Flaws, Fears and Phobias
heroes often seem invincible because they are so mentally and physically
flawless. James Bond is not just clever: he is also agile and strong, and
totally without fear – the picture of mental and physical perfection.
Even Mike Hammer, a relatively brutish slug, has no major mental or bodily
Columbo is, to put it mildly, no James Bond.
the opposite of other heroes, Columbo’s appeal lies largely in his flaws
and weaknesses, the little quirks that make him human for us. Colombo’s
many imperfections and handicaps demonstrate the supremacy of his power of
thought, which allows him to overcome all obstacles.
of course, all of Columbo’s trivial weaknesses help to put the bad guys
off guard. Using his mastery of observation, deductive logic, and
psychology, all deftly disguised with devious deception, Columbo’s
greatest weapon is that he is always stronger than he appears.
the protective camouflage of all his faults, Columbo’s best strategies
would fail. Columbo succeeds not just in spite of his flaws, but because
let’s take a look at our hero’s anti-heroic side.
Mind, Slow Body
is the first to admit that physical prowess is not his strong suit.
only time we have seen Columbo engaged in a fist fight, he gets knocked
out cold, by a somewhat embarrassingly effeminate art dealer (“Columbo:
Undercover”), and lands in the hospital.
cuts a far from imposing figure – for starters, he is shorter than most
of his adversaries, including some of the women.
Columbo’s unhealthy habits further exacerbate his genetic shortcomings.
rarely exercises, he keeps crazy hours, and he seems to consume little but
chili and cigars. A brief jog on the beach with Milo Janus (“An Exercise
In Fatality”) is enough to start Columbo wheezing and gasping, until he
is near collapse. “No question, sir, I’m out of shape.”
addition to his poor strength and stamina, Columbo also suffers from a
lack of physical coordination.
displays his clumsiness in small ways, like repeatedly stomping on the hem
of the Arab consul’s gown in “A Case Of Immunity”, causing it to rip
with loud, comical flatulence sounds. Or the way he awkwardly yanks the
knob off the television of the excitable Mrs Peck (“Double Shock”).
And in his shambling, splay-footed walk.
rare occasion, when duty demands it, Columbo is capable of attempting real
acrobatics, like his drop from the tree in “Forgotten Lady”. But that
fall ended in a crash that would have humiliated a prouder man than
Columbo. (In fact, even the stunt man who did the jump for Columbo
suffered a badly sprained ankle.)
far more characteristic Columbo moment, is his memorable downhill tumble
in “The Greenhouse Jungle”. Arms pinwheeling as he gathers momentum,
Columbo lands in a butt-crunching pratfall. (“It's a little... steep.
But I'll tell ya, it was the quickest way down.”)
does have style, in his own unique way -- but he surely doesn’t have
never really enjoys good health – he is in rotten enough shape on his
best days. But sometimes, it’s even worse than usual.
numerous episodes, Columbo suffers from coughing, sneezing and sniffling.
It seems he is prone to getting colds, but in “An Old Fashioned
Murder”, Columbo explains that he also has seasonal allergies, “every
Spring”. And he can’t take antihistamines, because they make him
teeth are another recurring source of misery for Columbo.
see him suffering terribly in the dentist’s chair in “Candidate For
Crime“ (as his Italian dentist rants that murders always get blamed on
The Mafia), and we see him with a bad toothache, which seems to migrate
from right to left jaw, in “Uneasy Lies The Crown“. Columbo doesn’t
like to do much about his teeth. We learn in “RIP Mrs Columbo” that
his dentist moved to Florida a long time ago, and that Columbo hasn’t
bothered finding a new one. He says that he hates the sound of the drill
(“Uneasy Lies The Crown”).
bad teeth are probably aggravated by his habit of eating ice cream between
meals (“Prescription: Murder”, “Bye Bye Sky High IQ Murder Case”,
“Forgotten Lady“, “RIP Mrs Columbo“). But it also seems that
Columbo has bad dental genes – his grandfather wore a full set of
dentures by age 40 (“The Most Dangerous Match“). As to himself,
Columbo pessimistically says that he doesn’t wear dentures “yet.”
cholesterol is another problem, perhaps the penalty for Columbo’s
addiction to greasy chili. In “Columbo Goes To College”, we learn that
Columbo needs to take cholesterol-lowering medications before every meal.
