Season 1 of Columbo left viewers knocked for six with its heady combo of lovable central character, wicked high society bad guys and sumptuous production values.
Murder by the Book and Death Lends a Hand are two of the best TV episodes ever made. But could the quality be maintained in the Season’s third instalment? We’re turning back the clock to 27 October 1971, when Dead Weight first aired. Does it sink or swim? Let’s find out!
Lieutenant Columbo: Peter Falk
Major General Martin Hollister: Eddie Albert
Helen Stewart: Suzanne Pleshette
Mrs Walters: Kate Reid
Burt: Timothy Carey
Officer Sanchez: Ron Castro
Colonel Dutton: John Kerr
Harry Barnes: Val Avery
Directed by: Jack Smight
Written by: John T Dugan
Score by: Gil Melle
Columbo Dead Weight – Episode synopsis
While boating with her overbearing mother, troubled divorcee Helen Stewart distantly witnesses Major General Martin Hollister gun down lily-livered Colonel Dutton in cold blood through the window of his dockside mansion.
Helen reports the crime to the police, and Lieutenant Columbo is sent to investigate. There’s a certain level of reluctance, though, because General Hollister is a bona fide war hero, whose exploits with his legendary pearl-handled Colt 45 in Korea helped make him a household name.
Naturally, Hollister is guilty as sin, having dispatched the Colonel with that favourite weapon for fear of his shady business dealings being exposed. Before Columbo arrives on the scene, Dutton’s body has been hidden behind a secret revolving bookcase (yesssss!), and the Lieutenant finds the General doing nothing more sinister than directing the toils of some bungling cadets, who are packing a case with his war memorabilia for a new exhibition in his honour.
After a decent nosy around – where he finds out that the General’s legendary gun was supposedly stolen from him years before, leaving only a duplicate to donate to the exhibition – Columbo seems satisfied that nothing is amiss and leaves the General to prepare for a celebratory dinner.
Alone again, the General finds out the whereabouts of Mrs Stewart through the loose-lipped boat hire owner (Columbo regular Val Avery in his first appearance). He then shows up on her doorstep and invites her to watch the 11 o’clock news that evening in the hope that a report on his exhibition and war heroics will clear his name. So begins a sham romance where Hollister takes advantage of Helen’s low self-esteem to turn her to his way of thinking, and to forget about the crime she witnessed.
Although his plotting works on Helen, it has the opposite affect on Lieutenant Columbo. The detective, who had little reason to suspect Hollister initially, is wary of his motives in taking such an interest in the star witness. Columbo attempts to lead Helen back to her initial suspicions, but her lonely heart is leading her head.
Even the reappearance of the Colonel’s body off the LA coast (Hollister ditched the corpse off his boat after the celebratory dinner) doesn’t sway her. She’s now firmly on the General’s side, leaving Columbo unable to rely on his one key witness, even as he builds the rest of the case. His chances of securing a conviction seem all at sea.
It’s a casual conversation with war veteran – and chilli purveyor – Burt, that gives Columbo the inspiration he needs. Burt just can’t get rid of his old war memorabilia. It’s too important to him. Columbo makes the jump to Hollister’s pearl-handled Colt 45. The General places great importance on his war mementoes. There’s no way he’d let anyone get hold of that gun. Ergo, the so-called duplicate must be the real thing.
“Helen’s lonely heart is leading her head. Even the reappearance of the Colonel’s body off the LA coast doesn’t sway her.”
Columbo arranges to meet Helen at the Hollister Exhibit, a party which the General predictably gatecrashes. The Lieutenant reveals that he’s already had the ‘duplicate’ gun run through ballistics, and it’s the same one used to shoot Colonel Dutton. The general’s attachment to his beloved gun has been his undoing. Most normal people would have thrown it away after the killing. The General couldn’t bring himself to part with it.
Bested in battle for the first time, Hollister apologies to Helen and submits to the long arm of the law. Columbo, meanwhile, takes Helen’s arm and leads her out of the exhibition to an uncertain future as credits roll…
A variation on the usual “we both know I did it, but you’ll never prove it, so CLEAR OFF” chit-chat so familiar to keen viewers, Dead Weight features a fine exchange between Hollister and Columbo on the jetty by the General’s house.
Returning from an early morning outing on his boat, Hollister finds Columbo lying in wait for him. On paper he’s just having a jolly fishing jaunt. In reality he wants to unsettle the General with a series of questions. A grizzled war veteran isn’t likely to be spooked by such antics, and so it proves as Hollister dishes out some advice laced with double meaning. “Find a different spot, or use a different bait. Otherwise you’re not going to catch anything, Lieutenant.”
It’s a good example of the episode’s sharp script, and an exchange even the Lieutenant seems to enjoy. To put it in Sherlockian terms, the game is afoot!
In any season of a quality TV show, it’s inevitable that some episodes will stand the test of time less favourably than others. That’s the case with Dead Weight. It’s a perfectly good piece of television, but when compared to some of the other gems Columbo Season 1 threw at us, it struggles to stay afloat.
“Having a witness to the crime adds a delicious twist to proceedings.”
Its chief shortcomings are a comparatively uninteresting adversary (sorry, Eddie Albert fans) and a weak central clue that brings about his downfall. These off-set a fine script and some excellent performances by the supporting cast. Having a witness to the crime also adds a delicious twist to proceedings.
Interestingly, Dead Weight was filmed at the height of the tensions between Peter Falk and Universal. The actor felt the studio was trying to renege on an agreement to let him direct an episode and was in combative mood. Determined to win the power play, Falk stormed off set and even got a Doctor’s note to explain his absence.
