Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Peter Falk's First Case as Columbo

Falk's first close-up as Columbo.
Upon suspecting that her psychiatrist husband left their anniversary party for a rendezvous with his mistress, Joan Flemming threatens to ruin him professionally and financially. Dr. Ray Flemming (Gene Barry) comes up with a convincing lie--he was planning a surprise second honeymoon in Mexico. Yet, the reality is that he has already plotted Joan's murder to the last detail. The following day, with an assist from his actress girlfriend, Flemming pulls off what he believes to be the perfect crime. The only problem is that the L.A. detective assigned to the case is Lieutenant Columbo.

Bert Freed was the first Columbo.
Prescription: Murder, a 1968 made-for-TV movie, marked Peter Falk's debut as the crafty Columbo. However, it was not the first appearance of the fictional sleuth created by Richard Levinson and William Link. Columbo--then known as Fisher--was featured in the short story "Dear Corpus Delicti," which was published in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine in 1960. That same year, Levinson and Link adapated their short story into "Enough Rope," an episode of the live drama anthology Chevy Mystery Show. Bert Freed played Columbo, who was a secondary character to the villainous Dr. Flemming (played by Richard Carlson).

A year later, Levinson and Link expanded "Enough Rope" into a stage play called Prescription: Murder. It starred Joseph Cotten as Flemming, Agnes Moorehead as his wife, and Thomas Mitchell as Columbo. Sadly, the play never made it to Broadway, in part because Thomas Mitchell died of cancer in 1962.

Levinson and Link, who met in junior high school, dusted off Prescription: Murder again in 1968--this time as a telefilm for NBC. They originally wanted Lee J. Cobb to play Columbo. When his schedule prevented him from taking the role, they offered it to Bing Crosby. When he also declined, the part went to Peter Falk. Levinson and Link initially worried that the 41-year-old Falk was too young to play Columbo (Mitchell was 70). However, once they saw his performance, they knew it was a perfect pairing of actor and role. 

Gene Barry as the murderer.
Considering that Columbo would eventually become a TV icon, it's somewhat surprising that he doesn't make his entrance until 32 minutes into Prescription: Murder. He introduces himself to Gene Barry's murderer as simply: "Lieutenant Columbo, police." Thus, it's up to Barry to carry the film's opening scenes and he's quite persuasive as the intelligent, egotistical Flemming. His simple, yet ingenious, murder plot relies on an axiom employed by Agatha Christie in her classic Hercule Poirot novel Lord Edgware Dies. Flemming explains it to his accomplice: "People see what they expect to see."

It takes Flemming most of the film to realize that he has underestimated his dogged pursuer. In the best scene, the two men discuss the murder in theoretical terms--though each knows exactly what happened. Flemming even offers a psychoanalysis of Columbo's tactic of masking his intelligence. At its best, Prescription: Murder is a two-character play--and I mean that as a compliment. William Windom, Nina Foch, and Katherine Justice are fine in supporting roles, but the crux of the film is the cat-and-mouse game between Columbo and Flemming.

Columbo: "There's just one more thing..."
Although Prescription: Murder is sometimes described as a pilot for a TV series, most sources claim that neither Falk nor Levinson and Link were interested in the grind of a weekly show. NBC addressed their concern in 1971 when it suggested a Columbo drama as part of its 90-minute umbrella series, The NBC Mystery Movie. Thus, instead of starring in 24 or more weekly hour shows, Falk had to commit to just seven 90-minute shows yearly.

Lee Grant as the first female killer.
However, before finalizing the deal, NBC asked for a pilot film that became Ransom for a Dead Man. It was telecast in March 1971, with the Columbo TV series debuting the following September. Ransom stars Lee Grant as a tough attorney who murders her husband--and then devises a fake kidnapping in order to liquidate his financial assets to pay a ransom. Columbo makes an earlier appearance this time (at the 12-minute mark). Although Grant was nominated for an Emmy, Ransom for a Dead Man lacks the bite that permeates Prescription: Murder--perhaps because Levinson and Link penned the story, but not the script.

Still, Ransom for a Dead Man was a ratings hit and the rest--as they say--is television history. Counting Prescription and Ransom, Peter Falk played Columbo in 68 telefilms or TV episodes over a span of 35 years.

6 comments:

  1. I could watch Lee Grant eat a sandwich and be entertained! I loved seeing her go up against the good lieutenant... kind of magical for me, actually. But I agree that Prescription is the stronger of the two. Stylistically speaking, Prescription really stands out from the other episodes. It definitely has a late 60s feel, whereas the other episodes feel so 70s!

    Also, Prescription is the TVM that made me fall in love with Gene Barry. Such a suave baddie. Love him!

    Nice post. I'm a huge Columbo fan, and loved that you picked the two earliest films to showcase the magic of the series.

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  2. This was really the beginning of something epic. I didn't realize that Lee Grant was in that first episode, that makes it even more special. Columbo is a series you can watch for a dose of drama, mystery and a dash of comedy. Thanks for the informative post about how the series began.

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  3. Lee J. Cobb? Bing Crosby? Hahahahaha It's impossible to imagine someone other than Peter Falk. Thanks for writing this.

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  4. I'm with Joanna, particularly about Bing as Columbo ... huh? Interesting article, Rick, and by the way, I always had a big crush on Gene Barry........

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  5. I adore Peter Falk as Columbo, but I would have loved to have gotten the opportunity to watch the pay. What a cast! Cotten, Moorehead and the versatile Mitchell as the Lt. OH MY!

    Fantastic backstory information on a show I can't get enough of. Great read, Rick.

    Aurora

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  6. I always enjoyed the premise of Columbo, that we already knew who the guilty party was at the beginning. Peter Falk was quite fun in his role and I fondly remember his frequent "Just one more thing" comments. I really enjoyed this write up and remember both Gene Barry and Lee Grant in their episodes. Having strong guest stars makes for compelling watching.

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