There has been enough published about Columbo on this blog for you to know that he’s a favorite around here. Due to that I knew exactly where I was going to look for Big Stars on the Small Screen, the topic for this spring’s blogathon hosted by the Classic Movie Blog Association (CMBA). This event is in support of an important day for all CMBA members, National Classic Movie Day on May 16.
Lieutenant Columbo of the LAPD encounters all types of people that commit murder. Most of those people are played by good actors, but not all those actors were genuine movie stars with all the glitz and glamour that came with it. Given that, when I considered my choice of big stars on the small screen for this tribute, I looked at the glitz that surrounded him or her in addition to the talent for murder. Still, there were far too many greats, too many memorable stars who like to kill. Two traits I find irresistible. Our Lieutenant may be impervious to the dazzling lights of Hollywood, and the whims of its stars, as William Harrington wrote in his Columbo: The Glitter Murder novel, but I’m a sucker for all of it especially the biggest star of all, a doggedly determined, rumpled police lieutenant with extraordinary powers of deduction played by the incomparable Peter Falk. Here’s to him and to Five Movie Stars turned Columbo Murderers.
RAY MILLAND had many talents. Among them was that he was one of Hollywood’s great look-down-your-nose-at-lessers villains. That is why he is on this list.
Milland was born Reginald Truscott-Jones in Neath, Glamorganshire, Wales in 1907. He decided to become an actor in 1928 and moved to Hollywood in 1930 with a nine-month MGM contract in his pocket. That year he made his American feature debut playing an uncredited party guest in Passion Flower, a Charles Bickford-Kay Francis vehicle produced and directed by William C. de Mille. Unfortunately, most of the work he got at MGM led nowhere garnering only one solid part opposite Charles Laughton and Maureen O’Sullivan in Lothar Mendes’ Payment Deferred (1932) wherein he gets poisoned by Laughton. Within a year Milland was out of his contract and returned to England where his acting career continued to slumber. Milland’s only choice was to give Hollywood another chance, which he did in 1934. This time he was destined to sign with Paramount Pictures where his movie career flourished for two decades.
Most often mentioned with a discussion of Ray Milland’s career are Billy Wilder’s The Lost Weekend (1945) and Alfred Hitchcock’s Dial ‘M’ for Murder (1952), two wonderful examples of his range as an actor. In The Lost Weekend, which earned Milland his only Academy Award for Best Actor, he delivers a vivid and terrifying portrayal of a writer consumed by alcoholism. The critical success of that picture made Ray Milland the highest paid actor in Hollywood.
Dial ‘M’ for Murder serves a Milland ripe to kill on a Columbo episode, a man consumed by hubris, my favorite of his type of portrayals. But these two pictures alone do not sum up Ray Milland’s stellar career. There are so many memorable movies in which he starred: Mitchell Leisen’s Easy Living (1937) and Wilder’s The Major and the Minor (1942), both enjoyable romantic comedies; John Farrow’s The Big Clock and Alias Nick Beal (1949) in which he plays a memorable “agent of the devil,” Fritz Lang’s Ministry of Fear and Lewis Allen’s The Uninvited both from 1944. That’s just naming a few.
In the 1950s Ray Milland expanded his entertainment horizons by working on television. Aside from numerous guest appearances on popular shows for a couple of decades, Milland starred in his own situation comedy series, Meet Mr. McNutley (later The Ray Milland Show) from 1953 to 1955 and from 1959–1960, he starred as Roy Markham in the detective series Markham, which stemmed from the character Milland had played on an episode of the series, Suspicion in 1958. Another notable appearance was Milland’s Emmy-nominated work in the 1975 miniseries Rich Man, Poor Man. All the while Mr. Milland continued to make movies like cult favorites X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes (1963) directed by Roger Corman and Lee Frost’s The Thing with Two Heads (1972) although he also appeared in the more mainstream Love Story (1970) directed by Arthur Hiller. That’s basically where Ray Milland’s career stood when he challenged Lieutenant Columbo.
The Greenhouse Jungle, S2, E2 (1972), directed by Boris Sagal
Ray Milland appeared in Columbo season 1 episode, Death Lends a Hand and is terrific in it. However, the great Robert Culp is the murderer in that. For this entry Milland is Jarvis Goodland who together with his nephew Tony (Bradford Dillman) plan Tony’s fake kidnapping to get their hands on his trust fund. The plan is messy enough that Lieutenant Columbo makes his entrance before a murder has been committed, which is a rare occurrence in the series. No need to worry though. After the elaborate kidnapping (that is hardly worth the $300,000 in the trust fund) Jarvis Goodland kills his nephew by shooting him through the heart. Tony thought the plan was for them to split the money, but Jarvis wanted it all for himself all along.
The plot of The Greenhouse Jungle is a bit convoluted so stay with me. Tony, who has a girlfriend, wanted the trust fund money to pay off his wife Cathy’s (Sandra Smith) boyfriend so the boyfriend can make like a tree and leave. Columbo is not the only one scratching his head at this arrangement, but Jarvis just thinks Tony’s a complete idiot and abhors Cathy.
