Share |HOW WE CREATED COLUMBO – AND HOW HE NEARLY KILLED US
By Richard Levinson and William Link
(from their book "Stay Tuned: An Inside Look at the Making of Prime Time Television," excerpted in American Film magazine, March, 1981)
|Each year in February or March, Manhattan is the
setting for a rite of spring undreamed of by Stravinsky. Executives
and independent suppliers descend upon the city for what is known as
"selling season." Armed with pilot scripts and a backlog of
"concepts," the invading hoard sequesters itself in various hotel
suites and begins to bombard the networks with high-powered
salesmanship. The object of all of this is to get new series on the
schedule, or keep existing series on the air.
In recent years the nature of the selling season has changed, but in March of 1971, when Sid Sheinberg and his associates from Universal deployed themselves at the Sherry Netherland Hotel, they had only a few weeks to hawk their wares and convince the three networks that theirs was the better mousetrap. Sheinberg had, among his other offerings, one surefire package: a ninety-minute series, created for a Sunday-night time period, called "The NBC Mystery Movie." It would include three rotating shows: "McCloud," which had already aired the previous season as part of a now-defunct series; "McMillan and Wife," to star Rock Hudson in his television debut; and "Columbo," with Peter Falk as a police lieutenant.
What happens in New York chain-reacts -- or self-destructs -- in Los Angeles. When Sheinberg returned with his bag of sales, it became instantly necessary to staff all of the new shows, find scripts, and race into production to meet September air dates. Producers immediately competed with one another for writers, cameramen and crews. A period of tumultuous activity ensued, not only at Universal but at studios all over town.
The expected call came one morning in April, and we met with Sheinberg. He asked us if we would produce "Columbo". He told us the ground rules -- Peter FaIk was due to begin rehearsals for Neil Simon's new comedy, The Prisoner of Second Avenue, on September 12. Could we complete six ninety-minute "Columbo" films by then?
For reasons that still mystify us, we accepted the assignment. Within a few days we acquired an energetic and knowledgeable associate producer, Bob O'Neill, and a young writer named Steven Bochco was recommended for story editor. We moved to a larger suite of offices, shut the door, and began work on a ninety-minute script. Half a dozen months and several lifetimes later, not six but seven "Columbo" films were finished and ready for the verdict of the viewing public.
There was, as always, no time for reflection; we literally began making conceptual decisions on the walk from Sheinberg's office to our own. Fortunately, we had the first "Columbo" pilot, "Prescription: Murder," as a prototype. The first order of business for many series is to make radical changes as soon as the pilot is sold. But we had an instinctive feeling that there was strength in the "Prescription: Murder" format, and we decided not to vary it. Each "Columbo" would make use of the so-called inverted mystery form, a method of storytelling invented by an English writer named R. Austin Freeman in the early part of the century.
According to Ellery Queen in his study of detective fiction, Queen's Quorum, Freeman posed himself the following question: "Would it be possible to write a detective story in which, from the outset, the reader was taken entirely into the author's confidence, was made an actual witness of the crime and furnished with every fact that could possibly be used in its detection?" Freeman answered his own question by employing the device in his book The Singing Bone, and based on our experience with the two "Columbo" pilots, we had a hunch that it would work on television. We had no idea that it would become an eventual trap for us and for all of the other writers who would bang their heads against the wall of the inviolate "Columbo" format.
We made other decisions those first weeks, the most basic of which was that the series would not be what is known as a "cop show." We had no intention of dealing with the realities of actual police procedures. Instead, we wanted to pay our respects to the classic mystery fiction of our youth, the works of the Carrs, the Queens, and the Christies. We knew that no police officer on earth would be permitted to dress as shabbily as Columbo, or drive a car as desperately in need of burial, but in the interest of flavorful characterization, we deliberately chose not to be realistic. Our show would be a fantasy, and as such it would avoid the harsher aspects of a true policeman's life: the drug busts, the street murders, the prostitutes, and the back-alley shootouts.
We would create a mythical Los Angeles and populate it with affluent men and women living in the stately homes of the British mystery novel; our stories would be much closer in spirit to Dorothy L. Sayers than to Joseph Wambaugh. Besides, our rumpled cop would be much more amusing if he were always out of his element, playing his games of cat and mouse in the mansions and watering holes of the rich. We even decided never to show him at police headquarters or at home; it seemed to us much more effective if he drifted into our stories from limbo.
