December 25, 2008

TELE-INVERSION:

HOW WE CREATED COLUMBO – AND HOW HE NEARLY KILLED US (Richard Levinson and William Link, from their book "Stay Tuned: An Inside Look at the Making of Prime Time Television," excerpted in American Film magazine, March, 1981)

Within a few days we acquired an energetic and knowledgeable associate producer, Bob O'Neill, and a young writer named Steven Bochco was recommended for story editor. We moved to a larger suite of offices, shut the door, and began work on a ninety-minute script. Half a dozen months and several lifetimes later, not six but seven "Columbo" films were finished and ready for the verdict of the viewing public.

There was, as always, no time for reflection; we literally began making conceptual decisions on the walk from Sheinberg's office to our own. Fortunately, we had the first "Columbo" pilot, "Prescription: Murder," as a prototype. The first order of business for many series is to make radical changes as soon as the pilot is sold. But we had an instinctive feeling that there was strength in the "Prescription: Murder" format, and we decided not to vary it. Each "Columbo" would make use of the so-called inverted mystery form, a method of storytelling invented by an English writer named R. Austin Freeman in the early part of the century.

According to Ellery Queen in his study of detective fiction, Queen's Quorum, Freeman posed himself the following question: "Would it be possible to write a detective story in which, from the outset, the reader was taken entirely into the author's confidence, was made an actual witness of the crime and furnished with every fact that could possibly be used in its detection?" Freeman answered his own question by employing the device in his book The Singing Bone, and based on our experience with the two "Columbo" pilots, we had a hunch that it would work on television. We had no idea that it would become an eventual trap for us and for all of the other writers who would bang their heads against the wall of the inviolate "Columbo" format.

We made other decisions those first weeks, the most basic of which was that the series would not be what is known as a "cop show." We had no intention of dealing with the realities of actual police procedures. Instead, we wanted to pay our respects to the classic mystery fiction of our youth, the works of the Carrs, the Queens, and the Christies. We knew that no police officer on earth would be permitted to dress as shabbily as Columbo, or drive a car as desperately in need of burial, but in the interest of flavorful characterization, we deliberately chose not to be realistic. Our show would be a fantasy, and as such it would avoid the harsher aspects of a true policeman's life: the drug busts, the street murders, the prostitutes, and the back-alley shootouts.

We would create a mythical Los Angeles and populate it with affluent men and women living in the stately homes of the British mystery novel; our stories would be much closer in spirit to Dorothy L. Sayers than to Joseph Wambaugh. Besides, our rumpled cop would be much more amusing if he were always out of his element, playing his games of cat and mouse in the mansions and watering holes of the rich. We even decided never to show him at police headquarters or at home; it seemed to us much more effective if he drifted into our stories from limbo.

When the series went on the air, many critics found it an ever-so-slightly subversive attack on the American class system in which a proletarian hero triumphed over the effete and moneyed members of the Establishment. But the reason for this was dramatic rather than political. Given the persona of Falk as an actor, it would have been foolish to play him against a similar type, a Jack Klugman, for example, or a Martin Balsam. Much more fun could be had if he were confronted by someone like Noel Coward.

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), nor 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 format was reasonably new, and many of the writers we approached either didn't understand it or else understood all too well and felt it wasn't worth the effort. We arranged a screening of the second "Columbo" pilot, "Ransom for a Dead Man," for sixty-odd free-lance writers. Such screenings are common; they are a way of introducing writers to a new show. In theory they will whet the appetites of those assembled, who will then hurry home, explode with ideas, and contact the producer with requests for meetings. In our case, only two out of the sixty expressed any interest. One of these was Jackson Gillis, a veteran of the long-running "Perry Mason" series and an expert at mystery plotting. Gillis wrote two scripts for our first season and thereafter became "Columbo's" story editor for several years.

Because of the difficulty in finding writers, most of our scripts were put together "in house." We would plot them, Bochco would rough out a first draft, and then everyone would do the 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 rarest of breeds, a writer who understood the show, Universal employed him in future seasons just to come up with "Columbo" story premises.

Our first scripts made their way to the network, and the response was not effusive: NBC had major "conceptual concerns" with our approach. How could we have made the terrible blunder of keeping our leading man offstage until twenty minutes into the show? Didn't we realize that Peter Falk was our star? The audience would expect to see him at once, and here we were perversely delaying his appearance. One of the executives called it, with considerable heat, "the longest stage wait in television history."

There were other complaints. What about 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 a traditional "family" of regulars? At the very least he should have a young and appealing cop as his assistant and confidante. And worst of all, the scripts were talkative. They should be enlivened by frequent doses of adrenalin in the form of "jeopardy."

There are only four responses a writer-producer can make to network suggestions: He can ignore them, he can cave in, he can argue, or he can threaten to quit. We opted for the last of these multiple choices. We also pretended to a confidence we didn't feel in the hope that our conviction, or at least the illusion of conviction, would be persuasive in an industry plagued by uncertainty. And we were lucky; we had time on our side. If "Columbo" was to meet its air date, scripts had to be filmed as written. Any delay, caused by either conceptual changes or a walkout by the creative personnel, would throw the series hopelessly off schedule. NBC backed away and grudgingly left us to our own devices. [...]

When we created Columbo, we were influenced by the bureaucratic Petrovitch in Crime and Punishment and by G.K. Chesterton's marvelous little cleric, Father Brown. But Falk added a childlike wonder all his own. He also added the raincoat. We had given Columbo a wrinkled top coat in our play, but during the filming of "Prescription: Murder," Falk dug out one of his old raincoats from the back of a closet and never took it off. He wore the same suit, shirt, tie, and shoes for the entire 10 year run of the series, giving "Columbo" the somewhat dubious distinction of having the lowest budget for male wardrobe in the history of the medium, with the possible exception of Big Bird.

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Posted by Orrin Judd at December 25, 2008 6:19 AM
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