Episode six of season three of Columbo features a character played by then-twelve-year-old Lee Montgomery. The character was a boy genius at a think tank; he shares most of his scenes with Robby the Robot of Lost in Space. He jokes with Columbo (Peter Falk, of course) that it’s surprising that he’s being treated as a child twice in as many days; a child trusted with his own lab in such a place is surely not a child in many people’s eyes. The character is named after a still-obscure director, then still primarily working in television. His breakout theatrical release would come out the next year. Three years earlier, he’d directed the first episode of Columbo; his first feature, made for TV, aired a couple of months later. The character was named Steve Spelberg.
Columbo, in my opinion, doesn’t get talked about enough in general. In particular, though, it doesn’t get talked about much for the creativity of its filming. Now, most of the show’s directors were standard working TV directors; while their careers would feature a movie or two, in practice what you’d tend to get was Walter Grauman, best known inasmuch as he’s known at all for directing some twenty percent of Murder, She Wrote. As in, over fifty episodes of it. Or people even less notable than that.
But it isn’t even the outliers—Jonathan Demme directed the marvelous “Murder Under Glass,” for one. Or the willingness to allow actors to direct. Falk himself directed an episode, and there’s one that’s listed as being codirected by Falk, actor Nick Colasanto (who would go on to play Coach on Cheers), and John Cassavetes. Colasanto also directed the classic “Swan Song,” with Johnny Cash as the murderer of Ida Lupino. Patrick McGoohan directed no fewer than five episodes, the same as episodes of The Prisoner he directed.
What’s more interesting is how experimental the direction could be even with relatively ordinary directors. Bernard L. Kowalski isn’t a name most people know. Honestly, he’s probably best known for directing not one but two Mystery Science Theater 3000 entries. (Night of Blood Beast and Attack of the Giant Leeches, if you’re curious.) However, he’s the one who directed the episode that gives us today’s article image. “Death Lends a Hand,” one of several where Robert Culp was the killer. In this case, he accidentally killed Pat Crowley, and we see in his sunglasses how he’s covering it up, one scene in each lens.
Now, as it happens, I have read no few TV scripts in my day, and I’m aware that it’s also possible that the shot wasn’t developed by Kowalski but instead appeared in the screenplay by show creators Richard Levinson and William Link. And honestly, a list of the writers of the show would probably produce a similar wealth of Working Writers sprinkled with Genuine Celebrities. Steven Bochco wrote quite a few episodes, for starters, very early in his own career. The pilot, even before that Spielberg kid was directing, was written by Dean Hargrove, who went on to create Matlock. Stephen J. Cannell wrote for the lieutenant long before creating Jim Rockford.
But again, for every Roland Kibbee (first screen credit A Night in Casablanca), you get a James Menzies, who might be best known as the story consultant for The Littlest Hobo if you know him at all. You can’t chalk it all up to getting big names before they were big names or solid workers who come cheap. Some of the writers seem, reading between the lines, to mostly have had careers as script doctors. And that’s great, but it doesn’t explain the sheer creativity involved in these episodes.
In “Lady in Waiting,” Susan Clark kills Richard Anderson for his former Forbidden Planet costar Leslie Nielsen. She has planned the killing in every detail, and the first time we see the murder, it is as her character imagines it in a drug-induced haze—and the show doesn’t really tell us that until she’s done thinking it over. It’s entirely possible, as you’re watching the segment, that we are watching it happen while she’s in a drug-induced haze.
In “Publish or Perish,” Jack Cassidy is establishing an alibi for killing Mickey Spillane. While John Davis Chandler is sneaking into Spillane’s office, we see splitscreen images of various of the characters. Cassidy is getting drunk. Spillane is getting, you know, murdered. All of it is happening all at once.
When we talk about the show at all, I think the two things we talk about are its gimmick—you know who the killer is before you ever see Columbo—and its wild casting. Yes, it’s a show where the most famous person is usually the killer, but it gets around your figuring that out right away by showing you the murder. Sure, there’s the risk that one of the minor characters will become more famous later; we’ve talked before about how that can happen. Though Valerie Harper had been on Mary Tyler Moore for a couple of years before playing an escort on the show.
The gimmick’s fun; don’t get me wrong. Watching Ricardo Montalban kill someone with a bull is a lot more fun than finding out after the fact that he’d done it. Fully-bearded Dick Van Dyke murdering his shrewish wife and setting up poor, gormless Don Gordon for it is vastly entertaining. It’s just that even those episodes have interesting tricks of filming—starting out “Negative Reaction” with actual negatives, for example. It would be very easy to do the whole thing in just a boring TV set-up, and the show didn’t.
And, literally as I was writing this, co-creator William Link’s death was announced. I genuinely believe that he and Richard Levinson changed the TV landscape with this show, and not just because of how many writers you’d see “created by” in the credits of after they’d written episodes of this show. The creators of at least a dozen, and probably two or more, TV detective shows wrote for the rumpled lieutenant first. And, yes, early Spielberg and early Demme. But if you watch, really watch, the show, you can see that it’s a fine and well-crafted show that left its legacy in television for many years to come.