Unkempt 'Columbo': a thorn in the side of unsuspecting suspects

December 13, 1991|By Martin F. Kohn | Martin F. Kohn,Knight-Ridder News Service

Just as your troubles are about to walk out the door, the little guy in the beat-up trench coat steps back into the room and says: "I'm sorry, sir. Just one more thing . . ."

Isn't life like that? Hasn't life been like that for 20 years, ever since Los Angeles Police Lieutenant Columbo, played by Peter Falk, made his regular-series TV debut Sept. 15, 1971, on NBC in an episode written by Steven Bochco and directed by Steven Spielberg.

Columbo is an enduring American icon, and he's back again Sunday night at 9 (Channel 13) in "Death Hits the Jackpot." In an age when our pop culture figures have no last names (Prince, Madonna, Sting), Columbo still has no first name. At a time when people -- those still employed, anyway -- relentlessly climb the corporate ladder, Columbo remains a lieutenant. Ignoring automotive model changeovers, he drives his old gray Peugeot whose backfire announces his impending arrival. And he's married to the same woman -- Mrs. Columbo -- whom we never see.

Columbo has always been different from TV's other cops. He doesn't shoot criminals. There's never a car chase. He has no nifty catch phrase to utter like "Book him, Dan-o" or "Who loves ya?"

He works on his own, without a sidekick, a recurring squad of assistants or a gruff but understanding boss. The message of "Columbo" has always been: One person working alone can cause good to triumph over evil -- if he's smart enough.

"Death Hits the Jackpot" exemplifies the formula to the letter. The bad guy (played by Rip Torn), a swanky jeweler, kills his

nephew in order to obtain his winning lottery ticket. Inevitably, Columbo winds up in fancy places asking questions, while wealthy snobs look down on him as a low-rent bumbler.

In a tony lingerie shop he inquires about the price of a peignoir (learning the word in the process). He's looking for an anniversary present for his wife -- you know, Mrs. Columbo. It costs $425. Columbo is astonished. He is the very opposite of that old definition of a cynic: He knows the price of nothing but the value of everything.

In Columbo's world, you stay married to the same person, you drive your old car because it still runs, you wear your old raincoat because it serves the purpose for which it was made, you rely on your own intelligence, and anyone who judges you by your appearance is a fool.

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