Schlubby working class hero, Crime And Punishment’s Porfiry Petrovich for primetime, fatherly fighter of crime… I was introduced to the rumple-coated and rumple-faced one back in 1987, following an off-hand attempt from my mother to get five-year-old me to sit down and shut up for a few minutes. Desperately looking for something to grab my attention, and zeroing in on what ITV happened to be repeating that Sunday, her “Oh, look! Columbo! You like him, don’t you?” – “Huh?” – “He’s the one with the cigar and coat, you know him!” got me to sit down, be quiet, and puzzle over whether or not I did like him. She turned out to be right – I liked him a lot.
By then in the late ’80s, Lieutenant Columbo had been solving murder mysteries off and on for almost 20 years – he was a household name, a beloved character, and a TV mainstay. In its early days, Columbo was exciting programming, showcasing up-and-coming writers and young directors (episode one was directed by none other than Steven Spielberg), unusual and discordant scores, inventive camera shots and fast editing. The inverted mystery format – guest star commits murder; the police detective circles the culprit; the case is solved in the last five minutes – may be tired now from repeated use during the show’s long life span, but back then was ground-breaking.
These days it’s tempting to scoff at the fuzzy film-stock, the dated clothes, mustard and brown colour décor, and fluffy hairstyles on display in the show’s frequent repeats, but settle in to watch it again, and unexpected elements pop up and pay off. A whole murder will play out reflected inside the killer’s glasses; Columbo will walk through a Dali-like dream sequence; or the editing and score will become so kaleidoscopic and frenetic you might suspect someone laced your coffee with LSD; it’s still wonderful stuff.
But the real surprises come from some of the guest stars the quality of the program drew in – performers from TV, film, and music jumped at the opportunity to play with their reputation, to do something a little different. If you didn’t see the show in its heyday, or haven’t given it a chance since, here are some of the best stars to tussle with Columbo…
Johnny Cash as Tommy Brown in Swan Song (1974)
Elvis Presley, Kylie Minogue, and Vanilla Ice – not every singer can act (and, looking at some on that list there, not every singer can er…sing), so settling down to watch Columbo and seeing the words “Guest stars Johnny Cash” may cause you to recoil, but stick with it and you’ll be surprised.
Could Cash act? Well, kinda. Like Eminem ended up doing in 8 Mile, Cash plays a character clone of himself, very casually, and his natural performer’s charisma just about gets him through. Country star Cash, who was in the Air Force, had been busted for drugs, and wore black a lot, plays gospel star Tommy Brown, who’s been in the Air Force, brings drugs on a plane journey, and wears black a lot.
There’s one major difference – Brown murders his wife and his girlfriend, carries on with various underage members of his gospel choir, and stitches his own parachute to get away with it all. Elements from Cash’s real life are used to great effect in the episode, and apart from some gurning, he acquits himself rather well as a guest star. This isn’t like Boy George in The A-Team, essentially.
Just one more thing: Cash sings a few times and plays his guitar, which is always a lovely thing to hear if you’re a fan. He also mimes a song really badly during the episode, while surrounded by bikini-clad hippy chicks in his backyard during a beer and chilli party. Hopefully, that part was also inspired by Cash’s real life.
Leonard Nimoy as Doctor Barry Mayfield in A Stitch In Crime (1973)
Having played a half-human, half-Vulcan with hidden depths of warmth and friendship, here Nimoy brings a human completely lacking in compassion and humanity to icy life. Unlike a lot of Columbo guests, who took the opportunity to play it big and chew up the scenery, Nimoy’s performance is quiet and calculated. “A Stitch In Crime” is unusual for the series in how believable, and unsettling, the killer is. Real world sociopaths often walk among the rest of us undetected, more Jeffrey Dahmer or Ted Bundy than Ed Gein. They don’t run around announcing themselves with pig squeals and a chainsaw, but instead hold down jobs and charm the people around them with cold smiles and clever manipulation.
That’s the kind of killer Nimoy plays as Doctor Barry Mayfield, a man who’ll kill his colleagues to further his career in medicine, and never truly panics as Columbo closes the net around him. Nimoy shows the killer’s arrogance and lack of feeling with subtlety, watching the people around him with detachment as though he’s looking at germs through a microscope.
Just one more thing: Nimoy’s Mayfield is special in that he’s one of the only killers in the show’s run to get the Lieutenant to drop his fumbling façade and lose his cool – instead of buddying up to him to solve the case, Columbo gets angry and smashes a coffee pot onto Mayfield’s desk in a rage. Maybe the uncharacteristic flash of anger was because Falk hadn’t yet fully developed the policeman’s signature traits and ticks this early in the series, but I think it’s because of the genuine level of danger Columbo sees in Mayfield – a calm and methodical criminal who’s so close to getting away with it. Nimoy’s performance enables the audience to see a quick glimpse of Columbo’s real personality, allowing Falk a moment to shine as much as his guest star.