We know all murderers are going to get caught by Columbo, but if you’re one of those murderers who tries to move the needle away from yourself by committing another crime, well. You’re an idiot too. And here we have one of those in Jarvis Goodland who tries to implicate Tony’s wife for the murder. Here’s how that happens…
In one of my favorite scenes in The Greenhouse Jungle, Columbo visits Tony’s girlfriend Gloria West (played by Arlene Martel who appears in three Columbo episodes). During the visit, Columbo tells Gloria that he suspects Tony faked the kidnapping with an accomplice and whoever the accomplice was had likely killed him. Gloria is convinced that the accomplice and murderer is Tony’s wife Cathy and Gloria immediately tells Jarvis her theory. Taking advantage of this possibility, Jarvis tries to frame Cathy by planting the murder weapon in her house. Columbo buys none of it and simply waits to spring the Gotcha!
In an earlier scene in The Greenhouse Jungle, Columbo asks Jarvis about a past incident that occurred in Jarvis’ greenhouse. An intruder tried to break in, and Jarvis shot at him with a 32-caliber gun. Jarvis managed to scare the intruder away but hit only dirt. By the end of this episode, Jarvis has forgotten about that incident, but Columbo has not. The Lt. searches through a pile of dirt with a metal detector and finds the bullet that was intended for the intruder, which is a problem. Columbo proves that the gun Jarvis planted in Cathy’s house, the one that killed Tony, is the same gun that Jarvis used to shoot at the intruder. After a drawn-out scene as Columbo waits for the ballistics report to confirm his suspicion, Lt. says little before Jarvis realizes his mistake. The Gotcha! is satisfying for several reasons not the least of which is the final shot of Jarvis’ face, which screams “who’s the idiot now?”
Ray Milland has terrific small moments in The Greenhouse Jungle, the quiet moments when the walls come down, when only we are privy to his behavior. Milland’s facial expressions throughout are pronounced and enjoyable to watch – the extreme side glances at the Lt., the rolling of the eyes at other people’s stupidity, etc. The only complaint is he yells a bit too much in his frustration with the constantly nagging Columbo.
One of my favorite aspects of The Greenhouse Jungle is the presence of Bob Dishy who plays the sober, eager Sergeant Frederic Wilson, and his exchanges with Columbo. Hard as he tries and as many state-of-the-art gadgets as he uses, Wilson will never be like Columbo to whom cop work is instinct, but it is enjoyable seeing Wilson’s pride in his work even though he is running around after wrong clues and is easily manipulated by the murderer. Dishy also appears as a similar character in season 5 episode, Now You See Him and numerous other TV shows and movies. I am particularly fond of his portrayal of the father in Gene Saks’ direction of Neil Simon’s Brighton Beach Memoirs (1986).
JACKIE COOPER entered my life much in the same manner he entered the lives of many others, by way of theOur Gang aka The Little Rascals comedy series of shorts produced by Hal Roach. The short subjects were shown in syndication through the 1980s, which allowed several generations to be introduced to actors whose lives and careers had long passed. Jackie became a popular Our Gang member after the silent films in the series and he is remembered most by this fan for his widely expressive face and his perpetual crush on his teacher, Miss Crabtree. Although Jackie only appeared in 15 Our Gang films, he is etched in the mind of many thanks to that portrayal. As a child I thought Cooper’s work as a Little Rascal was all he had done, but unlike most of the other Our Gang actors, his was a career that lasted sixty years.
John Cooper, Jr. was born in Los Angeles and had show business in his blood with several extended family members involved in the movie business, including his uncle by marriage Norman Taurog. Jackie made his earliest movie appearances with his grandmother who believed the three-year-old would help her chances of getting work as an extra. It was Jackie who got noticed, however. He worked in a few comedies featuring comedian Lloyd Hamilton before working in features with director David Butler who recommended him to Leo McCarey who in turn arranged an audition with Hal Roach for Our Gang. Whew!
Jackie Cooper was signed to a three-year contract and impressed with his talent. So much so, in fact, that when Roach lent Cooper to Paramount to star in Taurog’s Skippy (1931), Cooper became the youngest actor to be nominated for a Best Actor Academy Award, a record which stands to this day. The success of Skippy got Jackie a role in King Vidor’s The Champ (1931) opposite Wallace Beery, “a good picture, almost entirely by virtue of an inspired performance by a boy, Jackie Cooper,” wrote the Variety reviewer. At the height of Cooper’s popularity, he was known as “America’s Boy.”
As Jackie grew to adolescence choice movie roles grew scarcer. He joined the Navy and served in WWII receiving the Legion of Merit for his achievements. Upon Jackie’s return from the War, movie roles were still hard to come by so a transition to Television was the natural move. Cooper guest starred in numerous TV shows starting in 1949. He starred in two TV series: The People’s Choice, a situation comedy that lasted from 1955 to 1958, in which Jackie plays a young politician whose mishaps are narrated by an opinionated Bassett hound named Cleo; and Hennessey (1959-1962), a comedy-drama in which he plays Navy doctor, Lt. Charles W. “Chick” Hennessey.
