomes the wealthy, privileged criminal.

Many influential writers, directors, and producers of the 1980s and 1990s worked on this series. Stephen J. Cannell (The Rockford Files, The A-Team, Wiseguy), Peter S. Fisher (Murder, She Wrote), and Steven Bochco (L. A. Law, Hill Street Blues) were writers. Dean Hargrove (Matlock, Perry Mason) and Roland Kibbee (Barney Miller) were producers. The premiere episode was directed by a very young Steven Spielberg. Each episode featured a well-known character actor or minor star as the murderer. Robert Culp and Jack Cassidy had the highest number of returns as guest villain (three each).

Columbo won seven Emmys over the first run of the series, including three for Falk and one for the series itself. Columbo spawned only one spin-off, NBC's short-lived, Mrs. Columbo (name later changed to Kate Columbo, Kate the Detective, and Kate Loves a Mystery) with Kate Mulgrew in the title role. This series played against Columbo in several ways. Instead of Mrs. Columbo being absent each episode, the lieutenant was "unavailable". And here the plot followed the traditional detective format instead of the inverted one. It is not clear what caused this series to fail, but Mrs. Columbo was ill fated and ill advised. Both Link and Levinson disavowed it and Falk disliked the concept.

Following the success of Raymond Burr's return as Perry Mason in a series of Made-for-Television Movies, Falk returned to Columbo on 6 February 1989, for a new "mystery wheel" concept (this time on ABC and alternating with Burt Reynolds in B. L. Stryker and Lou Gossett, Jr., in Gideon Oliver). Just as he left Rock Hudson and Dennis Weaver behind during his original run, the rumpled detective was the only one of the new "wheel" to survive. Indeed, like the character, Columbo always seems to be coming back as if to say "Oh, there's just one more thing . . ."

-Dennis Bounds


Lt. Columbo............................. Peter Falk


Richard Levinson and William Link, Dean Hargrove, Roland Kibbee, Richard Alan Simmons


43 Episodes in Original Series


September 1971-September 1972   Wednesday 8:30-10:00

September 1972-July 1974   Sunday 8:30-10:00

August 1974-August 1975   Sunday 8:30-10:30

September 1975-September 1976   Sunday 9:00-11:00

October 1976-September 1977   Sunday 8:00-9:30 ABC

February 1989-May 1989   Monday 9:00-11:00

August 1989-July 1990   Saturday 9:00-11:00

August 1990   Sunday 9:00-11:00

January 1992-May 1992   Thursday 8:00-10:00

November 1992-February 1993   Saturday 8:00-10:00


Dawidziak, Mark. The Columbo Phile: A Casebook. New York: Mysterious, 1989.

Marc, David, and Robert J. Thompson. Prime Time, Prime Movers. Boston: Little, Brown, 1992.

Meyers, Richard. Murder on the Air: Television's Great Mystery Series. New York: Mysterious, 1989.

_______________. TV Detectives. San Diego: Barnes, 1988.

Newcomb, Horace, and Robert S. Alley. The Producer's Medium: Conversations With Creators Of American TV. New York: Oxford University, 1983.

William Link on the impact Columbo has had on real-life police work and on the legacy of the show
Lee Grant on her Emmy-winning guest-starring role in the pilot for Columbo, "Ransom for a Dead Man"
Abby Singer on being production manager for Columbo
Dean Hargrove on working with Peter Falk as "Columbo" on Columbo
Stanley Ralph Ross on writing Columbo, and on working with Peter Falk as "Columbo"
Robert Butler on directing Columbo  
Who talked about this show

Steven Bochco

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Steven Bochco on writing for Columbo under producers Levinson and Link, and his thoughts on star Peter Falk

Robert Butler

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Robert Butler on directing Columbo  

Tyne Daly

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Tyne Daly on working with Peter Falk when she appeared on Columbo

Hector Elizondo

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Hector Elizondo on appearing on Columbo

Lee Grant

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Lee Grant on her Emmy-winning guest-starring role in the pilot for Columbo, "Ransom for a Dead Man"
Lee Grant on her Emmy-winning guest-starring role in the pilot for Columbo, "Ransom for a Dead Man"

Walter E. Grauman

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Director Walter Grauman on how star Peter Falk invented the key clue for solving the crime on the Columbo show "Murder in Malibu"

Dean Hargrove

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Dean Hargrove on writing for the NBC Mystery Movie wheel series for Columbo (for which he won an Emmy Award) and McCloud
Dean Hargrove on working with Peter Falk as "Columbo" on Columbo
Dean Hargrove on his duties as executive producer of Columbo, and on dividing duties with Roland Kibbee on the show

Leslie Hoffman

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Leslie Hoffman on a stunt she performed on Columbo involving a spiral staircase

Kim Hunter

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Kim Hunter on working with Peter Falk on Columbo

Walter Koenig

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Walter Koenig on guest-starring on Columbo along with William Shatner

William Link

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William Link on the influence of mystery novels on the creation of Columbo
William Link on casting Peter Falk as "Columbo" on Columbo and what he brought to the role
William Link on his working relationship with Peter Falk on Columbo
William Link on Columbo's unusual air schedule
William Link on the process of casting guest-stars on Columbo
William Link on Jack Cassidy guest-starring on several episodes of Columbo
William Link on the impact Columbo has had on real-life police work and on the legacy of the show
William Link on the impact Columbo has had on real-life police work and on the legacy of the show
William Link on adapting their stage play "Enough Rope" to the made-for-television movie Prescription: Murder the basis for the Columbo series
William Link on the logic behind writing shows like Columbo
William Link on how Columbo developed from a television movie to a series, and on casting Peter Falk as "Columbo"
William Link on critical reaction to Columbo
William Link on creating the character of "Columbo," played by Peter Falk, on Columbo
William Link on the structure of Columbo, and what made it different from other detective series at the time
William Link on "Columbo" never having a first name on Columbo
William Link on the basic format for every episode of Columbo
William Link on Robert Culp guest-starring on several episodes of Columbo and on the appeal of the show
William Link on George Hamilton guest-starring on several episodes of Columbo
William Link on Roddy McDowell, Leslie Neilson, Vincent Price and Lee Grant appearing on Columbo
William Link on the directors of Columbo including Steven Spielberg
William Link on what a director could bring to Columbo
William Link on "Columbo's" raincoat on Columbo
William Link on "Columbo's" cigars on Columbo
William Link on Columbo being sloppy and disheveled on Columbo
William Link on "Columbo's" unseen wife on Columbo
William Link on "Columbo's" catch phrase on Columbo, "Just one more thing"
William Link on favorite Columbo episodes
William Link on how the format of Columbo remained the same when it was brought back in the '80s
William Link on the international appeal and legacy of Columbo

John J. Lloyd

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John J. Lloyd on establishing the look for Columbo

John A. Martinelli

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John Martinelli on editing Columbo

Suzanne Pleshette

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Suzanne Pleshette on guest-starring on a problematic episode of Columbo

Hank Rieger

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Hank Rieger on publicity for Columbo

Stanley Ralph Ross

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Stanley Ralph Ross on writing Columbo, and on working with Peter Falk as "Columbo"

Abby Singer

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Abby Singer on being production manager for Columbo
Abby Singer on being production manager for Columbo

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