“Enough Rope” –  The Very First “Columbo”

Dr. Fleming (left) examines evidence with Columbo (Bert Freed)

The Background

Most “Columbo” fans know that Peter Falk first portrayed Columbo in a TV movie called “Prescription: Murder”, broadcast early in 1968.

Many fans also realize that “Prescription: Murder” was not originally intended as a series pilot, and that in fact, about four years passed from the filming of “Prescription: Murder” in 1967 until the regular “Columbo” series began, as part of the “NBC Mystery Movie”, in 1971.

And some diehard fans are aware of some further trivia: That about 6 years before Peter Falk appeared in “Prescription: Murder”, Levinson & Link mounted a stage play, also called “Prescription: Murder”, starring Thomas Mitchell (Scarlett’s dad in “Gone With The Wind”, Uncle Billy in “It’s A Wonderful Life”), as the earlier version of Lieutenant Columbo, together with Joseph Cotten (“Citizen Kane”) as “Dr. Flemming” (spelled, only in the play, with two M’s).

Lieutenant Columbo was Thomas Mitchell’s last role: He died while the show was touring the United States and Canada, before it reached its Broadway premiere. (For details, and some rare photos, see our Memorabilia article, “Prescription: Murder – The Play”).

But, very few “Columbo” fans know much about the even earlier pre-history of the show. So, we take this opportunity to fill that gap.

The year was 1960. Dwight Eisenhower was president. And, consider this: The Peugeot 403 convertible, later driven as a rusty wreck by Peter Falk’s character, was just rolling off the assembly line in France -- shiny and new.

On NBC, there was a weekly drama anthology called “The Chevy Mystery Show”. Hosted by Walter Slezak, who delivered droll introductions and post-commercial commentaries, the series presented a new mystery script, with a different cast of characters and fine actors, every week.

On Sunday night, July 31, 1960, “The Chevy Mystery ” was an original story written by William Link and Richard Levinson, and directed by Don Richardson, called “Enough Rope”. It introduced to the world, a police lieutenant named Columbo (no first name). Columbo’s technique was suggested by the title: Give the bad guy enough time and enough prodding to keep on talking, until he finally hangs himself.

As in later incarnations, Columbo doesn’t make his entrance until after the first commercial break. In fact, the actor who plays him, a veteran character player named Bert Freed, gets second-to-last billing in the opening credits.

The broadcast features ads for the gleaming new Chevrolet Corvair – the car later portrayed as a “rolling death trap” in the book “Unsafe At Any Speed”, written by a then unknown young man named Ralph Nader.

The show was presented live, at 9 pm Eastern (and, thankfully, captured for posterity on kinescope), complete with numerous stammerings, bloops and blunders by the actors.

(One blooper stands out: When Columbo first comes to Fleming’s office, he introduces himself to the receptionist as “Dr. Columbo”. The receptionist, sticking to the script, tells Fleming that “Lieutenant Columbo” is here – thus seeming to magically guess Columbo’s true title.)

This humble presentation, and the cop character that it introduced, would change the course of television history. And yet, today, almost nothing is written or remembered about “Enough Rope”.

So, let’s take a look.

The Story

The plot of "Enough Rope" is clearly recognizable to any "Columbo" fan as a basic, one-hour version of "Prescription: Murder".  Considering it is only one-half the length, “Enough Rope” manages to squeeze in a surprising amount of the detail later seen in “Prescription: Murder”.

Dr. Roy Fleming, the killer, is a psychologist. (He doesn't become a full-fledged psychiatrist and Medical Doctor until "Prescription: Murder", and he doesn't change from "Roy" to "Ray" until the Gene Barry version.) His wife Claire is a shrew, and his girlfriend, Susan, meets him for romantic trysts at his office, fooling Fleming's receptionist by pretending to be a patient.

The plot goes much as in the familiar version. Fleming chokes his wife to death, as they prepare for a vacation trip. He bundles up some silverware and other valuables, to make the killing look like a burglary – his plan is to dump the property in the lake when he arrives at his resort destination. When Susan arrives, she dresses in the dead woman's suit, hat and sunglasses, and boards a plane with Fleming, where they stage a loud fight. Susan storms off, so that the stewardess and other witnesses will remember that "Mrs Fleming" was on the plane, but that she left Dr. Fleming there, alone.

