Columbo Chronology: A Biography of Columbo

Right from his creation, it was decided that Columbo’s personal life would not be portrayed; he would only be seen On The Job. As Levinson and Link wrote, “It seemed to us much more effective if he drifted into our stories from limbo.”

Over the years, this rule was relaxed now and then: When it would help the story, we were allowed to see Columbo at the vet’s office, catching a boat for a vacation cruise, getting his TV repaired, or relaxing with his dog at a Basset Hound Picnic. But for the most part, we only see Columbo “in character,” playing his professional “role” as the Lieutenant, and never as the extraordinarily private man whose first name is used only by his wife.

Columbo’s life is shrouded in mystery, and filtered through his own quirky version of history. But slowly, over the course of 30 years, a picture begins to emerge, of the man inside the mac.

Where does Columbo come from? Where did he first become a cop? When, and why, and how, did he end up in Los Angeles, and with the LAPD? How does his marriage fit into the chronology of his life?

And perhaps most interesting, and most unexpected: Is there evidence that Columbo spent time working as a Deputy Sheriff in California, before he joined LAPD?

What follows, is an attempt to reconstruct the life of Columbo, assembled from tiny hints, factoids and isolated remarks over the last three decades.

Where Did Columbo Grow Up?

It is never established where Columbo came from before he lived in Los Angeles – as Levinson and Link said, he “drifted into our stories from limbo.”

To many observers, the most obvious assumption would be that Columbo is, like Peter Falk, a New Yorker. But does this stand up to analysis? Let us examine the evidence.

First, there is Columbo’s accent, and his ethnicity. His speech patterns are clearly those of an eastern urban center, most likely New York, and his Italian heritage, while certainly not unique to one place, would be consistent with growing up in pre-war New York City.

Beyond this, Columbo himself has given us a couple of good clues.

In “Etude In Black,” Columbo talks with Alex Benedict (John Cassavetes) about the killer’s New York background, in a way that suggests a shared experience between them.

"You're from New York, " says Columbo -- then, he adds, "It's better here (in California) -- right?".   The conversation evokes two expatriate New Yorkers, now happier in Los Angeles, exchanging notes.

Years later, in "Murder Of A Rock Star", Columbo is called on the carpet by his boss, Police Chief Quentin Corbett (John Finnegan).  The Chief orders him to give the autopsy report to Columbo's chief suspect, over dinner at the Darrow Club.  Dismissing Columbo, Corbett looks up and tells him to order the house specialty -- New York Steaks.

"New York steaks?" says Columbo, his eyes lighting up.  "New Yorks," says Corbett, in the same distinct accent.  “Boy, that sounds good,” says Columbo.

The two men exchange a look which appears very much like a couple of old New York cops, who like it here but who still share fond memories of The Big Apple.

Another, more subtle food-related clue: Columbo likes cream soda (A Deadly State Of Mind, RIP Mrs Columbo), and he calls himself "a cream soda kind of guy" (Strange bedfellows).  New York City doesn't exclusively own cream soda (or New York Steaks, for that matter), but cream soda is a strong NY tradition for guys his age.

Also, it is noted that when Columbo was a kid, his heroes were Joe DiMaggio and Phil Rizzuto (Make Me A Perfect Murder) -- legendary New York Yankees.

And here's a deduction based on specific Manhattan geography, not just generic "city" life:

Columbo says he grew up in a neighborhood that was right next to Chinatown -- growing up, he ate “more eggroll than cannelloni” (Murder Under Glass).

In New York City, there is a neighborhood known as Chinatown -- and right next to it, is the neighborhood traditionally known as “Little Italy,” the place where countless Italian immigrant families, like Columbo’s, lived and grew up.

For all of the foregoing reasons, we suggest that Columbo’s most likely place of birth is Little Italy, in the heart of downtown New York City.

But is Columbo really from the City of New York?

There is at least one reason to suggest otherwise.  

Columbo's childhood home is consistently described as a HOUSE -- not an apartment.  When Columbo says he took his wife to visit the "house" where he grew up (Make Me A Perfect Murder), or that dinnertime at his "house" was like Madison Square Garden (Lady In Waiting), he may not be just using the word as a figure of speech.

Perhaps we are showing ignorance of history, but it would seem that Manhattan is not a place where residents traditionally dwell in "houses".