With treatment, Columbo has lowered his cholesterol from 310 to 220.
Columbo’s poor general health has been exacerbated by a number of
painful medical mishaps over the years.
see Columbo suffer a neck injury, in a nasty 3-car collision, in “Make
Me A Perfect Murder”. (See: “It Could Use A Coat of Paint: Columbo’s
Car Crashes and Car Problems”.) He has to wear a cervical collar, and he
goes through violent chiropractic treatment.
mentioned above, Columbo suffers a significant head injury from getting
clobbered in “Columbo” Undercover”, which requires hospital
confinement. It is one of Columbo’s lowest moments, as he passes out
after getting kicked in the face.
also has undergone surgery for a hernia (“Murder In Malibu”).
perhaps worst of all, from Columbo’s description, is his trouble with
gallstones. “You ever had a gallstone, ma’am? Wheeeooooo!” (“Make
Me A Perfect Murder”)
Keep An Eye Out…”
but not least among Columbo’s physical handicaps, he has a prosthetic
it is well known that Peter Falk lost an eye to cancer when he was a
toddler, for decades it was far from clear whether or not Columbo shares
this trait with the actor who plays him.
were small clues – like, in “Troubled Waters”, Columbo holds a
magnifying glass to his left eye. And in “Murder, A Self-Portrait”,
Columbo folds his eyeglasses and holds them up to his left eye, simulating
a monocle. But these little signs proved nothing, since everyone has one
“dominant” eye, just like being right- or left-handed.
the question was not resolved until 1997 (“A Trace Of Murder”), when
Columbo finally reveals his one-eyed status, by making a joke about it.
Asking Patrick to revisit the crime scene with him, Columbo says, “You
know, three eyes are better than one.”
Columbo’s one eye is afflicted with weak vision. Even as early as “An
Exercise In Fatality”, we see him borrowing the janitor’s eyeglasses
in order to examine some heel-marks on the gym floor.
“Grand Deceptions”, Columbo wears reading glasses, and seems
comfortable with them, as if he has had them for a while. The glasses are
seen again in episodes including “Caution: Murder Can Be Hazardous To
Your Health”, and in “Death Hits The Jackpot” --
where we see that Columbo, with his typical disregard for
appearances, has wired together a broken hinge of his eyeglasses by
inserting a huge paper clip.
is indeed ironic, and impressive and inspirational, that Columbo has
achieved such success in a profession that depends so heavily upon the
power of observation. Columbo sees far more with his poor left eye, and
with his unique brain, than most cops could ever observe with perfect
we are dissecting Columbo’s physical flaws, let us pause to acknowledge
what Columbo considers his strongest feature.
modest about most things, Columbo indulges himself in one bit of vanity
– Columbo believes he has fantastic feet.
is quite boastful about them.
“Double Shock”, Columbo brags that his feet have a great arch, the
opposite of the “flatfoot” police stereotype. "I have terrific
arches...an exceptional arch...My doctor tells me he's never seen an arch
like my arch! Let’s compare arches…"
also brags (in “Etude In Black”) that his feet have extremely soft
skin. Columbo’s wife attributes this softness to his feet’s constant
sweating. Columbo again mentions his sweaty feet, with pride, in “Murder
while other heroes might have “feet of clay”, Columbo has no weakness
in his feet. It’s just the rest of his body that’s falling apart.
Although proud of his feet, Columbo doesn’t care much for his hands --
he believes his hands are small, too small for him to be a magician
because they couldn't conceal anything ("Now You See Him").
“feet trivia”: Columbo’s socks are size 10-1/2 to 11. (“By
Dawn’s Early Light”)
of Heights (Acrophobia)
all of his physical failings and weaknesses, Columbo would readily admit
that his psychological makeup is equally flawed.
example, Columbo suffers from one of humanity’s most common fears –
acrophobia, or fear of heights.
Columbo’s case, it’s rather extreme. “I don’t even like being this
tall,” says the not-very-tall detective. (“Swan Song”)
fear of high places is aggravated by a tendency to motion sickness. He
says that elevators are “another one of my problems” (“Troubled
Waters”), and that elevators make his ears pop (“Swan Song”). His
nervousness is also apparent when he first rides the tram up the
mountainside in “Short Fuse”.
