In the mid-1960s, a young actor named Peter Falk got caught in a rainstorm in New York City. He ducked into a shop and purchased a tan raincoat for $15. Years later, that tatty raincoat would become the defining feature of Lieutenant Columbo, the beloved detective Peter would play on television on and off from 1968 to 2003.
Few TV series of the period have aged as well as Columbo, which initially appeared as part of a rotation of mystery movies on NBC. “It broke every rule in primetime,” explains Mark Dawidziak, author of The Columbo Phile: A Casebook. “You had a leading man that was not classically handsome, there was no violence, he never fired a gun or threw a punch. It was all talk.”
Yet this rumpled, squinting detective, whose outward absentmindedness hid a brilliant mind, would lead viewers down a trail of clues that would inevitably lead to an arrest. “He’s like everybody — one of us,” explained Peter. “But at the same time, people have always been attracted to heroes, people who are bigger than life, exceptional. In some ways, Columbo is both.”
When Columbo received a green light from NBC in 1967, The Virginian’s Lee J. Cobb and Bing Crosby were the lead contenders for the role — fortunately for Peter, who was initially viewed as too young to play Columbo — the other actors turned it down.
Once Peter had the role, he began defining the character beyond a raincoat and cigar. He chose the detective’s beat-up 1960 Peugeot from a studio lot and brought in a pair of old boots from his closet. “He had to be talked into the dog,” says Dawidziak. “But they showed Peter this basset hound that looked like he wanted to go somewhere to sleep.” Peter, an animal lover, agreed they had found Dog.
Other trademarks of Columbo arrived organically. The sleuth’s catchphrase, “Just one more thing,” often uttered moments before the culprit is trapped, entered the show as an accident. An early script had Columbo exit a scene too soon, so the writers, who didn’t want to retype the page, had him reenter the room with “one more” question.
Columbo also hums the children’s tune “This Old Man” in several episodes. The first time it happens, in 1973’s “Any Port in a Storm,” Peter was improvising as Columbo waited for someone to answer the phone.
The star, who died in 2011, won four Emmys for the role and called himself “grateful” to the fans who embraced Lieutenant Columbo. “I fell in love with the character,” Peter said. “He’s a very average guy. But what sets him apart is this brain. He’s really curious, and he’s got eyes like an eagle. He can see things and he smells things and he hears things, and that quality makes him different.”