Opinion / Reboot

The arguments for and against a Columbo reboot

Columbo reboot

Mark Ruffalo is the leading candidate to breathe new life into the Columbo character. But could he win the hearts and minds of fans?

Back in the middle of 2014, the internet was awash with rumours that a big screen reboot of Columbo was on the cards, with Hollywood ace Mark Ruffalo the most likely candidate to fill the rumpled raincoat. The #RuffaColumbo hashtag was even trending on Twitter as every man and his Basset Hound weighed in with an opinion.

More than just having perfectly Peter Falk-esque hair, and having done a very passable imitation of the Columbo character in the movie Zodiac, Ruffalo admitted on Twitter that he had been scoped out by renowned writer/producer Ed Solomon about taking on the role of Lieutenant Columbo in a film version. This was clout behind the hype. Ruffalo even expressed a definite interest in the project, although he stopped well short of saying it was a done deal.

Public reaction seemed to fall into one of two camps: either it would be the best thing ever that needed to happen right now; or that it was the worst idea in the history of entertainment. There was almost no halfway house. And I fell firmly into the latter camp along with many other vociferous fans. As the rumours faded away, we virtually high-fived and confidently told each other that the reboot would never happen. Now I’m not so sure.

Columbo reboot resurfaces in 2015

What’s happened to shake that belief? Well a year after the rumours quietened down, film writer Gary Whitta revealed that the idea was still alive, and that he and Fantastic Four director Josh Trank (both massive Columbo fans) and Ruffalo were all still keen to rekindle the idea.

Whitta’s ambition seems to be to create a “limited event series” for TV, and he has previously said that he’d be open to a big screen version paving the way for a series, which seems to work for Ruffalo, too. And while there’s still no firm evidence that anything could happen soon (not least due to Ruffalo’s hectic schedule), the fact remains that there’s still significant high-level interest and the will to turn the idea into a reality.

So how do I feel about that possibility? Well, I still firmly believe there’s no need to reboot Columbo. Why? I can best sum that up in two words: Peter Falk. He is such an intrinsic part of the character and dominates every discussion about the show. Falk was beyond merely being perfect for the role of Lieutenant Columbo: he was born to it like no other actor could be. What could anyone add to the role that would improve on what Falk brought to it? Heck, even Falk himself couldn’t do it as well when the show came back in the ’80s and ’90s, so what chance would other mere mortals have?

“Peter Falk was beyond merely being perfect for the role of Lieutenant Columbo: he was born to it like no other actor could be.”

True, others have played the part. Falk was the third actor to portray Lieutenant Columbo, and Dirk Benedict is said to have been excellent in the stage version of Prescription: Murder that toured the USA and UK in 2010-11 (sadly I never got a ticket, but I read good stuff). But Falk is the very essence of Columbo, and the 70s episodes, in particular, remain such great viewing that it’s hard to imagine that anything created today could compare to them, let alone top them.

But beyond that, I have a mistrust of reboots in general, which so often disappoint. Perhaps I even feel that Columbo deserves better than to be just another gem from the past updated for no good reason. Even if it was a labour of love (and I have nothing but respect for Mr Whitta, who has a genuine passion for Columbo, and has always been extremely supportive of my endeavours on social media and with this blog), I worry that a reboot would tarnish the legacy of what, to me, is the greatest TV show of all time.

The silver lining?

Of course, there are bigger problems in the world than rebooting classic TV shows, and I must be honest and say that if it does happen I won’t lose too much sleep over it. Mark Ruffalo is a fine actor, who seems to be a genuinely likeable chap, and if anyone in the world were going to be cast in the role of Columbo I couldn’t think of a better candidate. Poor casting would absolutely doom the enterprise. I’ve even seen David Tennant’s name linked to a reboot! Fine in Dr Who. Can’t picture him as Columbo in a million years…

“A reboot couldn’t help but introduce a new audience to the Columbo character and the original series. That could never be a bad thing.”

But even as someone who doesn’t think the show needs a remake, it would be naive of me to completely overlook the benefits. A reboot couldn’t help but introduce a new audience to the Columbo character, and would undoubtedly lead to legions of viewers discovering the original series, and developing a love for everything that Peter Falk brought to the role. That could never be a bad thing.

