If you consider yourself a Columbo groupie, you will want to know about a new book called Shooting Columbo: The Lives and Deaths of TV’s Rumpled Detective by David Koenig and published by Bonaventure Press. It's all about the history of the TV series Columbo.
And as regular readers of The TV Professor have probably figured out already, I’m a big fan of the character and detective series, which ran as a series of movies off and on from 1968 to 2003. The 1970s, however, are considered Columbo's heyday.
So from my admittedly biased perspective, when I learned about this book from a wonderful Columbo blog called, “The Columbophile,” I thought, “Well, writing a book review on Columbo for my own blog seems to make sense.”
So is Shooting Columbo something you would kill to get your hands on, or is it the type of book you might want to run over with your car, in sort of the way Dr. Howard Nicholson was dispatched in the episode “Mind Over Mayhem”?
We shall see.
Today's "TV Lesson" Breakdown:
Is “Shooting Columbo” worth a read?
Absolutely, it is. (OK, so much for keeping everyone in suspense...)
Now, if you’re a passing fan, probably, it's worth a read. There may be too many Columbo-centric details for you, but I'd think you would enjoy it.
And if you’ve always hated Columbo, or wondered what the appeal is, then you don’t need to be a super sleuth to figure out that this isn’t the book for you.
So what makes “Shooting Columbo” worth reading?
The book, in a nutshell, focuses on, as you would expect, shooting the Columbo series. It’s an interesting book title in that you could also see as a very appropriate title for a book about a TV detective, but while Columbo was always facing devious and ruthless bad guys, only occasionally was he in a situation where anybody pointing a gun at him.
The author David Koenig spends ample time discussing Peter Falk’s involvement in the series, but you won’t come away from the book learning much about the actor’s marriages or kids. You also won’t feel like you come away knowing Falk intimately, but you will get a pretty good sense of how the Columbo episodes were put together. You'll also definitely come away recognizing that this was a role Falk loved doing. You may wind up becoming pretty frustrated with him, too. At least, I did, while reading Shooting Columbo. Getting mad at network executives may have improved his salary, and it might have sometimes raised the game on the quality of the series -- but there were times when Falk was Columbo's worst enemy.
Because clearly there would have been more Columbo movies for all of us to watch, if Falk had handled things better during the 1970s, in particular.
So what are a few things that you might learn from Koenig's book? Well, some of these nuggets of information may be in other books about Columbo, for all I know, but Shooting Columbo has a lot of little interesting tidbits, such as…
- Columbo’s catchphrase, “Just one more thing,” came about because the two creators of the show, Richard Levinson and William Link, were writing Enough Rope, the stage play that Columbo was based on, and they realized they needed Columbo to ask just one more thing. Levinson and Link didn’t feel like retyping the entire page, and so the writers just had Columbo pop back into the suspect’s apartment and ask those immortal words. It didn’t take them long before they realized they had created something pretty special.
- Ed Asner was going to be one of the villains, but Asner didn’t like what he was hearing about Falk’s contract negotiations, which were delaying the episode he was going to be in – Dawn’s Early Light. Asner apparently didn’t need that type of drama in his life and decided to pass on the role.
- When Columbo ended its first run in 1978, it wasn’t officially cancelled. NBC just stopped making the episodes, in large part because of all the stress Falk put executives through during the 1970s.
There’s plenty, plenty more, of course, but I think reviews can give away so much that the person thinks, “Well, thanks, I don’t need to buy this book now,” and I don’t want to do that to Koenig, who I've never met but seems like a nice guy and has a family to feed.
Is There Anything Not to Like About Shooting Columbo?
If I have a complaint, it’s that the book wasn’t longer. The book is 235 pages, not including the index. Granted, that may have been the publisher’s decision and not Koenig’s.
It’s a quick read. Once the reader gets through the very interesting backstory in how Columbo began, Koenig takes us through each of the 69 Columbo movies, which doesn’t sound like it would make for a fast read, but it does.
Most of the 69 movies get two or three pages of ink, and so if you’re a reader like me, you’ll say, “Well, I’m just going to read about By Dawn’s Early Light, and then I’m done for the night,” and then you’re thinking, “Well, heck, I’ll read about Playback, and before you know it, you’re into Troubled Waters, and if you finish that, you can see that you’ve only got two pages to read about A Deadly State of Mind, and you’re at the end of the chapter.
That’s all well and good, and I like how the book is structured, and in general, the book is a wealth of information. Koenig was as dogged in his research as Columbo was when he went after suspects to prove they were the murderer. Koenig interviewed producers, directors and scriptwriters who were intimately involved with the show, including Peter S. Fischer, who wrote some of my favorite Columbo episodes, including An Exercise in Fatality (where Robert Conrad chokes a guy to death) and Negative Reaction (where Dick Van Dyke pulls the trigger). Koenig talked to studio executives, production coordinators, story editors, Falk’s executive assistant, composers, location managers, and plenty more.
And yet… I found myself wishing there was even more. Maybe I wanted an interview from the guys who made the food for the actors, or an interview with a key grip or gaffer? I don’t know. I think it's just that Koenig wrote a fantastic, comprehensive book about the Columbo series, and so I naturally found myself wishing there was even more.
