The Columbo murderer comes by way of an impressive lot of talented actors. Collectively the group has won every major entertainment award and have starred in movies and TV shows considered genre essentials. Some of these people are pioneers in the entertainment industry, others are former child actors and several are considered legends. Included in this group is Jack Cassidy who most people would not put in any of those categories. Except maybe me. Cassidy was a Tony Award winning actor and two-time EMMY nominee by the time he broke a commandment and committed several of the seven deadly sins in a Columbo episode. More importantly, he became the greatest of the Columbo murderers forging a legacy that entertains us still.
It is a cold opening. Moreover, it’s recognizably Hitchcockian. The camera is on a blue sports car driving along a street. It then pans up and into an office through the window. All we hear is the snap of a typewriter even before we see Jim Ferris (Martin Milner) busily putting thoughts on paper. The camera moves about the room focusing on a Newsweek magazine cover featuring two men with the text, “Best-Selling Mystery Team.” Moments later Ken Franklin (Cassidy) is at the door, his close-up fades to focus on the gun pointed at Jim’s head. There is a moment of nervous tension, which dissipates awkwardly toward geniality. It’s a terrific sequence, which serves as a precursor to the actual murder that takes place a bit later.
The opening I described belongs to Murder by the Book, Jack Cassidy’s 1971 premiere episode as a Columbo murderer, an episode directed by Steven Spielberg – and my favorite of the three Cassidy appearances. That scene has had such an impact on me, in fact, that it’s the reason Jack Cassidy’s three turns in Columbo are my collective choice for the Classic TV Villain Blogathon. Cassidy subsequently starred in Publish or Perish (1974) directed by Robert Butler and completed the trifecta in 1976 Harvey Hart’s Now You See Him…, which was one of Peter Falk’s favorite episodes.
For the purpose of this post I came up with the four main components of Columbo wherein the murderers usually make an impact. I will attempt to show how Jack excelled at all of them. Note that since I’ve already dedicated a write-up to Peter Falk as Columbo in which I discussed what makes the Lieutenant the greatest TV detective of all time I will not be rehashing those details here. Suffice it to say that Columbo the man is unequivocally the best part of every single episode of the series. That said, the more memorable the murderer, the more memorable the episode.
Ken Franklin (Cassidy) surprises his partner at the office, as described above, with the pretext of celebrating their last collaboration, a toast to friendship, but his real goal is murder. Franklin is half of a best-selling mystery writing team responsible for a series of books featuring Sleuth, Mrs. Melville in Murder By the Book. When his partner, Jim, wants to go off to write on his own, Ken is in a pickle because he is the partner without a talent for writing, which would leave him exposed and without a future should the partnership dissolve. His only way out is to kill his partner and end the Mrs. Melville series as a gesture of friendship to Jim.
Ken tells Jim to meet him down in the car and stays behind to ransack the office making it look like a break-in occurred. He drives Jim to his cabin in San Diego and shoots him dead, telling local store owner, Lilly La Sanka (Barbara Colby) that he is in town alone for the weekend. Ken calls Jim’s wife, Joanna, to tell her he’d left Jim working late at the office. If not for a certain Los Angeles Police Detective, all is set for Ken to get away with murder.
In Publish or Perish Jack plays publisher, Riley Greenleaf who is about to lose his best-selling author, Alan Mallory (Mickey Spillane) to another publisher. In order to prevent that Mr. Greenleaf hires explosives expert Eddie Kane (John Chandler) to kill Mallory. Publish or Perish is my least favorite of the three episodes Jack appears in because he doesn’t actually commit the initial murder, but he makes up for it by the extraordinary lengths he goes to establish an alibi. To say it is overkill would be an understatement. Riley attends a party with rival publishers, makes a scene at a bar, causes a car accident and feigns falling asleep in his car so he’s found by the police – all while checking his watch to ensure he’s covered for the agreed time of the murder.