When the series went on the air, many critics found it an ever-so-slightly subversive attack on the American class system in which a proletarian hero triumphed over the effete and moneyed members of the Establishment. But the reason for this was dramatic rather than political. Given the persona of Falk as an actor, it would have been foolish to play him against a similar type, a Jack Klugman, for example, or a Martin Balsam. Much more fun could be had if he were confronted by someone like Noel Coward.
Our final decision was to keep the series nonviolent. There would be a murder, of course, but it would be sanitized and barely seen. Columbo would never carry a gun. He would never be involved in a shooting or a car chase (he'd be lucky, in fact, if his car even started when he turned the key), nor would he ever have a fight. The show would be the American equivalent of the English drawing room murder mystery, dependent almost entirely on dialogue and ingenuity to keep it afloat.
Because of these elements -- and constraints -- "Columbo" was a difficult show to write for. The format was reasonably new, and many of the writers we approached either didn't understand it or else understood all too well and felt it wasn't worth the effort. We arranged a screening of the second "Columbo" pilot, "Ransom for a Dead Man," for sixty-odd free-lance writers. Such screenings are common; they are a way of introducing writers to a new show. In theory they will whet the appetites of those assembled, who will then hurry home, explode with ideas, and contact the producer with requests for meetings. In our case, only two out of the sixty expressed any interest. One of these was Jackson Gillis, a veteran of the long-running "Perry Mason" series and an expert at mystery plotting. Gillis wrote two scripts for our first season and thereafter became "Columbo's" story editor for several years.
Because of the difficulty in finding writers, most of our scripts were put together "in house." We would plot them, Bochco would rough out a first draft, and then everyone would do the final polish. We'd often sit in the office having daylong story sessions that would end in near migraines for everyone in the room. Friends were pulled out of the halls for reactions. A writer-director named Larry Cohen dropped by to say hello and was immediately put to work on an idea that had resisted all of our efforts. He quickly solved it, and because he was that rarest of breeds, a writer who understood the show, Universal employed him in future seasons just to come up with "Columbo" story premises.
Our first scripts made their way to the network, and the response was not effusive: NBC had major "conceptual concerns" with our approach. How could we have made the terrible blunder of keeping our leading man offstage until twenty minutes into the show? Didn't we realize that Peter Falk was our star? The audience would expect to see him at once, and here we were perversely delaying his appearance. One of the executives called it, with considerable heat, "the longest stage wait in television history."
There were other complaints. What about this business about an unseen wife? And why a wife at all? Columbo should be free of any marital encumbrances so that he could have romantic interludes on occasion. Why hadn't we given him a traditional "family" of regulars? At the very least he should have a young and appealing cop as his assistant and confidante. And worst of all, the scripts were talkative. They should be enlivened by frequent doses of adrenalin in the form of "jeopardy."
There are only four responses a writer-producer can make to network suggestions: He can ignore them, he can cave in, he can argue, or he can threaten to quit. We opted for the last of these multiple choices. We also pretended to a confidence we didn't feel in the hope that our conviction, or at least the illusion of conviction, would be persuasive in an industry plagued by uncertainty. And we were lucky; we had time on our side. If "Columbo" was to meet its air date, scripts had to be filmed as written. Any delay, caused by either conceptual changes or a walkout by the creative personnel, would throw the series hopelessly off schedule. NBC backed away and grudgingly left us to our own devices.
And then there was Peter Falk. Stars of television series are not a homogeneous group. Some of them, a Robert Young or an Arthur Hill, are agreeable types who learn their lines, speak them well, and go home. Others are temperamental and thrive on chaos. Falk was a breed apart. He returned to television reluctantly after a happy filmmaking experience with his friends John Cassavetes and Ben Gazzara (Husbands), and I suspected that he had a deep psychological resistance to the idea of doing a series. Then, too, he was mistrustful. He barely knew us, and he was putting himself and his career in our hands. It soon became evident that Falk's method of protecting himself was to try to exercise control over the elements of the show. A clash was inevitable.