Roddy McDowall as Roger Stanford in Short Fuse (1972)
Those used to Roddy McDowall’s gentle eyes and mellifluous voice in the Planet Of The Apes films, Fright Night, Bedknobs And Broomsticks, and guest spots in almost every popular American programme in the 70s/80s, get something very different from his outing on Columbo. McDowall plays brattish 70s hipster Roger Stanford, pranking secretaries at his family’s chemical plant and pouting about how “square” everyone is.
It’s amazing how much of an irritant McDowall manages to make Stanford Jr., giggling and jumping around like the Riddler in a stonewashed denim suit and zipping around the family business in a golf buggy. There are some killers in Columbo you’d kind of want to get away with blowing up their step-uncle with a box of cigars. Not this one.
Just one more thing: How confused/terrified/delighted other characters are by the silly string Stanford sprays during the episode. The ’70s: a more innocent time.
Vincent Price as David Lang in Lovely But Lethal (1973)
A horror-ifically brief cameo from horror legend Vincent Price here, as a bitchy beauty industry competitor to Vera Miles’ struggling business owner, Viveca Scott. Price and Miles really are nasty in this episode – the barbs the two throw at each other almost as mean as the murder(s). Price’s appearance is short, but his influence is felt throughout the case; tribute is paid to Price’s horror film credentials in the opening operating room scene. Sinister strings play over the soundtrack as scalpels are poised over unblinking women’s faces. Very creepy.
Just one more thing: Miles gets to deliver the juicy line “I like young men, Lieutenant – lots of them!” One of the young men Viveca ‘likes’? Character Karl Lessing, played by Martin Sheen. He gets hit over the head with a microscope quite early on.
Faye Dunaway as Lauren Staton in It’s All In The Game (1993)
And this is the episode where Columbo nearly cheats on Mrs. Columbo, or actually does cheat on her, if you count kissing to catch a killer. Written by Falk himself, this episode stars the iconic and frequently-fatal-femme Faye Dunaway as a mother out for revenge, teaming up with her daughter to kill an abusive boyfriend. As Lauren Staton, Dunaway purrs through her lines, and nearly seduces Columbo with gifts and whispers.
Dunaway and Falk’s chemistry is so delicious, you’ll almost root for her to get away with murder. Until you remember poor Mrs. Columbo – pull yourself together and arrest her, Lieutenant!
Just one more thing: Claudia Christian aka General Susan Ivanova from Babylon 5 stars as Lauren’s daughter Lisa Martin.
Kristin Bauer van Straten as Suzie Endicott in Undercover (1994)
Another treat with catching old episodes of Columbo is noticing your faves in early roles, fresh and at the start of their careers. Yes, Bon Temps fans, that really is surly vampire Pam from True Blood, smiling. Doesn’t seem quite right, does it?
Just one more thing: Seeing that seemingly thankless or insignificant ‘sexy young thing’ roles early on in a career can lead on to great things for great actresses.
Robert Vaughn as Charles ‘Charlie’ Clay in Last Salute To The Commodore (1976)
Still in the experimental early days of the series, this Patrick McGoohan-directed episode (yes, Patrick McGoohan, from The Prisoner!) is a strange and wonderful thing.
Moving away from the series’ by-now-standard structure, the killer isn’t revealed until the final moments of this one. But if you think that would make it a more nail-biting watch… you’d be wrong. With the performers reportedly encouraged by their director to improvise during scenes, characters go off on strange tangents, pause for slightly too long, and Columbo doesn’t set upon clues with his usual verve.
In a bizarre character choice, Falk spends scenes pressed up against, grabbing at, rubbing on, or nearly sitting on top of, guest star Robert Vaughn, who, in turn, plays much of his role with a set jaw, crossed arms, and silence. It’s weird, it doesn’t make much sense, and the episode is deathly slow, to boot. Whatever Falk and Vaughn were going for, it’s fun to puzzle it out.
Just one more thing: At one point, Vaughn’s Charlie Clay leans against some stairs, his face against the arm rail, despondent. Columbo casually rests against him, back to back, smushing Vaughn’s face into the rail, for about three seconds. It’s fantastically odd.
William Shatner as Fielding Chase in Butterfly in Shades of Grey (1993)
Like Vaughan, Shatner guested in Columbo a couple of times (and if you watch a few of the episodes on this list, you’ll spot a couple of other performers appearing in more than one). Also like Vaughan, his second starring role is widely considered to be his worst, but has its own joys. I’m mainly talking about that moustache, up there – but we’ll come back to that.
In this episode, Shatner plays scummy political radio host Fielding Chase, a man who’s incestuously possessive of his adopted daughter and harbours some shockingly homophobic views. Shatner really looks like he’s having fun playing this jerk, monstrous in a very different way to Nimoy’s scary doctor – Chase is pure panto, even down to his cheap wig, bad makeup, and that moustache. Inexplicably, that thing changes colour throughout the running time, going from a transparent and wispy light grey, to the mid-grey version pictured, straight through to charcoal.
Just one more thing: The post-episode eureka moment when you remember it’s called Butterfly In Shades Of Grey… and that Shatner and Falk have been trolling the audience the whole time.