"Enough Rope" adds a twist at this point, which doesn't appear in "Prescription: Murder".

As Susan leaves the plane, she encounters Harry, a friend of the Flemings, who mistakes her for Mrs Fleming. This coincidence is a nice bit of luck for Roy, since Claire's presence on the plane will be attested to not only by strangers, but also by someone who knows Claire personally. Roy’s alibi appears rock-solid.

When Fleming returns from his trip (after dumping the "stolen" goods in the lake at his resort), Columbo is lurking in his living room. Columbo's first words (as in "Prescription: Murder") are: "Dr. Fleming?".

This Columbo is a hulking bear of a man, smoking a cigar and wearing a baggy tweed suit (no raincoat like Peter Falk, and for that matter, no battered felt hat as specified in the Thomas Mitchell stage script). He breaks the news to Fleming, and begins asking questions, in his innocent but increasingly persistent manner.

Even in this first version of Columbo's first scene, nearly all of the character's familiar elements are in place. “I hate to bother you,” says Columbo, in the character’s now-familiar manner. He asks to borrow a pencil from Fleming, explaining that his wife gives him a pencil every morning but he always loses it. As Columbo's seemingly obscure questions continue, he keeps assuring Fleming that it's all “just routine”, nothing important, “just a little detail that’s been puzzling me,” just for his report -- "just tying up loose ends".

Columbo doesn't mention the interesting clue that first caught Peter Falk’s interest in "Prescription: Murder" -- that when Fleming walked in, he never called out to greet his wife. But as the plot goes on, most of the familiar clues are the same. Columbo finds out, from airline records, that Fleming's luggage was heavier when he left, than when he returned, which Fleming claims was because he brought a pile of medical advertisements with him, then discarded them.

Also as in “Prescription: Murder”, Columbo is very curious to locate the clothes that "Mrs Fleming" wore on the plane. (Here, the missing items are the suit and hat, rather than suit and gloves.) And there's a prototype of the tense, dramatic scene where Columbo, returning to Fleming's apartment to renew his search, nearly catches Susan hiding in the bedroom -- just as the missing suit is delivered by the dry cleaner. This is all very effectively played for suspense.

Despite this close call, Columbo soon catches on that Susan is more than a patient, although he never harshly confronts her and threatens her as in "Prescription: Murder".

And there's the stunt where Columbo invites Fleming to hear a false suspect give a "confession" to the crime. Fleming refuses to take the bait, spotting the confession as phony, and expressing his suspicion that the whole "confession" was staged by Columbo. "Now why would I do that, Dr Fleming?", says Columbo, full of mock innocence.

Also in this version, is a scene where Columbo goes to Fleming's office, and asks Fleming to take him on as a patient. Columbo's wife thinks there's something wrong with him, that he's too suspicious. “I disturb people, I get under their skin,” says Columbo. “I don’t trust people.” Like for example, Columbo thinks it's suspicious that he has been (supposedly) removed from the case, after Fleming's buddy in the D.A.'s office pulled some strings.

In “Enough Rope”, Columbo and Fleming do not go on to play out the amusing "Prescription: Murder" scene where Fleming, relaxed and confident, performs a dead-on psychoanalysis of Columbo while the two adversaries sip bourbon. Instead, Fleming gets angry and abruptly orders Columbo out of his office. Columbo is also angry, and loud. Things are moving to the final confrontation.

This brings us to the ending, which is unique to this particular version of the story.

The Ending

First, let us recall the “best known” version of the ending, and then look backward:

(1) ”Prescription: Murder”, the TV Movie (1967)

“Columbo” fans readily recall the ending of “Prescription: Murder” with Peter Falk. Columbo stages a fake drowning at Susan’s house, using another woman who pretends to be the dead Susan, who is dragged out of the pool as Fleming arrives. Then, Columbo prods Fleming into bragging that Susan meant nothing to him, that in fact, if she hadn’t just drowned, he might have later arranged a convenient “accident” for her.

Meanwhile, Columbo has arranged for Susan to be hiding nearby. When Susan hears Fleming reveal his true feelings, she makes it clear that she will testify against him, guaranteeing a conviction against Fleming.

