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Six times Columbo diced with death

Columbo near death

Given that Columbo is so revered by generations of viewers, it’s easy to forget that the Lieutenant wasn’t quite as popular with the suspects he was hounding.

Although many liked and respected him, many more found him mildly to highly irritating. A handful of killers undoubtedly wished they could have gotten Columbo out of the way permanently. But few went as far as to actually threaten his life.

It did happen, though. Over a period of 23 years, six killers had the chance to extinguish Lieutenant Columbo’s life force – either in the heat of the moment or as a premeditated act. Can’t remember them all? Then here’s a short overview of the six times Columbo diced with death…

1. Lady in Waiting

Lady in Waiting gun

Too classy to kill…?

The original example, and arguably still the best, Columbo’s life was in serious jeopardy after he disturbed Beth Chadwick’s sense of security at the end of Season 1’s excellent Lady in Waiting.

After he essentially broke into the bedroom of a scantily clad, lone female at the dead of night, Beth would have had every right to gun down the snooping Lieutenant. After all, she’d be home and free with him out of the way.

But Columbo used his street smarts to save his own skin, both lying to Beth and playing up to her fragile ego. “There’d be no point in that, not with the police officers outside,” he lied, before chucking in the clincher: “Besides, you’re too classy a woman.”

Smiling demurely, Beth handed over the gun and went to slip into something less comfortable, as Columbo stepped into the garden to reveal not a single other officer is in sight. That’s some seriously good work under pressure…

2. Murder Under Glass

Under Glass wine

Here’s to your very good health…

There was no love lost between Columbo and haughty French food critic Paul Gerard, with the latter sinking low enough to try to poison the good Lieutenant in order to permanently rid himself of a niggling pest.

Columbo has already figured out that Gerard killed bellowing Italian Vittorio through an injection of fugu poison into a bottle of wine. To prove it, he lays a delightful bait-and-switch after cooking a private meal for the two antagonists. Having poisoned Columbo’s wine, Gerard is all smiles as the detective takes a deep swig from his glass. But it’s Columbo who has the last laugh. He switched the wine glasses, you see, so is quite unharmed. But once the poisoned liquid is analysed, Gerard’s proverbial goose will be cooked. Wonder how much he’ll enjoy that prison-issue gruel?

3. How to Dial a Murder

Dial 3

Sic ‘im, boys!

1978 was a rough year for Columbo with two attempts on his life in a matter of weeks! The second attempt, at the behest of vile psychologist Dr Eric Mason, was far more chilling because if it had it worked as intended, Columbo would have been torn to shreds by two attack dogs.

Fortunately the wily detective had been able to crack the codeword which ‘programmed’ the dogs to kill. Working with animal behaviourists at police HQ, Columbo reprogrammed the two dobermans to ‘kiss, not kill’ at the uttering of the word ‘Rosebud’. He may have received an almighty slobbering on by the two beasts, but that’s an awful lot better than having your throat torn out!

4. Columbo Goes to the Guillotine

Guillotine 8

What could possibly go wrong?

There was nothing subtle about Columbo’s TV comeback in 1989, was there? The episode title alone was an indication that ‘new’ Columbo was going to be somewhat heavier handed than its 70s incarnation – and so it proved with a denouement so outrageous as to defy belief.

Outsmarting devious magician-cum-psychic Elliott Blake required extreme measures from Columbo. How extreme? Placing-his-head-in-a-working-guillotine extreme, that’s how! In another example of bait-and-switch, Columbo had changed the safety labels on the guillotine neck brace, foiling Blake’s attempts to behead him.

Just as well Blake was bad to the bone, isn’t it, or Columbo’s comeback would have been the shortest in televisual history!

5. Rest in Peace Mrs Columbo

RIP 1.jpg

CAUTION: marmalade can be hazardous to your health

Revenge was a dish best served toast temperature for Vivian Dimitri, who desire to pay Columbo back for his role in her now-deceased husband being sent to jail years ago saw her attempting to bump him off through use of poisoned marmalade.

