Jack Cassidy: The Greatest Columbo Murderer

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.

The Crime

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.

Jack and Martin Milner in “Murder By the Book”

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.

John Chandler and Jack Cassidy in “Publish or Perish”

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.

Jack in “Now You See Him”

The Character

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.

As The Great Santini in “Now You See Him…”

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.

Ken Franklin gives Columbo some Mrs. Melville books to read

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.

The Gotcha!

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.

Be sure to visit The Classic TV Blog Association and the evilness the small screen has bred. This is too much fun to miss! The Classic TV Villain Blogathon

30 thoughts

  1. What a great article! I’ve only seen Publish or Perish once, but I know Cassidy’s other two appearances like the back of my hand. They’re incredibly entertaining.

  2. Jack Cassidy, McGoohan, and Culp were the best COLUMBO baddies. All of them were deft at playing cold-blooded intellectuals who viewed their confrontations with Columbo as part of a brainy cat-and-mouse game. I agree that “Murder By the Book” was Jack’s best. That said, “Now You See him…” does have a great handcuff scene. What a fun post!

    1. Yes, the handcuff scene is fun. I love the Culp episodes and the McGoohan ones less, but I really love them all. Any one of those and a few others could be chosen best in show. 🙂 Terrific idea for a blogathon, Rick! Thanks for hosting.

      Aurora

  3. Watching Columbo is a physically painful experience. Watching Falk crossing metaphorical swords with Cassidy, doubly so. There is so much joy in taking in every scintillating moment that one cannot help but smile. Such a prolonged, though unconscious, smile leads to an ache in the cheeks that takes hours – nay, days – to dissipate.

    An absolutely perfect choice of TV villain. Perfect!

  4. I really enjoyed reading your insights into these fabulous Columbo episodes. Jack Cassidy was absolutely a favorite villain of mine, however my favorite episode was Now You See Him. He was so clever and confident in that one and I also think the music contributed a lot to the excitement of that episode.
    I also love his precise way of speaking and near British accent. He was such a talented person!

    I have to agree with others that have said Robert Culp and Patrick McGoohan had great chemistry with Peter Falk as well, and I would add Ruth Gordon to that list in Try and Catch Me. Well, I could go on…. Overall it is such a well written show and I just can never pass up watching an episode (or recording it) when I see they are on.
    Love your blogs! 🙂
    Linda.

    1. Thanks so much, Linda. Glad you liked this. “Try and Catch Me” with Ruth Gordon is actually my all-time favorite episode. At some point I’ll dedicate a post to each of these episodes individually to include something on the music because part of the greatness of these is the music.

  5. Wow! That was nearly as gripping as the episode itself! Jack Cassidy was at his best when playing devious, sel-assured scoundrels (even as Ted Baxter’s brother) although it’s hard recalling a part where he was anything else. Play to your strengths I say! As well as McGoohan and Culp, I found Eddie Albert a compelling nemesis for Columbo – and against type! How I wish they would have used Tony Randall or Lorne Greene as a villain. Again, terrific article!

    1. Oh man! Both of those would have made terrific murderers!! You’re right about Jack. Conceited asses were his expertise, but I can’t get enough of them. Since you mention the MTM Show with Jack playing Ted’s brother – how perfect was that casting?! Anyway, thanks so much for the visit.

  6. All 3 Jack Cassidy Columbo episodes are terrific. It is such a shame that his life was so tragically cut short. Imagine Cassidy getting the opportunity to revisit the Columbo universe during the ABC revival, as McGoohan and Culp did.

    I’m writing about Maverick tomorrow, and Cassidy played a wonderfully slimy villain opposite Jack Kelly’s Bart in The Art Lovers, one of my favorite later episodes of that series. He was just perfect for antagonistic roles wherever he guest starred. R.I.P.

    1. Yes definitely Jack Cassidy was the most devious murderer on Columbo .My favorite was “Now you see him now you don’t’ Was I here or was I there. Really sir don’t do that to me .I don’t know where the hell you we’re.A distant second but still a great actor in his own right. Robert Culp . Driving the”Ding a ling ice cream truck in disguise…. Robert Culp is the villian in a couple more I believe.

  7. Excellent Jack Cassidy blog. You covered everything about him and his work that I could have asked for. I adore Jack Cassidy and feel very fortunate to have his work in not one, not two, but three Columbo episodes to enjoy.

  8. Not much I can add to what others have written. Jack Cassidy was such a wonderfully smarmy character, even when he was playing the good guy. He’s a terrific adversary for Columbo, and these appearances are always highlights. Great piece!

  9. Your insight is fantastic. The SMILE! Oh, that Cassidy smile, and the affected accent. What a villain 😀 Great essay here.

  10. Love it! “glossy veneer –of a sociopath” Jack Cassidy was superb in all three episodes and you’re right he did sort of set the pace for the other Columbo murderers. A classy, sleazy, smarmy fop with no conscience at all. His arrogance played so well against our shabby Lt’s underestimated brilliance for catching subtle clues. Like you I also love Robert Culp’s frequent guest appearances as the cocky murderer but Jack definitely takes the crime cake!!! Cheers your fellow Columbo worshiping pal… Joey

  11. Jack Cassidy is the gold standard. The stylistic macabre engendered by this brilliant man adds a depth and texture of timing and horror to each episode that is a thing of beauty to behold. There’s a fullness to Mr. Cassidy’s work product that makes ‘Columbo’ come alive. The runner up? Bob Culp. Death Lends a Hand. Honorable mention? Ross Martin and Robert Conrad. What a coincidence. The Wild, Wild West of Killers.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s