When I heard that Peter Falk passed away, I couldn’t help but remember him as Columbo, the indelible character he portrayed on the hit television show Columbo during the 1970s. The disheveled, disoriented, and seemingly insipid detective stumbled his way through every episode, appearing lost in thought about his dog, mother-in-law, wife, or some illness that plagued him. This was always a ruse that made the killer think he was going to walk, but at the end of every episode Columbo revealed his true genius and caught the antagonist much to his or her chagrin.
I was introduced to Columbo by my Aunt Margie (who passed away in 2006). She would watch every episode faithfully with a little smirk on her face. She loved Agatha Christie books, Perry Mason, and most police shows, but Columbo seemed to be her favorite. I think she liked the premise of the show most of all because it pleased her to see a pompous (and usually very wealthy) killer taken down by a rumpled everyman like Columbo.
The show was not the standard procedural but rather what I call a “how done it,” unlike the usual murder mystery known as a “who done it.” At the beginning of every episode the viewer got the exposition of the killer and his intended victim, got to see the actual killing, and then the “brilliant” cover-up that would supposedly leave the police baffled.
Of course then into the mansion would stagger Columbo. Sometimes peeling an egg for breakfast, or coughing with a cold, or seemingly obsessing over a lost item, Columbo would encounter the killer and immediately send the signal that he was an incompetent buffoon. The fun of each episode was the unraveling of the facade, as Columbo became either friendly or more annoying to the culprit, a sort of reverse of cat and mouse that was a joy to watch because many of the killers were played by such fine actors – Ruth Gordon, Leonard Nimoy, Jack Cassidy, Robert Culp, Vera Miles and many, many more.
Columbo was such a fish out of water, a New Yorker who once admitted he came from the Lower East Side and ran around the streets barefoot through Chinatown. This poor New York kid somehow ends up in Los Angeles, rubbing elbows with the wealthiest people as he tries to solve the crime. Wearing an old worn raincoat (even in warm weather when everyone else was running around in shorts and polo shirts), smoking a half-chewed stogie, his hair looking spiked and matted as if he just rolled out of bed, Columbo was truly an anti-hero anyone could relate to.
So now the great Peter Falk is gone. He has left behind one of the greatest characters in television history. I imagine that when he passed on and appeared at the entrance to heaven, he may have started through the Pearly Gates, stopped, and turned to St. Peter and said, “Just one more thing….” as his character often did to disarm his intended target. I am sure Falk got as a big a laugh up there as he got down here. I just hope he doesn’t run into my aunt because she is going to want an autograph.
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