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.
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”
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
And The Murder Of A Rock Star”
Creighton is nothing less than the greatest criminal defense lawyer who
ever lived: he has never lost a murder case.
course, he accomplishes this unprecedented record by dirty dealings and
foul play, as his mistress knows all too well.
is always better than the lawyers, and this time he proves it by beating
the country’s best lawyer.
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.)
makes a good villain. He is arrogant and conceited. He pulls dirty tricks,
and he pulls strings politically. And he chain-smokes cigarettes.
victory, Creighton really rubs Columbo’s nose in it, with a special
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
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”
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.)
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.
“Suitable For Framing”
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.
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.”
thanks to Don Ameche, Frank probably has more personal style and elegance
than any other lawyer in “Columbo”.
And Catch Me:
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.
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
pays Martin the ultimate compliment, when Martin hands him a pen to sign
the Will that’s been prepared for him.
you going to read it?”
don’t you think I trust you?”
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
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.
you say that something is missing?” says Columbo.
would say that something appears to be missing,.” says Martin.
a very good attorney, sir, very convincing…. very good lawyer, sir, very
really doesn’t accomplish anything for his client, but Abigail thanks
him warmly near the end.
for rescuing me from the Lieutenant’s clutches,” says Abby.
that was my very great pleasure,” says Martin, kissing her cheek.
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.
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
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.
“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
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
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.
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.
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
says it: “He’s a very good lawyer.”