Monday, August 29, 2016

Mrs. Columbo..What Do WE Know?

Reruns of Columbo aren't hard to find on television. He really is the American Sherlock Holmes - not a copy or a parody - Columbo has his own style, but like  Sherlock, he can appear unflappably masterful as a detective. This has a lot to do with Peter Falk's would be a serious mistake if Hollywood executives tried to remake/reboot/revamp Columbo under the assumption that this was simply a recyclable intellectual property...

...but they tried that already. Twice! Even did a gender-bend! I'll get to that in a bit, but the 2nd time they did it was with Matlock. That show enjoys a long life in reruns because it capitalized on Andy Griffith's folksy good 'ol boy persona, but let's not be naive; Ben Matlock is, as a character on paper, Columbo as a lawyer.

  Now, the 1st time NBC (the network that originally broadcasted episodes of Columbo, as well as Matlock...and Perry Mason movies) tried a revamp/reboot/remake was with Mrs. Columbo.

We knew nothing about this woman. Actually, we knew small stuff that Columbo would say about her during his many dialogues with the actors who guest-starred as the murderer in each episode. "Mrs. Columbo" - if she existed (series co-creator William Link liked to tease that this might be a ruse by the Lieutenant as an ice-breaker...her name was never revealed) - would always stay offscreen. Columbo himself could be enigmatic; it's only due to the efforts of a particularly fussy prop wrangler that the i.d. card bundled with Columbo's badge revealed that his first name is "Frank".

Episodes of Mrs. Columbo have been locked away for us to never see. Or maybe I'm being presumptuous. I'm convinced a couple of episodes of the series were offered as "bonus episodes" bundled DVDs of Seasons 3 and 4 of Columbo as a test by Universal Home Video to see if we would want more. I know this because they were on sale for ten bucks each at Best Buy and I was able to witness if we were missing out on a treat...

...we're not missing anything. Our imaginations can do a better job of picturing "Kate Columbo" solving mysteries as an amateur sleuth while raising young daughter Jenny Columbo..and Columbo himself could actually be in it! Behind-the-scenes, Peter Falk refused to appear in the spinoff series, so they compensated by making sure viewers at home see Columbo's battered Peugeot convertible and "Dog" - Columbo's pet dog - would be present. It became a role reversal: every episode would show whodunit, you were watching to see how Kate Columbo would solve howtheydunit. And while she didn't wax on anecdotes about her husband to murderers as a way of talking shop like her spose did, Lt. Columbo would stay offscreen.

As an actress, Kate Mulgrew looks more comfortable playing the captain of a starship in outer space or the den mother in a women's prison..than a housewife who solves mysteries. Maybe in a Cagney & Lacy, "lady cop" role, but then I realized that maybe Tyne Daly could play Mrs. Columbo better...than I recall the original argument against casting an actress in her late-20s to play the wife of a middle-aged man who - for this marriage to have happened - would've likely married her when she was 14...sticky situation. So it's no wonder Mrs. Columbo was eventually revamped into Kate Loves A Mystery, with her name changed to Kate Callahan, with any references to Columbo removed from existence as a ret-con. The show faded away, anyway. Coincidentally, "Kate Callahan" is the name of a detective Jennifer Love Hewitt played in the series Criminal Minds...and she didn't fare well on that series, either. Maybe the name "Kate" is jinxed; Leslie Easterbrook played a cop named "Callahan" in the Police Academy movies, which enjoyed a longer lifespan than anyone expected, so that surname isn't jinxed.

Could Mrs. Columbo have worked at all the way it was? I liked Lili Haydn as Jenny - you could imagine that this girl is the daughter of Peter Falk...the same way you could imagine her as Rodney Dangerfield's daughter in Easy Money. She's okay. I found out that in real life, she was a musical prodigy and is an accomplished violinist. That scene of her in Money playing scales on the violin was no goof; she can play that thing.

The real problem is with Kate. Take out Mulgrew...who would you replace her with? This might not be a whimsical exercise - there might be an executive saying "Hey, we could totally do this! Make it period piece set in the late-70s! We'll cast Victoria Principal or Dana Delany as Mrs. Columbo and air it on the Hallmark Movies & Mysteries channel and watch the money pour in!"...

...OMG..they totally could do that today, couldn't they? Damn fidelity to an old TV series - they could totally do a retro spinoff series fit within the continuity of Columbo...and there would be no need to re-cast Columbo...whoa..

I'm going back to my original safer thought about who would've been better cast as Kate Columbo than Kate Mulgrew..William Link had suggested Maureen Stapleton, but I think the best choice would've been Elaine May. If you don't know who she is, look her up. She actually played Peter Falk's wife in a movie! They collaborated on 3 films together - one in which she directed! I don't feel like I need to work hard to sell this choice..I just wish NBC executives had thought of it...then we would've had a Columbo umbrella franchise that would rival the CSI franchise. Jenny Columbo would've had a Punky Brewster-esque spinoff..."Dog" would've starred in a Saturday Morning cartoon animated by Ruby-Spears or Hanna-Barbera...The Peugeot convertible would've probably become the new Speed Buggy or Herbie the Love Bug...and Peter Falk came back to do Columbo movies in the 80s and 90's, so this could've been a big branding machine of a thing...and they could totally do this now...

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