So if we assume that at some point the Columbo reboot will happen, I’d urge its creators to consider the following points:

  • Please set it in the 70s. This is where Columbo belongs and where the show worked best. We’ve already seen Columbo in the 80s, 90s and 2000s – generally far less successfully. Approach it as a period piece, and really have some fun in that upmarket 70s’ setting.
  • Pack it with A List guest stars. The original 70s series was notable for the calibre of its supporting cast. The ‘new’ episodes from ’89-’03 far less so. Fortunately, the appeal of TV today is as high as it was in the show’s 70s heyday, so Oscar winning actors and quality, household names galore ought to be queuing up to appear. Give us Richard Dreyfus, George Clooney, Jodie Foster, Don Cheadle, Kate Winslet, Helen Mirren, Ernie Hudson and Stephen Fry.
  • Don’t just do a movie. It takes time to get to know Columbo and all his nuances. Falk only really perfected the role in Season 2. We’d need a decent length series. A one-off wouldn’t work, although a movie version (perhaps a remake of Prescription: Murder with George Clooney as Ray Fleming?) that led into a series could do the trick.
  • Stick with one actor as Columbo. An idea I’ve read a few times (including in this article by Mallory Ortberg) is that the Columbo character could be played by different actors from episode to episode, or from season to season. I totally disagree. Having multiple actors playing Columbo would diminish the character. I suspect it would be jarring for the viewer, too. The idea itself isn’t a new one. It was originally mooted in the 1970s when relations between studio and star were at a low ebb, and producers wondered whether a couple of Falk episodes could bookend a season with other actors playing the role in the middle. Thank goodness they never had to do this. It’s an idea that’s wrong on so many levels the very thought leaves me feeling giddy.
  • Treat the show with respect. This goes without saying, but Columbo is so loved and was so well executed that anything other than total respect for the original series, and what Peter Falk brought to the role, would be a sacrilege. What does hearten me is that those who have expressed their interests in rekindling the show are fine talents who are self-confessed Columbo nuts. If we are going to get a reboot, I’d much rather it were in the hands of those who’ll treat the character well.
Prescription: Murder reboot?

George Clooney as Dr Ray Fleming in a remake of Prescription: Murder? I could buy into that…

Naturally, I’d also be delighted to consult on any reboot! You’ll know where to find me, guys. Will work for cigars and chilli…

I would love to hear your thoughts on this. How would you feel about a reboot? Would Ruffalo be a good choice to pull on the raincoat? If not, who else could you imagine in the role? Or should we all just get hold of the full Columbo box set and marvel at how perfect the original series still is?

Thanks, as ever, for reading.

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47 thoughts on “The arguments for and against a Columbo reboot

  1. An older columbo….Dustin Hoffman and Pacino…two fine actors who have the disheveled look about them.my money would be on Dustin …if opting for a’later’ more advanced detective..maybe even mark rufallo and dustin .in a flashback career remrmberance after hanging up the raincoat..

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  3. Good article. You touch here on a point that I often make when people float the idea of a Twilight Zone reboot — that while no new version can hope to reach the heights of the original, if it’s done well, then it can not only entertain, but bring new audiences to the original. That’s the main benefit, in my view, to a new Columbo, a new Twilight Zone … a new anything.

  4. Just thought of an idea, where a new show could be a 6-episode mini-series to take place somewhat earlier in Columbo’s career, almost prequel to his initial appearances in the 70’s, perhaps taking place in his earlier days in Homicide. This way the audience may be somewhat more forgiving of Columbo with a different appearance (i.e., different actor). Say it takes place in the 60’s instead of the 70’s. This way it is not a full-on impersonation of Falk. The character may have some of the identifying ‘Columboisms’ but not as perfected as they would be throughout the original series. Just an idea that might be different enough to justify pursuing it, yet still be respectful and true enough to all the reasons why millions still love the show after all these years.

    • A very interesting idea. It’s akin to the Inspector Morse prequel, “Endeavour.” You might even give Columbo a mentor, an older detective who teaches him the very techniques we have come to associate with Columbo: how to ingratiate yourself with a suspect, how humility gives the suspect a false sense of security, how to leave your most devastating question until you’re half out the door, etc.

      • I think there’s mileage in this idea, too. I thought at one point a series of ‘Young Columbo’ novels might be a good idea to show the folk and incidents that shaped his life. I almost envisage him as having had a streak of anger in him earlier in his career that maybe held him back, but that we almost never see in the series due to him harnessing his energies more effectively. And an early 60s setting could work a treat.

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  6. Actually,
    i would just add one thing to your list. Don’t remake the old stories. If you reboot Columbo it should be all new stories that are respectfully written to the character and the show’s format.

    • Thank you. A good thought. I wouldn’t object to a remake of Prescription Murder to kick things off, but agree, telling new stories is the way forward. Perhaps some references to his classic cases would be a good reward for long-time fans, though.

  7. Peter Falk was, and always will be, Columbo. Columbo is not like Sherlock Holmes, who has long been associated with numerous different actors. Falk and the character are indistinguishable.