Cooper took somewhat of a break from acting in the 1960s when he served as VP at Screen Gems. In the 1970s, however, he returned to episodic television and directed many TV episodes over that decade and the next, winning two Emmy Awards in the process for Carry On, Hawkeye, a 1973 episode of M*A*S*H and the pilot episode of The White Shadow (1978).
Despite Jackie Cooper’s varied career many remember him for one role, that of Daily Planet editor Perry White in the Superman film series starring Christopher Reeve. As enjoyable as those are, some of us remember Jackie for much more including our main attraction, his stint as a Columbo murderer.
Candidate for Crime, S3, E3 (1973), directed by Boris Sagal
Harry Stone (Ken Swofford) is the overbearing campaign manager for Nelson Hayward (Cooper) who is running for Senator. As the story opens, we learn that Stone has concocted a story about Hayward receiving death threats hoping to gain sympathy from voters. The problem is that Stone is convinced that Hayward would be nowhere without him, so the campaign manager feels entitled to throw around demands. The last straw is when Harry Stone commands Hayward to stop bedding Mrs. Hayward’s secretary Linda (Tisha Sterling). Although it makes sense that a man with political aspirations shouldn’t have those types of living skeletons in the closet, many do, and Nelson Hayward has had it with Stone and decides to make him dead.
Due to the fake death threats, Hayward has police protection, which means he must be extra careful when he kills Stone. Hayward tells Stone he needs to break up with Linda gently and switches jackets and cars with him. When Stone leaves the hotel in Hayward’s car and jacket, the police follow him leaving Hayward free to get to the beach house before Stone to shoot him. Nelson Hayward has no doubt he will get away with it by blaming whoever has been threatening his life. After doing the deed, Hayward hurries home to his wife’s surprise party where we learn his marriage is in bad shape.
Lt. Columbo makes a brief cameo appearance in the beginning of the episode in the hotel as Nelson Hayward talks to reporters on his way to his room. After the murder we are treated to Columbo in a dentist’s chair with his mouth wide open as his Italian dentist (Mario Gallo) complains about how everyone thinks all Italians are in the mafia with a slight deviation to let the Lt. know that his wisdom tooth must come out. From the radio we hear the erroneous news that Senate candidate Nelson Hayward has been found dead after an anonymous phone call leading the police to the beach house.
One cannot place Nelson Hayward among the smartest murderers in the Columbo cannon, but he is one this fan really dislikes. Cheating on his wife is one thing, but he is slimy too overdoing it when Columbo tells him Harry Stone is dead then convincing Vicky not only to join him on the campaign trail, but to bring her secretary Linda. I cannot wait for this guy to be handcuffed. I mean the gall of him!
After the murder Hayward’s poll numbers rise. He enters his campaign headquarters and is greeted by cheers. Among the crowd is Lt. Columbo who patiently waits while Hayward finishes doing whatever it is he has to do – except what he does is canoodle with Linda in his office. Columbo paces as his wheels are turning. Little do people know he sees and hears everything. Linda went into Hayward’s office with the pretext of getting Hayward’s itinerary, but she left his office with nothing in her hands. Sloppy, sloppy. Then there’s the matter of the cold car – when Columbo made the drive to the beach house, it took his car well over an hour to cool off. Yet, when he touched Hayward’s car about forty minutes after Stone drove it to the beach house the car was cold. This little tidbit bothers Columbo and Hayward cannot believe the level of detail the detective is looking at. Things will surely get worse after Columbo joins Hayward’s protection detail.
Nelson Hayward leaves an unbelievable trail of errors along his way to murder. There’s a new suit jacket he ordered ten days before the murder, a replacement for the one he gave Stone he should not have known to replace that far in advance. The cooled off car. The enthusiastic alternative explanations Hayward offers Columbo. The smashed watch Stone was wearing, which Hayward broke to mark the time of the murder and solidify his alibi. He was at his wife’s surprise party after all. Except Hayward made a disguised call to the police from his house three minutes after the supposed time of the murder. Yet Columbo found no phones available anywhere within three minutes of that house. Finally, there’s Hayward’s desperate attempt when Columbo is breathing down his throat.
Hayward writes himself a new threatening note and shoots into his hotel room to turn the investigation toward that fake assassin. His problem is that Lieutenant Columbo, knowing his prey well by this point, is lying in wait. The Lieutenant knows Hayward shot into his own hotel room earlier that day. When Hayward makes noise about the assassin’s near miss later, Columbo calmly reveals the bullet from his hanker chief, the bullet he had pulled out of the wall hours before Hayward pretends he was shot at. It is an elaborate attempt to avoid cuffs, but Gotcha!
Jackie Cooper delivers in the cad department in Candidate for Crime. Cooper also gets extra points for being the one who whistles “This Old Man” in the episode, the children’s song that’s usually reserved for the Lt. that was a favorite of Peter Falk’s, and which usually pops up when the Lieutenant realizes who the murderer is. The song whistled by Hayward here may mean he surely knows he is sunk in the scene before he tapes a political TV commercial, right after Columbo tells him about having ordered the jacket before the murder and as Columbo lets him know there’s another puzzler referencing the time on the dead man’s broken watch, which doesn’t make sense.
I should mention that TV show veteran Joanne Linville is also good as Hayward’s long-suffering wife. Why she has stayed with that man is beyond me.
