As just about every popular movie and TV show of the past few years has seemed intent on reminding us, rich people are weird. It’s the single dominant thematic thread tying together whodunit blockbusters (Knives Out, Glass Onion), horror films (Ready or Not), hospitality satires (The White Lotus), and culinary black comedies (The Menu) alike. As potent a message as it may be these days — rich people have, after all, been especially weird in recent years — it’s hardly new. Succession is just King Lear with a dick-pic mishap. Still, if there’s a point of origin for the particular incarnation of “crazy rich people” media we’re living through, it’s Columbo.
The show ran for decades, originally as part of the NBC Mystery Movie lineup, and follows Peter Falk as the titular frumpy New York homicide detective working out of Los Angeles. Each episode opens with a murder, often committed by a high-society Angeleno of the era: Think movie stars, politicians, CEOs, and the like. The episode then follows the murderer as they attempt to evade Columbo’s suspicions (which they never do). The structure came to be known as the “howcatchem,” an inverse of the classic whodunit. Rather than guest stars having to evade the suspicion of the audience (and Columbo), they take part in a game of cat and mouse, sometimes never realizing they aren’t the cat.
The format allowed for guest stars to come in as the murderer week to week with the show’s sharp writing and filmmaking drawing in big names such as Johnny Cash, William Shatner, John Cassavetes, and Faye Dunaway to chew scenery as larger-than-life loonies. As Columbo, Falk is the sort of once-in-a-lifetime screen talent you have to imagine big stars were willing to take a pay cut to trade a few barbs with.
Columbo’s shabby demeanor and seeming obliviousness (part of the joy of Falk’s performance is trying to gauge how calculated it is at any moment) plays counter to the arrogance of the upper-class criminals he’s investigating. The reason they get caught isn’t because they’re stupid — quite the contrary: Many of them are brilliant and come pretty damn close to getting away with murder. Rather, the show posits, their downfall is their arrogance, not necessarily in thinking they could get away with murder but in assuming someone of a lower-class background like Columbo would never be the one to catch them.
When taken as a whole across its 69 episodes, Columbo is a rich study in the varied ways in which rich folks are nutjobs. The standard of quality across its run is pretty high, so think of this less as a list of the best episodes or guest stars and more as a guide to the varied sort of wealthy weirdos the show spotlights.
“Murder by the Book”
Directed by Steven Spielberg, “Murder By the Book” is the first episode of Columbo after its pilot and feels like the blueprint for everything that follows. Jack Cassidy, in the first of three appearances on the show, plays one half of a murder-mystery-writing duo who offs his partner. His success as an author deludes him into believing he can plot his way out of a murder charge in real life, which runs up against the reality of the situation when Columbo takes on the case. Cassidy’s arrogance informs his every move right until he gets caught.
“Étude in Black”
John Cassavetes and Peter Falk are among the more perfect screen duos of all time, two longtime friends whose real-life camaraderie made for rich chemistry on-camera. Cassavetes made two appearances on his pal’s show with his first turn, as an arrogant philharmonic conductor who kills his mistress, standing out as one of the show’s all-time-great villainous performances. His contempt for not only Columbo but every other person who crosses his path is radiant, and it’s his annoyance with being bothered by anyone he deems unworthy of his time that leads to his murderous plot being found out. Only after he’s caught does he expresses something resembling respect for another human being’s intellect.
“Requiem for a Falling Star”
Anne Baxter’s Nora Chandler is a particularly memorable Columbo villain not just for her delightfully campy turn as a fading actress whose plot aims to take out a nosy gossip columnist but also because the plot hinges on her accidentally killing the wrong person: her longtime assistant. The show’s use of Los Angeles as a setting is often at its best when turning its eye to Hollywood, and “Requiem for a Falling Star” shines as a result. It’s one of the funnier episodes of the show, largely thanks to the recurring bit of Columbo being constantly starstruck by Ms. Chandler. It’s an episode that understands that, in a town full of rich weirdos, nobody’s weirder than professional theater kids.
“The Most Dangerous Match”
“The Most Dangerous Match” concerns an American chess champion who, in a fit of anxiety before a tournament final, kills his Russian rival and attempts to pass it off as an accident. Laurence Harvey guest stars as grand master Emmett Clayton, a guy in desperate need of anxiety medication well before he commits any crime. Like many Columbo antagonists, his downfall is an accumulation of minor errors, though one stands out as both particularly damning to his case and something of a summation of the fatal flaw of every murderer on the show: Clayton’s arrogance and insecurity pushes him to lie about the result of a friendly match between him and his rival the night of the murder. Had he simply admitted he lost, he may have gotten away with murder.
“Any Old Port in a Storm”
Regarded by many fans as the best episode of the show, “Any Old Port in a Storm” features a different take on your standard rich Columbo looney. Donald Pleasence stars as a meek, fussy wine snob who’s used his family’s fortune for years to fund his endeavors as an esteemed (but niche and unprofitable) vintner. When he kills his half-brother to prevent the sale of the family’s vineyard, Columbo ends up on the case. Pleasence isn’t arrogant so much as eccentric, and you can tell the lieutenant is pretty endeared to him by the end. The character is a far more complex and sympathetic portrait of a person whose entire experience has been informed by wealth. He can afford to burn money in his pursuit of creating great wine he never intends to produce or sell, but even if it’s admirable to use his family’s wealth to pursue an art, there’s a fundamental disconnect in the way he views money, class, and resources.
If anybody can give actors a run for their money in terms of being big ol’ freaks, it’s Christian rock stars (remember when the guy from As I Lay Dying hired a hitman to murder his wife?). Columbo taps into this in the season-three classic “Swan Song,” which stars Johnny Cash as a gospel singer and statutory rapist with a “domineering” wife (she will not let him sleep with underage fans). His solution? Engineering a plane crash. Normal behavior! It may shock you to learn that when Columbo is assigned the case he eventually uncovers the truth.
“Now You See Him”
In retrospect, it’s crazy that it took five seasons for the show to pit Columbo against a murderous stage magician. That should have been like episode three at the very latest. In the last of Jack Cassidy’s three appearances on the show before his untimely passing, the actor plays an illusionist attempting to pass off the murder he’s committed as the work of an assassin. Cassidy was among the best scene partners Falk ever had to play with, and his final turn lives up to the expectations set by the episode’s logline.
Horror icon Janet Leigh stars in this one, which revisits the familiar but effective ground of “Requiem for a Falling Star.” Leigh’s Grace Wheeler is an actress desperate to reinvigorate a long-faded career who turns to murder when her husband refuses to finance a new star vehicle for her. It’s difficult to get into what makes Wheeler such a unique Columbo antagonist without spoiling some of the more genuinely surprising plot turns in a series largely lauded for a well-developed and reliable formula. Suffice to say Leigh’s take on Wheeler is far more nuanced than your average murderer of the week, and the character’s deeply empathetic depths are not lost on the lieutenant.