Killers / Opinion / Top 10

Top 10 most sympathetic Columbo killers

A major part of the success and longevity of Columbo was the calibre of its guest star murderers. For the most part they were a delightfully loathsome bunch combining a sky-high opinion of themselves with a contemptuous attitude towards the Lieutenant. And, of course, that helped make their inevitable downfall all the more satisfying.

But every so often we’d encounter a killer who we could associate with on some level. We might understand why they were driven to murder. We might even like them. And in the rarest situations, we might just find ourselves rooting for them and hoping that, just this once, Columbo might let ’em get away with it.

I’ve compiled a list of Columbo killers that viewers can and do sympathise with, as well as my thoughts on how worthy they are of our compassion. I hope you enjoy.

10. Tommy Brown – Swan Song

My personal jury’s out on this one. I rather suspect the average viewer sympathises with Tommy Brown because they love Johnny Cash. But does ol’ Tommy really deserve our sympathy after committing the double homicide of his wife and a young choir girl? Let’s weigh up the evidence. Sure, his wife’s a blackmailing old harpy who seems to make his life Hell, but she did raise him up from the gutter and he was fooling around with a 16-year-old girl. And it’s the latter that is most troubling. Tommy seems perfectly willing to enjoy the sins of the flesh with teen groupies outside his dressing room, and to rock out with bikini-clad scorchers at extravagant pool parties. His motives for committing murder seem to be limited to: I want to get rich and I want to get laid.

Such intent hardly makes him sympathetic in my eyes. Still, Columbo seems to think he’s a decent guy at heart and he’s an excellent judge of character, so Tommy just about sneaks in.

Tommy Brown

Perhaps Tommy will finally “see the light” in jail…

9. Ward Fowler – Fade In To Murder

Similar to the above, the viewer’s natural inclination to LOVE WILLIAM SHATNER perhaps skews their perspective on this one. Ward Fowler was certainly being used and abused by his greedy producer and lover, who was scooping a significant cut of his wage, but perhaps there are better ways of remedying the situation than, you know, a bullet through her heart? This after pistol-whipping an innocent shopkeeper into unconsciousness, of course. Not to mention plying a formerly alcohol-dependent gofer with booze and pills to establish an alibi.

Still, Fowler does for the most part treat Columbo in a comradely fashion, which helps his case. But ultimately, although he may believe he played a sympathetic role in this particular mystery, I tend to think otherwise. Having said that, based on Shatner’s absolutely unreal performance, Fowler may well have been certifiably insane with a split personality disorder. If so, yeah, we can feel a bit bad for him.

Ward Fowler

Ward Fowler’s toupee certainly played a sympathetic role in proceedings

8. Ruth Lytton – Old Fashioned Murder

Poor Ruth. Lumbered with siblings that would test the patience of a Saint, and facing the imminent closure of the family museum that has been her life’s work, she doesn’t have a lot going for her.

As a middle-aged spinster, whose sister stole her one chance at love many years before, we can pity Ruth’s situation, although for an intelligent woman she handles things badly. The one person in her life that means anything to her – niece Janie (or is it her illegitimate daughter?) – she frames for a double murder. It’s an unforgivable act, and one that erases most of the compassion we might otherwise feel for her.

Luckily for Ruth, Columbo lets her off the hook (to an extent), meaning Janie is freed and Ruth retains the love and respect of her niece as she’s carted off to the police station. A sad conclusion to a sad life awaits, but I still personally feel most sorrow for Ruth because her histrionic, fainting sister Phyllis is such an idiot…

Ruth Lytton

Poor Ruth (left), encumbered by possibly the most annoying sister is televisual history

7. Beth Chadwick – Lady in Waiting

The Beth Chadwick we meet at the start of this episode is so oppressed and disrespected by her elder brother Bryce (and evidently their late father before him) that we’re instantly on her side. He has far too much sway over her, is trying to control her love life, and has been diminishing her for years, both at home and in the family-owned advertising agency. When she bumps him off we understand why. We feel even more pity for Beth when her beastly mother arrives and we can see that a lifetime of being told she wasn’t good enough has left her a shell of a woman.

But this is an episode – and a killer – of two halves. Beth loses our sympathy as power and freedom go to her head, and she metamorphasises from downtrodden Plain Jane to fiery fashionista and business bitch from Hell. Even the one true love from her earlier existence finally abandons her, and at episode’s end Beth is so far off the right path that she’s a whisker away from killing Columbo in cold blood. Yikes!

