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.”
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
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.
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?
perhaps most interesting, and most unexpected: Is there evidence that
Columbo spent time working as a Deputy Sheriff in California, before he
follows, is an attempt to reconstruct the life of Columbo, assembled from
tiny hints, factoids and isolated remarks over the last three decades.
Did Columbo Grow Up?
never established where Columbo came from before he lived in Los Angeles
– as Levinson and Link said, he “drifted into our stories from
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.
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.
this, Columbo himself has given us a couple of good clues.
“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.
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.
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.
York steaks?" says Columbo, his eyes lighting up. "New Yorks," says Corbett, in the same distinct
accent. “Boy, that sounds
good,” says Columbo.
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.
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.
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.
here's a deduction based on specific Manhattan geography, not just generic
says he grew up in a neighborhood that was right next to Chinatown --
growing up, he ate “more eggroll than cannelloni” (Murder Under
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.
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.
Columbo really from the City of New York?
at least one reason to suggest otherwise.
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.
we are showing ignorance of history, but it would seem that Manhattan is
not a place where residents traditionally dwell in "houses".
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.
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).
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?
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?
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
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
much more on Columbo’s family, see “Columbo’s
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
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.
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
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)
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.
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.
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.
makes sense that Columbo first became a cop in the same place where he
grew up -- New York City.
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).
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
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
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.
To Los Angeles
“Requiem For A Falling Star” (1973), Columbo tells us that he moved to
Los Angeles fourteen years ago -- in 1959.
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,
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.
prefer to believe that Columbo was highly valued by his NYPD colleagues,
and that he left for reasons which were entirely positive, either personal
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.
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
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
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.
other hand, Columbo is also a man who thrives best as a “fish out of
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.
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.
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.
his reasons, it appears that Columbo has never regretted the move. Columbo
is very content with his life.
Transition and LAPD
has Columbo been with the Los Angeles Police Department?
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.
let’s see what Columbo has claimed.
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)
"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.
there have been a few remarks that muddy the waters historically.
"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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
just one example of the perils of reconstructing history from the words of
have seen, there is considerable wiggle-room in the chronology between
Columbo’s move to Los Angeles in 1959, and his joining the LAPD.
Columbo doing in Los Angeles, before he joined LAPD?
“Negative Reaction,” Columbo reveals one surprising fact, which may
provide a key clue to Columbo’s career history.
“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.
point, we must explore a little bit of real-life law enforcement
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.
was it part of Columbo’s job, in “the early days,” to transport
prisoners to San Quentin?
we infer from this, in terms of Columbo's rank and duties when he joined
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?
possible that Columbo worked briefly for some other agency first -- like
the federal marshal’s or sheriff's office??
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.
Commander Benson’s response, which may provide insight to a previously
undiscovered chapter in Columbo lore. We thank you and we salute you,
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.
nothing I am about to add is a 100% given, I think it is most probable
Columbo is not a native Angelo, nor a native Californian. His demeanour,
personality, and ethnicity all bespeak New York or, possibly,
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
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.)
graduation, he would start as a uniformed patrolman in LA.
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.
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).
would indicate that Columbo did, indeed, spend some time as a sheriff's
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.
this and the data you provide, I would offer the following career-line for
his law enforcement career as a beat cop in NYC.
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.
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.)
working as a deputy, Columbo worked in the prisoner services section,
booking arrestees (where he would have gained his fingerprinting
expertise) and escorting prisoners.
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.
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.
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
for your consideration,
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
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
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.
and his mate must have enjoyed a long courtship, because it was years
later when they married.
“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.
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.
can reliably conclude that Columbo was married in 1966 – barely a year
before we first meet him in “Prescription: Murder”.
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:
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)
Columbo bought his house, “You could buy the whole block for
$250,000." (RIP, Mrs Columbo)
house was the last one in the neighborhood to get a garage-door opener.
(Agenda For Murder)
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
like his childhood home, Columbo’s house has a basement -- although
unfortunately not big enough for a pool table.
(The Greenhouse Jungle)
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.