My favorite part of Candidate for Crime, however, is the humor so perfectly imbedded in all Columbo episodes. Here we see a uniform cop pull Columbo over at a traffic stop and because of his dilapidated Peugeot the cop can’t believe Columbo is a detective. It’s a Columbo running gag. While looking for his license in the glove compartment Columbo grabs one of the car’s broken handles. He’s as big a mess as his car and those are the moments when I love him most.
Finally, we are treated to great Columbo semi-regular Vito Scotti in this episode. Scotti plays Chadwick the tailor, the one who tells Columbo that it takes at least ten days to deliver a jacket like the one Nelson Hayward orders as a replacement. Too many mistakes.
JOSE FERRER had a solemnity of manner and a powerful presence he brought to every role I have ever seen in him play. In the Columbo world, he is quite unique because while most murderers in the series think they’re smart, Ferrer and his character really are.
Born in Santurce, Puerto Rico on January 8, 1912, Ferrer’s family moved to New York City when Jose was six years old. A high-brow actor as an adult, Jose was a promising pianist who passed the entrance exam to Princeton University at the age of 14 where he studied architecture. His love of acting flourished while Jose was at Princeton as did his musical career when he formed a band called the Pied Pipers.
Just as Jose Ferrer’s passions for the arts varied throughout his life so did his work. His early jobs ranged from performing with his band on cruise ships to working as a stage manager and later as an opera singer at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. His wide range of talent allowed Ferrer many honors, including being the first actor to receive the National Medal of Arts in 1985.
Jose Ferrer’s first major stage role was playing the lead in the 1940 Broadway production of Charley’s Aunt. In 1943 he appeared with Paul Robeson in Othello. That same year he earned the first of his three Tony Awards for his performance in Cyrano de Bergerac, the other two were for directing the plays Stalag 17, The Fourposter, and The Shrike in 1952, and for acting in The Shrike.
Ferrer made his film debut in Victor Fleming’s Joan of Arc in 1948, which earned him the first of three Oscar nominations. He was also nominated for John Huston’s Moulin Rouge (1952) and won the Best Actor Oscar for Michael Gordon’s Cyrano de Bergerac (1950), the first Puerto Rican actor to be so honored. That same year he played opposite Gloria Swanson in Twentieth Century on stage. Such was Ferrer’s reputation that Swanson’s contract stipulated that she appear only with him.
A few other movies in which Ferrer appears that I enjoy are Otto Preminger’s Whirlpool (1949), Richard Brooks’ Crisis (1950), Curtis Bernhardt’s Miss Sadie Thompson (1953), and Edward Dmytryk’s The Caine Mutiny (1954), but he appeared in many worth watching. As if all of that weren’t enough, Jose Ferrer also directed seven pictures starting with The Shrike in 1955 and ending with State Fair in 1962.
While Jose Ferrer’s film and stage careers were at their height in the 1950s, he took on television by reprising the Cyrano role for the Producer’s Showcase in 1955. The new medium treated him as well as the others did because he took home the Emmy for Best Actor-Single Performance. His relationship with Cyrano continued through 1974 when he voiced the character in a Hanna-Barbera animated version for The ABC Afterschool Special. Ferrer’s memorable voice made as many notable appearances as his formidable physical form, including – for fans – narrating the very first episode of Bewitched.
One can only mention a few notable programs from Jose Ferrer’s long television career, which included appearances in programs of all genres almost up until his death in 1992. His last memorable role was as Julia Duffy’s father on Newhart (1982-1990), but for this fan what Ferrer truly excelled at was playing villains. His imposing frame and resonating voice were perfectly suited for evil doings, which brings us to Columbo.
Mind Over Mayhem, S3, E6 (1974), directed by Alf Kjellin
Mind Over Mayhem is replete with geniuses as much of the action and the motive are contained within the walls of a government cybernetics research institute. It makes sense that Jose Ferrer should manage it. The story goes like this: Dr. Howard Nicholson (Lew Ayres) warns his colleague Dr Marshall Cahill (Ferrer) that his son Neil (Robert Walker, Jr.) will be exposed as a fraud the day before Neil is due to receive an award for having discovered a new scientific equation. Neil, who cannot match his father in brains or brawn, stole the equation from another scientist who has since died. Dr. Nicholson tells Dr. Cahill that he has proof that Neil plagiarized the equation and cannot allow the deception to go on. Cahill decides Nicholson cannot go on.
Marshall Cahill borrows a car from the institute, drives to Dr. Nicholson’s house, runs Nicholson over, carries the body into the living room, ransacks the house to make it look like a burglary gone wrong, destroys the file that proves his son’s deception, steals some personal effects and the heroine Nicholson was experimenting with, and returns to the institute to complete his day’s work. As Cahill leaves for the night, he notices the car he used to murder Nicholson is dented so he cleverly, I might add, backs up into it as he leaves the institute’s parking lot.
We meet Columbo as he is experiencing a rather embarrassing familial situation. The Lieutenant’s dog, Dog, has failed obedience school and must be removed immediately because he demoralizes the other students. Dog gets a lot of screen time in Mind Over Mayhem, which makes it a standout. We see him throughout the entire investigation here and is even walked by a robot at the institute.
