In Special guest starGwen Ihnat looks at a striking performer turn on a TV series, noting the effect the appearance had on the actor, the series, and the TV landscape in general.
columbia† †Study in black”, season two, episode one (1972)
When I was a kid, my family would faithfully gather around the TV every Sunday to watch the NBC Mystery Movie of the week. It was a rotating anthology series, anchored by a haunting yet intriguing synth led theme song† At the time, we didn’t know which of the fixed-rotation detectives we’d be watching that night: McMillan and wife with Rock Hudson and Susan St. James was mostly fun, Dennis Weaver’s McCloud was a snore. But when the theme song ended with the announcer firmly saying, “Tonight…columbia‘, we all thought we had won the TV lottery for that week.
columbia is a groundbreaking series from my childhood that I never shook. The series differed from most mystery shows by working backwards: it always started with the murder, then the fun unfolded in watching that week’s arrogant killer (usually a TV or movie star who enjoyed the chance to type such as Dick Van Dyke or Janet Leigh) are disarmed by the humble, crumpled detective. When we watched with my family, we played the game of, ‘When do you think he knows they did it? Does he know now?” Later, when I watched college or in my twenties with my friends, I realized that game was bullshit. He is columbia† He always knows. Lying in bed while pregnant with my twins – which sounds soothing but was actually quite terrifying – just the daily double columbia reruns of A&E (which I enjoyed while eating pints of Ben & Jerry’s and Stouffer’s frozen meals while eating for three) might calm me down.
I wrote about columbia for this site earlier, in a TV Club 2014 10but since this is my last byline for The AV Club I hope you want to spoil me. That was also a long time ago, before I was even a contributor to the site. Then, as now, I was amazed that my life of absorbing pop culture had finally turned into a real job: that writing about a particular TV series could become a weekly assignment, that my encyclopedic knowledge of The Monkees could come in handy, that I could talk to people I’d only seen on screen, like Alice Cooper and Margaret O’Brien† I really loved it, and I always felt incredibly lucky to have worked here for almost ten years and literally thousands of bylines. Well, until recently.
So when I thought of my last piece, it wasn’t surprising that I went back to my short column for the site and my all-time favorite TV episode – still comforted by the familiar look of the friendly man in the wrinkled brown raincoat with the unlit cigar. And while there are many, many spectacular ones columbia episodes and guest stars – such as Patrick McGoohan, Ruth Gordon and Donald Pleasance – for sheer fun I can never get enough of Peter Falk taking on his real good friend John Cassavetes in the season opener, “Étude In Black.”
For a pop culture buff, this episode literally has it all: directed by Nicholas Colasanto, aka Coach from cheers† Co-starring Blythe Danner, who was pregnant with Gwyneth at the time! Golden Age of Hollywood Legend Myrna Loy! The first (hilarious) appearance of Columbo’s basset hound! The juxtaposition of Columbo’s decrepit car against the villain’s mansion, later seen in The Prince of Bel-Air†
But above all, as always in columbia, the secret of the episode lies in the chemistry between the lieutenant and his suspect. (As I mentioned in my first essay on this series, the Columbo character’s strange charisma was so strong that Falk didn’t even need a supporting cast, just occasional recurring characters.) And that was never more apparent than when Falk and Cassavetes went up against. Falk appeared in six of Cassavetes’ films, and while Falk initially had some reservations about his looser approach to directing, he eventually took over, becoming one of the director’s most enduring cast members and a close friend. (Cassavetes cast Falk as the husband of his own wife, Gena Rowlands)in 1974’s A woman under the influence their unique bond (until Cassavetes’ death in 1989) was immediately apparent on screen, such as when the pair tore up the talk show circuit with their friend Ben Gazzara to promote Spouses in 1970, where he tortured Dick Cavett.
Just a few years later SpousesCassavetes a guest role on columbia to kick off the second season. He plays maestro Alex Benedict, a selfish musical genius who is perhaps even more of a jerk than… Rosemary’s Babies Guy Woodhouse (shortly after we first meet him, he berates the Hollywood Bowl staff for his television concert that same night). Alex is married to the sweet Janice (Danner) whose mother (Loy), has all the money. So when his newest mistress, Jennifer, threatens to expose their affair, leaving Alex to lose everything, he kills her and imagines it as a gas suicide. He’s such an asshole, he then kills her bird as well.
Colasanto’s directing (possibly aided by Cassavetes and Falk, rumored) is masterful throughout: the bird’s disturbing screeching as Alex stages the suicide, the juxtaposition of the police arriving at Jennifer’s house as the concert’s dramatic performance on the background plays . But as I said, the main game here is the Falk-Cassavetes standoff. Like so many of the columbia killers, Alex immediately dismisses this unassuming detective as no match for his own genius, until Columbo tenaciously and carefully unravels all clues to the case. Each one-on-one scene is a masterclass in superficial politeness about a devilish chess game.
At some point during production, probably because of this dynamite chemistry or it being the season opener, it was decided to columbia episode in a two hour. While you can see the stretched seams at times, we have to be thankful for scenes like the one where Columbo asks Alex how much he earns. I’m guessing it’s one of the add-ons because Cassavetes’ hair is shorter than in other scenes; nevertheless it is an absolute delight. It’s possible that Columbo is trying to figure out how rich Alex really is, looking for a motive, asking questions like how much taxes he pays on his palatial property, and then quickly calculating the home’s value. Alex becomes increasingly confused when Columbo comes in with his questions, and ends up just coming out and asking the maestro how much he earns for a living. Throughout the scene, you can see Cassavetes hiding a not-so-little grin as he sees his friend embody the character that would make him famous, and does it so well.
There’s another great moment when Columbo goes to Alex’s mechanic (thus raiding the maestro’s expensive foreign car) to tell Alex that he believes Jennifer’s suicide was actually a murder. The two walk together and Columbo tells how he’s been up all night about the case, putting his arm on Alex’s coat. Cassavetes then immediately wipes the sleeve of his jacket, subtle but firm. It all leads to the beautiful scene where Columbo confronts Alex with his suspicions right on the Hollywood Bowl stage, then zaps him with a “Just one more thing” for all time: the fact that Jennifer’s death is now a murder case, and he’s a homicide detective.
Finally, Alex is felled by a carnation boutonniere which he leaves behind at the crime scene and later picks up again; in fact, it is Columbo himself who sees him reattach the flower to the crime scene. That and the fact that the televised Hollywood Bowl concert showed Alex without it is enough to damn him. After a heartbreaking moment when Janice switches to Columbo’s side, Alex finally has to bow to Columbo’s superiority and call him “genius” with one last bow of his baton.
Being an old man, I can say this at the agency: Even with the eleven hundred billion series currently available to watch, they just don’t make them like that anymore. Just like they don’t make sites like this anymore. I like to think it’s appropriate that this look on columbia would be my “One more thing…” on . to be The AV Club. I remain eternally grateful to anyone who has read and/or left a comment in any of the above bylines in the past nine years. To say it was an honor doesn’t really do this whole experience justice, but it’s the absolute truth.