Smoking, and Columbo
and the Man
the Beginning, there was the cigars. Columbo’s cigars are the first and
foremost element of his identity.
Peugeot didn’t show up until Columbo’s third appearance. The dog
showed up in the second season. Even the raincoat is the subject of
controversy, as Levinson & Link always maintained that Columbo was
supposed to wear an overcoat, not a raincoat.
right from the first script of “Prescription: Murder”, it is specified
that Columbo smokes cigars.
What does this tell us about the character?
Fleming saw the truth behind Columbo’s costume: In his perfect
psychoanalysis of Columbo, Fleming sees the cigar as part of Columbo’s
deceptive ‘bag of tricks” – he calls it “that prop cigar you
use.” The cigar is just one of Columbo’s ways to appear less than he
came along at a time when cigars were far from fashionable. In 1968-1971,
cigars had passed their heyday as the symbol of tycoons, and it was
decades before the cigar’s renaissance as a yuppie affectation. In
Columbo’s original timeframe, from the hippies through disco, cigars
were the very opposite of fashion – a dirty, smelly habit favored by New
York cab drivers, Archie Bunker, and old comedians. The cigar marked
Columbo as both common and eccentric. And the character just grew from
course, the cigar is also a great acting prop: it provides countless bits
of business, and invaluable ways to pause and stretch the timing of a
Columbo’s cigar helps to complete our mental image of the character, by
supplementing Columbo’s unique appearance and sound, with a distinctive
smell. Subconsciously, we sense the stale and pungent remains of dead
cigar smoke, mixing with the aroma of the seldom-washed raincoat,
enveloping Columbo like a cloud. It’s one of the reasons why the
character seems so palpably three-dimensional.
as a tool for rattling suspects, the cigar smoke helps Columbo to somehow
remain in the room, an invisible yet unsettling presence, long after
Columbo has left.
offers another reason for smoking in Try And Catch Me, as he begins his
impromptu speech at the ladies’ luncheon by taking out a cigar. “I
think better when this is lit,” he says.
so – this is a tradition going back to Sherlock Holmes, who liked to
describe the difficulty of his cases in terms of how many pipefuls of
tobacco would be required for him to think of the solution. (“It is
quite a three pipe problem.”)
Columbo’s reasons for smoking cigars are varied, but one thing is clear:
the cigars are an integral part of what makes him Columbo.
handles and works his prop cigar to perfection, like a man born to the art
– so it’s a bit surprising that in real life, Peter Falk is not a
cigar man. Falk is a lifelong cigarette smoker, who enjoys a cigar just
occasionally. It is probably fair to say that Columbo has smoked more
cigars, in his lifetime, than Peter Falk ever will.
started out, in Prescription: Murder, carrying his cigars in the breast
pocket of his suit jacket. He kept them inside an eyeglass case, the soft
leatherette kind. It was a notably eccentric touch, but the location was a
bit too intrusive and inconvenient. So, the cigars soon made their way
into various other pockets, where Columbo could practice his routine of
fumbling from one pocket to another.
Murder With Too Many Notes, we see that Columbo has finally selected a
suitable replacement for the eyeglass case: he is carrying his cigars in a
lidded box which, upon inspection of the design, appears to be a large
Altoids mints tin. This is both comical and practical, as Columbo can put
his half-smoked, smoldering stubs in the metal box for later enjoyment,
without the risk of setting his suit ablaze.
the years, Columbo has generally favored the kind of cheap cigars that are
pre-cut, pierced at the factory. In By Dawn’s Early Light, Colonel
Rumford notes Columbo’s unfamiliarity with the uncut end of the fine
Cuban cigar Rumford has handed him; he offers Columbo a cigar cutter, with
the suggestion “Maybe you can use this.”
