Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Goodbye Columbo

To: Abbottsville Fourth Ward
From: Donna Banta
Subject: Peter Falk, 1927-2011

Back in the early 1970's, when I was a kid growing up in Glendale, California, my mother invited me to spend a day with her at Universal Studios, where she was employed as a secretary. I was very excited to wander around a real movie studio and go places where tourists weren't permitted. That morning I saw the great character actor, Martin Milner, who then played a policeman on the show Adam 12. I also caught a glimpse of Desi Arnaz, Jr. who was something of a teen idol at the time.

Later we went to the commissary to eat. We sat at one end of the semi-circular lunch counter. I was chattering on about having seen Desi Jr. and "Officer Pete Malloy" when my mom put her hand on my knee and nodded to a spot opposite me at the counter. I looked over and locked eyes with none other than Lieutenant Columbo, the star of my favorite TV show. He wore his wrinkled raincoat and sported a five-o'clock shadow. When I smiled at him, he smiled back and gave me a little nod. -- Just like he did with all the kids who figured into his plots. -- Then he took a bite out of his sandwich, sipped his iced tea, and studied a page from a script sitting in front of him. It wasn't until I saw the script that I realized that he wasn't really Lieutenant Columbo, he was the amazing actor, Peter Falk.

But it's Columbo's image at the lunch counter that will forever be burned in my brain. It was the closest I've come to meeting a fictional character in real life. True to his craft, I imagine that 's how Mr. Falk would like me to remember that moment.

Peter Falk decided that Columbo needed a raincoat, and found one in his own closet to wear for the pilot episode. Later, he developed the character into the rumpled, absent minded, painstakingly polite, crime-solving Einstein he would become. Falk chose the lieutenant's famous broken down Peugeot off the studio lot, in part because it matched the raincoat. Later, he picked out a basset hound named "Dog."

"Murder by the Book" was written by
Steven  Bochco and directed
by Steven Spielberg
Columbo was the perfect foil to the celebrities and socialites who were his suspects -- humble, self deprecating, but never intimidated by wealth, power, and the hubris they inspired. He was the everyday guy who was always underestimated. Typically, an episode began with a brilliant criminal committing the perfect murder. Convinced he was above suspicion, the murderer smugly attempted to help Columbo "solve" the crime. Then at some point the balance of power subtly shifted and the killer's alibi weakened, usually after the lieutenant prefaced a question with, "Just one more thing . . ."

I own every episode of Columbo and have enjoyed many marathon viewings. Most memorably when my cousin and his family visited from upstate New York. When I look at Columbo today, he's not only the smartest guy in the room, but also the coolest. His groomed but tousled hair, camel suits, and skinny ties look stylish now when juxtaposed against the 1970's schlock of long sideburns, wide lapels, shag carpet, and rooms draped in bolt after bolt of velvet. Such is the case with any classic.

Perhaps in a decade or two another actor will emerge who can convincingly play the character. But for now, it seems Columbo has died along with his brilliant creator, Peter Falk. The loss of both is sad for all of us.

Personally, I feel cheated that Columbo never investigated the Mormons.

Imagine this plot line: the Mormon Prophet commits murder and The Quorum of the Twelve Apostles vouch for him. Columbo comes to the Church Office Building to get statements from the General Authorities. He appears to accept the Prophet's alibi, falls into small talk with the "Seer and Revelator," then pulls out a cigar and pats his trench coat pockets in search of matches.

Columbo: Say President, you don't happen to have a light, do you?

President: We don't smoke, Lieutenant.

Columbo: Oh I'm sorry, sir, I had no idea. How rude of me. . . . Now, my wife, she would've known that, see, because she has some nice Mormon friends in Vegas. She meets up with them whenever she goes there to gamble.

The Prophet is so charmed by Columbo's deference that he overlooks the faux pas, laughs at the lieutenant's homey stories, and even helps him find his pen. After that, Columbo tours Temple Square, chats up coeds at BYU, visits a food storage superstore and a missionary emporium, samples fry sauce, attends Sacrament Meeting, and pays a call on some polygamists.

