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Columbo's Bosses

Who does Columbo work for?

What do they think of him, and how does he get along with them?

How many of Columbo’s bosses have we actually seen?

Columbo often claims that he must ask so many questions because his boss is so demanding, but we have no doubt that it’s Columbo himself who demands all of the answers. His bosses remain in the background, almost as mythical as his wife.

Columbo has no Perry White, no Lou Grant. We have never seen the same one of Columbo’s bosses, or heard the same boss mentioned by name, in more than one episode.

Mostly we see Columbo working alone, the solitary rumpled figure once again at the doorstep. Other cops might do his legwork, but the real crime-solving is done by Columbo, who is left to his own mysterious devices.

The fact that Columbo is allowed to work with such extraordinary independence, in a police department run by bureaucracy, is one sure sign that his superiors hold him in highest regard.

From time to time, the brass assigns a promising younger cop to follow Columbo around and learn from him. Columbo’s courtesy hides his real resentment at the intrusion on his lone-wolf style, and he usually sends all assistants away with a kind word and some busy-work.

One of these protegees, Sergeant Wilson, says that according to Captain Ritchie , Columbo is "fast becoming a legend in the Department." Columbo reacts to Captain Ritchie’s flattery with a look of puzzlement, and seems truly surprised. "Captain Ritchie said that?? I wonder why he said that…"

Another piece of evidence: Columbo is chosen to go to London to represent the LAPD in a "visiting fireman" exchange program, which we have to assume is no small honor. ("Dagger Of The Mind")

We also know that Columbo’s bosses will not be deterred by efforts to remove Columbo from the case. Right from the first, in "Prescription: Murder", Columbo informs Susan Hudson that Dr. Fleming’s attempts to go over his head have only backfired:

"Just to clear things up on one point, Miss Hudson: I am on the case. Somebody was pulling a few strings, all right. But my superior doesn’t like that. Gets him thinking. So he says to me, ‘Columbo, you must be touching a sore spot somewhere. Keep at it.’ Very intelligent man, my superior."

Over the following decades, there were other influential killers who tried to get Columbo yanked by his bosses, and some who managed to put Columbo under intense heat -- but Columbo’s bosses have never really backed out on him.

Perhaps because Columbo’s success rate compels some latitude, Columbo’s bosses seem to extend a certain tolerance for his personal eccentricities, even if he flouts LAPD rules. Columbo holds the all-time record for avoiding the LAPD’s mandatory firarms testing. ("Negative Reaction")

Columbo himself is characteristically modest about his place in the LAPD. He says his wife tells him he's the second-best cop on the force -- and that eighty other guys are tied for first. ("Short Fuse")

On a few rare occasions, we get to actually meet Columbo's bosses, and see how he interacts with them. The brass can be tough, but they treat Columbo with respect. And in dealing with his bosses, Columbo shows the same diplomacy, the same talent for persuasion and schmoozing that he uses with everybody else including witnesses and murderers.

Here are some examples:

Negative Reaction

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In "Negative Reaction," Columbo runs into Captain Sampson, down in the basement of police headquarters. Captain Sampson greets Columbo warmly and reaches out to shake his hand: "What brings you down to the dungeon?"

They discuss the Galesko case in detail. Captain Sampson is inclined to jump to the wrong conclusion, and is puzzled that Columbo wants to keep investigating, but the Captain listens carefully to Columbo, and he gives Columbo friendly support and encouragement.

No Time To Die

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In "No Time To Die," we meet a more grizzled and tough-talking Captain. His style is hard-nosed, but we can see the underlying relationship of mutual respect and affection. Columbo sometimes calls him "Cap".

When Columbo's niece is kidnapped, the Captain personally goes with Columbo to the rescue scene. He's offended that Columbo didn't call him the moment the crime happened. At the end, he goes along with Columbo's unconventional strategy for how to handle the bust -- "You're breakin' my heart, Columbo".

Murder Of A Rock Star

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In "Murder Of A Rock Star," Columbo gets called on the carpet by Police Chief Quentin Corbett (John Finnegan). Columbo has been stepping on a few toes by not showing the autopsy report to the suspected killer, a famous lawyer who happens to be, as the Chief says, "an old friend of mine -- and an old friend of the Mayor's".

Corbett talks gruff and tough. He makes Columbo sweat a bit, grilling Columbo while hardly looking up from his paperwork, as Columbo stands uncomfortably shuffling his feet.