Beth Chadwick

Bookish Beth (pictured) became Bunny Boiler Beth over the course of the episode

6. Colonel Lyle C. Rumford – By Dawn’s Early Light

In his first of four outings as a Columbo killer, Patrick McGoohan brings such dignity to the role of Colonel Rumford that we’re able to retain a vestige of sympathy for him throughout – despite a total lack of remorse, and his attempts to frame a bad boy cadet for the murder of the man that represented a clear and present danger to Rumford’s way of life. He’s doubtless cut from the same cloth as Jack Nicholson’s character in A Few Good Men (albeit much more likable): someone who will put the interests of US national security first, and everything else second.

Colonel Rumford

The hounding of boodle boys aside, Colonel Rumford is a man the audience can quietly respect

5. Oliver Brandt – The Bye-Bye Sky High IQ Murder Case

Just to set the record straight, I am under no illusions that Oliver Brandt is anything other than a pompous and arrogant man who has used his intelligence to fleece unsuspecting clients and who was, at times, a horrible bully, taking delight in publically humiliating his long-time friend and business partner, Bertie Hastings.

That’s the worst of Brandt. But underneath the bluster lies a sensitive and troubled soul who has gained little pleasure from life. His shallow wife neither loves or understands him. She’s more interested in clothes and holidays than getting to know her husband. After killing Bertie, Brandt has no one. And while he’s never openly remorseful, his actions betray him. He’s jumpy and irritable as guilt and an increasing realisation that he’s now truly alone start to weigh him down.

His conversation with Columbo at the end of the episode, where they both give away something of their life journey, is what humanises Brandt. As a boy genius, he had to hide his gifts from fellow children, always playing a role as an imitation adult. He describes them as ‘painful, lonely years.’ He may have made a name for himself professionally, and had a successful career and trophy wife, but none of it has brought him happiness. In the end this vulnerability and sadness (brought superbly to life by actor Theo Bikel) make him a sympathetic figure to many viewers.

Oliver Brandt

“Painful, lonely years” in childhood turned Oliver Brandt into a man who would ultimately commit murder

4. Abigail Mitchell – Try and Catch Me

As murder mystery writer extraordinaire Abigail Mitchell (Ruth Gordon, aged 81 at the time) is so teeny and cute and cheeky that it’s impossible not to warm to her – even after she slams her nephew-in-law Edmund in her walk-in safe, leaving him to die a presumably lingering and miserable death in the dark as his oxygen supply depleted. She metes out this punishment in the belief that Edmund caused the death of her beloved niece, Phyllis – who had been Abi’s only living relative – in a boating accident.

If true, perhaps Edmund had it coming. But I always ask: what if he didn’t have anything to do with Phyllis’s death, and Abi is just harbouring a grudge because she sees villainy in every act due to years of murder mystery writing? The whole dynamic of the episode would change. That this theme is never explored (indeed the writers make it very obvious that Columbo can see that Edmund and Phyllis had a poor relationship) ensures Abi is given the benefit of the doubt and remains a sympathetic – and lovable – figure to the end.

Abigail Mitchell

Come on Lieutenant, just give her a cuddle and let her off the hook…

3. Adrian Carsini – Any Old Port in a Storm

There’s a lot wrong with Adrian Carsini. He’s a terrible snob, and is almost totally oblivious to normal human emotions and ways of treating and interacting with people (unless they’re fellow members of the wine cognoscenti, naturally). He makes a split-second, calculated decision to incapacitate his brother Ric, before leaving him to perish in misery in the wine cellar – a horrid way to go, And at the end of all this, he admits to having no remorse for his actions. So why do we warm to him so?

Well, in killing his brother, Adrian is driven to protect what he most loves. In this case it’s the family winery rather than a human soul, but Adrian has put his whole being into shaping it into an extension of his personality, which mirrors his high standards and expectations. Ric is a classless meathead, a short-term hedonist looking for quick cash and good times and is perfectly willing to destroy his brother’s life’s work to achieve that. What other course of action did Adrian have available to him?

What seals Carsini’s inclusion in the high echelons of the list of most sympathetic Columbo killers is the quite beautiful exchange between the two leads in the Lieutenant’s car at the end of the episode. For all his faults, Adrian has encountered in Columbo someone who he can respect, and who is as meticulous in his own methods as Carsini is in his. The sharing of a fine dessert wine before Carsini is driven downtown is a supremely magnanimous gesture by Columbo, and one which shows his complete understanding of the man and his human needs at that critical moment. Absolutely wonderful stuff.

