One of the reasons Columbo has such enduring appeal is because the quality of the guest star murderers was so completely out of the top drawer.
Names like Ruth Gordon, Dick Van Dyke, John Cassavetes and Janet Leigh still grab attention today. The audiences of the 1970s, then, must have been giddy with joy to see such stellar names pitting wits against the doughty Lieutenant Columbo on such a regular basis.
“Even an ‘average’ episode can be salvaged by a stunning guest star turn, and that can be immensely rewarding for the viewer.”
But it’s not only the killers that have helped give Columbo such a long shelf-life. The calibre of the supporting guest stars is just as good – often even better. Many of the support cast were household names in their own right, or were on their way to mega-stardom. Their ability to make an impact on screen, and to genuinely enhance the episodes they grace, is another vital ingredient in the show’s success.
Even an ‘average’ episode can be salvaged by a stunning guest star turn, and that can be immensely rewarding for the viewer. This article is a tribute to the greatest performances put in by the supporting cast. There are no killers here, and some of them may have only had a few minutes’ of screen time, but all have left an indelible mark on the series.
These are my personal favourites, in no particular order except for the top 3. Now, read on!
Diane Baker – Joanna Clay, Last Salute to the Commodore (1975)
My hatred for this episode is a story for another day, but there are elements that work, not least Diane Baker’s turn as Joanna Clay, the alcoholic daughter of the titular mariner.
She’s a train wreck, who drinks to forget a litany of sadnesses, which makes her the most compelling presence on screen. Baker makes Joanna believably pitiable – and believably irritating: hallmarks of a fine performance.
Don Ameche – Frank Simpson, Suitable for Framing (1971)
Future Oscar winner Don Ameche showed what a class act he was with an intriguing turn as lawyer Frank Simpson in Suitable for Framing. Ameche brings an unknowable quality to a small role. What could have been a black and white interpretation is instead superbly sketched out in shades of grey.
Is he a good guy or bad guy? Is he corrupt or straight? Does he really care a fig for Aunt Edna’s plight? Does he think Dale Kingston can be trusted? It could go either way with this guy, making him one of the most interesting bit-part players in the Columbo universe.
Suzanne Pleshette – Helen Stewart, Dead Weight (1971)
In the role of downtrodden divorcee Helen Stewart, Suzanne Pleshette pulls off the not inconsiderable feat of making a support character much more interesting than the killer.
Battling inner demons, and her bullying mother, Pleshette ranges between melancholy and defiant as she struggles to get her act together. Her performance is the highlight of an otherwise forgettable episode.
Robert Culp – Jordan Rowe, Columbo Goes to College (1990)
How good was it to see Culp back as a bad guy – if not a killer – in this satisfying romp from 1990? In short, very, very good!
‘New’ Columbo was rather hit and miss, but with a seething Culp back, almost validating the reincarnation of the show, all seemed right with the world. As menacing and short-tempered as ever, Culp stole the show here, while reminding long-term fans of Columbo‘s awesome heritage.
Gena Rowlands – Elizabeth Van Wick, Playback (1975)
A long-time friend and co-conspirator of Falk’s, Rowlands was always likely to slip easily into the Columbo world, and her performance as wheelchair-bound Elizabeth Van Wick certainly hits the expected heights.
She ably portrays the vulnerability of the character, while filling Elizabeth with a natural warmth the viewer – and the Lieutenant – cannot help but respond to. Her silent, tearful reaction to husband Harold’s arrest remains one of the series’ most poignant moments.
Leslie Nielsen – Peter Hamilton, Lady in Waiting (1971)
Seeing Nielsen playing it straight takes quite some getting used to for an audience more used to his capering antics in Police Squad and Airplane! Yet he’s really very good in his two Columbo outings – particularly this one.
Nielsen nicely portrays the confusion and discomfort brought about by girlfriend Beth Chadwick’s character transformation, showing the emotional toil it’s taking on him, and the inner conflict he faces up to.
The natural comic talent still shines through, though. His cheerful response of “No, I hate you with a passion,” to Beth’s early-episode plea for him to confirm his love could have come straight out of Naked Gun…
Janis Paige – ‘Goldie’, Blueprint for Murder (1972)
You want impact? You got it with Goldie, whose sass, style, and straight talking illuminate every scene she graces.