Columbo, of course, was on to her from the start, even faking his own wife’s death and funeral to draw Vivian out. After he pretended to be feeling woozy after eating toast and marmalade in her presence after the sham funeral, Vivian couldn’t help but gloat and reveal her ghastly plan. The Lieutenant’s instant recovery and call for fellow officers to drag her off downtown really showed her who’s boss.

Silly Vivian clearly hadn’t done her homework well enough. A flick through the newspaper archives of 1978 would have shown her that Columbo had previous experience in outsmarting would-be poisoners. There’s a lesson here for Vivian: fail to prepare and you prepare to fail.

6. Butterfly in Shades of Grey

Butterfly 1

Fielding Chase’s false moustache was torn off his upper lip by irate officers during his arrest and made good its escape into the hills

Radio host Fielding Chase had short, sharp plans to rid himself of Columbo after the Lieutenant’s proves Chase’s guilt through a loss of cell phone reception on a deserted road in the hills. Chase goes for the shotgun in his car boot, but he hasn’t reckoned on Columbo’s magnificent foresight.

Perhaps finally applying the learnings from the Beth Chadwick near miss 23 years earlier, Columbo has back-up available in the form of police officers on bicycles, who ride to his rescue before Chase can blast him to Kingdom Come.

Chase goes for the shotgun in his car boot, but he hasn’t reckoned on Columbo’s magnificent foresight.

That about wraps it up, folks. I do hope this article has proved to be educational and entertaining for you, and do shoot me a comment below to let me know which of Columbo’s near-death experiences you enjoy the most.

Columbo Jaws

This doesn’t count as an attempt on the Lieutenant’s life…

Columbo lasers

Neither does this…

39 thoughts on “Six times Columbo diced with death

  1. I’m in the US watching what is clearly a later Columbo (two hours long) with guest William Shatner. I see no discussion about it on this site. I’m finding it quite entertaining, well paced, and acted, thus far. There are only twenty minutes left. Any opinions out there?

    • I think you’re speaking of “Butterfly In Shades of Gray”. It’s on the episode list, but CP has not reviewed it as yet. (he’s on season 4, so it will be awhile) Of course, it IS #6 on this list here. You can see where it ranked in fan appreciation here: https://columbophile.wordpress.com/2015/08/04/whats-your-ultimate-favourite-columbo-episode/ …. For myself, I liked Shatner’s other outing better. What did you think of “Butterfly” now that you’ve seen the entire episode?

    • “Butterfly in Shades of Grey” is a crime series episode which delivers an even more interesting dramatic content. The actual strength of this script (and that’s why it was named like this) is the relationship between the murderer and his suppressed stepdaughter.

  2. I enjoyed “How to Dial a Murder” most. I think he was in the most danger there. He was too smart to let himself get poisoned like Vittorio, I didn’t think Beth Chadwick was going to pull the trigger. Maybe for a half a second, but she was super smart the whole time including saying “Peter is mistaken”, too smart to pull the trigger, that would have ended any chance she had of beating the murder charge in court; and after all, there was no blood on the carpet she dragged Bryce across (!) Though it was a little drawn out when Columbo kept pulling evidence out of the pool table pockets, I loved how he led smug Dr. Mason along starting with “you left enough clues to sink a ship” (!!) pushing him to make the dogs attack.

  3. The climax of “How to Dial a Murder” would otherwise be worthy of contention in my book, but that episode is my least favorite ’70s episode after the dreadful “Last Salute to the Commodore.” It feels the closest to an episode in the 1989-2003 run, which is to say weak and diluted. The climax in “Murder Under Glass” is easily the strongest on paper, but the way it was filmed diminished the stakes, again in my estimation. That makes Beth Chadwick’s classiness the winner by default.

  4. I like all of the Columbo shows and the endings. It is hard to pick a favorite. Peter Falk is a wonderful actor. My family and I have always enjoyed him.

