One of the most iconic crime dramas of the 1970s, Columbo is a cultural artefact that is still enjoyed by audiences to this day. Created by the formidable duo of Richard Levinson and William Link, the series stars Peter Falk as a relatable homicide detective in Los Angeles who charmed viewers with the unforgettable catchphrase of “just one more thing.”
Columbo was firmly embedded in the mainstream consciousness of that time, contributing to the popularity of the inverted detective story structure where the element of suspense is deconstructed and used in different ways. A major reason behind the unprecedented success of Columbo was the charming on-screen presence of Falk, who was endearing as the working-class investigator.
“We knew Peter, and we liked him,” Link explained in an interview while talking about the iconic protagonist “he was a very engaging guy, funny, very smart—and he wasn’t good-looking, because we didn’t want a good-looking cop. You know, he was a Joe Regular: He wasn’t ugly in any sense of the word, but he wasn’t handsome.”
Adding, “We admitted in a lot of interviews, our template for Columbo was Petrovich, the detective-inspector in Crime and Punishment, Dostoevsky’s great novel; Dick and I both read it in college. And we were very open about that, but we added a lot of other things. And Falk, you know, gave it a whole new spin, because the cop in the Dostoevsky book was not humorous at all.”
Throughout the years, multiple accomplished filmmakers like Ben Gazzara and Jonathan Demme have worked on Columbo, but the most surprising directorial credit goes to one of the most celebrated and widely renowned figures in the film industry. The filmmaker who helmed the first episode of Columbo’s very first season was none other than Steven Spielberg.
Spielberg directed the 1971 episode called Murder by the Book, featuring a stellar screenplay by Steven Bochco. It truly set Columbo on its way to becoming one of the most acclaimed cop shows from that period. The TV Guide’s 100 Greatest Episodes of All-Time ranked Murder by the Book as the 16th best television episode ever made.
While responding to the critical assertions that Columbo indulges in commentaries on class divides, Link said: “I have a theory that in [this] one man, you have both Sherlock Holmes and Watson. There’s the intellectual, the very clever, great detective Sherlock Holmes; and then you have the Every man Watson. And those two are combined, with Falk as the character.
Continuing, “He’s a regular Joe: He’s the kind of guy you sit down, have a drink, a cup of coffee with, he’s very open—but also, hidden behind that, is the computer brain for detection; and that’s the Holmes part of it. He’s the regular working-class guy—who’s got a brilliant mind but doesn’t really tout it, you know? He’s humble, even to the murderer! And people identify with that; they like that. And also, they like Peter, I mean let’s face it.”