Clash we did. But it was a strange kind of jockeying for power, because Falk was as intelligent an actor as we had ever worked with, and he was almost as familiar with the Columbo character as we were. He was also extremely likable; even in the midst of an argument, we couldn't help feeling a genuine affection for him. But in matters of metabolism and methods of operation, we and Falk were very far apart. Under the gun of the ever-present deadlines of series television, we were inclined to make rapid decisions and move on to the next crisis. Falk, on the other hand, tended to mull and ponder; he didn't like to be rushed and wanted to keep his options open. In an uncanny way he was very much like Columbo: clever, reflective, and oblique. And so a Pirandellian game of cat and mouse was played out in our office as well as in our scripts.
By early May we were all involved in intrigues worthy of John le Carre. Falk insisted that someone he trusted be placed on our staff to look out for his interests. As soon as this was done, we noticed that he somehow mysteriously managed to acquire advance copies of our scripts in outline and rough first drafts. These were not nearly ready to be seen; quite naturally, he was dissatisfied with them and tended to view with suspicion our promises that they would be improved by rewriting. We countered his ploy by keeping all material under lock and key. He made it a habit to drop by the editing rooms to monitor the progress of various segments. We instructed our editors to close their doors or to actually leave the building if Falk approached. When he insisted on watching dailies, we wrote scenes that had to be filmed away from the studio, scheduling them so that he would be on location when dailies were shown.
All of this was a foolish waste of energy, but given the siege mentality of series television, a sense of proportion is difficult to maintain. Falk was insecure and trying to make a contribution. Actors are usually powerless to control their fates in television, and he was seeking any leverage he could find. But we were equally insecure, and we resented his intrusion into areas that were primarily our responsibility.
In a strange way his intransigence was useful. The studio insisted that each of our segments had to be filmed in ten days, a woefully inadequate schedule. But Falk refused to be hurried. In the middle of shooting, he would engage the director in lengthy discussions of story and character, and we would invariably drift into overtime. Each episode took longer and longer to make—twelve days, thirteen days, even fourteen days—until word got around that we were a ''problem'' show with a "difficult" star.
When studio executives tried to pressure Falk, he would explode into diatribes about the Universal assembly line. He had not played killers and gangsters for nothing; a Falk eruption was chilling to behold. The executives would retreat to the safety of their offices; they were up against a shrewd street fighter, and they didn't know how to deal with him. All of which left us with more time to make a better show. Falk knew exactly what he was doing, and for once his interests and ours coincided.
Whatever our complaints about him, there was no denying that he seemed born to play the role. When we created Columbo, we were influenced by the bureaucratic Petrovitch in Crime and Punishment and by G.K. Chesterton's marvelous little cleric, Father Brown. But Falk added a childlike wonder all his own. He also added the raincoat. We had given Columbo a wrinkled top coat in our play, but during the filming of "Prescription: Murder," Falk dug out one of his old raincoats from the back of a closet and never took it off. He wore the same suit, shirt, tie, and shoes for the entire 10 year run of the series, giving "Columbo" the somewhat dubious distinction of having the lowest budget for male wardrobe in the history of the medium, with the possible exception of Big Bird.
Falk cared deeply about the series, and our conflicts with him were never personal. Some of the turmoil stemmed from the fact that he had nothing to do during the long weeks of pre-production. Once the series began filming, however, his energies were fully engaged and there was quiet on the battlefield. Until he got it into his head that he wanted to direct.
It is not unusual for the lead of a series to direct an occasional segment. But it rarely happens in the first season. And few television characters have as much to do in each show as Columbo. Nevertheless, Falk was adamant. The studio took the position that he had employed to act, not direct, and we were suddenly confronted with the irresistible force and the immovable object – with us in between.
Falk let it be known that he was not feeling well. He was ignored. The illness apparently overpowered him he took to his bed. Our schedule fell apart. Falk returned, he was briefly suspended, then he was reinstated. Agents and lawyers descended on Universal's Black Tower with notes from his doctors. Threats of litigation filled the already furious air.
When in doubt, capitulate. At least that seemed to be Universal's view. After weeks of resolute firmness, the studio, pressured by the network, gave in to Falk's demands. We were instructed to find a suitable script for him to direct. Falk was an instant hero to every actor on every television series. He had, to coin a misshapen metaphor, brought the Tower to its knees.