In Now You See Him… magician, The Great Santini (Cassidy), is being blackmailed by his employer, Jesse Jerome (Nehemiah Persoff). Jerome is the only person alive who knows that Santini’s true identity is Josef Mueller, a former Nazi. The boss threatens to divulge Santini’s secret once too many times, which leads to his being killed by a bullet in the heart. Santini schedules the murder during the 10-minute interval of his most famous trick when he is locked in a trunk, which is submerged in water. The magician even goes to great lengths to disguise himself, uses a remote communications system and even plans for the daily trick with the waiter who brings him his brandy every evening. All while he’s actually committing the murder.
Columbo murderers are often high-profile individuals like genius scientists, actors, virtuosos, popular authors, world-famous critics or what have you. Due to that these people usually run in hoity toity circles, which allows Lt. Columbo ample opportunity to spotlight his best disheveled facets. Also, due to his/her success the murderer is more often than not an arrogant individual with superiority complexes. Jack Cassidy fits all of those characteristics to a tee and adds his own touch of glossy for unique and colorful interpretations.
Jack Cassidy’s Ken Franklin in Murder By the Book is the lowest form of murderer, if one was to rate such things. Not only does he kill his long-time partner and friend, but he does so in order to cover up his own shortcomings. That said, his exterior is as well manicured and self-confident as is humanly possible. That is, until he feels the need to kill again and a quick flash of the sociopath comes through. That second murder committed by Ken goes somewhat beyond what many Columbo murderers might do, it is the killing of a women by campaign bottle while she’s looking at him. It’s quite gruesome when you come to think of it. To perpetrate this type of personal attack the person must be a monster and when you see that monster commit the act in a calm manner then you know you’ve a sick mind on your hands. Securing his place in Columbo psychopathology, Ken returns to the scene of the crime the next morning as the police discover the woman’s body. He is cool as a cucumber.
As Riley Greenleaf in Publish or Perish there are quite a few scenes of note where Cassidy displays killer acting skills. The scene when he meets the Lt. for the first time at the police station we see him overact and emphasize each word and gesture to remind us this is a man practiced in fooling people and sure he will get away with murder. At the end of the episode, as Lt. Columbo sets the stage for the arrest, Cassidy loses his temper in classic fashion in a superbly acted scene that both men execute to perfection.
A master of illusion poses an interesting and unique challenge for Lt. Columbo. Cassidy’s The Great Santini in Now You See Him… drips of sarcasm and charm, but the sinister is always ready to boil just underneath the skin. This is also a guy so conceited that at one point he actually refers to his daughter’s bad taste as a genetic mystery.
I must mention two character traits that Jack Cassidy brought to the table as a Columbo murderer that no one else did quite as well. The first of these is his smile of satisfaction usually executed after his murderous act has been successful. In Publish or Perish he drives away from the explosives expert’s apartment then pauses to light a cigarette just long enough to hear the explosion go off, which triggers the smile. You’ll see it again in Now You See Him… when The Great Santini notices the Cabaret manager run off with a waiter in the panic following the discovery of the dead man’s body. The smile of satisfaction happens as the magician bows for his audience. We get the smile all throughout Murder By the Book instead of at specific moments after the acts. This is because Ken Franklin is particularly pleased with himself for the entire episode.
The second thing I find irresistible in Jack is the fact that he has a similar faux British accent as did many of the classic movie stars we love. I’m not sure how he came to possess the precise way of speaking, a talent he certainly honed for the stage, but I don’t care. I love it.
Exchanges with the Lt.
Ken Franklin meets Lt. Columbo at the home of the friend he murdered. A moment later he is telling Columbo his theory about the murder in definitive fashion. It was a professional hit. I may repeat this with regards to all three characters Cassidy played on Columbo, but Ken is especially arrogant. In fact, when they find Jim’s body it’s because Ken laid it out on his own lawn. He does this to try to sell his organized crime theory, but in truth it stinks of attention-seeking desperation. You’d never know it though. Ken is sleek, calm, cold, and calculating. Columbo sees right through it though.
The exchanges between Ken Franklin and Lt. Columbo are really interesting in that they all follow a pattern where the Lt. gets the last word or reaction, which then leaves Ken worried. This happens several times throughout the episode and it’s different from even the other two Jack Cassidy episodes where Columbo gains the upper hand by allowing the murderers to think they’ve fooled him. What this means is that as Murder By the Book progresses Ken Franklin is knocked down a peg or two until the Gotcha! when he is revitalized anew at the prospect that Columbo might have beaten him.