The whole Columbo family spent all their time in the kitchen: the living room was just for funerals, or for teachers' visits (Murder Under Glass).  Considering the size of Columbo’s family, this might require a bigger kitchen than the average City apartment. 

They had a fireplace, albeit a fake one with a fake log and a red bulb -- which is not unheard-of for a City apartment, but probably would be an unusual or luxury feature in the City, surprising since Columbo's father never made more than $5,000 a year (Any Old Port In A Storm).

All of this is possible, or could be explained, if the Columbo homestead was in fact an apartment and not a literal "house".  But what about the fact that his grandfather let him stomp grapes for home-made wine in the BASEMENT?  (Any Old Port In A Storm) Did they have a basement apartment?  A very cooperative building superintendent?  

Or, did the Columbo family live outside NYC, in a house, with a basement -- perhaps on Long Island or, dare we say it, in New Jersey -- making frequent visits to relatives in the City and near Chinatown?

These are questions which may never be definitely answered. But, based upon the totality of evidence, we humbly suggest that Columbo grew up in New York City.      

Childhood and Adolescence

Columbo comes from a large family: For a while there, it seemed that his mother was in the hospital, to have another child, about once a year (Murder Under Glass). There were seven children, six boys and one girl, in the Columbo household -- “We were never lonely” (Make Me A Perfect Murder).

(For much more on Columbo’s family, see “Columbo’s Family Album”)

Indications are that Columbo had a happy family life as a child. Remembrances of his mother and “Pop” are always fond and warm, with images of lively discussions around the dinner table and gathering together in the family kitchen.

But the young Columbo did not spend all of his time around the wholesome hearth and family circle. To the contrary, Columbo makes it clear that he spent much of his time out on the streets, hanging out with a bunch of guys who were …well, no better than they should be.

Columbo engaged in the usual city games and diversions: he loved to play pinball (The Conspirators), and his father taught him to play pool (How To Dial A Murder).

And much of the time, he was up to minor forms of mischief and making trouble. Sometimes, Columbo and his buddies engaged in vandalism -- like throwing rocks at street lights and breaking them, or disabling the car of an innocent victim by jamming a potato up his tailpipe. "I mean, we were a really wild bunch of guys." (Death Lends A Hand)

As an adult policeman, Columbo wears an air of sweetness and innocence, wrapped around him like the raincoat, as part of his persona and professional disguise. But do not be fooled -- catching killers is a brutal business, and at heart, Columbo is still a street fighter… wily, conniving, and capable of almost any prank to suit his purposes. 

Columbo’s background as a tough, city kid is a crucial part of his character: it is one reason why the genteel geniuses of Hollywood society are no match for the street-wise Columbo.

Early Career

Columbo once suggested that the minor misdeeds of his misspent youth were his inspiration for pursuing a career in law enforcement. In “Death Lends A Hand,” after confessing his days of wildness with his buddies on the streets, Columbo muses that maybe that’s why he became a cop -- to make up for all of that.

So, it makes sense that Columbo first became a cop in the same place where he grew up -- New York City.

In those days, legend tells us that the neighborhood cop in New York City was usually an Irishman -- so, it is no surprise to learn that when Columbo was starting out as a cop, he worked with “Sergeant Gilhooley”, the man who taught him to play darts (The Conspirators).

Sergeant Gilhooley was clearly before Columbo’s days with LAPD. We know this, because Gilhooley is now but a “sainted memory,” and more specifically because Columbo and Gilhooley worked together out of the “12th Precinct”. 

As any fan of “Dragnet” knows, the Los Angeles Police Department is organized as separate “divisions,” such as Hollenbeck -- the LAPD does not have “Precincts,” which are the convention in the police department of New York City.

We are never told how far Columbo progressed with the NYPD, what rank he achieved there, or what type of work he was doing as a New York policeman. Since he decided to leave, it is quite possible that Columbo’s career in NYPD was limited to formative basic experiences, as a talented and promising young flatfoot patrolman on the beat.

Move To Los Angeles

In “Requiem For A Falling Star” (1973), Columbo tells us that he moved to Los Angeles fourteen years ago -- in 1959.

The year might be approximate, and some confusion is introduced by the separate question of when Columbo actually joined the LAPD (discussed below). But the time of Columbo’s move to L.A, in the late 1950s, is clear enough. For a moment, let us pause to consider not just when Columbo moved, but…Why???