The End.

(2) “Prescription: Murder”, the stage play (1962)

In Link & Levinson’s script for the stage production that starred Thomas Mitchell, the ending was somewhat different. Columbo tells Flemming  that Susan has committed suicide. (Meanwhile, the unsuspecting Susan has been lured away from the scene by police.) Believing that his beloved Susan is dead,  Flemming is so sincerely and completely overcome by guilt and grief, that he confesses the whole plot to Columbo.

The End.

This ending is consistent with the belief of Link & Levinson at that time, that the main “star” of the show was not Columbo, but rather Dr. Flemming (Joseph Cotten). In the stage play’s ending, Flemming is thus shown to be a sensitive romantic at heart, and capable of both true love, and true remorse. It seems that by 1967, Levinson & Link realized that Columbo was the real hero, and that his villains should be more villainous.

  (3) “Enough Rope”, the original version (1960)

The original “Enough Rope” ending was more straightforward – the solution did involve some characteristic Columbo strategy, but it was more a traditional “clue” than a psychological ploy.

In “Enough Rope”, the final solution springs from the discrepancy in the weight of Fleming’s luggage, which was nine pounds heavier when he flew to the resort, that when he returned.

In later versions of the story, this was just one of those “little things” that makes Columbo suspicious, near the start. But in “Enough Rope”, it also leads directly to the solution.

Columbo brings Fleming to his office, to “identify” some evidence, which turns out to be a collection of things matching Fleming’s description of the property “stolen” by the supposed burglar/killer  -- a fur stole, some silverware, etc.

Fleming looks at the goods piled on Columbo’s desk, and quickly realizes that, although the list of items matches exactly, this collection is not his real stuff – the fur is a cheap imitation, and in fact, the silverware has the monogram “C” (as in “Columbo”). Columbo agrees that it’s his own stuff, and that the real point is the weight – the collected  “replicas” of the stolen goods weigh exactly nine pounds, the same amount of weight that, according to airline records, Dr. Fleming left behind during his trip. Columbo demonstrates this for Fleming, with a scale. Highly suspicious, but is it proof?

Before Fleming can recover from this news, Columbo brings in Susan (who, according to Fleming, was just a patient of his). She spots the collection of silver, etc, and immediately says, “Where did you find it?”. The better question (although the script doesn’t really hammer the point) is this: If Susan is just one of Fleming’s patients, why should she know anything at all about the list of goods that were stolen from his house? Why should she say anything at all like, “Where did you find it?”

We haven’t found the (real) stuff yet, admits Columbo. But we’re dragging the lake for it now. Cue dramatic music.

The End.

The Cast

Bert Freed (Lieutenant Columbo)

Bert Freed's Columbo is, first of all, much bigger than Peter Falk. Many of the words later applied to Peter Falk's character,  like "gnome", "sly little elf", and "little shaggy-haired  terrier",  do not apply here.

And Freed's whole manner is more menacing than Falk's. The dialogue makes it clear enough that Columbo plays a game of downplaying his threats, pretending that the clues are "nothing important", etc. But, Freed's manner does not really put Fleming at ease. When Bert Freed’s Columbo smiles, the effect is not reassuring -- he bares his teeth in a wolf-like way, as if he might bite Fleming's nose off,  unless he gets the right answers. In fact, Freed gives the impression that if Columbo's psychological games don't work, he might instead just beat a confession out of Fleming with his fists.

It’s all very entertaining, but it is not always the Columbo that we know and love. This Columbo uses most of the familiar dialogue, but in a way that is totally unfamiliar to fans of the Peter Falk Columbo. For “Columbo” fans, it is quite weird and fascinating, to see and hear such a completely different actor delivering Columbo’s lines.

And by the end, although it must be said that Bert Freed was a highly skilled and entertaining character actor, we leave “Enough Rope” with one overwhelming thought: Columbo was very, very lucky to find Peter Falk, because no other actor could have done justice to this character.

Peter Falk is always quick to credit the writers for giving life to Lieutenant Columbo. But, when you see another actor playing the part, even speaking the same words, it is clear that Peter Falk is being modest, and that Peter Falk’s Columbo is, in fact, a perfect collaboration of the writers and Peter Falk himself, as co-equal creators.