Adrian Carsini

The final exchange in Any Old Port easily ranks amongst the series best ever scenes

2. Lauren Staton – It’s All in the Game

I suspect a straw poll of fans wouldn’t see Lauren Staton (Faye Dunaway looking ravishing at the age of 52) ranking terribly highly in a list of most sympathetic Columbo killers –  doubtless because of her attempts to distract the Lieutenant during his investigations through use of her considerable feminine charms. That would be to do her a great disservice, as Staton’s motives are probably more relatable to us than any other murderer in the show’s entire run.

As an individual, she’s been used and abused by charming, young Italian gigolo, Nick, who is out for her money and nothing else. If that’s not bad enough, Nick is a two-timer who other love interest is… Staton’s own daughter. And worst of all, he physically abused the daughter and threatened to kill her if she revealed the situation to Staton herself – and we have little reason to doubt he would have carried out his threat. So the two wronged women combine to put him out of the picture permanently, with Staton pulling the trigger.

In assessing how much empathy we have for Staton, it all boils down to what you’d be willing to do to protect your child. I’d argue that any parent could sympathise with her choices – even if the sight of her planting a smacker on Columbo makes us shake our fists at the screen. And if you compare her case to Adrian Carsini’s, there’s no comparison as to who has suffered the greater wrongs.

Lauren Staton

Lauren Staton: driven to kill by a mother’s need to protect her daughter

1. Grace Wheeler – Forgotten Lady

Who else could it be at the top of this list than poor, dear Grace Wheeler? A fading film icon, she kills her husband Henry for refusing to fund her movie comeback, but in truth Grace’s dreams of a return to the silver screen are but a fantasy that could never be realised due to the swift decline of her faculties.

As Columbo uncovers via her husband’s medical notes, Grace has an inoperable brain aneurism, which she isn’t even aware of. This is causing her progressive memory loss and, in all likelihood, she can’t even remember killing her husband. Experts predict she has a month left to live, perhaps two at most.

I think it’s impossible not to have huge sympathy with Grace, and, as she sits dewy-eyed in front of her home cinema screen at the emotional conclusion, her plight absolutely wrenches at the heart strings. It’s the only case in which Columbo lets the killer go – and that says it all.

Grace Wheeler's plight fairly yanks at the heart strings

Grace Wheeler’s plight fairly yanks at the heart strings

So how do my thoughts on the most sympathetic Columbo killers tally with yours? Do let me know in the comments section below and if you’d care to share this story to stimulate wider debate I’d be delighted.

Thank you so much for reading.

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53 thoughts on “Top 10 most sympathetic Columbo killers

  1. It’s hard to see much to hate in those two buffoons played by Honor Blackman and Richard Basehart in “Dagger of the Mind”. Rewatching “Any Old Port in a Storm” right now and can’t say I like Adrian Carsini much, wine snob leaving his brother to die in a cellar. If I understand correctly, it takes him two days to expire. Columbophile – another great list!

  2. Absolutely Positively Donald Pleasance. Only Thedore Bikle comes close. I’d also nominate, Robert Vaughn ( sorry I don’t know the character name) in the one with Vaughn on the boat. Partly because, as opposed to most of the killers, Vaughn knows his goose is cooked by Colombo from the very start. And watching him watch the noose get tighter and tighter around his neck, you can’t help feeling sorry for him.

  3. I find Dabney Coleman fairly sympathetic in “Columbo and the Murder of a Rock Star.” His first response to finding out that his girlfriend of five years is cheating on him is perfectly reasonable and legal: he throws her out of the house and tells her it’s over between them. It’s only when she threatens to ruin his career with false accusations of corruption and demands half his net worth in hush money that he resorts to murder. And once he does, he’s out of the frying pan and into the fire: the associate he tricked into providing his alibi figures it out and also decides to blackmail him, for a partnership in his law firm *and* a marriage proposal, and begins to completely control his life down to forcing him to redecorate his private office.

    For my money, certainly more sympathetic than Tommy Brown, who I think would be thoroughly unlikeable if he wasn’t played by Johnny Cash.

  4. I actually think they went a little overboard on Grace Wheeler. She’s so sympathetic that the episode becomes depressing instead of entertaining. Watching Columbo apply his tricks of the trade to a suspect with dementia is like watching Mike Tyson go a few rounds with Stephen Hawking.