We do not know whether Columbo might have reached some crisis point in his NYPD career. It is conceivable that his eccentric manner and independent spirit rubbed some police brass the wrong way, and that Columbo felt it would be better to depart, and to pursue his work elsewhere, in a part of the country where eccentrics are more the norm.

We prefer to believe that Columbo was highly valued by his NYPD colleagues, and that he left for reasons which were entirely positive, either personal or professional.

In one of his Columbo novels, author William Harrington claims that Columbo moved to Los Angeles at the strong urging of his Cousin Dominic -- perhaps a reference to the same Cousin Dominic who is described by Columbo as constantly having a cell phone stuck to his ear (Butterflies In Shades Of Grey). Apparently, Dominic had made quite a success for himself on the West Coast, and he felt that Columbo should do likewise.

Regardless of whether we accept the Harrington novels as part of the official Columbo canon, it is clear enough that Columbo has relatives in California, including some with established businesses there, and some living close enough to visit for dinner.  Perhaps it was for family reasons, or as part of an ongoing family trend, that Columbo left his New York home and career, and made the move to the West Coast.

Perhaps Columbo was simply was seduced by the lure of life in sunny California. Or, we might speculate a bit about the psychological reasons why a man of Columbo’s nature would uproot himself from all that was familiar and established around him, and move to a land of strange and distinctly different culture.

On the one hand, Columbo is a man with deeply held family traditional values. This would make it seem odd that he leaves his home, unless indeed most of his family had moved West already.

On the other hand, Columbo is also a man who thrives best as a “fish out of water”.

Columbo clearly derives both pleasure and professional success from being the one humble man in the company of snobs; the lone shoddy-looking figure, surrounded by glamorous millionaires in formal attire; the solitary, plain-spoken proletarian amid all of the polished wits, the self-important geniuses, and the arrogant business tycoons.

So perhaps it is this side of the Columbo character, the man who enjoys being the only rough, hard stone in a pile of synthetic, brightly polished gems, that caused Columbo to place himself, deliberately and strategically, in a new and very different cultural environment.

Columbo is a highly individual man, who likes to stand out among others, and maybe that suits him best as a New Yorker transplanted to the opposite coast.

Whatever his reasons, it appears that Columbo has never regretted the move. Columbo is very content with his life.

Career Transition and LAPD

How long has Columbo been with the Los Angeles Police Department?

His answers are not altogether consistent. This might be because of Columbo’s habitual fudging of the facts, or it might indicate something else -- an interim career between his move to Los Angeles in or about 1959, and his joining the LAPD.

First, let’s see what Columbo has claimed.

Columbo started out with LAPD in The Hollenbeck Division. This is where the sergeant taught him an old-fashioned police trick, how to take fingerprints with pencil shavings. "The boys in the lab hate it -- they say I'm always messing up the evidence". (Troubled Waters)

In "Negative Reaction"(1974), Columbo says that in "15 years on the force,” he "still can't stand to look at a thing like that (bullet wounds)."  This indicates he's been with the LAPD since 1959, the same year as his move to Los Angeles, but  --  Columbo is making conversation, not counting the days.

Unfortunately, there have been a few remarks that muddy the waters historically.

In "Uneasy Lies The Crown" (1990), Columbo says that in "22 years on the force," he has never used the bubble-light.  In context, this is regrettably ambiguous language: If Columbo means he's only been on the LAPD for 22 years, that would mean he started in 1968.

Which doesn't fit: If he was a cop in New York, ... then moved to LA in 1959,....what was he doing in L.A. between 1959-1968?

And of course, 1968 was the year that “Prescription: Murder” was broadcast (the copyright is actually 1967), by which time Columbo was already a Lieutenant, clearly not new to the force.

Well, perhaps Columbo's remark in "Uneasy Lies The Crown" is only intended to mean that he hadn't used the bubble-light (which, as he learns, plugs into the car’s cigarette lighter) since 1968.  It's possible that Columbo was not referring to his total years on the force, but only  to how long he's owned the Peugeot, with the broken cigarette lighter,… thus explaining why he hasn't used the bubble-light since acquiring the Peugeot, sometime in 1968. 

This is consistent with what we know about Columbo’s car: Although “Prescription: Murder” was broadcast early in 1968, we did not see Columbo in his Peugeot until “Murder By The Book” (1971). So, as Columbo so often says, that would explain it.