Publish or Publish offers a unique introduction between the murderer and Columbo. Riley Greenleaf is arrested for drunk driving and while in the police station Lt. Columbo plays a tape recording of the murdered man, in which you can hear the gunshot that killed him. Greenleaf doesn’t remember anything about the previous evening, which is a lie, but he is appropriately upset about Mallory’s death. Still, the Lt. has to conclude the man before him is a person of interest. I enjoy this particular scene very much due to the fact that Cassidy plays it like a ham, as mentioned above. Soon after Riley shifts to play a sort of victim, “poor me, my friend was murdered and I may have done it.” He even reveals the actual motive to the Lt., offering any and all information he can even if it incriminates him. What a guy! It’s during this heartwarming display that the call comes in about the car accident he was involved in. A bit later Columbo asks Greenleaf for help trying to figure out a mystery surrounding the key to the murder victim’s office. The trap is set for Riley to stick his foot in it. And he does after he kills Eddie Kane and takes the opportunity to besmirch Mallory.
In Now You See Him… Lieutenant Columbo focuses in on The Great Santini because of the timing of the murder, it seems to me, as it happened during the magician’s biggest act exactly when he’s supposed to be locked in a trunk and submerged in water. When the exchanges between the two men take place, Santini follows the usual pattern. First we get the offer to help, followed by a code of ethics discussion during which Santini cites the importance of keeping the secrets of his magic from being divulged. It’s an interesting argument and one The Great Santini swears by stating up front that he’d rather confess to murder than divulge his secrets. There are darker interactions while Santini still thinks himself superior, but as expected the illusion fades.
The chemistry between Peter Falk and Jack Cassidy is terrific. The contrasting styles of the men as well as their distinct deliveries make every scene they share a joy to watch.
I mentioned the Gotcha! in Murder By the Book above in regards to how Ken’s character is deflated by the time Columbo has him pegged for his partner’s murder. That doesn’t mean it’s a let-down by any means. In fact, the scene when Ken is arrested has within it a terrific character arc for Ken Franklin in its own right. Franklin walks into the office to find Columbo comfortably perched at the desk. Irritated Ken walks toward the Lt. only to be met with the news of the arrest. But then we see the Lt. getting excited about how closely Ken came to fooling him. It’s a great ending to the first episode of Columbo that fans saw on TV and which no doubt gave them plenty to talk about the next morning because caught and defeated does not mean humble for Ken Franklin. He gets the last word this time and it’s a good one.
The Gotcha! in Publish or Perish comes about due to a trap Columbo sets. He’d told the locksmith in the office building where Mallory was killed to change the locks the day after the murder. Yet, Riley planted a key to that new lock on Kane. Columbo is going through the details when Riley Greenleaf loses his temper, exasperated by the games the Lt. seems to be playing. Columbo is particularly patient as he disproves each lie told by Greenleaf, who remains speechless for once – as the credits roll. This is another well-acted scene by Jack Cassidy.
It’s a fantastic GOTCHA! in Now You See Him… as Columbo betters the illusionist with a number of tricks up his sleeve. It’s so much fun. Santini, or Stefan Mueller, made one mistake as the Lt. explains, he didn’t look closely enough at the typewriter ribbon being used by Jerome at the time of his murder. “There is no such thing as a perfect murder, that’s just an illusion” says the Lieutenant as he produces incriminating letter after incriminating letter.
Jack Cassidy set the mold for all future murderers on Columbo. He played the high-brow sleaze ball so convincingly, so extravagantly that you can take away any part of his portrayals and still have a substantial sleaze ball left over. I say that with the utmost respect of course. There are plenty of murderers I love to hate that have gone up against Columbo in admirable fashion, but I don’t think any other actor left us such an enjoyable trio of outings thanks to the dichotomy of extremes Jack Cassidy was able to deliver. From the introduction to Cassidy’s character in the opening sequence of Murder By the Book we know this actor is different. From that moment on he exemplifies a standard for the Columbo murderer – the glossy veneer of a meticulously groomed sociopath.