Killers / Opinion / Top 10

Who should have been a Columbo killer?

Who should have been a Columbo killer?

As magnificent as Peter Falk was in the role of Lieutenant Columbo, the show’s enduring appeal owes just as much to the stellar contribution of that most revered group of guest stars: the Columbo killer.

The original 70s’ series provided us with some sizzling killers. The cherished and quintessential trio of Jack Cassidy, Robert Culp and Patrick McGoohan cast the longest shadows, but the quality of the supporting menagerie of murderers the show offered up is almost too good for words: William Shatner; Robert Vaughan; Ruth Gordon; Leonard Nimoy; John Cassavetes; Anne Baxter; Ross Martin; Ray Milland; Dick Van Dyke; Janet Leigh; Johnny Cash and so many more.

These were household names, and the contributions made by these star performers is a big reason why the lustre of the 70s series remains undimmed to this day. There are very few Columbo baddies that you’d willingly replace, that’s for sure. But had there been just a few more episodes, or another cheeky series snuck in to the 70s run, I do sometimes ponder who might have been drafted in to be pitted against the doughty Lieutenant.

“The contributions made by the cast of Columbo killers is a big reason why the lustre of the 70s series remains undimmed to this day.”

It’s been a debate I’ve had a few times with fellow fans via the @columbophile Twitter account, and the list of names put forward has been varied and well reasoned. Some cracking suggestions included Roy Scheider, Bette Davis, Anthony Perkins, Christopher Lee, Edward Woodward, Maggie Smith, William Windom, Max Von Sydow, John Saxon, Louise Fletcher, Roscoe Lee Browne, Robert Forster, Elliot Gould, Natalie Wood, James Earl Jones and dozens more.

It’s always a fun topic to discuss, so I’ve put forward a few candidates who I’d personally love to have seen play a 70s’ Columbo murderer. I’ve tried to ensure these are realistic choices, rather than just straight wishful thinking, and selected hypothetical guests who really might have appeared if circumstances were different. Read on!

Diana Rigg

Beautiful, smart and sexy, Diana Rigg could have played a femme fatale par excellence. Although known primarily at the time from her catsuit-clad role in The Avengers, and as a Bond Girl in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, Rigg was much more than just a pretty face. As her career developed, she has had multiple opportunities to show her range on stage and screen, and she’s rarely been found wanting. Not only all that, but her tigerish fight behind the scenes to raise her Avengers wage to an acceptable level would likely have earned her a nod of approval from Peter Falk, who was famously known to put the studio through hell when it came to renegotiating his annual deal. The two combined would have hit it off on screen beautifully.

Diana Rigg

A tough negotiator, Diana Rigg and Peter Falk could have become BFFs

James McEachin

If there’s one thing Columbo really lacked, it was a black actor playing a murderer. In hindsight it seems to be a major oversight and there’s no compelling argument for why it never happened. Sammy Davis Jnr was allegedly on the hit list for producers, but for whatever reason it didn’t come together. So why didn’t they turn to Jimmy McEachin? He twice appeared as in support roles in Columbo (in Etude in Black and Make Me a Perfect Murder), he was an established TV lead in his own right (albeit in the short-lived Levinson & Link created Tenafly) and he could have delivered both the intensity and, when required, the affability to play a very convincing Columbo killer. I really consider him one that got away.

James McEachin

James McEachin: twice a Columbo guest star, a killer begging to be cast?

Roger Moore

Some of Columbo’s greatest hits featured him squaring up to ultra-smooth criminals like Jack Cassidy, George Hamilton and Robert Vaughan. Roger Moore would have slipped into such a role as naturally as a certain spy slipping between silk sheets with a leading lady. His refined British accent and eyebrow-cocking expertise would have helped to differentiate him from the rest, too. Now you’ve thought about it, you’d have to agree that he’d be a great choice, wouldn’t you? He’d have needed to appear in the first couple of seasons, of course, before James Bond blasted him to mega stardom.

Roger Moore

Don’t tell me you’re not IN LOVE with the idea of Roger Moore as a Columbo baddie…

Gena Rowlands

A good friend of mine on Twitter (@GregMcCambley, give him a follow) put Gena forward, and at first I just couldn’t picture her in the role of a killer – no doubt because I was prejudiced by the fragility she showed as wheelchair-bound Elizabeth Van Wick in Columbo Playback in 1975. In hindsight, that was doing her a great disservice because Rowlands was a wonderful actress with an amazing range. Equally importantly, she and Falk were a sensational partnership. Go and watch A Woman Under the Influence for proof of that. She could have brought anything to the role of murderer: instability, vulnerability, sensitivity. But she could also be tough, as she showed in 1980’s Gloria. Any episode featuring her as a lead would have made for fascinating viewing.