But then, in "Strange Bedfellows" (1995), Columbo says: "In these 20 years, I've never gotten it right"  (how to tell someone there's been a murder) -- suggesting that he has only been a homicide detective since 1975. 

Obviously this is wildly inaccurate, since there were 2 pilot movies and several whole seasons of the NBC series before 1975.  So this one cannot be explained away, except for Columbo just talking loosely or starting to lie about his age.

In “Ashes To Ashes” (1998), Columbo confounds the history even further. Sitting down to tea with Eric Prince (Patrick McGoohan), Columbo tells him that “I’ve been chasing guys like you for 25 years” -- in other words, since 1973.

It’s just one example of the perils of reconstructing history from the words of Columbo himself.

Deputy Sheriff Columbo???

As we have seen, there is considerable wiggle-room in the chronology between Columbo’s move to Los Angeles in 1959, and his joining the LAPD.

What was Columbo doing in Los Angeles, before he joined LAPD?

In “Negative Reaction,” Columbo reveals one surprising fact, which may provide a key clue to Columbo’s career history.

In “Negative Reaction”, Columbo states that when he first started out, he used to take prisoners to San Quentin.  Even considering that much of Columbo's dialog must be taken with a grain of salt, in this case there is nothing in the context to suggest that Columbo is inventing this -- his familiarity with the San Quentin facility seems genuine.

At this point, we must explore a little bit of real-life law enforcement procedure.

San Quentin is a prison, where convicts are taken after trial. It is not a local lock-up, where the arresting officers would take an arrestee for detention. The homicide detective is well out of the picture by the time that a murderer is taken away to San Quentin.

So, why was it part of Columbo’s job, in “the early days,” to transport prisoners to San Quentin?

What can we infer from this, in terms of Columbo's rank and duties when he joined LAPD?

Or, does Columbo’s early work at San Quentin instead reveal a missing link in his career, as something that would not have been done by the LAPD at all?

Is it possible that Columbo worked briefly for some other agency first -- like the federal marshal’s or sheriff's office??

We presented these questions to Commander Adam Benson, a distinguished naval officer and astute Columbo historian, who possesses both a sharply analytical mind and a grasp of the law enforcement procedures which lie at the heart of this issue. 

Here is Commander Benson’s response, which may provide insight to a previously undiscovered chapter in Columbo lore. We thank you and we salute you, Commander!


Mr. Kerin,

I will stipulate to all of your data and extrapolations -- and a fine piece of work it is, the biography of Columbo which you have put together from the various facts dropped over the years. And the conclusions which you infer from what little we do know are sound.

While nothing I am about to add is a 100% given, I think it is most probable that:

One: Columbo is not a native Angelo, nor a native Californian. His demeanour, personality, and ethnicity all bespeak New York or, possibly, Philadelphia.

Two: You are correct -- NYPD has precincts, while LAPD has divisions. Add to that the name of his mentor -- Sergeant Gilhooley -- (and, granted, I am relying upon a long-standing stereotype of the Irish cop) and I think it is highly probable that Columbo began his law enforcement career with the NYPD.

Three: Most likely, Columbo was a uniformed patrolman when he left NYPD. He would have had to attend the LAPD's police academy. (The LAPD, like many PD's, is very parochial about its procedures -- i.e., the general assumption being it knows the "right" way to do law enforcement in its city -- therefore, even prior police officers, regardless of their experience or years of service, have to attend the LAPD academy.)

And upon graduation, he would start as a uniformed patrolman in LA.

Not only is this standard practice, I also support this presumption with a scene from the episode "Requiem for a Falling Star". In this scene, Columbo chats with a receptionist about his early days with the department; he states that all the other cops he started with were brilliant, polished fellows, and he realised that the only way he could get ahead would be to work longer and harder than the rest of them. This statement could apply not only to Columbo's self-evaluation of a "lesser intellect", but also to the notion that, as an outsider (i.e., not a native Californian), he had to work harder to prove himself. Granted, this is a bit of extrapolation, but it would fit the scenario of Columbo having started with NYPD.

Fourth: you are correct -- transporting prisoners to San Quentin is not a LAPD function. It is, however, a function of the sheriff's department. (I'm not certain if San Quentin falls under LA County jurisdiction, and it’s too late in the night for me to research it right now).