Coming from an era when girl power as we know it was a distant prospect (Charlie’s Angels wouldn’t hit screens for another 5 years), she’s a welcome breath of fresh air, and quite unlike any Columbo character we’ve ever met.
She’s confident and cocky without ever being unlikable, winning the hearts of viewers and the Lieutenant in the process. Her best moment? Undoubtedly when she asks a bashful Columbo to look away as she dresses because she “doesn’t want to corrupt” him. The world would be a more interesting place with more Goldies in it.
3. John Payne – Ned Diamond, Forgotten Lady (1975)
The endlessly patient, protective and loyal Ned Diamond is something of a knight in shining armour to Janet Leigh’s fading film icon Grace Wheeler in this heart-rending episode.
It’s clear early on that he is the best friend a girl can have. He looks out for Grace, advises her and keeps those he suspects may be trying to hurt her at a firm arm’s length.
It’s a fine, understated performance by John Payne, who provides all the noble qualities the circumstances demand. Ned’s taking the rap for a terminally ill Grace is as convincing an act of real love as you’ll ever see on the small screen.
2. Jeanette Nolan – Mrs Peck, Double Shock (1973)
The Lieutenant’s most fearsome adversary wasn’t Milo Janus, Paul Hanlon or Ken Franklin. It was crotchety old crone Mrs Peck, the hot-tempered housekeeper of the Paris residence in Double Shock.
A woman so fearsome she’d have had the hardest-hearted killer running for cover, Mrs Peck makes mincemeat of Columbo’s sloppiness and mess-making abilities several times. The bravest confrontation of the Lieutenant’s career came after she berated him for dabbing cigar ash into an antique silver platter, ending in an unforgettable temporary truce over milk and health cookies.
1. Ray Milland – Arthur Kennicut, Death Lends a Hand (1971)
Milland is sensationally good as Arthur Kennicut. Cast as a media mogul, it would have been easy to fall into a one-dimensional braying and adversarial performance. Not a bit of it. Milland gives depth and subtlety, as befits an Oscar-winning actor.
He succeeds in portraying Kennicut’s grieving, sorrowful side as effectively as he does the stern man of action. The dignified vulnerability he displays really touches the heart. Indeed, he delivers everything his performance as killer Jarvis Goodland in Greenhouse Jungle lacks.
There are so many other great support star performances that my conscience won’t allow me to stop there, so just prior to going to press I’ve added these honorable mentions…
Mariette Hartley, Veronica, Try and Catch Me (1978)
As the scheming and duplicitous PA to Ruth Gordon’s Abigail Mitchell, one can only wonder at how good Hartley would have been in the role of a Columbo killer. Very good if you ask me…
Larry Storch, Negative Reaction (1974)
A side-splitting cameo as the on-edge driving instructor. Storch is on screen for 4 minutes. It’s the best 4 minutes of one of the very best Columbo episodes.
Vito Scotti, Thomas Dolan, Negative Reaction (1974)
Six-time guest star Scotti makes background characters fascinating – never more so than this turn as noble drunk Thomas Dolan. Scotti’s great success is in making Dolan so different from his other characters that for years I didn’t even realise it was him!
Myrna Loy – Lizzy Fielding, Etude in Black (1972)
A small part, but there’s no escaping the gravitas and authority Loy brings to proceedings. No wonder Alex Benedict was running scared of her! A real touch of class.
Bob Dishy, Greenhouse Jungle (1973); Now You See Him (1976)
A lovably naive sidekick to Columbo, Dishy brought such simple charm to the role of Sergeant Wilson in Greenhouse Jungle that he was brought back for more of the same three years later.
“This strength in depth is another reason why Columbo is the greatest freakin’ TV show of all time!”
And that’s not even including other great turns form Mary Wickes, Vincent Price, Julie Newmar, Barbara Colby, Blythe Danner, and many more. It just shows what quality and strength in depth was available and is another reason (should one be needed) why Columbo is the greatest freakin’ TV show of all time!
Please let me know your thoughts on this article, and who you would have included, below. Thanks, as ever, for reading and for continuing to keep the Columbo legacy alive.