20 years later, in Columbo: A Trace Of Murder, we learn that Columbo has
begun smoking uncut cigars. We have no doubt that they’re as cheap and
aromatic as his old brand, but they do require some preparation. Columbo
has taken up the practice of biting the end off his cigars.
is chided for this practice by Clifford Calvert (Barry Corbin), who tries
to persuade Columbo to use a “wedge” cigar-cutter.
wedge-cutter, says Calvert, is “the only civilized way to prepare a
cigar for smoking…keeps the filler tobacco out of your mouth. What do
you do? You gnaw on it like a beaver! I don’t know how you smoke ‘em
after you mangle ‘em like that.”
offers a wedge-cutter to Columbo -- “Here,… at least make some little
attempt to be civilized.”
is briefly converted to civilization. Later, breaking out his new
wedge-cutter, he piously tells Barney, “The way you cut a cigar makes
all the difference in the world.” Then Columbo tastes his cigar with the
civilized wedge-cut, and makes an awful face. He bites off the end of his
cigar with a loud crunch, loudly spits the end to the sidewalk, and
happily strides into Barney’s Beanery, puffing away.
as always, defines his own style.
Kind of Cigars Does Columbo Smoke?
appeal is such that cigar smokers, from all around the world, frequently
want to know: “What brand of cigar does Columbo smoke?”.
question is ironic, since brand-conscious cigar gourmets are unlikely to
smoke the kind of cheap, foul-smelling stogies favored by Columbo. And the
question defies any real answer, because in fact, Columbo has always
smoked different brands of cigars, indiscriminately.
“Columbo” cameraman has confirmed that Peter Falk’s habit was to
just grab or borrow any sort of cigar that was handy around the set. This
is consistent with Falk’s own casual and anti-snob attitude toward cigar
branding, as discussed in his interview with Arthur Marx for Cigar
Aficionado magazine. Observation will show that Columbo’s cigars varied
visibly in their girth and color, from scene to scene.
do know, from Columbo himself, that he buys “these fellas” at the
supermarket (Mind Over Mayhem). And we know, from the comments of people
around him, that Columbo’s cigars are of poor quality and rather stinky.
fact, there is evidence that Columbo might prefer cheap cigars over the
might notice a pattern of incidents where Columbo is offered a “good”
cigar, and instead of smoking it, Columbo merely admires it, or plays with
it, or claims he wants to “save it” for later, or for a “special
occasion”. (Mind Over Mayhem and By Dawn’s Early Light are examples;
Columbo’s attempt to hoard Cuban cigars at the end of Short Fuse is an
it seems that Columbo might smoke cheap stogies by choice, not just by
as to the brand name, there will never be one correct answer.
we have a unique bit of evidence – an extreme close-up of the cigars in
Columbo’s breast pocket, from the final scene of Prescription: Murder.
are at least two different kinds of cigars in Columbo’s pocket at the
same time, clearly demonstrating his lack of brand loyalty.
one of the labels is partially visible, giving us a tantalizing glimpse at
the possible brand.
can’t prove it, but this label appears to be part of a vintage “White
Owl” logo. This would certainly be in character, as White Owls are
notoriously one of the cheapest cigars, mass-produced by machines and
sold, indeed, at the supermarket. And, they come in a red-and-white box
which astute fans might, on rare occasion, spot in Columbo’s hands.
Columbo fan Senator Penguin points out to us, the White Owl label even
states that White Owl cigars contain “non-tobacco ingredients”
(whatever that means). Sounds like something Columbo would buy and enjoy.
we humbly offer this clue as one possible answer to a frequently asked
Trying to Quit”
time to time, Columbo tries to quit smoking cigars.
reason might be that, as a true addict, Columbo no longer takes real
pleasure in his addiction. In A Deadly State Of Mind, puffing away
dejectedly in the wee hours, Columbo confesses: "I don't know why I
smoke these things so early in the morning,
they taste terrible".
reason for quitting might be that Columbo, fundamentally courteous and
sensitive to other people, surely knows the offense that his cigars give
to those around him.
comforts Columbo’s cigars might bring into his life, there is no doubt
that they serve as an irritant to everyone else, from anti-smoking
crusaders to dedicated lovers of finer cigars. Colonel Rumford, offering
Columbo one of his Cubans, pointedly asks Columbo, “Would you like to
try one of quality…for a change?”
memorable examples of negative reactions to Columbo’s cigars:
Double Shock, the fastidious housekeeper Mrs Peck (Jeanette Nolan) screams
at a sleepy Columbo when he flicks ashes on her carpet. Columbo compounds
the offense by attempting to clean the ashes and rubbing them instead into
the carpet. “You must belong in some pig-sty”, she tells him. “Do
you do that in your own home?!” She repeatedly cries out, in horror,
tries to make amends on his next visit, by using an ashtray – but he
only provokes Mrs Peck into more screams, when he mistakes an antique
silver dish for an ashtray. “Bum!! You’re a Bum!!” she shrieks.
