Hello! Welcome to “Murder, She Blogged,” a new blog series investigating representations of detectives, police, and crime in pop culture from a feminist perspective. For more about me: I’m a journalist here in London, I edit an online feminist magazine, The F-Word, and as will become perfectly clear as this series progresses, watch far too much television (although I’ll be touching on other media too).
Columbo was the late, great Peter Falk’s most well-known role. We knew him by his rumpled coat, his preternatural ability to hone in on the killer within seconds, and his catchphrase, “Just one more thing….” And, of course, the references to one of the most enduring, if offscreen characters: the mysterious figure of Mrs. Columbo.
It was a running gag of the series that she never appeared on screen. In ”Troubled Waters,” Lt. Columbo and Mrs. Columbo are on a cruise when a passenger is murdered. Even though the entire episode is set in the confined space of a ship at sea, she still doesn’t appear on screen. In another episode her character is elevated to a mention the title, however, “Rest in Peace, Mrs. Columbo” still doesn’t feature her in person. Columbo holds a fake funeral for his wife to lure in the murderer of the week.
So Mrs. Columbo survived to not appear another day.
But in 1979 she did briefly get not only a voice and a face, but her own television series called Mrs. Columbo.
Kate Mulgrew starred as Kate Columbo (better known now as Captain Janeway in Star Trek Voyager, but back in a crime show of sorts in the upcoming NTSF:SD:SUV). In a nice reversal, it is Columbo who is the offscreen presence in this spin-off.
Kate Columbo is a homemaker, mother of one daughter, and works part time for a local newspaper. Like many female detective characters before and after, she’s not part of the police force herself. She stumbles into crimes and solves them. The opening credits present what seems to be a crime scene, but no—that’s Kate clearing up after Mr. Columbo.
As the show tanked, the network quickly tried to disassociate the spin-off from the original. Although it lasted only 13 episodes, the name of the show was changed three times, first to Kate Columbo, then Kate the Detective and finally to Kate Loves a Mystery. By then, the character had been rewritten as Kate Callahan, an investigator with no connection at all to Columbo. To drive home the point, she was given a divorce.
We know that Columbo exists in an alternate world, one where a blue-collar detective dedicates seemingly all his time to doggedly pursuing cartoonish villains, the super-wealthy, film stars, the business elite, and the privileged. Could the crimes detected by Kate Columbo be transposed into the “main” show? The murders are similarly fantastical, centering on psychics, puppeteers and so on. Just like on Columbo, we already know who dunnit, we’re just waiting to see how Kate solves the puzzle.
There is, however, more levity in the portrayal of the criminals and crimes. In “Caviar With Everything,” Kate is reporting on a local catering firm for her paper and stumbles into a homicide. We see the murderer “comically” trying to off her ex, only to be repeatedly interrupted by Kate at inopportune moments. Also, Kate solves the crime and… nothing. She clinks champagne glasses with the murderer, with no particular indication of involving the criminal justice system.
Many Columbo fans disown Mrs Columbo. One site says:
The official pronouncement of everyone associated with Columbo is that the character played by Kate Mulgrew, in the series initially called Mrs. Columbo, was married to some other cop who happened to also be named Columbo.
In The Columbo Phile: A Casebook, Mark Dawidziak puts together a “brief sketch” of what he considers the authentic Mrs. Columbo—although she is only glimpsed through her husband’s references:
The Columbos were high school sweethearts. “Never exactly thin,” Mrs. Columbo is something of an athlete. She’s an expert bowler and belongs to a league.
Although not a good cook, she has many other abilities. She handles the finances and does the taxes. She takes accounting courses and other night classes. She’s a good dancer and singer.
Mrs. Columbo reads constantly. She loves crossword puzzles, Ann Landers, African violets, opera, classical, country, and rock music. She loves having a good time and can get very loud when carried away.
She gives her husband a pencil every morning. She has a proverb for every occasion. She would prefer her husband take up a pipe, but he can’t get used to it.
In a perhaps cynical move, Kate Columbo was made significantly younger in her own TV show than references in Columbo suggest. Columbo’s creators put forward some alternative actors, Dawidziak recounts:
“Fred Silverman wanted the Mrs. Columbo series and he asked us and Peter Fischer to do it,” Richard Levinson recalled. “We said no and he said, `We’ll do it without you.’ So we suggested Maureen Stapleton. Silverman didn’t want her. After testing a lot of actresses, we suggested Zohra Lampert. He didn’t want her. He wanted somebody young and gorgeous. So we walked.”
Perhaps if the character’s original creators had been involved we would have been treated to as long a running character as Falk’s disheveled detective, but it’s easy to sympathise with their reluctance and eventual disavowal of the show.
In a way this is a shame. Mrs. Columbo may not have been great television, it may have been a cash-in, but it still took a character defined by her absence, talked about and never given her own voice, and for a brief moment at least put her at the center of the story. A character who was a prop—albiet a much beloved prop—for an iconic male detective turned the tables and became an investigator herself.