This would indicate that Columbo did, indeed, spend some time as a sheriff's deputy.

Bear in mind, also, that in most counties in America, sheriff's departments have two separate functions: one, to protect the public and investigate crimes -- like PD's in incorporated cities; and two, to provide prisoner services -- act as court bailiffs, man the jails and intakes, booking, and escort prisoners. It is in the prisoner services section where nearly all fledgling deputies begin and usually do two-to-three years there before moving into "traditional" police duties.

From this and the data you provide, I would offer the following career-line for Columbo:

He began his law enforcement career as a beat cop in NYC.

For reasons which we can only speculate, he moved to California and joined a county sheriff's department (usually the standards are lower to join Sheriffs’ Departments than the LAPD; therefore it is easier to get a slot on an SD), probably to get local experience and making his resume stronger for applying to the LAPD.

(This is common also; many individuals work as sheriff's deputies for a year or two to gain law enforcement experience before applying to a major city PD.)

While working as a deputy, Columbo worked in the prisoner services section, booking arrestees (where he would have gained his fingerprinting expertise) and escorting prisoners.

After getting what he felt was sufficient experience in California law enforcement procedures (and probably because he was bored to tears; it would have to be hard to go from regular police duties in NYC to nurse-maiding prisoners in Ca.), he applied to the LAPD and was accepted.

Upon graduation from its academy, he worked the streets as a patrolman and worked his way up the ladder (his previous experience as an NYPD cop would have helped here) until he made detective and then, lieutenant.

As a theory, I believe it's reasonably sound -- unless one of my fellow Columbophiles recalls a bit of information which would puncture it. And it would certainly make more plausible his forty-year career in law enforcement.

Submitted for your consideration,

Commander Benson

Marriage and Domesticity

We believe it was after Columbo moved to California in 1959, that he met the future Mrs. Columbo, a native Californian -- although, we cannot completely rule out the possibility that she moved from New York to California to be with him. (For further discussion of this, see “Mrs Columbo Revealed!”)

We do not know how they met; perhaps one day, Columbo will share the circumstances with us. We are sure that the story is charming, romantic and unique, and we would like to believe that it was a case of love at first sight.

It seems that by 1961, Columbo was intimately acquainted with his future wife, and possibly even living with her. In “Lovely But Lethal” (1973), Columbo tells Viveca Scott that he has been seeing Viveca’s image on all of Mrs Columbo's make-up products for the last 12 years -- since 1961. 

Columbo and his mate must have enjoyed a long courtship, because it was years later when they married.

In “Rest In Peace, Mrs Columbo” (1990), Columbo says that he has been married for "28 or 29 years -- I know it's not 30" -- which would put his wedding between 1961 and 1962. However, this statement seems vague and uncertain -- and at the time, since Columbo was talking to a lunatic who was trying to murder his wife, Columbo had no special reason to speak accurately. 

In contrast, Columbo is very definite about his wedding date in “Death Hits The Jackpot” (1991), when it is clear that he and Mrs Columbo are about to celebrate their 25th wedding anniversary. This is corroborated, because we see Columbo shopping for a gift, planning a possible trip for the occasion, and discussing the anniversary with fellow cops, not just scamming the killer with chatter.

So, we can reliably conclude that Columbo was married in 1966 – barely a year before we first meet him in “Prescription: Murder”.

We know very little about Mr. And Mrs. Columbo’s homestead, and we doubt that will ever be given the honor of seeing it. We have just a few tidbits:

Columbo’s house is in a neighborhood with "one house on top of the other...You look out, you see the guy mowing his lawn." (Strange Bedfellows)

When Columbo bought his house, “You could buy the whole block for $250,000." (RIP, Mrs Columbo)

Columbo's house was the last one in the neighborhood to get a garage-door opener. (Agenda For Murder)

The kitchen is in the front of the house: Columbo says he'd like to own a Ferrari convertible, but he wouldn't use it -- "I'd park it in front of the house and watch it from the kitchen." (Any Old Port In A Storm)

And, like his childhood home, Columbo’s house has a basement -- although unfortunately not big enough for a pool table.  (The Greenhouse Jungle)


We will never know, for sure, the details of Columbo’s life -- but we can be certain that Columbo considers his life a happy one. Columbo is happy in his own skin, comfortable with all that he is and all that he does. We should all be as fortunate in life.

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