    However, that doesn’t mean that the Columbo formula isn’t ripe for a reboot. An inverted mystery, committed by an elitist murderer, solved by a persistent, working-class cop picking away, picking away, picking away; a series of clues that the murderer can explain away until the final one that defies an innocent explanation; the cat-and-mouse game between a lone murderer and a virtually lone, unarmed police detective; the humble cop whom the arrogant killers always underestimate; and so forth. You can chuck the raincoat, the Peugeot, the basset hound, even the off-stage wife and extended family, and still maintain the core mystery formula. You can create a new character, with a new background and new idiosyncrasies, but maintain the Columbo mystery story structure

    So while I oppose a Columbo reboot, I would welcome a terrifically written, cleverly clued reboot of the Columbo formula.

    • YES! i totally agree with your thoughts. i say do not try to re-create the peter falk columbo. i believe the whole secret to it all (idea of a new columbo) is to figure out what is today’s version of the type of man columbo was to the seventies. somebody give me some money and i’ll do the research and find it.

      also, i wish for no theatrical movie. cozy up on the couch, that’s the way to watch columbo, even the 21st century version.

  8. No one can top Peter Falk, but after seeing Dan Hedaya guest star on Blue Bloods, he would be my choice to play the role. I agree with keeping the ’70’s setting, Columbo using a cell phone would be wrong!

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  10. Does any of this relate in any way to the fact that William Link wrote a play a few years ago entitled “Columbo Takes the Rap,” involving Columbo and two rap stars, one good and one bad? Is there any move to put this play on television?

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  12. Por favor hagan un remake lo más fiel al original….. La gabardina de Peter falk de las últimas temporadas tenia 10 años…. Que vuelva a aparecer el basset…. En fin una copia fiel al original

  13. Peter Falk, era genial…. El teniente colombo junto a perro su basset hound (eran distintos en la serie) El mítico Peugeot 403 (curiosidades aparte ni Peugeot, ni Citroën ni Renault estan en el mercado automovilístico de eeuu). Soy fan incondicional de la serie que estuve de visita en westwood memorial park viendo el lugar donde descansa eternamente el gran Peter Falk

  14. LOVING this blog, Columbo is my all time favourite TV show. Very mixed feelings in regards to a remake, but if it’s going to be done it HAS to be Ruffalo.

    Just one more thing … keep up the good work.

  15. Now that I’ve finished reading the article, I like the idea that a reboot would lead to lots of people discovering the old Columbo. I’ve seen that scruffy, slouchy, appeal in Mark Ruffalo before. He also has a big fan base. I like your idea of guest stars including Kate Winslet because she’s a fave of mine, and she and Mark have played together before. Oh, I like your list because it’s diverse too. Not enough diversity in Columbo with the suspects. Also, another agreement about no multiple actors in the role. Just wouldn’t work. I’m divided on whether it should be a one time thing, movie of the week, miniseries or weekly tv show. Maybe miniseries. Great article as usual. I didn’t think I had a lot of opinions, but I guess I do. Lol Hope you don’t get annoyed with all of my comments in a row.

  16. Even before I finish the article, I have to give my opinion. I’ll take a page from a writer from the ihorror website who wrote an article about 8 actors that could play Freddy Kreuger in an A Nightmare on Elm Street reboot. Here’s my list of 8 actors that could play Columbo. 1. Peter Falk 2.Peter Falk 3.Peter Falk 4.Peter Falk 5.Peter Falk 6.Peter Falk 7.Peter Falk 8.Peter Falk Just like in the article, he wrote only Robert Englund could do it justice as he always have, Peter Falk is the only one that could do Columbo justice. As that’s not happening at all of course, I say leave it alone, and let us remember and enjoy the great Peter Falk as our beloved Columbo.

  17. I think one potential misstep of a reboot would be to completely neglect the killer and his/her world and indulge too much in Columbo fan service. I remember once reading a description of Columbo along the lines of “the killer’s story that Columbo just happens to intrude on” which I think is suitably fitting, if not entirely accurate. A strong, formidable killer and a satisfying puzzle and gotcha are all musts!

    But I like the idea of it being in a contemporary setting. Columbo is a very analogue character in almost every way and to see him brush up and interact with a hugely slick, digital world could be fun and interesting!

    And I do think the actor who ends up playing him should be allowed to put his stamp on the character, like Falk did. To imitate Peter Falk’s Columbo – to imitate Peter Falk – would be a bit silly and pointless, I think.