    • I read in another blog somewhere a long time about about possible different endings for Columbo stories, and one of them involved Grace Wheeler. What if after Ned Diamond confesses, Grace says “what are you talking about? Henry is upstairs! Henry is in his bed reading getting ready to go to sleep?!? What are you saying?!?”

      THAT ending would have made Columbo go to Alfred Hitchcock Presents!?

  5. I love to read this blog – it’s so good to have a place where to discuss our opinions about Columbo!
    In this case, my opinion about ‘Forgotten Lady’ is that I was sorry about her aneurism, but I was far more sorry for her kind old housband. I mean, her motive was very childish and selfish.

    As for ‘By Dawn’s Early Lights’, Colonel Rumford would probably do my personal top 10 for his great personality (Columbo’s respect for this guy is evident), but I think he was too narrow-minded. After all, his victim was going to make a college of that place, not a parking lot!

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  7. I found Trish Van Devere’s Kay Freestone oddly sympathetic despite the fact she was remorseless about the murder and didn’t really need to kill McAndrews. There was something in the way she plays the character that makes you like her. She doesn’t seem evil despite being a bit cold and ambitious, she does seem to have a heart in the way she cares for Valerie and she also has some nice conversations with Columbo too. She is one of those killers i would say seems to get on quite well with Columbo

    • It’s rare where a villain can upstage Columbo but I though Trish Van Devere did. The angst she gave while performing the murder, and the anxiety of finding the gun in the elevator and her desperateness at retrieving it were palpable. I found myself climbing out of my chair saying “go, go!” when she’s trying to make it back to the film room. Her coldness is a mask she has built to protect herself as she has slowly climbed to the top, and the contract makes for a great story. While she can completely fill the Cold Hearted B**ch form, I’m disgusted by her lover, who has a night of sex before saying goodbye, and her boss, who lectures her on the coldness of taken over Mark’s room while he’s on his way to a pary.

      • I agree entirely, this is probably the only episode where i find the killer more interesting than the Lieutenant. I would have liked a spin of series about Kay!

    • Yes! I feel the same way about this character. I think it’s partially because she is being screwed over because she is a woman. She basically gets punished for being female. The old boys club that surrounds her makes it impossible for her to succeed.

  8. I am currently binge-watching Columbo (there are still about 10 episodes I haven’t seen) and, thinking about how I sympathize with some of the killers, stumbled upon your article. I would put Lauren Staton #1. She had the most pure motive. I think she was primarily acting to protect her daughter. As for her attempted seduction of Columbo, she admits being attracted to him, so it isn’t entirely an act. The deception is on his side – he’s a happily married, devoted husband.

    Grace Wheeler is the most tragic, and it is quite possible that her murder would be excused anyway for diminished capacity. She is incompetent to stand trial. She would be my #2.

    I think Abigail Mitchell belongs on the list. It seems likely her niece was killed by her husband. Theirs was a failing marriage, and he showed little remorse over her death. Columbo also suspects him. Plus, Abigail cheerfully gave in to her blackmailer instead of killing her, unlike so many other Columbo villains.

    I agree the bottom two are problematic. I would drop one of them and insert Dabney Coleman’s Hugh Creighton. His initial reaction to finding out about his girlfriend’s cheating was to boot her out of the house. He only resorted to murder when she threatened to sue him and also ruin his reputation with lies about his legal ethics.

  9. Solid list but I have to disagree with the number one choice of Grace Wheeler.
    All indications are she knew exactly what she was doing when she murdered her husband in cold blood in the hopes that would get her back into show business.
    The ending is sad but not enough to make me feel sorry for her or excuse what she did.

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  11. Theres a few here that i totally agree with…but i must disagree with abigail mitchel. To me, committing a horrible murder simply on suspicion paints her as diabolical. She acts cute and sweet like Columbo acts dense. But its an act and i thought shecwas really an arrogant viper.

    • I can see your point. I hadn’t thought of it like that before, but I must disagree. I think she knew it was him. But she must have insisted that the police investigate further and he would have had to become irritated with her. I would have thought that he wouldn’t want to around her anymore. Oh well that’s my thought

  12. The Donald Pleasence Columbo is the first one I saw as a little child. It captured me so much that I became a fan and to this day still am. Certainly the most remarkable episode for me. Directly followed by swan song and then etitude in black. A bit off topic but hey, I feel with all the murderers lol

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  14. Ruth Gordon is my favorite on this list, I think. Although, the way her character kills her nephew in law. Egads!

