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Top 5 Columbo Killers I’d Like to See Get Away With Murder
Some of the murderers that I meet, I even like them.
Columbo was one of the most epic and entertaining TV shows of all time. It was different from a traditional TV show in that each episode was like a movie, running between 70 and 97 minutes, and the series aired sporadically, initially about once a month as part of NBC’s weekly “Mystery Movie” special. The pilot, Prescription: Murder, aired as a self-contained TV movie in 1968, but the show didn’t start running semi-regularly until 1971. It was canceled in 1978 and brought back in 1989 on a new network without missing a beat. The final episode, “Columbo Likes the Nightlife,” aired in 2003, ending the series after a 35-year run. It was probably the only TV show to span over four decades and never dip in quality, even after an 11-year hiatus.
The show starred Peter Falk as Lt. Columbo, an unconventional detective whose rumpled appearance and clueless façade lulled killers into underestimating his talent for cracking a case. It was unique for a detective series in that it showed the murder taking place at the beginning of each episode, so the viewers knew who the killer was from the start. The mystery was in which “loose ends” or little details Columbo used to solve each case. The results were always surprising and intriguing.
But the best thing about Columbo was the lieutenant himself. Peter Falk masterfully portrayed the clever snoop who disarmed people with homespun charm and feigned haplessness. While interviewing suspects, he often made idle conversation about his wife, his shoes, his dog, his brother-in-law, and other random topics, and his lighthearted inquisitiveness inspired even murderers to open up to him about their lives, interests, relationships, and careers. Columbo’s outward appearance of a goofy little guy with unkempt hair, a wrinkled raincoat, a wonky eye, and a junky old car hid the shrewd investigator he really was.
The way Columbo got close to the killers was another thing that made him unique among TV detectives. In one episode, he gave a speech to a women’s club in which he mentioned that he sometimes grew to like the killers he pursued:
“...Some of the murderers that I meet, I even like them, too. Sometimes I like them and even respect them, not for what they did—certainly not for that—but for that part of them which is intelligent, or funny, or just nice. Because there's niceness in everyone—a little bit, anyhow. You can take a cop's word for it.”
The audience expressed shock at the prospect of a homicide detective feeling affection for a murderer, but after watching the entire series (four times), I can’t say I blame him. Quite often, the killers on the show were sympathetic and likeable characters who made me wish they could get off scot-free. Unfortunately, Columbo very rarely let a killer get away and almost all of these likeable characters had to be carted off to jail for their crimes, no matter how justified they seemed.
These are the top five Columbo killers I’d like to see get away with murder.
#1: Beth Chadwick, “Lady in Waiting”
Out of all the murder victims in Columbo, Bryce Chadwick (Richard Anderson) is one of the few I feel like was really asking for it. His poor sister, Beth (Susan Clark), just wanted to run her own life and make her own choices as any grown woman would, but because she was the heir to a large fortune, Bryce felt entitled to treat her like a child, telling her what to do, where to go, and whom to date. The last straw was when he threatened Beth’s boyfriend, Peter Hamilton (Leslie Nielsen), because he thought Peter was just after her money (he wasn’t).
To take control of her life and save her relationship with the man she loved, Beth had no choice but to murder Bryce. Once he was gone, Beth blossomed like a spring flower. She got a total makeover, including fresh makeup, a new hairstyle, a figure-flattering wardrobe flush with the latest fashions, and a flashy new sports car. Then she confidently took over her family’s company, throwing out their stuffy old traditions and infusing the business with new cutting-edge ideas. She went from a depressed, reserved, plain-looking shut-in to a hip, stylish, outgoing boss babe, and all she had to do was get rid of her brother.
I was so happy to see Beth get her glow-up and transform into the fabulous diva she was always meant to be. To me, it was the happy ending she deserved. She had been trapped under the thumb of an overbearing, controlling man with no hope of ever getting out, and once she disposed of him, she could finally be herself. She smiled and laughed for the first time and literally stopped to smell the roses as she answered Columbo’s probing questions. Susan Clark’s performance before and after Bryce’s murder was like night and day. You could almost see the burden being lifted from her shoulders.
