In their 1981 book, Stay Tuned, Levinson and Link recount their
sitting down to watch Prescription: Murder to see if they had fixed
the play's mistakes. The details were soon forgotten. Instead, they
found themselves enchanted by Peter Falk's wonderfully quirky
performance. The mystery plot worked fine, yet it was the actor's
portrayal that made their TV movie something special.
Twenty years later, Prescription: Murder still holds up very well.
Barry makes a smooth villain, but it's Falk's Columbo that demands our
constant attention. Richard Irving's sure direction and Dave Grusin's
jazzy score give the TV movie a feel that's part Ellery Queen and part
"Dick Irving is a very nice man," Dick Levinson said.
the components were there in the play, and he worked at enhancing
them. Peter didn't tumble to the character at first. He was playing a
straight cop. When he realized the possibilities and started playing
he went way past our expectations. It s a very stylish film.
Prescription: Murder, like the second Columbo TV movie, Ransom
for a Dead Man, is not syndicated with the forty-three Mystery Movie
episodes, but it does show up regularly on independent TV stations.
MCA also issued a home video version in 1987. Columbo is billed as
"TV's favorite detective," and, for once, an advertising puff
measure of accuracy.
Levinson was basically correct in saying that all the components
were in place. There's no car. There's no dog. But Prescription:
Murder established a formula that would be duplicated again and again,
only slight variations.
You start with the concept that Columbo is an inverted or open
mystery. In other words, instead of the traditional whodunit, we get to
see the murder committed. We know who dun it. Columbo is a
It was a daring idea for television, yet mystery fans can tell you that
the literary device was being used long before Columbo showed up. R.
Austin Freeman, author of such books as John Thomdyke's Cases
(1909), The Eve of Osiris (1911) and The Singing Bone (1912), is
credited with inventing the inverted mystery. Anthony Berkeley Cox,
writing under the pseudonym of Francis Ites, used the open mystery in
the 1931 novel Malice Aforethought.
The character of Lieutenant Columbo also had definite literary
"There were two major influences that we're aware of,"
said. "The humbleness we got from Father Brown. The fawning
manner we got from Perrovich in Dostoyevsky's Crime and
Punishment. He's always saying, 'You're so much brighter than I am.
I'm just a humble civil servant."'
Most of the other familiar aspects of the Columbo series can be
found in Prescription: Murder: references to his wife, the delayed
entrance, talk about his many relatives, the cigar, the seminal Columbo
"There's one detail that bothers me . . .
"I seem to be making a pest of myself."
"Gee, you don't have a pencil, do you? Thanks. You know, my
wife, she gives me one every morning, and I just can't seem to hold on
to it. "
"My sister, she has a living room that's very, very modern."
"Oh, listen, there's one more thing . . ."
"Do you know where the one more thing came from?" Levinson
asked with a grin. "When Bill and I were writing the play, we had
scene that was too short, and we had already had Columbo make his
exit. We were too lazy to retype the scene, so we had him come back
and say, 'Oh, just one more thing . . .' It was never planned."
Twenty years after Prescription: Murder aired, Falk still would
have nothing but praise for Levinson and Link's script. "That was
absolutely flawless," he said. "I don't remember changing a
That was a terrific script."
The major change from the play, of course, was the switch from
New York to Los Angeles. "And several reviewers pointed out that
Columbo, especially Falk's Columbo, was obviously a New York
cop," Levinson said. "But we had switched coasts, so why not
There was another change that seemed minor at the time. Levinson
and Link had clothed Columbo in an overcoat. "We had put Mitchell
in a shabby overcoat that he got cigar ashes all over," Levinson
Falk read the script and thought it said raincoat. He brought in a
beat-up favorite from his own wardrobe. "The raincoat was his
Levinson said. "It used to drive people crazy because it made a
noise and Peter is a natural actor who doesn't like to loop [dub in
obscured dialogue or rewritten lines]. And he's very good at looping.
But in the middle of a scene, there'd be this great ruffling noise. It
that raincoat. The sound guys would go nuts."
In fact, Columbo was about the cheapest character Universal ever
had to costume. The clothes ail belonged to Falk, and he wore the
same suit, shoes and raincoat for all forty-five Columbo outings.
"Yeah, it was my raincoat, my brown leather shoes, my suit,"
chuckled. "The suit was one of those cool, baggy summer suits. But
they only had them in blue and white. I asked them if they could dye
one of them, and it became that brownish tan. I wore the same suit for
the whole series."
Prescription: Murder slipped onto the air with relatively little
fanfare. Jack Gould, then TV critic for The New York Times, devoted
his February 20 column to a German-made documentary about
Hitler, which PBS aired. Still, the ratings were good enough to put
Prescription Murder among the ten highest-rated TV movies made to that