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Columbo: The Opposite of Everything

By Peter Lloyd

Try to find a better case for breaking with convention than Columbo, one of television’s most successful detective series. In Columbo: Master Problem Solver I drew problem-solving lessons from the Columbo character. But as many creative lessons reveal themselves in the the program’s defiance of every detective-story convention.

In the traditional detective story, the author challenges the audience to figure out “who done it” before revealing the solution. Columbo, on the other hand, has been called a how-done-it. As each episode begins, viewers see who commits the crime Lieutenant Columbo will solve.

If the series imitates any format, it would be the original detective story, Dostoyevski’s Crime and Punishment. A violent crime followed by a cat-and-mouse game in which the detective corners the criminal into confession. From Sherlock Holmes forward, however, the detective possesses exceptional analytic skill and solves crimes with amazing alacrity.

columbo with old carIn more recent time, the conventional crime solver devolved into equally violent, crudely cynical, hard-nosed, womanizing tough guys. Striking a sharp contrast, the creators of Columbo give us a detective story with no guns, in all but one episode, and a hero who never uses one. Pushing the envelope even further, Columbo never resorts to any form of violence, even though in three episodes, he evades attempts to kill him.

Modern male detective heroes typically find themselves in bed with one or more of the principal female characters. Columbo enters the series wed and stays that way. We never see his wife or any other romantic business.

Unlike his larger-than-life counterparts, the Columbo hero stands 5’6” and fears heights. “To tell you the truth,” he confesses, “I don’t even like being this tall.” Actor Peter Falk also gives the character a glass eye, which the creators off-handendly acknowledged in one episode. When another character helps him inspect a crime scene, Columbo quips, “You know, three eyes are better than one.”

Rather than intimidate, the little lieutenant disarms everyone around him, including the perp. He’s courteous, deferential, apologetic, even obsequious. So much so that other police officers sometimes mistake Columbo as an outsider when he appears at a crime scene, often as late as 20 minutes into the hour-long show.

All of this convention-defying creativity nearly cost the Columbo concept its life. The television executives involved had to be manipulated and coerced into signing off on a short, married, unromantic, non-violent, unkempt bumbler with one eye. Played by an actor who insisted on wearing the same suit, shirt, tie, and shoes throughout the entire series. And not from the wardrobe department but from his own closet. See How We Created Columbo.

Let me leave you with the following quintessential exchange between the self-effacing Columbo and a character named Ned Diamond.

Lt. Columbo: I wonder if you could help me out with this thing here. Uh, my wife is a terrific dancer and a very good singer but I got two left feet and when it comes to dancing in public, you know, I get self-conscious so, and so she always has to sit it out. Is there something, uh, what can you do for a problem like that?

Ned Diamond: Become a critic.

Peter Lloyd is co-creator with Stephen Grossman of Animal Crackers, the breakthrough problem-solving tool designed to crack your toughest problems.
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