We had been expecting a collapse in the studio's position, and were in a vengeful mood, so when we presented Falk with his script, it was fashioned, by design, to drive even the most experienced director out of his mind. The villain was an architect, and much of the picture would have to be filmed at a construction site. We had already picked the location, Century City, a massive new development of steel and glass. Scenes would be shot in a gigantic hole in the ground, swimming with dust, while an actual building was being erected. The excavation had the look of a crater on the moon.
To Falk's credit, he prepared diligently. He consulted with other directors and he spent his weekends at the construction site, lining up shots. But the filming of the picture was a nightmare for him. He picked up a cold and almost lost his voice. Concentration was impossible because of the perpetual din of pneumatic drills and rivet guns. And work on the building never stopped; nothing as insignificant as a television crew was going to halt the march of progress. Every time Falk would change his mind about a shot and try to reshoot it, he would discover the set was no longer there --
a girder had gone up where his actors had stood moments before. We took to visiting the location and smiling down at him from the top of the hole. He'd shake his fist at us and plow on with the filming.
Interestingly, the picture that emerged was well directed. But Falk's performance was off. The adrenaline he needed to direct tended to interfere with his acting; he didn't calm himself sufficiently as he went from one side of the camera to the other, and so the usually low-key character of Columbo became, in this one instance, almost manic. But the construction site gave us fascinating production
values, and we were very pleased with the film. It was the most expensive of the "Columbos," but the studio was too sheepish to complain about costs. As of this writing, Falk has never directed again.
September 12 approached, and Falk prepared to leave for New York and the Neil Simon play. Ironically, during the final weeks, the three of us found ourselves in frequent agreement on most of the decisions affecting the show. We developed a grudging respect for his instincts. And Falk, after attempting to write a script for the series (he came up with an interesting first act and then ran headlong into trouble), began to see that good material was not in plentiful supply. It had been an education for all of us – stormy, but not without value.
Seven "Columbos" were now scattered throughout the Universal lot in various stages of completion, some in editing, some in dubbing. The members our crew were absorbed by other shows. We had not even been on the air and our work was almost finished. It was an odd feeling: There would be no out-of-town tinkering, and our mistakes could not be corrected. Ten and a half hours had been assembled in five months, and now there was little for us to do but wait for our national opening night.
The impact of a successful television series is a peculiar phenomenon of popular culture. Best-selling novels, hit plays, and even highly acclaimed motion pictures take many months to filter into the consciousness of the public. But the fallout from a series, or a miniseries such as "Shogun," can be instantaneous.
"Columbo" was an immediate popular and critical success, quickly establishing itself as the hit of the new season, and within weeks the character, the raincoat, and even some of the show's catch phrases were popping up in newspapers and magazines across the country. Peter Falk imitations were impossible to avoid on variety programs and in nightclubs, and stoop-shouldered and squinty-eyed ten-year-olds drove their parents close to the brink with dialogue from the various episodes. More recently, a Jaws or a Star Wars would have the same effect, but this was in the early seventies, long before media hype became the art form of the decade.
The series began its run among the ten most-watched television programs of the week, and it stayed in that position for years, frequently moving into the number-one slot. The inevitable "Columbo" game was marketed, and "Columbo" books, in one of the first of the now-prevalent publishing tie-ins, made their appearance on the nation's paperback racks. Falk, backstage in The Prisoner of Second Avenue, complained that no one visited his dressing room to discuss the play; all they wanted to talk about was Lieutenant Columbo.
We were, of course, delighted. We gave interviews praising Falk. He gave interviews praising us. He was on the cover of Time, which proclaimed "The Year of the TV Cop" and said "Columbo" was "the most influential, probably the best, and certainly the most endearing cop series on TV." The critical community took notice not only of the show, but of the scripts. Cecil Smith, the television columnist, spoke of "the brightest dialogue and most intricate plots around." And when the television academy released its nominations for the Emmy, every single writer in the Best Writing Achievement in Drama category was the author of a "Columbo" script. On the night of the awards ceremony, Falk won an Emmy, as did we, and as did Ed Abroms for Best Editing.