As for our killer, despite Cahill’s superior intellect, Lt. Columbo focuses in on him ten minutes after meeting him. Cahill leaves too many breadcrumbs – he left a match in the dead man’s living room and the dead man did not use matches, there’s a scuff mark on the entrance door to the living room, the dead man’s pipe is in pieces on his driveway, the mechanic is fixing the dent on the car Cahill backed into and the mileage on the car does not match the last log-in. As is his modus operandi, Columbo goes over the investigation with the killer and the killer does not disappoint. Cahill not only offers the usual alternative answers to the Lieutenant’s questions, but he also goes out of his way to prove his alibi before Columbo asks, he was running the K44 computer. What Dr. Cahill doesn’t mention to Columbo is that there’s a robot on the premises that can also run the K44 computer. The robot’s name is MM-7, and his creator is boy genius, Steve Spelberg, a nod to a famous director with a similar name. Spelberg is played by then 12-year-old acting veteran, Lee Montgomery who spoils Cahill’s alibi in our story by letting Columbo know MM-7 can be programmed to do stuff on his own, like walking Dog and substituting for Cahill’s drills. I should mention that MM-7 bears a striking resemblance to Robby the Robot who starred in Fred. M. Wilcox’s Forbidden Planet (1956) and who had a formidable TV career as well.
There are a few pleasant extras in Mind Over Mayhem: Jessica Walter plays Margaret Nicholson, the victim’s wife. Walter delivered many memorable performances during her long career and the only complaint here is that her role is not meaty enough for her. If you are a classic movie fan Lew Ayres is a special treat. Ayres’ career, which began with the dawn of talking pictures, lasted over six decades. If he’d been the murderer here Lew Ayres would have been a primary choice for this entry. The final joy here is Columbo’s use of a tape recorder to take notes, which is quite humorous as he yells into it much in the same way as people yell into Alexa these days.
In a scene toward the episode’s conclusion, Marshall Cahill confronts Columbo and tells the Lt. exactly where his investigation is, that he is a suspect and that there’s nothing Columbo can do about it. Ferrer really sells it with that booming voice and Columbo has no choice but to agree. He knows Cahill murdered Nicholson but there’s a piece missing. Then young Neil Cahill confesses he plagiarized the equation to the media. This prompts Columbo to arrest Neil for Nicholson’s murder stating he killed the old man because he is in love with Margaret Nicholson. It is all a Columbo ruse though. The experienced Lt. is aces at human behavior and he bets all on the love of a father and wins – a defeated Dr. Marshall Cahill confesses and Columbo tells him why he suspected him from the get-go; the match that was left in the dead man’s living room was burned all the way through, which only happens when lighting a cigar. Only three people had been in that room since it was cleaned; Mrs. Nicholson doesn’t smoke; Dr. Nicholson smoked a pipe and used a lighter; Dr. Cahill smokes cigars. The how and who were easy to determine. Columbo’s problem was finding the why. His taped notes told him.
Son doesn’t smoke cigars.
Father smokes cigars.
Father loves his son.
JANET LEIGH’s Hollywood story is the stuff of fairytales and if there is an actor included here that evokes the glitz and glamour of old Hollywood it is Leigh and her Columbo murderer.
Leigh, born Jeanette Helen Morrison in Merced, California on July 6, 1927, was at a ski lodge where her father worked when Norma Shearer saw her picture. “She’s beautiful,” Shearer said and asked for the picture. Norma Shearer, retired at the time, was at the lodge with her ski instructor husband. The former Queen of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) gave Jeanette’s photo to an agent and months later Jeanette was invited to Hollywood. Before she knew it, Jeanette Helen Morrison was Janet Leigh, an actor with an MGM contract and working on her first picture, Roy Rowland’s The Romance of Rosy Ridge (1947) with Van Johnson. Half a century later Janet Leigh had made over 60 motion pictures, appeared in numerous television programs, and starred in (arguably) the most famous scene in movie history.
A look at Janet Leigh’s career is a study in range. It’s astounding that someone with no acting background could so seamlessly grow from ingénues in musicals and Westerns to deep dramas and convincing thrillers. Leigh could carry a tune and play innocent as convincingly as she did sexy and worldly. Janet Leigh’s special gift for this fan is her ability to do a lot with quiet, although her most famous role required loud screaming. Among my favorite of Janet Leigh’s movies are: Mervyn LeRoy’s Little Women (1949), Don Hartman’s Holiday Affair (1949), Clarence Brown’s Angels in the Outfield (1951), Anthony Mann’s The Naked Spur (1953), George Marshall’s Houdini (1953), Richard Quine’s My Sister Eileen (1955), Orson Welles’s Touch of Evil (1958), and Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) for which Leigh received her only Academy Award nomination, and John Frankenheimer’s The Manchurian Candidate (1962). She followed those with George Sidney’s Bye Bye Birdie in 1963 and Jack Smight’s Harper in 1966, but Leigh’s big screen career was slowing down forcing her to turn to television where she shined in everything from variety shows to Westerns to several made-for-TV movies through 2001, three years before her death at age 77.