Gena Rowlands

Gena Rowlands could have brought just about anything to the role of a Columbo killer

Billy Dee Williams

Before the world discovered Lando Calrissian, Billy Dee could have won hearts and minds as a cool black killer in the later 70s’ series of Columbo. A rising star in his own right at the time, he would have been dynamite as a smooth, new money lothario type, who would be on a charm offensive to all around him – even the Lieutenant, at first. He’d have to be a love rat, of course, and would doubtlessly have committed a despicable crime of passion, but the charisma, million dollar smile and manicured good looks brought to the table by ‘Mr Colt 45’ must surely have brought joy to millions. Indeed I like this idea so much I’m slightly sad every day that it never happened. When time travel is invented, I’m hoping this is a wrong that will be put right.

Billy Dee Williams

“Well hello… what have we here…?” Billy Dee’s smooth looks and charisma would have made for dynamite viewing

Frank Sinatra

Ol’ Blue Eyes’ reputed association with the mob, not to mention his excellent relationship with Peter Falk (his co-star in 1964’s Robin and the Seven Hoods), would have made this mash-up solid gold. Swan Song gave Johnny Cash the chance to show his credentials as singer Tommy Brown in 1974, but I see Sinatra as playing a much harder character, possibly linked to the underworld, who could have believably portrayed a killer with no conscience, and whose belief in his power and connections would classically lull him into a false sense of security. In my mind, this would be one of the most popular of all episodes and known to just about every classic TV fan who ever drew breath.

And by the way, if you’ve never watched Peter Falk’s hilarious performance as Columbo in the 1977’s ‘Frank Sinatra Celebrity Roast’, please do so the second you’ve finished reading this article. View it here.

Frank Sinatra

Frank Sinatra as a Columbo murderer? It can only have been solid gold…

Deforest Kelley

With Leonard Nimoy and William Shatner both appearing in memorable Columbo outings in the 1970s, it would have made perfect sense for the show to have found a killer’s role for the missing link in the Great Star Trek Triumvirate of Kirk, Spock and Bones. Playing to his strengths, Kelley would have been an impatient and unpleasant killer who treated the Lieutenant meanly from the start and went downhill from there. In fact I wouldn’t have wanted to see even a hint of a smile from the misery guts for the whole episode. There’s little doubt that his comeuppance would have been one of the most satisfying on record.

Deforest Kelley

Deforest Kelley could have been the most heartless guest star since Leonard Nimoy…

Anne Bancroft

A few years after her unforgettable turn as Mrs Robinson in The Graduate, Anne Bancroft was on a break from her film career and I can totally picture her as a Columbo killer in the early 1970s. She’d have brought a powerful sense of sultriness and provocativeness to the role – a step beyond that shown by Lee Grant in Ransom for a Dead Man – which would have been a very modern take for the series, and would no doubt have left the bashful Lieutenant hot and bothered and continually at a loss for words. And that could never be a bad thing.

Anne Bancroft

Anne Bancroft could have withered the Lieutenant with just one look

Peter Cushing

A gaggle of horror legends could conceivably have been cast as Columbo killers (including Christopher Lee and Vincent Price), but Hammer’s finest, Peter Cushing, would have been my pick by a distance. Playing a coldly calculating villain of high intellect, his clipped English delivery would have been an aural joy and he would have convincingly conveyed a chilling menace, despite advancing age and a slender build. Yes, a most delicious confrontation would have been on the cards, and for Cushing it would have been excellent practice for assuming the role of the wicked Grand Moff Tarkin in Star Wars a few years later. The big question, though: could viewers have handled the giddy thrill of Columbo essentially being pitted against Sherlock Holmes? Perhaps the 20th century wasn’t ready for that…

Peter Cushing

Sherlock Holmes vs Columbo could have been the televisual match-up of the 20th century

Orson Welles

Man mountain Welles could have easily steamrollered his way through an episode – and he’d have been one hell of a proposition for Columbo to handle. Welles’ resonant voice, full beard and massive physical stature – like Theo Bikel on growth enhancers – would have made him an awe-inspiring presence alongside the diminutive Lieutenant. In my mind he’d play some sort of media mogul (a bigger, angrier, less vulnerable version of Death Lends a Hand‘s Arthur Kennicut, perhaps), whose wealth and political connections would make him almost untouchable, and whose bluster and bark would have had most mortals scurrying for cover. He’d rattle Columbo, perhaps as much as Mrs Peck. But Columbo would still take him down after a gargantuan mental tussle.

Orson Welles

Orson and Columbo could have had a smoke off

I would love to hear your thoughts on who you think would have been a great adversary for the Lieutenant in the 1970s. Please leave me a comment below with your suggestions! If this article is a hit, I might even do a follow-up about likely killers for the ‘new’ episodes of 1989-2003, which would be an entirely different conversation.