But after chewing him out, Corbett sends Columbo off with a tip that when Columbo meets Hugh Crichton at The Darrow Club, he should try the New York Steak, an inch and a half thick. The two men grin at each other for a moment, their exchange of looks and their accents telling us what the script never actually says: that they're both a couple of displaced New Yorkers, three thousand miles from home, who understand each other pretty well.

A Friend In Deed

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For Columbo, the ultimate Boss From Hell is of course Police Commissioner Mark Halperin (Richard Kiley, in "A Friend In Deed"). In addition to being abusive and demeaning to Columbo, the Commish also happens to be a cold-blooded killer, who has covered up one wife-killing then murdered his own spouse. This might have been one of Columbo’s greatest challenges -- nailing his own boss to the wall.

Columbo handles the Commissioner like he handles any other murderer -- by patiently enduring the slings and arrows until he has enough evidence to put the guy away. When the Commissioner tries to take over Columbo's investigation, Columbo uses the Commissioner’s own arrogance as the key to solving the case, inventing an ingenious trap to let the Commissioner irrefutably incriminate himself.

Columbo Cries Wolf

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In "Columbo Cries Wolf," Columbo’s pull with the higher-ups is put to a severe test. Columbo suspects the murder of a woman who never showed up for a business appointment in London, but the evidence is thin and Columbo’s request is extreme: He wants to pursue his investigation, even after a whole team has dug up the palatial estate of playboy-style publisher Sean Brantley. No body was found.

The risk of further humiliation is heavy, but Columbo’s bosses go to bat for him. The Police Commissioner (John Finnegan, as successor to the imprisoned Mark Halperin) and his assistant take Columbo to City Hall, and appeal to the Mayor of Los Angeles himself. They corner the Mayor in a public toilet to plead Columbo’s case, and the Commissioner proudly assures the Mayor that Columbo is "our best man." Hearing how Columbo gathered clues at the airport, even the Mayor is impressed with Columbo’s work -- "That’s pretty good!" The Commissioner’s assistant adds, "He’s a real beaver -- he DIGS!"

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The Commissioner’s and the Mayor’s faith in Columbo are ultimately vindicated, but the Mayor’s nerves might never recover from the worldwide media circus created by Columbo’s investigation.

Years earlier, Columbo had been involved in a similar situation, where he went to great lengths to get the foundation of a huge office building ripped up in search of a body which wasn't there -- yet. ("Blueprint For Murder", which also featured John Finnegan -- as a construction foreman.)

In the end, Columbo's plan worked and the killer was caught -- but for a while there, as in "Columbo Cries Wolf," the whole thing looked like a total fiasco, a massive expense for the City and a major embarrassment to the LAPD. We didn't get to see the reactions of Columbo’s superiors, but sometimes after a mess that big, people have a way of remembering the mess and forgetting how it got better.


We might ask ourselves if Columbo ever suffered any fall-out from his run-ins with some of the higher-ups in the LAPD and elsewhere. Look at the record:

* Columbo's persistence puts the Los Angeles Police Commissioner in jail, solving the crime but undoubtedly creating a major political scandal. ("A Friend In Deed")

* Columbo arrests the nation's top lawyer and old friend of both the Mayor and the Chief of Police. ("Murder Of A Rock Star")

* Columbo nearly causes an international crisis, hounding Arab emissary Hassan Sallah and changing world history, by averting the overthrow of a foreign government. Justice is served, but Columbo’s meddling in a sensitive political climate makes Washington power brokers plenty nervous. ("A Case Of Immunity")

* Columbo arrests Nelson Heyward, a powerful politician headed to certain victory as Senator in "Candidate For Crime".

* Columbo nails Congressman Paul Mackey, another fast-rising politician who is destined for the Vice Presidency -- until Columbo proves he's conspiring to cover-up a murder, and that the killing was committed by the candidate's closest political adviser, Oscar Finch. ("Agenda For Murder")

* Columbo risks the wrath of dark forces at the highest level of international intrigue when he goes after a key double-agent -- even after the Chief of the CIA pays Columbo a personal visit, descending by helicopter and ominously warning Columbo to lay off. ("Identity Crisis")


These incidents all show that while Columbo likes to play the humble civil servant, just following orders and always apologizing for himself, the truth is that when Columbo is on the trail of a murder, he is far more ruthless and fearless than any murderer. Nobody but Columbo could get away with ruffling so many feathers at the pinnacles of power. His very survival in the Department is a tribute to his skills of diplomacy when it counts most.

Even so, we have to wonder if Columbo’s long history of busting heads of big-shot bosses might account for the fact that for more than 30 years, he has never been rewarded with a promotion. It seems he always was, and always will be Lieutenant Columbo. And that’s what makes Columbo happy.

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