Unfortunately, Beth’s new lifestyle got to her head. She became aggressive and controlling, treating Peter like one of her servants, which led to his ultimately providing the evidence that helped Columbo solve the case and put Beth away. What a shame her best chapter was so short-lived.
#2: Adrian Carsini, “Any Old Port in a Storm”
Adrian Carsini was the most sympathetic of all the Columbo killers. First of all, he was played by Donald Pleasence, whom you can’t help but like. He’s a mild-mannered, cute little guy with big, doe eyes and a charming British accent. He effortlessly elicits sympathy in every role he plays, from Dr. Sam Loomis, the longsuffering psychiatrist on a mission to stop Michael Myers’s killing spree in the Halloween franchise, to Lt. Colin Blythe, the nearly-blind forger in The Great Escape.
Adrian was a man who loved wine more than anything in the world. He and his half-brother, Ric (Gary Conway), ran a winery, where Adrian lovingly crafted fine wines that unfortunately didn’t turn enough of a profit to finance Ric’s expensive cars, exotic trips, and three failed marriages (with another in the works). When Ric announced that he planned to sell Adrian’s beloved winery to some cheap mass-market winemakers, Adrian’s whole world came crashing down. To save what he loved the most, he had to murder Ric.
In a fit of rage, Adrian knocked Ric unconscious, tied him up, dragged him into the wine cellar, then turned off the cooling system and left Ric there to suffocate in the record-breaking heat while he went on a wine-buying trip. When he returned, Adrian tried to make it look like Ric had died in a tragic scuba-diving accident by dressing his lifeless body in scuba gear and leaving him on the beach.
Despite the gruesomeness of his crime, Adrian still stirred my sympathy through his pure love of wine. Pleasence’s nuanced performance vividly expressed Adrian’s passion for the grape and how much he prized each of his precious rare vintages. I couldn’t help but feel bad for him when his reckless half-brother threatened to take away his one true love.
Adrian developed an unlikely friendship with Columbo and taught him a few key tips about wine, unwittingly helping him solve the case. The most touching scene was at the end of the episode, when Columbo held off on arresting Adrian so the two of them could enjoy one last glass of wine together. This melancholy moment made “Any Old Port in a Storm” a favorite among Columbo fans.
#3: Abigail Mitchell, “Try and Catch Me”
You can’t go wrong with Ruth Gordon. Known for her work in films like Harold and Maude and Rosemary’s Baby, Gordon had a captivating, scene-stealing presence that kept your eyes locked on her every moment she appeared on screen, and her unique diction, bright smile, and exuberant demeanor made each line she delivered entertaining. When she played a killer in a Columbo episode, I couldn’t help but like her.
“Try and Catch Me” was the episode that got me interested in Columbo. At first, the premise of a detective show that tells you who the murderer is at the beginning of every episode seemed boring to me, so I never planned to watch it. One day I was flipping through the channels and spotted Ruth Gordon, so I, of course, stopped to watch. Gordon’s amusing interactions with Columbo, the palpable tension as she struggled to cover up her crime, and the flippant veneer she managed to keep up in public had me glued to the screen and after only a few minutes, I knew I had to watch the entire show from the beginning.
Gordon played Abigail Mitchell, an accomplished mystery writer haunted by the suspicious death of her niece, which the police declared an accident. Abigail was convinced her niece was murdered by her husband, Edmund (Charles Frank), and when the police refused to re-open the case, she decided to get her own brand of justice by committing one of the most disturbing murders of the whole series—made even more disturbing by the fact that it was committed by a little old lady (in fact, Ruth Gordon was the oldest actor ever to play a killer on Columbo).
Abigail disconnected the light in her walk-in safe, convinced Edmund to go into it, and locked the door, sealing him inside the pitch-black, airtight chamber to suffocate while she headed off to New York, casually sipping celebratory scotch on the flight. The murder was very similar to the one in “Any Old Port in a Storm,” but it was made worse by the darkness and the fact that Edmund was conscious and alert when he went into the safe, whereas Ric was knocked out when Adrian dragged him into the wine cellar. The creepy clue Edmund left behind to help Columbo catch his killer made this episode even more thrilling, but I don’t want to give too much away.
