There are many excellent and detailed tributes to Theo that have been released in the short time since his death that are far more eloquent and informed than anything I could put together. But while I’m aware of his many accomplishments as a star of stage and screen (including legendary turns in The Sound of Music and Fiddler on the Roof) it was his performance as Oliver Brandt in the incomparable Columbo mystery The Bye-Bye Sky High IQ Murder Case from 1977 that resonates most with me. Why? Because he may well be more responsible than anyone for my love of the show.
My earliest memories of Columbo date back to the late 1980s, where I vividly remember watching Bye-Bye with my grandfather at his house. I would’ve been about 10 years old at the time, and it wasn’t Peter Falk that mesmerised me – it was the performance of Theo Bikel. His Oliver Brandt, with his massive frame, full beard and booming voice was really something to behold. For some reason I was drawn to his character, and I was rooting for him to get away with it. I was nervous for him as Columbo closed in, and felt a genuine sadness at his downfall.
Bikel brought a vulnerability and sense of isolation to Brandt that became more apparent the older I became. Despite his pomposity and lack of regard for his fellow man, Brandt was deeply lonely and a troubled soul. His exchanges with Columbo near the end of the episode, when both reveal elements of their past lives and character, are among the series’ finest, and helped make Brandt a character we could really sympathise with. Hate the sin, sure, but love the sinner.
And when Bikel was required to boom and bark, he did it with aplomb. The scene where he berates young accountant Alvin, nearly reducing him to tears, is a terrific moment. And as he worked himself into a frenzy in the outstanding build-up to the episode’s climax, Bikel brought a desperate energy to Brandt that takes the breath away. Little wonder, perhaps, that Bye-Bye has always been my favourite episode, and brings me great pleasure time and time again.
So while in the bigger picture of his career Bikel’s Columbo role was tiny, it continues to mean a great deal to me and, I suspect, many other fans. Thank you, Theo, for the memories.