Episode Guide / Opinion / Season 1

Episode review: Columbo Dead Weight

Dead Weight title

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!

Dead Weight blog

Dramatis personae

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.

Dead Weight boat

Eagle-eyed: while out boating with her battle-axe mother, Helen Stewart witnesses General Hollister dispatch the cowardly Colonel

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.

Dead Weight 2

General Hollister easily talks his way out of a tight spot during his initial meeting with Columbo

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…

Best moment

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!

Dead Weight 3

“You know that I know you know I did it, but you’re never going to prove it…”

My opinion

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).

IMG_5638

The big question: where is this original portrait now, and can I please have it?

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.

Dead Weight boat 2

Helen comforts a seasick Columbo after his jaunt out with General Hollister

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…

Name badge

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.

  1. Murder by the Book
  2.  Death Lends a Hand
  3. Prescription: Murder
  4. Ransom for a Dead Man
  5. Dead Weight

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!

Read my thoughts on the 5 best moments from Dead Weight here.

Dead Weight 3

It’s all smiles until we meet again…

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41 thoughts on “Episode review: Columbo Dead Weight

  1. Pingback: Episode review: Columbo Double Exposure | The columbophile

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  3. im a big fan of Colombo , but i do not rate this episode in fact if i tell the truth i hate it its just watchable at best its boring ,slow and the ending is just pathetic and it comes well outside my top 20 , when i talk of classic episodes i mean like negative reaction,try and catch me ,swansong ,suitable for framing ,,these are all examples but dead weight just isnt one of them

    • I would have agreed until last week. By the time, I watched every episode at least twice. ‘Dead Weigth’ ran last week as daily series movie in Germany whereby I let myself always surprise about the particular episode until it starts (I never sneak). First, I was disappointed when ‘this house’ showing up.. I tought, ok, this rather boring episode again (I saw it the 4th time) but remembered the scene I love so, when Columbo is overwhelmingly reports unwanted about his own former cheap fireplace in front of the polidely and paitently grinning General Hollister. Great! But then – something happend that raised my attention somehow whilst Columbo drove to Hollisters house by car the first time: It had me with the music! The soundtrack, this swing/jazz/big band – alike theme in the back!! We all know, there was never a true common soundtrack or theme for the Columbo series, right? I state, this would had has the potential to be THE ONE: Gil Melle’s remarkable audio contribution!! It fits so good to the 70th in general and particularly to the scenes where it occures in variations (the machine testing boot trip beginning and the credits too). There are many moments in episodes I found it again (In Short Fuse, when Columbo walked over the Stanford plant site before being picked up by the opponent. Or when Columbo lost the digging bet on the construction site for Bo Williamson and again under credits – but only in full lenght in the original US episode). Surprisingly, there is always an engine starter sound or a car door flapping. I think, it tells something, it transmittes a hidden message (Columbo is on the right way of his thoughts or so..).

      Call me crazy, I made phone ringtones out of it and whilst checking for more informations, I found this nice honorous website. A great place!

  4. I know I’m coming in late but I just read the review and under the ”did you know” section should also be noted that that house that Helen is looking at from the boat and where she witnesses the shooting was Peter falks real home at the time the episode was made.

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  14. As far as Dutton’s body re-appearing, the explanation from Columbo is that sharks must have chewed the ropes holding him down (or something to that effect). Do you suppose that Columbo ‘helped’ the body re-appear, much like he ‘helped’ the car not start in the previous episode?

  15. For me, its the tension between Falk and Eddie Albert that makes this episode so appealing and interesting. Whilst the ending is weak, I never watched Columbo for the gotcher as many episodes have quite unsatisfactory arrest scenes, with the killer deciding to admit all before it goes to court. I rate this as great first series episode alongside many others. Its got a fine sub plot and great supporting cast with Albert wonderfully portraying a very sympathy murderer. I particular enjoy the scenes on the boat and think given Falk’s on set pettiness re. his contract issues, he deserved any sea sickness he got. Plus it has great atmosphere and setting. Though for me Death Lends a hand is the finest first series episode, if not one best Colombo’s ever made.