The impression should not be that Janet Leigh was slowing down. Among her many TV and film projects, Leigh made two films with daughter Jamie Lee Curtis, The Fog (1980) and Halloween H20: 20 Years Later (1998) and wrote two books, House of Destiny (1995) and The Dream Factory (2002). For our purposes, however, her most important work happened in 1975 when she played a murderer on Columbo.
Forgotten Lady, S5, E1 (1975), directed by Harvey Hart
Grace Wheeler’s (Leigh) star has faded, but she longs to regain her former glory. As the story of Forgotten Lady opens, we see Grace at the premiere of Song and Dance, a film compilation of musical numbers in which Grace and her ex-partner Ned Diamond are featured. In the old days the pair performed to great acclaim as ‘Diamond and Wheeler’ in movie musicals. The excitement at the screening, which Grace attends with Ned, reignites Grace’s hunger to perform. So much so, in fact, that she announces her return to the stage with a revival of One Touch of Venus with Ned directing. The announcement takes everyone by surprise, including Grace’s elderly physician husband, Dr. Henry Willis (Sam Jaffe) who’s watching from his bed.
Later that night Grace runs up to tell Henry the exciting news expecting him to put up the money for the play, which he refuses to do so. In a scene acted to perfection, Grace Wheeler seamlessly switches from exhilarated to deadly.
Most nights Grace Wheeler watches herself in her old pictures. She has a screening room as is expected, and a butler, Raymond (Maurice Evans) who ensures the movie of Grace’s choice is ready when she is. On the night of the murder Grace chooses to watch her favorite, Walking My Baby Back Home, which happens to be a real musical Janet Leigh starred in from 1953 directed by Lloyd Bacon and co-starring Donald O’Connor. Anyway, that night Grace settles into her screening room and waits for the right moment, when Raymond and his wife Alma (the maid played by Linda Scott) are watching The Tonight Show, to shoot her husband in the head and make it look like a suicide. Once the deed is done, Grace returns to watch her movie and finds the film has broken. She splices and connects and finishes the movie.
Lt. Columbo’s introduction is quite humorous in Forgotten Lady. Dr. Willis’ dead body is discovered after 1:00 AM, which means the Lt. was awakened from a deep sleep. When he arrives at the Willis house, he is still half asleep and more disheveled than usual with tufts of hair spiking at odd places. At one point he even snores standing up. He’s a total mess, but none of that means his investigative senses are less keen. Columbo starts zeroing in on the only thing that makes sense for many reasons, Grace is the killer, with the question at the heart of the matter being, if Walking My Baby Back Home is an hour and forty-five minutes long, why did it take Grace two hours to watch it on the night Dr. Henry Willis died?
There are a few aspects of Forgotten Lady that make it unique in the Columbo cannon. For one thing, this is one of two episodes in which the Lieutenant allows the killer to walk. You see, Grace Wheeler has a degenerative brain issue, which affects her memory. We see clues throughout the episode of Grace not being fully in touch with reality. In one scene she indicates she wants to live her life like Rosie, the character in Walking My Baby Back Home. In another memorable scene that takes place the night of the murder, Grace hears Raymond banging on Dr. Willis’ bedroom door. Willis is not answering because he’s dead, but Grace’s perplexed expression indicates she has no idea why her husband is not answering the door even though she killed him. As I said, Janet Leigh is great in quiet moments.
In the end Columbo convinces Ned Diamond of Grace’s guilt, which prompts Ned to confess to Grace when she overhears her husband was murdered. Ned has loved Grace his entire life and is willing to take the blame for her. Grace has little time left and by the time Ned is cleared of guilt she will likely have died. Columbo agrees to Ned’s proposition on the night the Gotcha! would have taken place. But there is no need. As the Lieutenant walks out after Ned, he pauses to look back at the former great movie star. There he stands watching Grace watching herself on screen caught in the memories of her past life. Although she is not grotesque, there is some of Norma Desmond in Grace Wheeler.
As already mentioned, Janet Leigh is great in Forgotten Lady and looks stunning, appropriately coiffed and adorned with the glitz and glamour we expect of movie stars. I have not mentioned how memorable John Payne is, however, in his final acting role (his appearance in an episode of Hunter was released later but taped first). Ned Diamond is a meaty guest role on Columbo and Payne makes it his own. Full disclosure – I am a John Payne fan. I would have acted just as Columbo does when he first meets Ned Diamond at the foot of Grace’s stairs. Columbo excitedly recalls his favorite movies and stars, just like any fan would do. It’s a terrific scene that pays homage to the great star of Miracle on 34th Street (1947) and the wonderful 20th Century Fox musicals in which John Payne starred opposite Alice Faye and Betty Grable.