Columbo feels it was a natural mistake – “I have one at home just like
The “not an ashtray” theme appears, with a twist, in An Old Fashioned
Murder. Columbo brings an ancient belt-buckle to Janey’s prison cell,
and lets her use it as an ashtray. Her failure to recognize it as an
ancient buckle, and as a key piece of evidence from the museum, proves
that she is not actually guilty.)
Forgotten Lady, Columbo is pursued up the stairs and around the mansion by
Grace Wheeler’s butler (Maurice Evans), an ash-phobic much like Mrs
Peck, who insists on holding a fancy, long-handled silver ashtray to catch
any stray bits of ash from Columbo’s cigar.
obvious motive for Columbo to quit smoking, is the possible health benefit
of giving up his beloved cigars. Columbo has been known to go on a health
binge now and then, whether real or faked.
Exercise In Fatality finds Columbo with cigar in hand, jogging down the
beach to keep up with Milo Janus. Exhausted, Columbo confesses he’s out
of shape. “Those cigars you smoke -- they’re gonna kill you,” says
Janus. “Yessir,” says Columbo, almost collapsing. “I tell ya,
that’s how I feel right now.”
the addiction dies hard. Later, after being forced by a security guard to
abandon his cigar before entering a smoke-free office, Columbo makes a
quick trip back from the elevator to retrieve his stogie from the ashtray.
then claims he is going on a health kick. “I’m skippin’ beer…
givin’ up the cigars… no more chili,” he tells Janus, as Columbo
sweats profusely on a treadmill.
soon we see Columbo lighting his cigar once again, in a distinctly
inappropriate location -- a hospital waiting room.
health regimen didn’t last long,” says Janus. Columbo bluntly accuses
Janus of murder, and Janus uses Columbo’s smoking to taunt him: “I
don’t care what visions you see when you look at your cigar ashes,
because I’m innocent…You can huff and puff on that rotten cigar until
next July, and you’ll never prove otherwise.”
of course, the killer with the abs of steel is soon defeated by the cop
with lungs of mush.
health perils of cigar smoking are emphasized again in Blueprint For
Murder, as Columbo undergoes a physical exam by Bo Williamson’s
cardiologist, Dr Moss (John Fiedler).
the exam is done, Columbo puts a cigar in his mouth and makes the mistake
of asking the doctor for a lighter. “You won’t find one here,
Lieutenant,” says the doctor, genuinely outraged by the request. “And
let me give you some free medical advice – stop smoking those things!”
Columbo says “Well, I’ve been trying…,” and the doc interrupts,
ominously: “Trying isn’t good enough – Remember, I deal in
again claims he's trying to give up cigars in Last Salute To The
This time, Columbo cites a bizarre personal motive -- it's his
wife's idea, says Columbo, because she claims the smoke is bad for her
houseplants ("She even talks to 'em").
enlists the aid of Sgt. Kramer, ordering Kramer to remind him if Columbo
breaks his pledge. At first, Columbo accepts Kramer’s nagging.
“Lieutenant, your cigar,” Kramer reminds him on the pier, and
Columbo ditches his stogie. Later, as Columbo keeps playing with his
cigars on the bar after Charles’ death, he muses “Maybe I oughta take
up smoking again,” and he begins to light one until Kramer again
the pledge doesn't last long. In the memorable final scene, Columbo lights
up a cigar, and Kramer says to him "I thought you were gonna
quit." Columbo smiles enigmatically, does a few quirky double-takes,
then walks away, cigar firmly between his teeth, saying "Not yet
…..no-o, not yet, sergeant.…. not yet."
Murder With Too Many Notes, rumors began to fly that with the next
episode, Columbo would actually break the habit, and stop smoking cigars
for good. Peter Falk has mentioned it in interviews, as if testing the
will believe this when we see it. Columbo, from all the evidence, will
quit smoking when he quits breathing.