The "NBC Mystery Movie," including "Columbo," received a quick renewal, but we decided not to stay with it for a second season. We wanted to do another motion picture for television, and we needed a respite from the demands of the series form. The studio wasn't happy with our decision, but we pointed out that the style of the show was now well known and scripts wouldn't be quite as hard to come by. We also promised to contribute some stories for the second batch of six or seven episodes.
As the summer before the second season approached, NBC reasoned that if "Columbo" was a hit at ninety minutes, it would be even more successful if the episodes were inflated to two hours. Universal, mindful of the excessive cost of the series, quickly agreed. Another thirty minutes would bring more money from NBC, and some of the overages could be absorbed.
Economically, it was a good idea. Creatively, it was a disaster. Scripts were padded. Scenes were filmed and inserted to bring the program up to length. Over the next few seasons, there were more and more two-hour "Columbos." This was also true of the other shows on "The Mystery Movie," but "McCloud" and "McMillan and Wife" had looser formats and could more easily incorporate the added time. "Columbo" remained a hit, but we came to feel that very few of the segments could justify the added length.
Novelty and style are valuable aspects of any creative enterprise, but it's almost axiomatic that they will wear out their welcome over time. One cannot read successive doses of Hemingway without the eventual feeling that enough is enough. Conversely, the works of less stylistic writers will not be as irritating, because they are not as distinctive; in the McLuhanesque sense, they are "cool" as opposed to "hot."
In television terms, "Dragnet" is an example of this effect. What was originally a fresh and inventive style of storytelling became, through endless repetition, virtual self-parody. "Columbo" had the same problem. The very qualities that made it interesting eventually gave it a feeling of predictability. And the two-hour shows only emphasized this weakness. In a way it had no business being a series; it wasn't conceived for longevity.
There are theories, however, that television audiences like repetition. They certainly liked "Columbo," and they stayed with it long after it had passed the point of diminishing returns. Fortunately, in Peter Falk the show had a star of great staying power. In our absence he gradually took over full control. Producers came and went -- six more followed us over the years -- but Falk was the constant, and in many ways this was beneficial. He fought for better scripts, publicized the series as often as he could, and deepened his performance. In our opinion he wasn't ruthless enough in the editing room -- he allowed Columbo to linger far too long and too cloyingly on the screen -- but the continuing success of the series was largely due to his efforts.
"Columbo" was distributed around the world. It even managed to supplant televised baseball as a national obsession of the Japanese. And its popularity in Rumania was such that the State government asked Falk to make a brief speech explaining to the Rumanians – who were apparently on the verge of riot -- that more "Columbos" would be forthcoming.
It also spawned a host of imitations -- so-called character cops. The first was Barnaby Jones, and then Cannon. A year or so later Kojak made his debut, sucking on a lollipop instead of a cigar. If Columbo was a shabby cop in elegant surroundings, Kojak was just the opposite: an elegant cop in shabby surroundings, with macho Greek bravado in place of Columbo's rumpled humanity. Finally, there Baretta, and Robert Blake began to out-Falk Falk, replacing him as the nemesis of the Black Tower.
Falk moved on to a motion picture career. "Columbo" had been a help and a hindrance to him -- it gave him wide recognition, but it threatened to identify him permanently with just one role. The last time we met him, he had remarried and was uncharacteristically mellow. We told him we missed working with him. He may have been a monster, but he was our monster, and we had a certain masochistic nostalgia for the Sturm und Drang of that first season.
We recalled a meeting with him after the series had established itself as a hit. He had just returned from New York, and we informed him that we were leaving the show. He was genuinely distressed and urged us to stay. Surprised, we reminded him that the three of us were in constant conflict. We had kept him away from dailies, we had hidden scripts, we had even ordered the editors to lock their doors to him. Why on earth would he want us to continue on for the second season? Falk smiled. "Because now," he said, "I trust you."
|Website copyright 2015 by William Link.
Photo of William Link and Peter Falk by Douglas Kirkland
Book cover illustration by Al Hirschfeld. Copyright Al Hirschfeld. Hirschfeld exclusive representative is Margo Feiden Galleries, Ltd., New York
Website by Dovetail Studio.