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Counselors and Killers: Lawyers in “Columbo”

Everybody loves to hate lawyers. They know too much, they dress too fancy, and they seem to get away with all kinds of underhanded behaviors. No wonder Columbo likes to put them in prison.


Lawyer as Murderer

In three episodes of “Columbo”, we see the lawyer as perpetrator of murder, the ultimate evil. These are not small-time shysters, but highly skilled trial attorneys, at the peak of their professions. Perhaps they have seen justice perverted so many times, in their careers, that they now believe they can get away with anything.


“Ransom For A Dead Man”

The first “Columbo” killer, in “Prescription: Murder”, is a medical doctor. So perhaps it is not surprising that in “Ransom For A Dead Man,” the “second pilot” movie, Columbo goes after a lawyer.


Lawyer Leslie Williams  (Lee Grant) is as ruthless in the courtroom as she is in pursuing her greedy personal goals.

Interestingly, instead of making Leslie a criminal defense lawyer or a so-called “ambulance chaser” (as might have been the choice in later years, when lawyer-bashing became socially fashionable), the writers present this killer as a negligence defense lawyer, working for the insurance companies to defeat the rightful claims of the injured.

Sweeping into the courtroom in her designer outfit, Leslie takes obvious pleasure in sarcastically attacking and humiliating the humble black man who seeks to recover for injuries that he suffered falling down the defendant’s dark and defective stairway.  With  full faith in what she calls a nice middle class jury’s “distaste for working man,” she sneers at the black plaintiff, who is a punch press operator, “Have you ever been on welfare before?” Then, actually knowing full well that the defendant’s building fails to meet even minimum safety standards, she snidely and improperly insinuates that the plaintiff was drunk. The insurance representative is well pleased.

In the end, Leslie is defeated because, as Columbo realizes, she is unable to see that everyone is not as greedy, evil and corrupt as she is. She is, perhaps, the perfect representative of the insurance industry.


“Agenda For Murder”

Oscar Finch (Patrick McGoohan) is the kind of killer that every lawyer has to admire. He’s cool, he’s competent, he’s slick, he’s subtle with words, and he kills for the very best of reasons: to seize political power, and, less importantly, to protect his friend.


Even while under investigation for murder, Finch is unbeatable in court – heading off for two court cases back-to-back, he declares them “a breeze, both of them”. Always professionally punctual, he tells Columbo “I despise being late,” right before he zooms away in his BMW and almost runs over Columbo’s feet.

Even at the very moment that Columbo is arresting him, Finch wins a total victory over his political adversaries. This guy is good, very good.

“Columbo And The Murder Of A Rock Star”

Hugh Creighton is nothing less than the greatest criminal defense lawyer who ever lived: he has never lost a murder case.


Of course, he accomplishes this unprecedented record by dirty dealings and foul play, as his mistress knows all too well.

Columbo is always better than the lawyers, and this time he proves it by beating the country’s best lawyer.

We see a bit of Creighton’s courtroom style, as he defends a man accused of hacking his own mother to death with a butcher knife. The prosecutor is racking up points in closing argument, counting off the number of times that Creighton’s client plunged the blade. As a stunt to break the prosecutor’s rhythm, Creighton stages a fit of coughing, choking and wheezing,  until everyone is thoroughly distracted. Then he helpfully suggests, “I think you left off at nine…” (Sadly, this routine is now generally cut out by FoxFamily Channel, so that they can show another 30-second commercial.)


Creighton makes a good villain. He is arrogant and conceited. He pulls dirty tricks, and he pulls strings politically. And he chain-smokes cigarettes.

Sensing victory, Creighton really rubs Columbo’s nose in it, with a special lawyerly meanness.

In the end, it is fitting that Creighton is brought down by the only creature capable of his own brand of treachery and depravity – a fellow lawyer, Trish Fairbanks (Shera Danese), whom he unwisely recruited to help set up is alibi. She immediately blackmails Creighton for a major promotion to partner and fiancée, which greatly arouses Columbo’s suspicions about exactly what happened. Then she goes on a spending spree, redecorating her new office and tossing out all of Creighton’s prized cowboy sculptures. The lesson: There is no honor among thieves.



Lawyer as Political Cover


“Prescription: Murder”

From the very start of “Columbo”, we get the image of the lawyer as the smug manipulator of the justice system. William Windom, as Dr. Fleming’s friend and attorney, tries to use his influence as a political “insider” to get Columbo yanked from the case. His efforts backfire, badly. This would not be the last time that a killer or his lawyer attempts, with dismal results, to get Columbo fired from an investigation.


“Agenda For Murder”

Congressman Paul Mackey, as a young prosecutor, set the wheels of death in motion, by his acts of corruption and theft of evidence, which years later became the motive for blackmail and then murder.  Naturally, his negative ethical values, his hypocrisy, and his oddly bland personality, make Mackey the perfect candidate for vice-president of the United States. “You don’t have to tell me what the law requires,” he tells Columbo – “I was a practicing attorney for years.” (Columbo looks unimpressed.)

When his buddy and fellow attorney Oscar Finch commits murder, Mackey finds himself in the unwelcome role of cover-up and accessory-after-the-fact. He bluffs gamely with Columbo, but ultimately he is too much of a coward to stick to his story.



Family Retainer


“Suitable For Framing”

Don Ameche, as attorney Frank Simpson, is one of the classiest lawyers seen in “Columbo”. Suave and professional, he carries out his duties and dispenses advice with loyalty, honesty and intelligence. He is something of a protective father-figure to the slightly batty Edna.

He’s also sharp enough to prevent Columbo from walking away with his lighter.