Bert Freed (1919 - 1994) was a prolific character actor. Big and solidly built, with a stern face, he most often played menacing characters -- bosses, cops, outlaws, and authoritarian figures. However, Bert could also play fatherly types, and his Columbo provides some mix of this actor’s friendly and snarling sides.

Bert began movie acting in 1947, and continued acting in films and television into the 1980s. He can be seen in “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?”, and he was in all of the classic TV dramas ("The Untouchables", "The Rifleman", "Perry Mason," "Bonanza") as well as some comedies (“The Partridge Family”, Petticoat Junction”), and some cult favorites  such as “The Outer Limits”, “Night Gallery”, and “Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea”.

 

The Ultimate Columbo Site proudly salutes “the first Lieutenant Columbo”!

Richard Carlson (Dr. Fleming)

In general, this Dr. Fleming is much the same cold, cruel, calculating character that challenged Columbo in later versions of the story. However, there are some notable differences.

This “Dr. Fleming”, like the later Gene Barry version, is the old-fashioned sort of suave and conventionally handsome villain that is no longer quite so popular on television.  But, Richard Carlson is not quite as superior and aristocratic as Gene Barry. We don’t see him in a tuxedo, he is not shown to be especially wealthy, and he is not bold and slick enough to coolly taunt Columbo with lines like, “Even if I did it – and I said ‘if’ – you’ll never prove it.” Instead, this Dr. Fleming is a bit more crude beneath his polished exterior. He bullies his scared girlfriend into helping with the murder, then he tries to blatantly bully Columbo off the case.

So, “Enough Rope” is a heated confrontation of the strong personalities of cop and killer, but it is not quite the sophisticated and civilized game of chess that defines later relationships between Columbo and his honorable adversaries. In opposing Richard Carlson’s version of Dr. Fleming, it is probably a good thing that Bert Freed’s version of Columbo is such a tough and menacing old flatfoot.


Richard Carlson (1912 - 1977) began as an actor and director on the stage. By the late 1930s, he made his way to Hollywood and was getting good roles in films. After his military service in WWII, Carlson rebuilt his film career. Instead of returning to traditional roles, by the 1950s he was working in science fiction and horror films, three of them in 3-D – including “The Creature From the Black Lagoon” (1954), for which he is still well remembered today. Also in the 1950s, Carlson began directing films and television shows. His appearance in “Enough Rope” was a return to his earlier kind of role as a dramatic actor. His last film was “Change of Habit” (1969), in which he played a Bishop, acting with Elvis Presley and young Mary Tyler Moore, who played a nun.

Barbara Stuart (Claire Fleming)

As Dr. Fleming’s wife, Barbara Stuart is unbearably loud and obnoxious. Her shrill voice alone, and her abusive attitude toward her husband, make us far less sympathetic toward her than the later version of Claire in “Prescription: Murder”. The moment we hear Claire’s voice in “Enough Rope”, it is clear that she MUST DIE.

So, even though the “old” and “new” scripts give similar dialogue for Claire, Barbara Stuart’s memorable performance manages to put a whole different spin on the viewer’s reaction, making it seem that Dr. Fleming was driven to do the dirty deed by her awful personality.

Barbara Stuart has appeared in scores of television shows including: "The Twilight Zone", "Perry Mason", “Burns and Allen”, "Rawhide", "The Dick Van Dyke Show", "The Andy Griffith Show", "Batman" (as Rocket O’Roarke), "Starsky and Hutch", "Trapper John, M.D.", "Taxi", "Quincy", "Three's Company", "L.A. Law", and "Nash Bridges". She also acted in such films as, "Airplane!", "Hellfighters" with John Wayne, and most recently “A Family Affair” (2001). One of her favorite roles was playing Tom Hanks' mother-in-law in "Bachelor Party".  She was married for many years to the actor, writer, and artist Dick Gautier (Hymie the Robot in “Get Smart”).

In all of her busy career, perhaps Barbara’s best-remembered role was playing Bunny, Sgt. Carter’s girlfriend, in “Gomer Pyle, USMC”.

