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Columbo Article

Prescription Murder was the first outing for Columbo, the famous American detective who featured in the long-running television series produced by Universal. The play was written by Levinson and Link. Years later they wrote about the trials and tribulations of transforming a stage character onto the small screen in "Stay Tuned"  published by ACE books New York (ISBN 0-441-78546-8). They commented on what made the character of Columbo stand out - for example, that he was obviously  "proletarian" playing against and often catching crooks from the elite of society. This was looked on as a subversive attack upon the American class system. They also had ideas about violence. "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), no 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 show was mainly written in house. "We would plot them, a writer would rough out a first draft, and then everyone would do a 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 rara avis, a writer who understood the show, Universal employed him in future seasons just to come up with Columbo story premises."

It wasn't all plain sailing. "There were other complaints. What was 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 the traditional' 'family " of regulars? At the very least he should have a young and appealing cop as his assistant and confidant. And worst of all, the scripts were talky. They should be enlivened by frequent doses of adrenalin in the form of our old friends "tempo" and "jeopardy." And Peter Falk was mistrustful. He barely knew us and he resented putting himself and his career in our hands. It soon became evident that his 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, since 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 Pirandelloesque game of cat-and-mouse was played out in our office as well as in our scripts."

Peter Falk’s "difficult" behaviour was not all negative. "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 directors 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 Tower 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."

The series ran for a long time and that itself may have proved a problem. "What was originally a fresh and inventive style of storytelling became, through endless repetition, virtual self-parody. 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 enriched and deepened his performance. In our opinion he wasn’t 't ruthless enough in the editing room—he allowed Columbo to linger far too long and far too cloyingly on the screen—but the continuing success of die series was largely due to his efforts."