As always, I really appreciate you taking the time to read this article. Have a great day…

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21 thoughts on “Who should have been a Columbo killer?

    • also if Columbo were to be updated Pierce Brosnan would be a first class opponent. Maybe a blog on contemporary kiillers for a Columbo reboot?

  1. Good choices. I always wondered why there weren’t more POC or Black people as the killers. Don’t get me wrong, I do get tired of seeing it on regular old police procedurals but on a mystery show like this it’s a whole different ballgame though. I would have loved to have seen Diahann Carroll as one, Diana Ross, Cicely Tyson, Harry Belafonte, Gregory Hines. The list goes on. Oh well, opportunity lost.

  2. Love some of the suggestions, but keep it close to reality. George C.Scott and Mia Farrow were two of the biggest movie stars of the seventies, so of course their not going to be in a Cloumbo episode, neither is Marlon Brando. Though Sinatra may have done it, especially after Contract on Cherry Street. Love the Yul Brenner idea and the Raymond Burr idea. I also think Henry Silva would of been great. Especially if he played his signature role of Mafia hit man. Telly Savalas (before Kojack). Michael Parks would of been a good killer. And I go back to the victim I wish the most had been the killer, Martin Sheen.

  3. Christopher Lee Peter Cushing and Roger Moore for me would have made great adversaries however George C Scott would have played a killer old blood and guts

  4. I like your list, especially Roger Moore and Orson Welles. Welles as a killer magician or film director is an idea that practically writes its own script. (Ooh! Welles in the Nicol Williamson role from “How to Dial a Murder”! Super meta!)

    To this, I would add Michael Caine (watch Deathtrap or Sleuth to see him own the “devious but charming sleazeball” role) and Adam West (to complete the ’60s camp set they began with the leads from Star Trek and The Wild, Wild West).

  5. Pingback: Who’s the best: Cassidy, Culp or McGoohan? You decide! | The columbophile

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    • This came up on another forum: Patrick Macnee! One of the few ’70s villains that I didn’t enjoy was Richard Basehart, badly miscast in Dagger of the Mind. But Patrick Macnee, who later had a supporting role in Troubled Waters, could have played that part, and it would have reunited him with his Avengers co-star Honor Blackman. What a missed opportunity that was!

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  8. Pingback: 25 megastars you never knew graced Columbo | The columbophile

  9. Interesting choices … it occurred to me that it might have been just a little too cute to have Raymond Burr go back to his film roots as a heavy and play a killer. Perry Mason a killer?? Well, why not? Tragg and Burger certainly suspected him often enough!

  10. Yul Brynner. Between his regal bearing (“The King and I”), his Russian ancestry, his penetrating stare, and his penchant for dressing entirely in black, he would have made a formidable Columbo foe. I see Brynner playing a Russian concert pianist, on a concert tour in the U.S. but also secretly intending to defect. (This is in the ’70’s after all.) He strangles a KGB agent (pianists have very strong hands) who learns of his plans and tries to blackmail him. Columbo nails him after discovering that the pianist changed his concert repertoire following the murder to a concerto that placed less of a strain on his (now slightly sprained) hands.

  11. Interesting topic. As I was reading it, I had Peter Cushing instantly in my thoughts, so I’m pleased to see he made your list. A pre Dallas Larry Hagman would also have made a good villain to my mind.

    As for ladies, Joan Collins could surely have brought an interesting performance, as would the young Mia Farrow.

    One actor that it’s a real shame never sparred with the Lieutenant, especially considering his friendship with Falk and the fact he directed a couple of episodes, is Ben Gazzara. Those two squaring up could have been classic.

    • All excellent suggestions, thanks for your comment. I’d never considered Gazzara to appear as an actor! I guess I think of him as being too chummy with Peter to amek it work. Cassavetes was, too, but he had a dangerous / sinister element to him.

  12. Some great suggestions there, especiall Cushing. How about Richard Chamberlain? He could be a smooth, charming playboy character, but Columbo would instantly spot the coldness within!

  13. I don’t really like to go for the super well known faces, although I agree that some would fit well, but it *is* tough to come up with folk for this one! Love the idea of Billy Dee Williams! I’ll think of a load later, I’m sure, but this one springs to mind:

    I know that he appeared in two eppys as a guest star, but I think that Sorrell Brooke would have made an intriguing villain. The early Columbo shows were less silly, so it wouldn’t have likely been an OTT Boss Hogg sort of turn, but seeing him play the lovely but world-weary Bertie in ‘Bye Bye SHIQMC’ I can really imagine as softer sort of killer, in the same vein as Adrian Carsini. Put upon, acting out of either necessity or duty, with a sympathetic slant. Brooke was a great actor and he would have fit perfectly.

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