Also exciting is seeing Sam Jaffe, another classic movie alum. Jaffe delivered notable turns in films like Lost Horizon (1937, Gunga Din (1939), and The Asphalt Jungle (1950) for which he received a Supporting Actor Academy Award nomination. Finally, Maurice Evans is a treat. Best known for playing Dr. Zaius on Planet of the Apes (1968), Hutch in Rosemary’s Baby (1968), and Samantha’s father on Bewitched, Evans had a lot of TV work under his belt by the time he played this butler who didn’t do it, a role that allows Evans a lot of interaction with Falk as the detective gathers information about the lives of the deceased and his wife. Raymond is often annoyed with Columbo and follows him around with a dustpan or an ashtray, anything to prevent cigar ashes from falling on the floor of the Willis mansion. But when Columbo enters the house in black tie as a guest of Grace Wheeler in the end, Raymond is quick with a compliment in his Shakespearean manner, “You are looking unusually elegant, I must say.”
The humorous moments in Forgotten Lady are numerous aside from Columbo’s sleepy introduction. The running gag in this episode has to do with Columbo being told repeatedly by other officers to go to the firing range. Columbo fans know the Lt. doesn’t even carry a gun so he doesn’t care whether he can shoot straight, but it’s been over five years since he tried his aim. After Internal Affairs threatens to take his badge, Columbo has no choice but to bribe another detective to take the firing test for him.
Forgotten Lady is another episode where Dog gets a decent amount of screen time. And ice cream. This episode really shows how much Columbo loves that Basset Hound and what an important role Dog plays in the detective’s life. It warms the heart.
An interesting tidbit – there is an oil painting of Grace Wheeler in Forgotten Lady that was painted by Jaroslav Gebr specifically for this Columbo episode. A smaller version of that painting was owned by historian, author, and TCM host, Robert Osborne.
FAYE DUNAWAY was an onscreen female pillar of strength in the new Hollywood of the 1970s. Two decades later she showed us why with Peter Falk.
Born Dorothy Faye Dunaway in Bascom, Florida in 1941, Faye went to New York to attend the Lincoln Center Repertory Theater after college. She got her first starring role in A Man For All Seasons in 1962 replacing the role of Margaret in the original Broadway run.
Dunaway’s first screen role was in Elliot Silverstein’s The Happening in 1967 and she made a few appearances on television before her name became known the world over for playing Bonnie Parker in Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde (1967) opposite producer/star Warren Beatty. She received the first of three Academy Award nomination for Best Actress for this role. Dunaway followed Bonnie and Clyde with the sexy and entertaining The Thomas Crowne Affair (1968) with Steve McQueen directed by Norman Jewison.
Faye Dunaway’s work put her in the top echelon of actors in her day delivering memorable performances in Roman Polanski’s Chinatown (1974) and Sidney Lumet’s Network (1976), which brought her a second Best Actress nomination and a Best Actress win. That decade also brought The Towering Inferno (1974) and Three Days of the Condor (1975), both of which I enjoy immensely. Illustrating where Faye Dunaway’s star was in the 1970s Joan Crawford said, “Only Dunaway has the talent and the class and the courage to make a real star.” That statement only serves to magnify Faye Dunaway’s ill-fated decision to play Crawford in Frank Perry’s Mommie Dearest (1981), which harmed Dunaway’s career and destroyed Crawford’s reputation.
Dunaway continues to work on the big screen and on television with many series guest spots and movies. Despite many tales of her being difficult to work with, Faye Dunaway has received several – deserved if I may say – lifetime achievement awards. Her best characterizations are polished, strong, take no prisoners, intense women not often depicted in movies. Incidentally, the last statuette she received for a performance was an Emmy for Outstanding Guest Actress in a Drama Series for playing a murderer on Columbo.
It’s All in the Game, S12, E1 (1993), directed by Vincent McEveety
Wealthy socialite Lauren Staton (Dunaway) is hosting a grand party, the sort of party I wish I could afford to host. Show tunes are being sung around a grand piano, the mansion is full of happy guests, and food and alcohol abound. As we follow Lauren through the party, there is a rumor swelling that Lauren is in love with Nick Franco (Armando Pucci), who is heard driving up to the house at which time Lauren calls another woman to say, “Tonight may be the night.”
We next see Lauren and Nick in each other’s arms. He asks her to marry him, professing his never-ending love while he runs off to join a poker game. As it turns out, the poker game is named Lisa (Claudia Christian), a younger woman than Lauren to whom Nick also professes his love. Sadly, Lisa’s neck shows proof of Nick’s affection in the form of a huge scar. When Lisa and the two-timing abuser are ready to go to his apartment, Lisa calls Lauren to put their plan in motion.
Lauren comes out of the shadows in Nick’s apartment and shoots him dead. Besides the gun she has brought an electric blanket, which Lisa places over the body. Lauren rushes back to her party as if she had not just killed a man. A bit later, Lauren says goodnight to her party guests and returns to Nick’s apartment. This time as the girlfriend who has forgotten her keys. She wakes Mr. Ruddick (Bill Macy), the building manager, so he can let her in and while they walk toward Nick’s place, they hear a gun shot. As planned, Lisa shoots into the air to make it seem like the murder happened at that moment and then she runs off through the patio to leave Lauren crying over her dead lover’s body. It is all impeccably choreographed.
Since I mentioned Bill Macy, best known for his role in Maude (1972-1978), this is a good time to mention Shelley Morrison. Great actors both. Morrison plays Nick’s maid who helps Columbo figure out how and when the heat was turned on in Nick’s apartment. The exchange between the maid and Columbo is enjoyable. In a tiny, uncredited role as a party guest at the beginning of the episode is Dawn Wells of Gilligan’s Island fame, and Doug Sheehan, who I know best from his work in prime time soap, Knots Landing, plays another cop at the murder scene, which is when we first see Columbo.
