American Film
June 1979
The Short Harried Life of Mrs. Columbo
By Rex McGee
Would you believe Lieutenant Columbo had a twenty-three-year old wife? Mistake number one. ....Read on.
On February 26, the National Broadcasting Company premiered a “limited” series entitled “Mrs. Columbo,” based on the oft discussed offscreen wife of one of television’s most famous detectives. The two-hour pilot, “Word Games,” gave the cheery Kate Columbo two murders to solve when she wasn’t doing housework or practicing her French or taking the dog to the vet or the car to the mechanic or her daughter to school. The telecast captured thirty-four percent of the national viewing audience and ranked eighteenth among all prime time shows that week. Not bad.

Three days later the series’ first regular one-hour episode, “Murder Is a Parlor Game,” was broadcast. Opposite the popular “Family” on ABC and “Barnaby Jones” on CBS, “Mrs. Columbo” attracted only twenty-seven percent of the national audience. In the rankings the show slipped to a dismal forty-fifth. Not good.

“Mrs. Columbo” was one of nine new series introduced by NBC early this year in a drastic mid-season over haul. But the network’s bold move, aimed at improving its low overall audience ratings, was answered by the other networks: ABC, trying to maintain its strong lead, and CBS, struggling to overtake it, both weeded out poorly rated shows and introduced new series of their own. These maneuvers in the current fierce war for ratings—which translate into millions of advertising dollars—have put a premium on the rapid production of shows. Producers have complained of too little time to properly write, cast, and tape shows that networks suddenly order. What happened behind the scenes of “Mrs. Columbo" —how the series came about and how the principals involved responded to the enormous pressure to hurry production— throws some light on just how fierce the ratings war has become.

“Columbo,” the series from which “Mrs. Columbo” was derived, was taken off NBC in 1978. The reasons for its cancellation, which coincided with Fred Silverman’s takeover of NBC in June, are not entirely clear. The show was in a tough time slot, but the ratings were still high. Peter Falk, who played Lieutenant Columbo, apparently wanted to continue. He once said in an interview: "I’m always tickled with him, and I’ll always want to do him as long as the scripts stay fresh. I just don’t want the television schedule to interfere with my movies."

But Peter Fischer, who was story editor on “Columbo” and one of Falk’s favorite writers, recently hinted at a couple of reasons the series was canceled: “Rightly or wrongly, Peter took his time doing the shows, and he once took thirty days to film a segment that was scheduled for fourteen. No network or studio can operate like that. And then there was the matter of money. Falk had never worked for peanuts.” Falk’s last season on the air reportedly netted him $2 million for four shows.

Richard Levinson, who with Willam Link created “Columbo” in 1971, has another view: He thinks the Silverman regime was simply not interested in “Columbo,” successful or not, and wanted new shows of its own. “My position,” Levinson said recently, “is that ‘Columbo’ was good for one more season.”

When Fischer and Levinson and Link learned of plans for a series about Columbo’s wife, they were not enthusiastic. Fischer recalled, “My reaction to Fred Silverman’s idea to make a series called ‘Mrs. Columbo’ was, ‘Why?’ The character of Mrs. Columbo was effective in the old show because she was offstage. Once you make her real, once you see her, the character is diminished. She can never live up to the audience’s expectation of her.”

“We thought it was a mistake,” Levinson said, “because it looked like a rip-off—the exploitation of a successful idea. I just don’t see how it can work. I think audiences will turn off to it.”

The three did not want any part of “Mrs. Columbo,” but it was soon apparent that Silverman was going to do the show with or without them. “Since ‘Columbo’ was one of the only network series with a reputation of some class,” Fischer explained, “we finally decided to get involved and formulate a first script. Better in our hands than in somebody else’s.”

“Our conception of the character of Mrs. Columbo,” he said, “was this: She was approximately the age of Peter Falk, between forty-five and fifty. She was ethnic. She was warm and lovable—the kind of woman who brings chicken soup to sick relatives in the hospital. We had mature actresses in mind for the part—people like Maureen Stapleton, Jean Stapleton, Zohra Lampert, and Anne Jackson.".

“We asked two questions concerning Mrs. Columbo,” Levinson said. “What is her franchise [meaning her modus operandi], and where is her husband? And how is she, as a housewife, going to stumble across a murder each week? We had already decided that we didn’t want to show her house or the dog or the car [Falk’s notorious broken-down Peugeot]. We wanted to keep her in the kitchen.”