Unfortunately, Simpson falls into Dale Kingston’s web of treachery, when Dale convinces him to insist that police search Edna’s home for the evidence that Dale has planted. Like other lawyers, Simpson makes the mistake of believing he can find “some way around” Columbo – “I have a few friends at City Hall, let me look into it.”

Still, thanks to Don Ameche, Frank probably has more personal style and elegance than any other lawyer in “Columbo”.


  Lawyer as Patsy


“Try And Catch Me:

Martin Hammond is a longtime associate of Abigail Mitchell, seeming to function as a personal assistant, traveling companion and friend more than as heavyweight legal honcho. Not a bad guy, but he’s probably not very sharp:  Abigail fools him into fixing a light switch, and uses him to unwittingly assist her in creating a fake alibi.


It’s probably just as well that he’s not present when Abigail would need her lawyer most, being questioned in the wake of the murder. As Abby so aptly said, “I did not consider it appropriate to return to a corpse in my safe in my home, hand in hand with my lawyer -- the image lacks civility.”

Edmund pays Martin the ultimate compliment, when Martin hands him a pen to sign the Will that’s been prepared for him.

“Aren’t you going to read it?”

“Why, don’t you think I trust you?”

Later, Martin confronts Columbo, making the usual mistake of thinking that Columbo can be intimidated just because the killer is a famous big shot. “Lieutenant, I trust you realize that Miss Mitchell is a…rather influential lady.”

Columbo pretends to be impressed by Martin’s lawyerly thinking when Columbo shows him the torn pieces of paper, retrieved from the safe, with their mis-matched torn edges.

“Would you say that something is missing?” says Columbo.

“I would say that something appears to be missing,.” says Martin.

“You’re a very good attorney, sir, very convincing…. very good lawyer, sir, very convincing.”

Martin really doesn’t accomplish anything for his client, but Abigail thanks him warmly near the end.

“Thanks for rescuing me from the Lieutenant’s clutches,” says Abby.

“Oh, that was my very great pleasure,” says Martin, kissing her cheek.

Martin and Abigail exchange a long, enigmatic look. Martin’s expression might be saying “I know you really did it.” Or, “You know I’ve always loved you.” Or, both.

The Martin exits with the line: “Take care, love. And call me any time you find a body in your safe.” And as soon as he’s gone, Columbo comes and arrests her.



Lawyer as Cowboy


“Murder Of A Rock Star”

This episode doesn’t stop with portraying the nation’s top criminal defense lawyer as a vicious killer – it goes on to poke fun at real-life legal characters. Near the end, Creighton shows up at the District Attorney’s office with his own lawyer, who is wearing a ten-gallon cowboy hat indoors, and a string tie, and carrying a sheepskin coat. Creighton’s lawyer is clearly a cartoonish parody of Gerry Spence, the famed OJ commentator and colorful lawyer for Karen Silkwood and shoe tycoon Imelda Marcos.


Ineffective Counsel


“A Bird In The Hand”

Bertie” Supowitz is more than a lawyer – he’s also general manager for the Stallions football team. He’s the kind of lawyer who looks perpetually peeved, always about to explode into a threat or an argument.


When Big Fred gets killed by a car, Bertie does what any good lawyer would do – he brings in television reporters to film the wreckage. “Big Fred loved publicity,” he says. “This is the least we could do for him now.” Right.

Bertie gets a chance to show off his lawyer stuff in the final scene, as Columbo moves in on Dolores (Tyne Daly). “You should know that I am speaking to you now as Mrs McCain’s lawyer….I’m here to see to it that you don’t take advantage of her.” Bertie is determined to intimidate Columbo. When Columbo simply asks if he can hang up Harold’s shirt someplace, Bertie barks,  “Don’t test my patience, Lieutenant!”


During Columbo’s questioning, Bertie tries his best to impede justice, shouting  “I’m not gonna let her answer that! Don’t answer that!”, and “We will answer that, if necessary, at an appropriate time.” But Columbo has the evidence, and he slips the noose around the neck of Bertie’s client, right before his eyes. Suddenly realizing his client’s guilt, Bertie goes bug-eyed, loses his professional demeanor, and squeals “Dolores!!!” And, as she is hauled hauled away, Dolores is as grateful to her lawyer as most guilty clients are: “You’ve been a big help, Bertie,” she says dryly. “I don’t know what I would have done without you.”



Most Ethical Lawyer


“Lady In Waiting”

Leslie Nielsen, as corporate attorney Peter Hamilton, is probably the most ethical and honorable lawyer in the history of  “Columbo”. He sincerely loves the killer, and he tries to plead her case. But Peter is too intellectually honest to ignore the evidence, and he engages Columbo in a series of open discussions which ultimately reveal the final clue against his fiancée – that he heard the fatal shots before, not after, the burglar alarm went off. The cart before the horse.


For a corporate lawyer, Peter is a down to earth fellow. When Columbo offers to buy him lunch, Peter shows no disappointment that lunch with Columbo means eating a hamburger in the Peugeot at a drive-up joint. And in all their scenes together, it is clear that the two men like and sincerely respect each other.


Peter is hurt and disappointed to realize that his fiancée is a murderer. He clearly could get away with changing his story, claiming he was mistaken – Columbo admits that Peter’s testimony at the inquest was unclear, and that now, Peter Hamilton alone can use his powerful memory to “know for sure” whether Beth is guilty or not. 

Peter has the power to let his beloved go free. But in the end, even if it breaks his heart, the truthful testimony of the killer’s own attorney is the one and only thing that will serve justice, and put the murderer in jail.

Columbo says it: “He’s a very good lawyer.”

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