Finally he returns with more questions for the Prophet. This time the church president is not charmed, but Columbo doesn't appear to notice, much less care.

Columbo: You know sir, this is my first visit to Utah, and I must say, it's a fascinating place.

President: Well, I'm glad you think so, now if you don't mind . . .

Columbo: See up until now, all I knew about Utah was what I heard from my nephew. Did I tell you I've got a nephew who's a park ranger at Bryce Canyon?

President: Really Lieutenant? Perhaps you should go visit him.

Columbo: No sir, I think it's more interesting here. The other day I took a tour of the Visitor's Center, you know, over there by the temple.

President: (exhales loudly) Is that right?

Columbo: Nice lady showed me around, name was Sister Bagby. Boy did she teach me a lot about the Mormons.

President: Well then, you needn't be asking me . . .

Columbo: Say, do you know her?

President: Do I know who, Lieutenant?

Columbo: Sister Bagby.

President: NO I DON'T . . . No . . . I haven't had the pleasure.

Columbo: I tell you what, that Sister Bagby, she really knows her stuff. She told me that Joseph Smith translated the Book of Mormon from plates made out of gold, and that when he was through translating them, the Lord took those plates back up to heaven so nobody could see them.

President: Almost right, Lieutenant. There were eleven others who saw the plates before the Lord took them.

Columbo: Oh I know. Sister Bagby, she told me about the witnesses.

President: I hope Sister Bagby also told you that not one of them ever recanted his testimony of having seen the plates.

Columbo: Oh right, those witnesses, they kept their stories straight. But then, they were members of Joseph Smith's inner circle. Sort of like those Twelve Apostles are your inner circle.

President: In a way, I suppose.

Columbo: (Scratches his forehead.) See, and that's what puzzles me.

President: What Lieutenant?

Columbo: Well, sir, that story Joseph told about the plates, that's pretty fantastical. You'd think the average Mormon would need more proof than just the word of eleven of Smith's cronies.

President: Perhaps it seems like a fantastic story to you, but the testimonies of the eleven witnesses is a cornerstone of our faith.

Columbo: Yes sir, I see that now.

President: Well, if there's nothing else, I'll let my secretary show you out.

Columbo: Fine sir, thank you for your time.

Columbo: (turns, heads for the door then stops and turns back around)

President, just one more thing . . .

May he rest in peace.


  1. Your dialog rings true to my memory. Nice tribute!

  2. He was awesome as Columbo and I loved him in Princess Bride too. Thanks!

  3. Thanks Paul!

    JZ, yes he was an amazing actor and Columbo was not his only role. Nor was TV or film. He was a success on B'way too. Thanks for the comment!

  4. A sweet and funny tribute to a classic actor.

    What's fry sauce? Does it go on french fries?

  5. Hey, thanks Ahab. Fry sauce is a Utah original. It's mayonnaise mixed with ketchup, and yes, it goes on french fries. I was tickled when they mentioned it on an episode of Big Love. :)

  6. Not only a wonderful tribute, but truly brilliant. I loved Columbo. Thank you for sharing your personal experience with a classic actor. And the Mormon themed plot ... we need one of those.

  7. I'd pay big money to see him interrogate BKP. ;)

  8. I remember watching that show after school on reruns (I'm 42 now). I really really did think that show was made of awesomeness. thanks buddy.


  9. @Kriss, thank you! Columbo is timeless.

  10. I listened to a wonderful NPR special on Falk the other day with excerpts from an interview he'd given previously. He was such a relaxed, authentic, likable man. You were one lucky kid to have seen him!

  11. I agree, Nance. Thanks for commenting!

  12. Brilliant!
    "Now, my wife, she would've known that, see, because she has some nice Mormon friends in Vegas. She meets up with them whenever she goes there to gamble."
    Hilarious! Thank you!