Mere minutes after the Lieutenant enters Nick’s apartment, he notices the temperature is unusually high. The water in the freezer tray melted. It was a cold night outside and the deceased had been away from his apartment for 12 hours. This little dilemma bothers Columbo the entire episode, but for the moment he is taken with Nick’s bereaved significant other, Lauren who is still in his apartment. We know Columbo is impressed when he sees the stylish woman because he straightens his raincoat to hide the fact that he is wearing his pajama top underneath. Lauren tells the Lt. her version of events, just as she’d practiced, and leaves. Bright and early the next morning Columbo shows at Lauren’s sprawling mansion with faithful companion, Dog, and the enjoyable repartee between the two begins.
True to form for a Columbo killer, Lauren offers the requisite alternative murder possibilities. What’s different about her is that she romances the Lieutenant and buys him and Dog gifts. As things progress and the two spend more time together, we begin to think Columbo is truly smitten. But our stalwart Lieutenant never really loses sight of his goal. He is obsessed with knowing how, who and why the heat in Nick’s apartment had been turned on. As he says, “Who turned on the heat? is both a rhetorical and factual question” because as Columbo’s questions get more pointed, Lauren’s interest in him gets hotter.
As if playing with us the entire time, Columbo thoroughly enjoys the attention he gets from Lauren, he is all aflutter when she kisses him at Umberto’s. Feigning sincerity to his friend Barney (Columbo semi-regular John Finnegan), Columbo repeatedly says how tough the case is as if this is the one that will stump him. He states, “I’m not exactly Robert Redford. Why would she be making a play for me?” insinuating he is clueless about Lauren’s motives.
Lauren’s motives are two-fold. No doubt she is not interested in going to prison, but her main concern is keeping her daughter and co-conspirator Lisa out of the investigation. The relationship between the two is discovered by Columbo in the end. Lauren tells the young woman to leave for Europe when Columbo is getting close to the truth, but he gets to her anyway learning in the process what a lowlife Nick was. Eventually Lauren is forced to confess but asks Columbo to “Let the girl go.” And in a rare move, Columbo lets Lisa go, deciding to accept Lauren’s suggestion that she had an unknown male accomplice.
It is mere coincidence that I chose the two Columbo episodes where the Lieutenant allows a guilty person to go free, but here we are. It’s All in the Game and it’s a good one thanks to the fantastic, flirtatious chemistry between Peter Falk and Faye Dunaway. This is also the only episode Peter Falk wrote so it’s understandable that he gives Lieutenant Columbo potential romance with a guest star. We know Columbo has romance in his real life because of the affection with which he talks about Mrs. Columbo. If the viewer has a doubt whether he really falls for Lauren Staton in this episode, the record is set straight at the end when Columbo admits to having lied to Barney who asks Columbo where he’s going, “It’s Thursday night. I’m taking the wife bowling.”
Faye Dunaway deserved the Emmy she took home for playing Lauren Staton. She is fantastic in this although she plays the role of a woman in the mold of many of her other characters: strong, polished, fashionably dressed, icy until she turns on the heat, a take-control woman used to having her way. Falk and Dunaway make a formidable episode, the only one for 1993.
If it seems like I had fun with this endeavor, I did. I never thought I’d learn major life lessons though, lessons that will stay with me for the rest of my life. One, if you’re a star the size of the screen doesn’t matter and two, the more Columbo you watch, the more Columbo you want to watch.
Now go visit the CMBA and many more Big Stars on the Small Screen.
I loved these Columbo episodes and your observations about them. I watch the 24-hour Columbo marathon every Sunday.
I greatly enjoyed this epic post, Aurora! I liked learning the biographical information about the performers, and I will definitely be checking out these episodes. I discovered Columbo during the shutdown (I never watched it during its first run), and of the ones you covered, I’ve only seen one — the Janet Leigh. I look forward to these others, especially Ray Milland’s and Faye Dunaway’s. Thank you for coming up with this great idea for our blogathon, and for your first-rate entry!
Faye Dunaway was great in that episode. You are incorrect about her performance in Columbo being her last awarded one. She received a Golden Globe for her performance in Gia. It was in 1998, I think.
Wow. That was thorough, Aurora! I enjoyed all the details on the careers of the killer stars and the Columbo episodes they were in. I’m thinking I’ve seen all but the Faye Dunaway, so will be checking it out. Love your love for the series, too, it really comes through.
Thank you so much. I admire Columbo as if he were a real person. Strange but true. 🙂
Awesome post! Columbo is certainly enjoying a revival, isn’t he? I remember all of these episodes except the one with Faye Dunaway. It was always a thrill to watch the credits to see which major big screen star was going to join the fun that week.
Thanks!! I guess he is. I’ve always loved him.
Agree with the previous comments, great write-up. Really put me in the mood to watch the show again. Each Columbo (episode) is the ultimate game of cat and mouse.
Thank you. It sure is!