From 1971 to 1977, television viewers tuned in by the millions to watch Lt. Columbo solve murders week after week in the comfort of their own living rooms. The program, which appeared on NBC as a regular TV show and then as an occasional movie made for television, starred the talented character actor, Peter Falk.
Falk came to his acting career along a roundabout path. He was a cook with the merchant marines and later received an M.B.A. from Syracuse University in public administration. After becoming bored with his desk job as an efficiency expert for the state of Connecticut, Falk became a professional actor in 1955. He quickly became a noted performer in New York and won attention for his work in "The Iceman Cometh". Television roles soon followed and Falk won an Emmy Award for his work in a made-for-television play, "Price of Tomatoes". Acclaimed by his peers and the media, Falk would go on to win three more Emmys with his work as the lovable, but eccentric, Lt. Columbo.
Falk's squinty eyed appearance is due to a serious illness in his early childhood. At the age of three he acquired cancer in his right eye and had to have it surgically removed. The silver lining in this misfortune is that Falk's appearance provided him with a unique presence, which served him especially well in the role of Columbo.
The premise of the television series was that murderers, smug in their conceit that they have pulled off the "perfect crime", would be caught in the end by an unassuming detective. Columbo was clearly the opposite of many of the suave and sophisticated detectives and heroes of the era. He was, in fact, a throwback to the likes of Sam Spade but a little softer around the edges. While not a hard-boiled detective, Columbo was a working class kind of guy who stood up for the common man.
Another interesting twist in the series was that the viewer always knew who the murderer was before the detective was called to the scene of the crime. When Lt. Columbo did arrive, he seemed absent-minded and not too bright. So much so that the murderer felt the coast was definitely clear. However, in each episode at some point in the case, Lt. Columbo would be leaving a room after interviewing the murder suspect and as he reached the door he would pause. "Oh, just one last question," he would say, scratching his head as he turned to face his prey. At that moment the murderer knew that Lt. Columbo was zeroing in on some small detail... the detail that would crack the case!
The original television pilot for the show was based on a 1962 play entitled, "Prescription Murder". The first regularly broadcast show in the Columbo series was directed by an upcoming star by the name of Steven Spielberg.