“Murder, Smoke And Shadows”, the killer exploits this weakness to
terrify Columbo, jolting and swerving him around in a ride on an elevated
also see Columbo in similar discomfort, in his frozen reaction to riding
up in a cherry-picker to survey the murder scene, in “Murder In
as always, Columbo does not let his mental or physical weaknesses prevent
him from pursuing a clue. For Columbo, the job always comes first.
of Flying (Aviophobia)
of the first weaknesses revealed about Columbo is seen in the second pilot
movie, “Ransom For A Dead Man” – his aviophobia, or fear of flying,
closely related to his fear of heights.
When Leslie Williams (Lee Grant) finds herself under scrutiny and pursuit by Columbo, she tries to shake him off (and shake him up) by forcing Columbo to ride with her in her small aircraft.
she proposes the idea, Columbo reacts with alarm.
are you afraid of flying?"
it's not one of my favorite pastimes."
enjoying Columbo’s distress, Leslie flies him around in a series of
loops, rolls and twisting maneuvers, and even forces him to take control
of the plane. Columbo is clearly rattled. He admits that he has “never
been crazy about flying,” and after being subjected to this experience,
he woefully says "I never intend to fly again.”
strategy is effective, just temporarily. Catching Columbo at an especially
dizzy moment, she offers to answer more questions but Columbo says,
"I'd appreciate it if we didn't talk for a while."
however, Columbo recovers himself enough to persist in his questions.
in the same movie, Columbo takes a helicopter ride, and reveals that
he’s a white-knuckle flyer. He is so nervous that, when he hears, a
noise, he says:
"What was that?? -- I think there's something wrong with the motor!!!"
Lieutenant," says Mr. Carlson.
fear of flying comes up again in “Swan Song”, as Columbo admits the
reason that he could never be a pilot or a Federal Aviation Administration
of Swimming (Hydrophobia)
also seems to suffer fear of swimming, or fear of drowning (forms of
hydrophobia), although, as with so many of Columbo’s claims, the
evidence is inconsistent.
“An Exercise In Fatality”, Columbo says that he cannot swim, a problem
so disturbing to Columbo that, he says, “I don’t even like a deep
seems contradictory to his prior claim that he loves going to the beach,
“except when the water gets cold, then I don’t like to go in”
(“The Greenhouse Jungle”).
the other hand, a fear of swimming or drowning would be consistent with
Columbo’s queasiness around boats (“Sea-Sickness”, discussed below).
So, we might picture Columbo wading into the water up to his knees,
wearing a life-vest and surrounded by inner-tubes. Or perhaps, Columbo
enjoys the ocean mainly just by looking at it, walking along the beach,
perhaps wetting his feet in the surf, and watching his dog chase the
seagulls (“Try And Catch Me“).
(Mal de Mer)
tendency to get sea-sick might be either a physical weakness, or a
psychological problem, or both.
Columbo seems OK on a boat in "Last Salute To The Commodore"
(1976), and even rows himself across the marina, he says in "Troubled
Waters" (1975) that he even gets seasick with his wife in a hotel on
a waterbed. He also claims, in “Troubled Waters”, that he has never
been on a boat before. Perhaps Columbo became a bit more seaworthy during
the year between those episodes, but his sickened reaction to speeding
boats seems congenital.
see Columbo get genuinely seasick in "Dead Weight", as General
Hollister takes him on a bouncy speedboat ride across the waves –
another example of a killer who spots one of Columbo’s weaknesses and
deliberately tortures Columbo with it.
General Hollister: "It seems to me a man named ‘Columbo’
ought to be more at home on a boat."
Columbo: "It must have been another branch of the family,
of Blood (Hematophobia)
Columbo admits to fear and revulsion at the sight of blood. “Just the sight of blood makes me sick,” he says (“Forgotten Lady”).
This squeamishness is severe enough that some might think it interferes with Columbo’s job. There are episodes where Columbo declines to even look at the dead body, or where he takes a quick peek under the cover then looks away.
Perhaps Columbo developed a horror of blood over years of exposure as a homicide cop. Or, perhaps, Columbo’s natural hatred for blood and violence is part of what drives him to fight crime and punish killers.
of Illness (Verminophobia) or Hospitals (Nosocomephobia)
Columbo hates hospitals. When he is admitted for hospital care in “Columbo: Undercover”, he calls somebody to bring him a pair of pants so he can bust out.