While her crime was cold and calculated, I still feel a fierce fondness for Abigail, not only because she was played by Ruth Gordon, but because the murder seemed entirely justified considering Edmund likely killed her beloved niece and got away with it. Like Bryce in “Lady in Waiting,” Edmund had it coming.
#4: Lauren Staton, “It’s All in the Game”
“It’s All in the Game” was one of only two episodes where Columbo let a killer go free (the other being “Forgotten Lady,” in which he accepted an obviously false confession to spare a killer suffering from a degenerative brain disease). Unfortunately, there were two killers in this episode, and one of them had to take the blame.
Lauren Staton (Faye Dunaway) and Lisa Martin (Claudia Christian) were a mother and daughter who had been unknowingly dating the same abusive, controlling, opportunistic scum bag, Nick Franco (Armando Pucci). Of the few Columbo victims who were asking for it, Nick Franco was asking for it the most. He used Lisa to get to Lauren and then used Lauren for her money while he continued to date and abuse her daughter, both verbally and physically.
Nick thought he could get away with mistreating these two women, but boy was he wrong. Lauren and Lisa found out about each other and worked together to meticulously plan his summary execution. The episode, written by Columbo himself, Peter Falk, slowly revealed their detailed plot through hushed phone conversations between Lauren and Lisa until they finally pulled off the murder and went their separate ways, pretending they didn’t know each other to protect both of them.
Columbo immediately started getting close to Lauren, who shamelessly flirted with him, ostensibly to throw suspicion off of her, but later she revealed to Lisa that she had developed a crush on Columbo and hoped to form a real relationship with him. Columbo, who was happily married to the unseen Mrs. Columbo, played along with Lauren’s flirtation to get her to open up about her relationship with Nick, and eventually he discovered her accomplice, Lisa. To protect Lisa, Lauren confessed to the crime, claiming she worked with an unnamed male accomplice, and Columbo agreed to let Lisa go.
While Lauren and Lisa’s crime was fueled purely by revenge, I still feel like it was justified. Nick treated both of them like garbage, and he almost killed Lisa by choking her so hard that he left bruises on her neck. I mean, come on, this guy needed some killing. It was either him or them, and I’m Team Lauren and Lisa all the way.
Columbo must have agreed with me on some level because he let Lisa get away, but sadly, he still sent Lauren to jail, and since she refused to reveal her accomplice, she didn’t get the chance to go to trial and sway the jury with her real motive. If there had been just one mother on that jury, I guarantee she would’ve gotten away with it.
#5: Ruth Lytton, “Old Fashioned Murder”
Life dealt poor Ruth Lytton (Joyce Van Patten) a crappy hand. The love of her life ran off with her sister, Phyllis (Celeste Holm), while Ruth was pregnant with his child. He eventually married Phyllis, and the two of them raised Ruth’s daughter, Janie (Jeannie Berlin), as their own to avoid the family shame of a baby born out of wedlock.
Many years later, poor Ruth was still alone, and the only pleasure she could derive out of the broken pieces of her life came from the family museum, which she ran with her brother, Edward (Tim O’Connor), but Edward threatened to take even that away from her. It seems the museum wasn’t making much money, and Edward planned to sell it, much like Ric and the vineyard in “Any Old Port in a Storm.” In order to save the last shred of happiness she had, Ruth was forced to murder both Edward and Milton Schaffer (Peter S. Feibleman), a degenerate gambler recently hired as the museum’s piss-poor security guard.
Organized, orderly Ruth compulsively planned each step of her crime, painstakingly arranging every aspect of the scene to make it appear as if Edward and Milton had killed each other in a robbery gone wrong. Unfortunately, her compulsiveness caused her to mess up one tiny detail: she switched off the light when she left the room. This tipped off Columbo that something was amiss, and from that moment on, her fate was sealed.
Ultimately, Ruth confessed to the double murder to protect Janie from the truth about the circumstances surrounding her birth and her father’s death. Ruth maintained her calm composure through it all, right up to the moment when Columbo escorted her to jail.
It’s just not fair that Ruth had to get the short end of the stick in everything from her relationship to her career to her own daughter. Every chance she had for happiness was stolen away from her, and when it finally looked like things might go her way for a change, Columbo had to come along and ruin it all over again. I mean, I love Columbo, but I wish he would’ve just let this one go.
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