    I actually also feel for Susan Clark in Lady in Waiting, although I don’t necessarily have sympathy for her. It’s more that she had such little confidence in herself and in her boyfriend that she went so far as to kill her brother, even though Nielsen had loved her all along. In this case, I’m more sympathetic to Nielsen, but there’s something relatable about Clark’s lack of self-esteem. That might be TMI, but there you go! 😀

    Great work as usual!

  15. Try and Catch me has just been shown on UK TV. I don’t find Abigail particularly desrving of sympathy. There is no proof of Edmund killing her niece and throughout the show she is clearly gleeful of the agonies he must have endured in the safe. No light, only six matches, burning up his oxygen, scratching to get out. And then towards the end she tries to implicate her (blackmailing) secretary and maid.
    Mind you any episode with the gorgeous Mariette Hartley belly dancing has to be highly rated 🙂

  16. What about poor Wesley Corman in Uneasy Lies The Crown. He’s a personable young man with many friends who married the evil Lydia at a difficult time in her life. She meanwhile starts an affair with one of his celebrity pals, but doesn’t talk to him about their marriage breakdown. Rather she leaves it to her father to tell him she’s planning divorce and he further rubs it in by sacking Wesley from their dental practice and plans to ruin him financially by reclaiming gambling debts that he had been stupid enough to pay for Wesley.
    Not that Wesley would have been caught really. As a gambler and risk taker he’d have called Columbo’s bluff and let the tooth be pulled – crashing Columbo’s case.

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  18. For some, I feel a touch of sympathy. But mostly overall for Lauren Staton the most. Nope, not even that much Grace Wheeler. I’m sorry. She plotted to kill her husband when she knew what she was doing at the time. Maybe her husband should have told her what was going on. Why did he know and not her? Did HIPAA laws not exist then, or was it excluded just for TV? Maybe Columbo did the right thing at the end because she didn’t remember what she did. Cause let’s just say that was my grandmother, I wouldn’t want her to go to jail for a crime she didn’t remember quitting and she’s dying anyway, so yeah.

    As for Abigail Mitchell, I always wondered if her nephew-in-law really did kill her niece. No definitive proof. But as you wrote maybe her murder mystery writing influenced her into thinking he did murder her. We’ll never know.

    • Yep – the way he looks down at the end of the episode, seems to suggest remorse. Also he was trapped with his wife – divorce would not have fixed his problems.

  19. Looking at your list I can understand why these are the top 10, but as you say there are weaknesses for most of them. I think Staton is the one due most sympathy even if her flirting with Columbo is utterly transparent.

    Now I’m going to throw you a name right out of the left field:

    Wade Anders, from Murder Can Be Hazardous to Your Health.

    Ok the man is a touch arrogant and in all honestly he makes so many silly mistakes with his murder you can’t really sympathise but I just feel he was put in a dreadful position. After rising up from nowhere and becoming a major television star he faces complete ruin just for a mistake he made when he was younger. Budd Clarke is a nasty character, completely without sympathy and he brought it on himself. Also Anders is adored by his production team which shows he’s probably a better person than we at first imagine.

    So I say Wade Anders deserves our sympathy.

  20. Totally with you on the Top Five, but below that … I don’t have a natural tendency to love William Shatner, Beth Chadwick is put-upon but shrill, and your analysis of John R. Cash is spot-on but then … does he belong on the list? Well, OK, because people DO in fact sympathize with him, so he’s a sympathetic killer. But we shouldn’t, so really he’s not.

    • I agree with you. He’s only on my list because Columbo seems to have at least a modicum of sympathy with his plight. But, yes, the casual viewer is so drawn to Cash that Tommy’s many sins are overshadowed.

  21. Donald Pleasance’s performance as Adrian Carsini is one of my favorites in the entire show and he was certainly one of my picks for the top of the list. The emotion he puts into the performance and the utter disdain he has for his brother and horror at his blackmailing secretary really push him over the top for me.

    • Columbo didn’t seem to have much sympathy for Gillespie at all IMO. I’d add Dr. Marshall Cahill in “Mind over Mayhem”, driven by a desire to protect his son. Columbo shares a farewell cigar with him, similar to how he shared the farewell glass of wine with Carsini in “Any Old Port”

      • Hi Hal, thanks for that. You’re right, Columbo’s treatment of Cahill is similar to how he treats Carsini, but I always feel that Cahill is quite unlikable because he’s so domineering over his son. Perhaps Columbo sees more good in him than I do!

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