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Cigars, Smoking, and Columbo


Cigars and the Man

In the Beginning, there was the cigars. Columbo’s cigars are the first and foremost element of his identity.

The 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.

But right from the first script of “Prescription: Murder”, it is specified that Columbo smokes cigars.

Why? What does this tell us about the character?  

Dr. 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 is.

Columbo 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 there.

Of 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 line.

Also, 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.

And 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.

Columbo 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.

Perhaps 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.”)

So, Columbo’s reasons for smoking cigars are varied, but one thing is clear: the cigars are an integral part of what makes him Columbo.

Smoking Style

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.

Columbo 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.

In 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.

Over 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.”

About 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.

Columbo is chided for this practice by Clifford Calvert (Barry Corbin), who tries to persuade Columbo to use a “wedge” cigar-cutter.

A 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.”

Calvert offers a wedge-cutter to Columbo -- “Here,… at least make some little attempt to be civilized.”

Columbo 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.

Columbo, as always, defines his own style.

What Kind of Cigars Does Columbo Smoke?

Columbo’s appeal is such that cigar smokers, from all around the world, frequently want to know: “What brand of cigar does Columbo smoke?”.

The 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.

A “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.

We 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.

In fact, there is evidence that Columbo might prefer cheap cigars over the snootier type.

Fans 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 exception.)

So, it seems that Columbo might smoke cheap stogies by choice, not just by budgetary necessity.

But as to the brand name, there will never be one correct answer.

Here 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.

Note two things:

There are at least two different kinds of cigars in Columbo’s pocket at the same time, clearly demonstrating his lack of brand loyalty.

And, one of the labels is partially visible, giving us a tantalizing glimpse at the possible brand.

We 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.

As 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.

So, we humbly offer this clue as one possible answer to a frequently asked Columbo question.


“I’m Trying to Quit”

From time to time, Columbo tries to quit smoking cigars.

One 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".

Another 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.

Whatever 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?”

Other memorable examples of negative reactions to Columbo’s cigars:

In 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, “Stinking cigar!”

Columbo 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 it.”

(Footnote: 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.)

In 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.

Another 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.

An 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.”

Still, 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.


Columbo 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.

But soon we see Columbo lighting his cigar once again, in a distinctly inappropriate location -- a hospital waiting room.

“Your 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.”

But of course, the killer with the abs of steel is soon defeated by the cop with lungs of mush.

The 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).

When 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 pacemakers!”

Columbo again claims he's trying to give up cigars in Last Salute To The Commodore.  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").

Columbo 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 intervenes.

But 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 …, not yet, sergeant.…. not yet."  

After 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 idea.

We will believe this when we see it. Columbo, from all the evidence, will quit smoking when he quits breathing.

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