Joan O’Brien (Susan Hudson)

In “Enough Rope”, there is no indication that Susan is a Hollywood actress – she is just a harmless bimbo, caught up in a relationship with a bad man and dragged into his nefarious murder plot. She is not nearly as cool and collected as the Susan in “Prescription: Murder” (who is sometimes  nervous, but still quite professional in her acting “performance” for Columbo).

In the post-murder scene, when Susan comes to Fleming’s apartment, she is seriously disturbed by the sight of the dead body. She panics at being asked to touch the dead woman’s gloves or other things. She is almost hyperventilating, and teetering on the edge of hysteria.

Although perhaps a bit overplayed at times, this Susan’s performance really heightens the sense of horror following the murder, in ways that the more controlled  Susan in ”Prescription: Murder” just could not inspire. Even though Susan’s character has more lines and scenes in the later version, this Susan’s performance adds much more to the tension and drama of “Enough Rope”. Well done, Joan!

Joan O’Brien (1936-    )  began her show-biz career while she was in high school, on a local TV music show in California with Tennessee Ernie Ford. Soon she was a successful singer, and made the jump to acting.

It has been written that in about half the films she ever made, Joan O'Brien played a nurse.

Perhaps Joan’s most memorable appearance was in Blake Edwards' “Operation Petticoat” (1959), as the nurse who gets in everyone's way because her, uh, “proportions” cause uncomfortable crowding in a small submarine. Because of her, Cary Grant becomes the first navy officer to sink a truck!

She played a nurse again in the Jerry Lewis movie “It’s Only Money”, and again in her movie with Elvis Presley, “It Happened At the World’s Fair” in 1963—when, according to legend, Joan fired up a hot, off-screen romance with Elvis.  Also in 1963, in a strange sort of Columbo connection, she was “voted most likely to wed Robert Vaughn”.

Joan's final movie was “Get Yourself A College Girl” (1964), a swingin’ sixties teen-fest also featuring Nancy Sinatra, with music by The Animals and The Dave Clark Five. After that, she went back to singing for a while, touring with the Harry James Orchestra. Then, Joan left show business to concentrate on raising her kids, and later became a successful executive with the Hilton Hotel chain.

Also Featuring

Duncan McLeod -  (Dave – from the D.A.’s office)

Frank Behrens -  (Harry – family friend of the Flemings)

Mimi Walters - (Miss Petrie – Dr. Fleming’s receptionist)

Thomas Nello - (Tommy – the “false confessor”)

Walter Slezak (Host)

Last but not least, we must give credit to the “Chevy Mystery” series host, veteran actor Walter Slezak.

Walter introduces each episode of “The Chevy Mystery Show”, with a brief description of story, and he reappears after each commercial break, offering wry and witty commentaries on the plot as it progresses.

He smokes a cigar, in a manner remarkably like Peter Falk’s Columbo (unlike Bert Freed, who chomps and chews his cigar with such ferocity that at one point, he literally bites his cigar off).

Slezak gives the viewers helpful insights to the style of Columbo, the perceptive and deceptive cop, who collects clues by appearing to be clueless. Halfway through the show, Slezak opines, “You have to feel sorry for Lieutenant Columbo. He seems so helpless. But, I wonder…”

At the conclusion, the host tells us that next week’s episode will be “Trial By Fury”, starring Agnes Moorehead –  the same actress who, as it turned out, played Claire Flemming  two years later, on stage, in “Prescription: Murder”.

Walter Slezak (1902 - 1983) was a very popular character actor who could play a despicable villain, a trusted friend, a kindly professor, or a romantic lead. Born in Vienna, the son of a famed opera singer, he was a Hollywood staple for many years. Among his many roles, he can be seen as Prof. Hans Neumann  in "Bedtime for Bonzo" (1951) with Ronald Reagan. In later years, he appeared in lots of television dramas, including the soap opera “One Life To Live”. He acted in “I Spy” with Robert Culp, and he was a villain on “Batman” (The Clock King). In 1983, depressed due to poor health, Walter Slezak committed suicide by shotgun.

Final Note

“Enough Rope”, a gem of Columbo memorabilia, can still be viewed, by appointment, at the Museum of Television and Radio in New York City. We gratefully acknowledge TV historian and super-fan,”Tele-Toby”, for letting us know about the survival and the location of this great Columbo artifact. Thanks, Toby!