That's how I feel about Columbo, the series, in general. I wish there were more movies. When it comes to Columbo, it's never enough.
Is “Shooting Columbo” the first book about Columbo?
As I alluded to earlier, hardly.
If you’re interested in reading about Columbo, there are a number of book titles you might want to turn to. Some of the highlights include…
Just One More Thing: Stories from my life by Peter Falk. It was published in 2006, late in Falk’s life. He died in 2011, and by 2009, he was diagnosed with severe dementia. The last Columbo movie aired in 2003.
So instead of filming another Columbo, which Falk wanted to do, he evidently filled some of his time writing a memoir. The autobiography isn’t really an autobiography, as Falk readily admits at the start of the book and suggests in the title. It’s just a collection of anecdotes, some that are Columbo related and many that aren’t.
I’ve read it, and it’s enjoyable, but when I finished, I couldn’t say that I really felt like I had gotten to know Falk. There also weren’t nearly enough Columbo anecdotes in the book. Still, if you’re a serious Columbo fan, it may be worth a read.
The Columbo Phile: A Casebook by Mark Dawidziak is said to be (at least until Shooting Columbo came along) the best Columbo book. I haven’t read it yet, and so I can’t compare – it may have been the best, or it may still be the best. But it’s the Columbo book that all other Columbo books are evidently measured up to. Part of me feels like I should go now and read The Columbo Phile: A Casebook, so I can tell you how the two books measure up, but I’d like to get this blog post that sort of resembles a book review out sooner rather than later…
Still, one big thing that Dawidziak had going for him is that Falk liked his book, offering a very praiseworthy blurb: "Mark Dawidziak has done a first-rate job dissecting the whole Columbo series, not only the lieutenant himself but every character, clue, guest star, you name it." The Columbo co-creator William Link lent a blurb as well: “In my opinion this is one of the most comprehensive and enjoyable of the many books written about classic television series. But, of course, I am somewhat prejudiced."
Cooking with Columbo: Suppers With the Shambling Sleuth: Episode guides and recipes from the kitchen of Peter Falk and many of his Columbo Co-Stars by Jenny Hammerton. I have read this one. It’s a fun book. If you like Columbo and cooking, I can certainly recommend it.
Stay Tuned: An Inside Look at Making of Prime-Time Television by Richard Levinson and William Link. This came out in 1981, and I haven’t read it, but considering it’s a book by the creators of Columbo, I’m sure it’s well worth perusing.
(And if you're wondering, I have no idea if it helps my blog to buy any of these books through the links I've provided. Maybe and maybe not. I signed up to be Amazon affiliate some time ago, but I'm not sure -- stupid as this sounds -- if I actually did it successfully.)
Just One More Thing…
Maybe the one thing that David Koenig’s excellent book couldn’t answer for me – and perhaps it's in the pages of some of the other books about Columbo but given that Falk’s own book didn’t answer it, I have my doubts – is exactly how the magic of Columbo was truly created.
Don't get me wrong. Koenig probably gets as close to explaining it as one can, and he does a good job of detailing how Falk would do take after take after take.
Falk would do the same scene over and over, so much that, according to Shooting Columbo, many of the people making the movies started to feel that if Falk could only do one Columbo film a year – but take an entire year to shoot it – he would.
Falk clearly cared about the detective and understood him. But I find myself wondering what was going through Falk’s mind as he was creating Columbo? How did Peter Falk come up with Columbo's mannerisms? What was it that Falk first saw in Lieutenant Columbo that made him know the actor and character would be such a good fit?
We may never know, and those may be unanswerable questions, and in some ways, what's so interesting about Columbo is that while two playwrights -- Link and Levinson -- created the character, with a big assist later from Falk, Link and Levinson eventually left the series.
So for much of the series run, which, again, lasted from 1968 to 2003, other than Falk, there wasn't really one executive producer shaping the character and calling all of the shots. That's arguably why in the later years especially, the quality of the movies are uneven.
That said, by the end of Koenig’s book, I came away with the idea that maybe even Peter Falk wasn’t always sure what to make of Columbo. Falk became known for often doing multiple takes after multiple takes of scenes, causing production delays and driving executives, directors and possibly his fellow actors crazy. He obviously cared a lot about his craft and the character that made him world famous, but he also may have occasionally been uncertain just how to play Columbo.
Which is understandable. Falk wasn't actually Columbo, much as I like to this of the television detective as a real person, somewhere out there, solving crimes right now.
Still, somehow, it would be fitting if even Lieutenant Columbo was, at times, a mystery to Peter Falk.
Where you can watch this show (at the time of this writing): You can find the entire series of Columbo on TubiTV.com and on Peacock TV. MeTV also airs Columbo Sunday evenings at 6 p.m., EST. Haven't seen it on Hallmark for awhile, but that doesn't mean it won't turn up.
Articles similar to this one: There are two other Columbo-centric articles on this blog if you want to look those up on the home page, but you may want to check out this look at Decoy, a 1950s TV film noir featuring the first female TV police woman. Peter Falk, as the blog post points out, had a guest spot in one of the episodes.