Probably most people have such discomforts, but Columbo’s case is extreme. In “A Stitch In Crime”, Columbo says he gets “queasy around illness” or hospitals – to the point, he says, that he “actually faints”.
of Guns (Ballistophobia)
Of course it’s normal to be wary of deadly weapons, but Columbo’s aversion to firearms is very pronounced, especially for a policeman.
Columbo “hates” guns (“An Exercise In Fatality”). As far as we can tell, he normally does not carry one. We have only seen Columbo fire a gun once, in “Playback”, and it obviously scares him. (When a similar test-firing is needed in “Troubled Waters”, Columbo gets someone else to shoot the mattress for him.)
The only other time we see Columbo draw a gun is in “No Time To Die”, driven by the emergent need to rescue his niece. When the rescue is complete, we see Columbo stare at the gun in his hand, as if it was a completely unknown object. Then he lets it drop down from his finger, obviously relieved beyond measure that he didn’t have to pull the trigger.
It might be understandable for Columbo to hate guns, since he is constantly exposed to their deadly effects. But Columbo avoids guns to such an extreme degree that he actually jeopardizes his job, managing to evade the mandatory LAPD marksmanship test for ten (10) straight years. When the LAPD threatens to lift Columbo’s badge, he finally pays a sergeant 5 dollars to take the test for him.
of Technology (Technophobia)
Columbo has a sort of love-hate relationship with modern technology. Fundamentally old-fashioned, and nervous around gadgetry, Columbo was the last person on his block to get a garage door opener (“Agenda For Murder”), and he openly says about computers that “these machines baffle me.” (“Caution: Murder Can Be Hazardous To Your Health”)
And yet, when it’s important to his case, Columbo is always capable of overcoming his fears, and learning new things.
“Columbo and Technology” is a broad and interesting subject area which we will look at, in more detail, in a future article.
Compulsive Disorder (“OCD”) and Paranoia?
In addition to his multiple phobias, there is evidence that Columbo may suffer from underlying mental or personality disease, including Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, and some Paranoid features.
Columbo’s wife complains that he is “compulsive” about his need to “tie up loose ends” (“Lady In Waiting”), and we see this behavior of Columbo in every episode. Columbo describes this compulsion in various ways, like: “It's just one of those things that gets in my head and keeps rolling around in there like a marble” (“Double Exposure”).
“OCD” might also explain little quirks like Columbo’s eating the same thing for lunch every day, or his inability to quit cigars.
Undoubtedly, this bothers Mrs Columbo, and interferes with his enjoyment of life. “I worry,” he says. “I mean, little things bother me. I'm a worrier. I mean, little insignificant details - I lose my appetite. I can't eat. My wife, she says to me, ‘You know, you can
really be a pain’.” (“Ransom For A Dead Man”)
And yet, if Columbo didn’t care enough about his job to worry and obsess this way, he would not be nearly as successful.
This is a good example of a trait that would be troublesome or disabling in other people, but which, in Columbo’s case, merely serves as a tool to help him do his job most effectively.
The same can be said of Columbo’s tendency to see the worst, which might verge on a type of paranoia.
“I don’t know, there’s something wrong with me,” he says. “I seem to bother people, I make them nervous…My wife says I should have it looked into…You know what I think the problem is? I think I’m too suspicious. I just don’t trust people, that’s my trouble.” (“Prescription: Murder”)
Columbo even admits, “I’m paranoiac. Every time I see a dead body, I think it’s been murdered.” (“Etude In Black”) If this is an occupational hazard for policemen, it is probably also an occupational asset.
weaknesses only make him stronger.
for being short, clumsy, out-of-shape, one-eyed, and nearsighted, with bad
teeth and a history of concussion, whiplash, hernia surgery, gallstones,
high cholesterol, obsessive-compulsive disorder and paranoia, with a fear
heights, planes, water, guns, blood, illness, hospitals, and most forms of
technology….Columbo is practically a perfect human specimen.
is to Columbo’s great credit that, with all of his failings and
handicaps, he always emerges victorious. Columbo prevails over the
strongest of adversaries and, perhaps first and foremost, over his own
flaws and foibles.