    • Although I might not put this one of the best, I absolutely agree with you on Falk and Albert. The mother gets a little on my nerves after a while, and the final reveal might not be as strong as other episodes, but I believe the interaction between Falk and Albert practically crackles. You can almost hear the wheels turning inside of Albert’s character saying “if I had you in my Army…..”. The that just-barely-below-the-surface menace in Albert’s character makes a great mano-a-mano with Columbo. It’s worth the watch to see two great actors in their prime put their best effort out there. Good choice.

    • I don’t see Albert as sympathetic as he slays the Colonel to protect his own business interests and reputation. It’s not a heroic act, and for a war hero it might’ve been more interesting if he’d had a really heroic reason to murder, to leave the audience torn. I really like the Albert/PPleshette sub-plot, though. Something different for the series and probably the most interesting aspect of the episode for me.

  16. I love, love, love Lt. Colombo. I’ve been watching him on and off since the 70’s when I was a very small child. It never once occurred to me that he must have had a first name! I feel as dumb as Bertie Wooster when after 40 plus years he learned Jeeves had a first name. It had never occurred to him either!

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  19. I am a 21 year army vet so far so I really pay attention to shows/movies that involve military members. I always look for the mistakes that are made. Here is a good one, check out the uniforms hanging in hollisters closet when Colombo is looking thru his house. The jacket shown where Colombo remarks about the “salad” does not have a huge rack of ribbons, it has 2 identical racks placed above one another to make it appear that hollister has a lot of medals. Look at the ribbons as they repeat after the 3rd of 4th row. Just something fun to point out. 🙂

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  22. Really enjoying reading your reviews. Never noticed the ‘Frank’ before but like yourself I am happier to be left in the dark regarding Columbo’s first name. What I find really fascinating here is the troubles going on behind the scenes, the interview with Suzanne Pleshette was a real eye opener and I had no idea of these problems with Falk. It must have created a strained atmosphere on set. Still there is lots to admire about this episode. I am determined to re-watch all the Columbo episodes myself but as usual with me it takes an age to get going.

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  26. Love the insight into the “First Name” issue as I thought it was officially and unofficially never know. Nonetheless, it seems that it was put out once by accident if William Link is correct (see Rich’s comment above) and then again in the 1989 episode, so it probably was his intended real first name. I am from an Italian family and had family members that were of Columbo’s age. In that era most Franks were officially named Francis but went by Frank. Even though it was on official badge, as it was not his Social Security Card or Driver’s License I imagine that he would have been allowed to use the first name that he went by, in this case Frank. So in reality (funny to say that about a fictitious character) Columbo’s birth certificate first name would likely have been Francis. Remember Saint Francis of Assisi, a very revered Catholic Saint.

    • Thanks for the comment. I believe Universal themselves have referred to Columbo as ‘Frank’ in official circles so they must consider it canon. I’m happier not knowing, personally!

  27. After three Columbos with carefully planned “perfect crimes,” “Dead Weight” is the second in a row with a spontaneous killing. It is also the first where neither a clue nor intuition puts Columbo on the trail of the killer. It starts with a complaint (as later occurs in “Blueprint for Murder” and “Any Old Port in a Storm”).

    There is a lot to like about this episode. Eddie Albert’s General Hollister may be the most “cool under fire” Columbo adversary. Nothing rattles him. And we learn that Columbo is no better at sea than he was in the air (“Ransom for a Dead Man”) — although what he was doing fishing in his suit, I’ll never know.

    But “Dead Weight” may have the worst ending of all the NBC Columbos. Off hand, I can’t think of another as bad. Why wasn’t this case solved in the first half hour? With an eyewitness, why weren’t all of Hollister’s guns gathered and examined immediately? There was nothing clever about the solution.

    And does anyone really buy the witness falling for the killer?

    I rewatched this episode recently to see if I’d missed something interesting about the “gotcha.” I hadn’t.

    Two final notes: William Link blames a prop man with too much initiative for giving Columbo’s ID card a first name. No one in authority permitted this.

    Second, I understood your “knocked for six” reference, but I doubt most other Americans would. (Think “cricket,” fellow countrymen.)

  28. Pingback: Columbo episode review: Death Lends a Hand | The columbophile

  29. Can’t help it. I watch this episode all the time. It’s special to me. Maybe because of Helen’s self esteem issues. Maybe because it sounds nice to me when I need to nap or calm down. I love the red carpet and indoor atrium. Takes me home to being a kid. The house is off Balboa Island on Collins Island – there is one very expensive rental there but I’d love to go. ❤️

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