Such a hard-line approach to negotiations paid off for Falk in the long-run, but his antics irked his fellow actors, as Suzanne Pleshette fascinatingly describes below.
The difficulties this scenario posed the cast and crew may be reflected – if only to the discerning viewer – in the lack of rapport between Columbo and the other leads in Dead Weight. For the first time the scenes between detective and suspect don’t sizzle. There’s some decent interplay between Columbo and Hollister, but the chemistry doesn’t match what we’ve seen before.
Likewise between Falk and Pleshette. The two were great friends before filming the episode, but she was not amused by his actions. To me, they seem oddly at arm’s length from one another throughout. To an extent that’s down to the Helen Stewart doubting character, but the on-set tensions must surely have contributed.
On the reverse, it seems to have had a positive impact on the chemistry between Albert and Pleshette. Their irritation at Falk can’t have failed to give them a greater bond as actors. Resultantly, the relationship between their characters seems genuine. Some may disagree, but I dare say Hollister, regardless of his initial selfish motives, was genuinely growing fond of Helen and was sorry to bring her pain at the episode’s climax.
“What we don’t get here is a killer with the charisma of Jack Cassidy or Robert Culp.”
What we don’t get here is a killer with the charisma of Jack Cassidy or Robert Culp. Following on the heels of Murder by the Book and Death Lends a Hand was always going to be a tall order, but the Hollister portrayal is, well, a little dull. He never convinces as the gung-ho war leader, and the character traits that lead to his downfall – his alleged vanity and ego that prevent him from ridding himself of the murder weapon – rarely come across in his performance (giant portrait on his home wall notwithstanding).
Worse still, he’s nowhere near cold enough. As a man used to maintaining his nerve in the heat of battle ought to be icy as the Arctic. We hardly see that. Perhaps Eddie Albert was too nice a guy? I can’t help thinking that a really frosty baddie (someone more in the Robert Culp mode) could have provided a more dangerous element and helped elevate the episode a notch or two.
Pleshette, though, is excellent. She puts in one of the very best supporting performances and succeeds in making Helen much more interesting than Hollister. Browbeaten and bullied by her gin-soaked mother (Kate Reid on fine form), she’s emotionally fragile and her self-esteem is in dire need of a pick-me-up. That makes her falling for the General’s charms, her desperation to be respected and loved, seem believable – even if she did witness the killing. There’s no happy ending, though, and we can only wonder what the future holds in store for her.
“Pleshette puts in one of the very best supporting performances and succeeds in making Helen much more interesting than Hollister.”
Back to the main clue – that ruddy Colt 45. It doesn’t satisfy. Why would Hollister have claimed for years that the gun was stolen in Korea? It’s a convenient way of explaining why he was confident enough to use it for the killing, but for a man who supposedly loved his mementoes, and who has such a giant ego, it seems out of character that he’d ever have chosen to downplay his most recognisable emblem. At any rate, I don’t buy it, and it leaves a gulf at the heart of the episode.
If it sounds like I hate Dead Weight, fear not! There is much to enjoy. The Columbo cat-and-mouse act becomes a three-way game this time as both men are wooing Helen to come round to their way of thinking – quite literally in Hollister’s case. It’s a new element to the show, and it keeps our interest.
I’ve alluded to the quality of the script on a couple of occasions already, and there are some real gems tucked away within it that raise a smile. As well as the ‘best moment’ outlined above, there’s a fun scene on board the General’s yacht, as Hollister takes delight in putting his boat through its paces – much to a seasick Columbo’s dismay.
“A man with the name of Columbo, shouldn’t he be more at home on a boat?” asks Hollister. “Must have been another branch of the family,” responds the green-gilled Lieutenant.
Pleshette also delivers one of the best Columbo put-downs of all. Affronted by the Lieutenant disparaging the General’s vanity over the cut of his army uniforms, she hits back. “Some men, Lieutenant, do not want to look like an unmade bed.” How do you like those apples, Columbo?
Elsewhere it’s good without being great. The directing is A-OK, but lacking any particularly memorable set pieces or innovation. There are some lovely highlights on the Gil Melle score (including the main theme, featuring waves and sea gull calls), but other elements were a straight lift from Death Lends a Hand. Like the whole episode, it’s a little hit and miss.
But even if Dead Weight is Columbo not firing on all cyclinders, it still delivers enough goods to keep its head above water. And that’s the power of 70s’ Columbo. Even the lesser episodes are still better than most TV ever made.
Did you know?
Although Columbo’s first name is never revealed in the series, a close up of his name badge in this episode appears to suggest it’s Frank. See for yourself…
In one of the draft scripts of an unnamed Season 1 episode, one writer had given Columbo a first name. Show creators Dick Levinson and Bill Link insisted it was cut out, but if Dead Weight was the episode, it could explain why the name on the badge is what it is. The name ‘Frank Columbo’ also shows up on an evidence bag in 1989’s Grand Deceptions, adding weight to the argument.
However, Falk, Levinson and Link always insisted that Columbo had no known first name, leaving the viewer – as with so many elements of the mysterious Lieutenant’s actual life – to make up their own mind.
How I rate ’em so far
Like a weighed-down corpse, Dead Weight plummets to the bottom of the current standings – more a statement of the stellar quality of all that has preceded it. Read previous reviews by clicking the links below.
Where does Dead Weight rank in your list of favourites? Vote for your number one episode in the Columbo best episode poll here.
I’ll be back with a review of Suitable for Framing in a few weeks’ time. Spoiler alert: it’s one of my ultimate favourite episodes!