  5. First of all, the fact that the good Lieutenant has risked his life not just once, but many times to solve a crime, speaks volumes of his dedication and commitment. If I had to pick just one favorite episode, though, with the theme of Columbo risking his life in the name of justice, it would have to be “How to Dial a Murder.” I found the idea credible in this case because the screenplay writer Tom Lazarus (from a story by Anthony Lawrence), laid all the groundwork for it with the detailed presentation of the conditioning theme. The scene also incorporates the love of movies, making this almost a reflexive cinema episode (i.e., a movie about movies), drawing together one of Orson Welles’ movie masterworks, a tribute to W.C. Fields (one of the great comics of the silent and early sound era), and a movie called “The Suspect” (referenced as a poster hanging in Dr. Mason’s house). “The Suspect,” starring Charles Laughton, is, perhaps, one of the earliest examples of the reverse-whodunnit or howcatch’em, in which the killer is known from the start, and the detective’s relationship with the killer becomes the means of solving the crime, as the detective probes the killer to test his various theories out.

    As a suggestion for a future article, please consider the best episodes featuring the less extreme circumstance where the killer uses his wealth, influence, or political power to try to get Columbo off the case.

    • Regarding your suggestion, “A Friend In Deed” would have to top that list! The dark, corrupted police head was really scary.

      • another example nelson brenner in identity crisis tried to use his secret agent statusto get rid of columbo

      • Those are some good suggestions Eleonora and Steve, regarding the episodes where the killer uses his wealth, influence, or political power to try to get Columbo off the case. Another episode in which the killer resorts to this tactic is “Death Lends a Hand,” when CEO Brimmer (Robert Culp) offers Columbo a job in his elite investigative agency at, perhaps, triple his salary at the LAPD. And another that comes to mind is the very first Columbo, “Prescription Murder,” where Dr. Fleming (Raymond Barry) gets his “close, personal friend,” Burt Gordon (William Windom), who is with the District Attorney’s office, to put pressure on Columbo to take him off Dr. Fleming’s trail. There may be several other episodes where this tactic arises. Since these are typically last-resort tactics, they tend to come into play late in the story. But the way that Columbo deals with them often makes for some interesting drama.

    • Dale Kingston in “Suitable for Framing” also tries to get Columbo off the case by talking to his uncle’s lawyer, and he already thinks he succeeded when Columbo innocently joins the house search at Edna Matthews’ home, seemingly just for fun – but in fact for catching the killer in the very most stunning style.

    • Agreed! A marvellous scene. The dogs take the second place in my book, but the entire “Dial” episode is a dark and scary one with the killer being a real psycho and a weird girl in his home. That’s why I do admire it, but when it comes to liking, it’s “Murder Under Glass” that wins.

      • Elanora, SO appreciate your vote on this! despite the plot holes that have been pointed out, it remains my fave *Frank* episode, too – Louis Jordan being…..well, Louis Jordan. Such a delicious contrast to our rumply man…. Dare I say it was sort of a murderously fun romp, whereas “Dial” really was not fun….wonderful, with the word game and the always considered acting of Nicol Williamson, but very different in mood and feeling. In “Glass”, I especially like the moment where both admit, without any rancor, that they do not like each other. When i think of this episode, it feels like jazz to me (whereas “Dial” feels like…..Wagner), full of stops and starts and places of dissonance and fits of improvisation…… (and I love the cameo of Alan Alda’s brother, Antony, as Mario)

        Fugu Forever!

  6. Re “How to Dial a Murder”, I always thought the de-programming of the dogs aspect of the resolution made for one of the weaker endings. Especially since it is only moments before that we viewers learn Columbo has evidence of the doctor’s motive. It’s all too abrupt. p.s. Here’s a shout-out to lovely lady Tricia O’Neil as the dog trainer.

    • Actually Columbo wouldn’t have had a reason to deprogram the dogs. If Dr. Mason would ever have said “Rosebud”, the dogs should have killed him, and not the silent Lieutenant. That’s why Dr. Mason trained the dogs with the straw puppet in his physical absence in the first scene.

