It has taken 41 years but this week, the script to the first episode of Columbo leaked onto the internet. Have a very good time and lose at least hours, probably weeks, with all the many scripts collected on Lee Thomson’s TV website or if you’re happy with a barebones file list, nab a few Columbos in this part of the site.
This is important: you should grab this script right now. Now. Go. This minute. Seriously. I’ll wait. For wherever they’re posted, scripts tend to get pulled down again quite quickly and I remain crestfallen that I didn’t get the final script to Sports Night in time.
Oh, and just one more thing. This first episode of Columbo isn’t the first episode. Not really. It’s the first from when the show went to series.
Except the show didn’t go to series. Not really.
It’s a little deliciously appropriate for Columbo that even something what came first has a couple of twists. It’s also especially appropriate that nothing is quite what it seems. In the show, Lt Columbo always got his man or woman by appearing to be anything but the incredibly sharp mind he was. Similarly, if you don’t know, then you may have the idea that Columbo is a faintly comedic, insubstantial, series akin to Murder She Wrote. You are certainly aware of the image of the lieutenant with his raincoat, his cigar, his “just one more thing”, the whole act.
The character of Columbo and the performance of him by Peter Falk is so easily caricatured that for the very best example of a bad impersonation, see the later episodes of Columbo. In various ways, Columbo ran originally from 1967 to 1978. Anything you see from that period will vary from inconsequential right through to compellingly brilliant and it averages out as being absorbingly interesting.
After the show died, it was revived in 1989 with the contractual proviso that every episode be as bad as it possibly can be. I’ve only made it all the way through one, Columbo Goes to College, and it was an immensely aggravating experience because it’s a rather good episode until the dreadful ending.
Endings were always a big problem in Columbo. But usually it was because of a failure at the start.
Let me explain. Take a biscuit.
Every episode of Columbo began with us witnessing a murder. When the body is discovered, the police arrive and shabby old Columbo spots the killer and fixates on him or her. Unusually, we know who the killer is. Very typically, we know the police hero character is going to get him or her in the end. With Columbo, everything is in the bit between. We often didn’t see the actual arrest because it didn’t matter. The pursuit was everything and all the drama was conjured out of people talking.
At it’s best, and the script that was leaked this week is one of the very best, it is extraordinarily satisfying and interesting. You don’t have a gaggle of suspects, you have one for the whole 90 minutes or two hours and direct upshot of this is that the one character has to be mightily interesting. They have to be the equal of Lt Columbo in tenacity and intelligence otherwise the fight is over.
So here you have two extremely strong characters, locked in absolute conflict, for up to two hours of screen time. It can be electrifying.
It can also be unsatisfying. Even in the original run, if the start wasn’t right, nothing was. It is extremely, but extremely hard to write a Columbo because you have to begin it with what appears to be the perfect murder yet you have to plant within that the perfect clue that will unravel it in the end. And you have to give Lt Columbo a genuine reason to latch on to the villain. And if it’s too obvious who the killer is, Columbo would just arrest him immediately.
Columbo is always held up as the crime show in which we see the murder but everything, all of its success and most of its failures, come down to the single moment after the murder and when Columbo first appears. Get that little nugget right and we are with Columbo as he delves – and we are with the murderer as he or she tries to avoid capture.
Isn’t it gorgeous?
I need to make sure you know about this whole which-came-first lark. You don’t need to know it. You only need to know to avoid anything from 1989 or afterwards. But I need to tell you. Columbo makes fans of us and we fans have to tell you.
Columbo was created by William Link and Richard Levinson. He began in Enough Rope, an episode of the TV anthology The Chevy Mystery Show in 1960 where Bert Freed played him. That same story became the stage play Prescription Murder in 1962 where Columbo was portrayed by Thomas Mitchell. Then in 1967, that same story came to TV as a one-off movie where Peter Falk began as the lieutenant. Watch it now and it has a period-typical psychedelic title sequence but otherwise plays very well as a strong, even archetypal Columbo story.
Two years later, America’s NBC television network wanted a series. But despite having already had an aired Prescription: Murder, they wanted a pilot episode first. So we got another one-off movie, Ransom for a Dead Man, written by Dean Hargrove from a story by Link and Levinson. It’s good and the series was taken up.
Except it wasn’t a series. Columbo used to run one episode every few weeks, rotating through the month with other detective shows such as McMillan and Wife. That was called a wheel format and it’s why even though it ran in this series form for seven years, there are only 43 episodes (plus the 2 pilots). A typical series of that period and running for the same length would have exceeded 150 episodes.
So there were two pilots and then a kind-of series. But the first episode of that kind-of series was Murder by the Book, written by the then unknown Steve Bochco and directed by the then unknown Steven Spielberg.
It is one of the finest-crafted crime dramas you may ever see.
Except there’s just one more thing.
I must’ve seen this episode for the first time 30 years ago and every time it comes round, the opening scene narks me to high heaven. Murder by the Book is about two detective novelists and here’s why I was narked.
A novelist does not type out a manuscript in all uppercase. Not even if there is some poor sod at the publisher who is going to have to set each page out in hot metal.
And now after all these years, I can finally see that it was not Bochco’s fault. His script is very specific about the typing and reeks of having been written by someone who uses typewriters every day. It reads:
No, it isn’t wonderful detective novel prose but it is from a good script and it is written in mixed upper and lower case. So I don’t know whether it was Spielberg or a production designer who had it be done in all caps. Maybe it was the actor. But the thing is that it wasn’t the writer.
It wasn’t Steve Bochco. He can be my hero again.
I’ll even defend his Cop Rock now.
When you get intrigued by Columbo enough to watch, just accept that you will go from there to fan and want the set. I’ve not been able to devise an Amazon search that gets Columbo but excludes the 1989-onwards shows, so be careful. This is what Amazon US has, this is what Amazon UK has.