Arts & Entertainment

Classic Hollywood: William Link on 'Columbo'

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Considering he's one of the most iconic of TV characters, the brilliant, rumpled bed of a detective Lt. Columbo had quite an inauspicious start.

William Link and his late writing and producing partner Richard Levinson first introduced Columbo in a minor role in a 1960 episode called "Enough Rope" of the long-forgotten NBC anthology series "The Chevy Mystery Show." Bert Freed played the raincoat clad detective who would always give "enough rope" to a murderer so they would be tripped up by quirky Columbo.


FOR THE RECORD:
Classic Hollywood: The Classic Hollywood feature in Wednesday's Calendar section said that William Link's new book was called "The Columbo Chronicles." The correct title is the "The Columbo Collection." —


They resurrected him two years later for the play "Prescription: Murder," which starred Joseph Cotten as the murderer, Agnes Moorehead as his wife (whom he kills) and Oscar-winning actor Thomas Mitchell ("Stagecoach," "Gone With the Wind") as Columbo.

"We saw the opening of 'Prescription: Murder' in San Francisco at the Curran," recalls the 76-year-old Link in the living room of his rustic home above Sunset Strip.

"At the end at the curtain calls … when Mitchell came out people went crazy. Dick and I looked at each other and said, 'This is one of the cops we created, why is he so popular?'"

One reason: Columbo is a working-class hero. "It was always him against a very wealthy man or individual," Link says.

And the setup was unique. Audiences knew from the start whom the murderer was — in fact, the opening act would follow the murderer as he or she planned the crime and executed it. So the fun was to watch the battle of wits between Columbo and the culprit, because the murderer would never guess that the quirky Columbo would be smart enough to solve the case. Whenever one heard him say, "Just one more thing," audiences knew he had gotten his man.

Sealing the deal, though, was Peter Falk's brilliant, multi-Emmy-winning performance as the LAPD detective. He transformed the character into a household name first in two TV movies: 1967's "Prescription: Murder" and 1971's "Ransom for a Dead Man," then in an NBC series, which ran from 1971to '77. It was resurrected in 1989 on ABC, where it continued through 1993. Falk is 82 and continued working until a few years ago.

Ironically, Levinson and Link originally wanted Bing Crosby for the role. "Were we crazy?," Link says, laughing. "He was very cool, but he was funny if you think of the 'Road' pictures. He was obviously an intelligent man. He had the pipe instead of the cigars Peter had."

Link and Levinson had met Falk in the late 1950s when they were all starting out in New York. Link points out that Falk is very much like Columbo in real life.

That was Falk's own ill-fitting raincoat he wore during the run of the series, ditto the shapeless green suit and old shoes. Levinson once told the press, in fact, that their show had the cheapest wardrobe outside of Big Bird on "Sesame Street."

Though Link and Falk long retired Columbo from the small screen, the writer has just published a book of short stories, "The Columbo Chronicles," which features 12 new mysteries.

Levinson and Link wrote for 43 years. They met their first day in junior high in Philadelphia and began writing that afternoon. After serving in separate divisions in the Army, they formed their adult partnership that would last until Levinson's death from a heart attack at age 52 in 1987.

Besides "Columbo," they created 13 more on-air series, including "Murder, She Wrote," "Mannix," "McCloud," "Ellery Queen" and "The Bold Ones."

They also wrote the groundbreaking 1972 ABC TV movie "That Certain Summer," starring Hal Holbrook as a divorced father with a teenage son (Scott Jacoby) who informs his son that he is gay. Martin Sheen plays Holbrook's lover.

The two came up with the idea after learning that one of their gay friends at Universal had been married, had a son and then came out of the closet. After having lunch with their friend, "I said to Dick, 'You know there is a drama about a man who leaves his wife because he comes out of the closet but his son doesn't know how to deal with the fact that his father is gay.' Back then we could write a gay drama for Broadway or off-Broadway, but television was a no-no. A guy used to come to our office and say, 'What do you have for ABC?' We mentioned this gay father-son project and he said, 'You know, I think my boss, Barry Diller, would be interested.'"

So they took the idea to Diller, who had created the movie-of-the-week concept at ABC. "He said, 'Take a shot at it.' He loved it, but now I have to sell it to the network. We got rave reviews, but the only Emmy was for the actor who played the son."

susan.king@latimes.com

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