  18. As long as they keep to the original series go for it..The actor Rufflalo looks good..We should never see Mrs Columbo, he should say ; “just one more question” etc.. There is only one Columbo and he is sadly gone…BUT as long as they get the right actor and keep to the original tv show.. You can still keep it in the Now… or they can do flash backs of him telling his police stories to future detectives.. so it could be in the Now but also in flash backs..Definitely have guess stars in them….Just a thought .. Keep to the Original show, or it definitely won’t do well..Angie

  19. Dean, you had me at “…two words, Peter Falk.” IMO, It is isn’t him, it isn’t and never will be Columbo. He didn’t just create a role, he created a persona that included a reflection of himself. They can copy the coat, car, cigars, etc. but his voice, eyes, eyebrows, and natural feel for the role are treasured details that cannot be reproduced. Not to mention scripts that were written specifically for his style. I’ll watch my boxed set again and again, and when it’s time, it will go to my son and continue being enjoyed.

    • Dean, you had me at “…two words, Peter Falk.” IMO, If it isn’t him, it isn’t and never will be Columbo. He didn’t just create a role, he created a persona that included a reflection of himself. They can copy the coat, car, cigars, etc. but his voice, eyes, eyebrows, and natural feel for the role are treasured details that cannot be reproduced. Not to mention scripts that were written specifically for his style. I’ll watch my boxed set again and again, and when it’s time, it will go to my son and continue being enjoyed.

  20. Ruffalo would be an awesome choice if this were to be remade in some way. I personally would rather just see either a single theatrical movie or at most a tv miniseries. A 70’s setting is almost imperative, otherwise when can the Lt. light up? Also, love the idea of a-list guests and Clooney would be an amazing murderer. That being said, Columbo was a combination of some pretty impressive concepts and Peter Falk. There is no more Peter Falk to be had, so it can only ever be an homage, which is why I say a one-shot thing and not a series–homage can only be stretched so far.

    • Let’s just hope that if a remake were set today they wouldn’t have the Lieutenant addicted to e-cigarettes / vaporisers or anything stupid like that. But his love of cigars, as you rightly mention, is a very good reason to keep the 70s setting.

  21. I like this article.

    Now speaking as someone who grew up in the 70s watching Columbo with my parents:

    I agree that Falk owned the Columbo character completely.

    I totally support every single condition listed.

    I still want the reboot. I like watching Ruffalo more than I liked watching Falk in Columbo, but I liked watching Falk in Princess Bride almost as much as I like watching anyone in anything. I think if there’s any problem with the reboot, it’s that Ruffalo will be too humane and not greasy enough.

    • I liked Falk in Tune in Tomorrow more than I liked him in Columbo too. Too bad he wasn’t paired with a better actor, or that Reaves couldn’t pull off a southern accent to save his life.

  22. Well, those opposed to a reboot don’t have to watch. I mean, it’s not required.

    Personally, I’d love to see Ruffalo. You are right that he embodied our favorite Lieutenant in ZODIAC. He’s a sensitive, smart, formidable actor. He’d do a great job. He has the soft-spoken manner that is required to play the role astutely.

    Also, I wholeheartedly agree to set the show in the 1970’s! The clothes, the attitudes, the hairstyles, the political climate all contributed to the show. Can you imagine an 1980’s version of COLUMBO?? Bleh. Yes, we got new episodes beginning in 1989, but they were Part 2 of the saga. A very different thing.

    Good job LT. Thoughtful words and ideas about a new possibility for Columbo shows. Hey, they keep remaking Shakespeare, right?

  23. Generally in favor. Hadn’t thought of keeping it in the 1970s — that would be a very interesting show to watch. People would be drawn even by the retro thing and then hooked by Ruffalo’s abilities. A-list killers — absolutely. And the discussion about us seeing Mrs. Columbo is a non-starter. As if.

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  25. I’m for giving it a chance. The worst that could happen is that you don’t like it, and never have to watch it again. The best that could happen is that you love it. No possible damage it could do to the existing archive. Bring it on, I say!

  26. I personally think he’d be good in the role. He has a laid back manner like Falk but you sit up and notice when he gets miffed.

    If they reboot do something that adds to the Columbo timeline. My thinking is Columbo as a rookie set before the originals. Finding the ropes, making mistakes and refining his skills but showing that gift for spotting a guilty person. That way we can think of Falk’s character as the finished product.

    Oh and of course we must NEVER see Mrs Columbo 🙂

    • Agreed. We must NEVER see Mrs C. I’m sure no one would meddle with that part of the show. Interesting through re rookie Columbo. Who could be cast in that role, I wonder, as someone in their early 30s…?

  27. A really lovely blog. Extremely well written. Thank you sir!

    I saw the stage show here in the UK where John Guerrasio played the role, beautifully. I was unsure when I sat in my seat and waited for the curtain to lift, but he was amazing, voice, features, stance, everything.

    I wouldn’t want a reboot either personally, although a warm, loving tribute fan film would be alright….wouldn’t it? 😉 x

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