      • I’d have to disagree with the notion that the Dobermans would necessarily attack Dr. Mason when given the verbal cue from “Citizen Kane.” Laurel and Hardy were his dogs and they wouldn’t have attacked him unless specifically trained to do so. The reason that Dr. Mason used the straw model was that he was specifically training the Dobermans to attack Dr. Hunter, and he used an article of Dr. Hunter’s clothing on the straw model to complete the conditioning. Although Columbo obviously wouldn’t have the same scent as Dr. Hunter, Laurel and Hardy would still likely have attacked Columbo first, rather than their owner, if they had not be reconditioned. However, the story ending does require some suspension of disbelief because for the situation to make sense from Dr. Mason’s perspective, Dr. Mason technically would have needed to get some article of Dr. Hunter’s clothing and plant it on Columbo without also getting any scent from the clothing on himself. Only then would all the cues be present to permit Dr. Mason’s original conditioning to work with any certainty.

  7. I saw the 1978 episodes this week. “How to Dial a Murder” is just nasty. I don’t know what would have happened to Columbo if the the dogs hadn’t been “reformed”.
    And it has a great gotcha moment. Still, like all of us, I bristle at any attempt to harm our lieutenant.

  8. I suppose Adrian Carsini could have locked Columbo in his wine cellar – but he was far too classy a person to do that!

  9. I really like the “Murder Under Glass” episode, but the “kill Columbo” ending seems pretty weak. Did Gerard really think he was going to get away with poisoning Columbo? The investigating detective gets poisoned by the same rare poison as used in the first murder immediately after having dinner with the prime suspect who had dinner with the first victim immediately prior to his poisoning. Not everyone on the LAPD is as sharp as Columbo, but even that screw-up you’re always poking fun at would see something pretty suspicious in that.

    The endings of “Dial” and “Guillotine” actually make some sense because those would have looked like accidents – a stubborn Columbo continuing to horse around with stuff he doesn’t understand (dogs, magic) accidentally gets himself killed. If I recall correctly the government was getting ready to disappear the killer in “Guillotine” and give him a fake identity, so Columbo’s “accident” would have bought him plenty of time to get away with it. The ending of “Rest in Peace” works OK too because it was Dmitri’s plan to off Columbo from the start.

    And by the way:

    Chase goes for the shotgun in his car boot …

    What the heck’s a boot? Do you mean trunk? 😉

    • I’ve always had a bit of a soft spot for Rest in Peace – the sheer evilness of trying to kill Mrs Columbo (imagine!), and the way the great man games the killer, makes this quite a satisfying episode.

      re: boot/trunk (ha ha). Perhaps we should split the trans Atlantic difference and refer to it as ‘the part of the car you’d put the body in’. Seems quite apt.

      • I saw “Rest in Peace” again recently myself and I think it holds up rather well. I was kind of surprised at seeing it again at how they don’t really try to convince us all that much that Mrs. Columbo is dead. They make it so clear that Columbo is way out in front of Dmitri that you know the funeral must be some kind of gotcha. It’s still pretty satisfying to see it play out though.

        And as for the boot and bonnet stuff, I doesn’t bother me any how the English refer to their cars as long as they don’t start doing something crazy like referring to Peter Falk’s character as LEFF-tenant Columbo or something.

  10. Officers could have been in at the main entrance of the Chadwick house,so it may not have been such a lie.

    Don’t forget his plane ride with Mrs. Williams. It wasn’t so much that Leslie would fly them into a mountain, but he came pretty close.

  11. Columbo also diced with death in “Double Shock”, when Mrs Peck was willing to kill him after he made her TV picture go purple again 🙂

  12. The ending of Columbo Goes To The Guillotine really annoys me. I’m not a big fan of the later episodes generally, but I’ll usually watch them if they come on TV on a Sunday afternoon. The ridiculousness of this ending makes this episode unwatchable for me.

    Phew, I’ll stop short of a full blown rant about this, but this was a really poor idea for an ending.

    • It really was ridiculous and set the stall out that the comeback season would be a big departure in some aspects. The endings to Murder, Smoke and Shadows and Sex & The Married Detective were similarly overblown. It’s as if the producers were saying this is still Columbo, just not as you know it…

      • I disagree with your view on the ending of Sex and the married detective. It’s “Lisa” who plays the game with the detective, not the other way around; all Columbo does is play along, resulting in the finale. I quite like it.

    • Yes, the risk Columbo takes at the end of “Guillotine” is difficult to fathom — but his solving the mystery of Blake’s “viewing at a distance” illusion saves the episode for me.

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