Fischer wrote a script, and Fred Silverman liked it. But when Link and Levinson began testing actresses before the camera, Silverman began sending down his suggestions (which later turned into commands) for the lead role. Curiously, they were all young actresses. One was sex kitten Carol Wayne. Link, Levinson, and Fischer were bewildered. Carol Wayne playing the wife of Peter Falk? “Silverman’s first choice for Mrs. Columbo,” Levinson recalled, “was Brenda Vaccaro, but Brenda finally decided not to do it.” (Vaccaro subsequently signed with CBS to star in “Dear Detective,” another limited series.)

“One morning we woke up, and we were faced with Kate Mulgrew,” Fischer said. “Nobody quite knew who she was. All we knew was that Silverman liked her and had decided to cast her. Pretty, talented, a good actress—and completely wrong for the role of Mrs. Columbo.”

So, in view of Silverman’s apparent total control, Link, Levinson, and Fischer decided it was best to depart the project. “It won’t work,” Levinson said. “You just cannot have network executives casting your shows. The ‘Columbo’ series was full of happy memories for everybody, and we didn’t want to spoil that.”

Silverman now had his actress, but he had lost his producers. Not to worry, though—there is never a producer shortage in Hollywood. After an aborted stint by producer Richard Irving, it finally fell into the lap of Richard Alan Simmons, who had been producer on the last season of “Columbo.” With “Mrs. Columbo,” he was presented a fait accompli: Make it work with Kate Mulgrew. Simmons quickly rewrote the pilot to accommodate the young actress, and he rushed it into production.

Fred Silverman had evidently seen Mulgrew on an episode of CBS’s “Dallas” in which she played an aspiring country-and-western singer named Garnett McGee. “We were really impressed with her style, her presence, and the way she could dominate a scene,” said John J. McMahon, senior vice-president of NBC Entertainment and head of West Coast programming. “We originally considered everybody— young, old, known and unknown, but in the end we decided a fresh new face was needed to bring Mrs. Columbo to life. Kate Mulgrew also plays older than her years, and that’s a real indication of her enormous range of talent.”

Kate Mulgrew, twenty-three, is a native of Dubuque, Iowa, but you wouldn’t know it by listening to her. Her speech is clipped, and her voice cool and sophisticated. She sounds eastern, fresh out of Bryn Mawr. “It’s pure affectation,” Mulgrew said with a smile recently, and it sounds like it. Only six years ago she was a drama major at New York University, studying in her spare time with Stella Adler. However, in 1975 she was offered the lead in ABC’s daytime serial “Ryan’s Hope,” and her college days were over. She played the heroine, Mary Ryan, for two and a half years, learning her craft and paying her dues before she decided to seek other roles.

“Freddie Silverman was at ABC when I left the soap,” Mulgrew said, “and he personally asked me to stay on. When I told him I couldn’t, I had to move on, he said he’d have something else for me. He called and offered me ‘Mrs. Columbo.’ I trust Freddie. If he says it’s right for me, it’s right for me.”

The "Mrs. Columbo” company struggled from the beginning to stay on schedule, but it was a losing battle. On February 16, they were still shooting the second episode, which was scheduled to be broadcast in only thirteen days. The cast and crew were working eighteen hours a day, seven days a week, and Kate Mulgrew had not had a day off in nearly six weeks. In the last three days she had got only two and a half hours of sleep. She appealed to NBC through her producers for a day of rest. The answer was no.

“They think they’re under this enormous pressure,” Mulgrew said at the time. “They take it very seriously, and, of course, I do, too. But they’re going to take it so seriously that somebody’s going to get very sick, and then they’re really going to be behind schedule. I just do not understand their thinking.”

“I mean, it’s fine for a while,” she went on. “I’m very strong. I can take alot of it, but this is almost six weeks of it. I get out about nine-thirty. I go home, I take a bath, I study. I try to get the lights out by midnight, and I’m up at four-thirty. How long can you go like that? The scripts are very good, very well written, but I’m just afraid that the scripts will be dealt an injustice because of the pressure under which we have to work.”

Mulgrew continued, “This is probably going to sound a little snobbish, and it probably is, but why would any actor come to Hollywood if he really loves his craft? So he can make a fortune? I say an actor who really loves his craft starts in the theater in New York and learns that way. Learns what acting really is. The dedication. The discovery that the joy of acting is in the work, never in what the work can give you, never in the final product. Here in Hollywood, it’s always what the result is. Results, results. Gratification—quick. It’s ridiculous. It’s so shallow. Nothing’s ever going to be accomplished that way.”

Peter Falk worked under the same kind of pressure during his last years on “Columbo.” “It gets to be an endurance test,” he said. “You’re caught between trying to adhere to a certain quality and trying to stick to a ten-day shooting schedule. There’s no time to do a scene as you really want to. Since we didn’t have that many good scripts, I said [to NBC], ‘Why can’t we make one or two good ones a year?’ That made sense, but they couldn’t live with that.”

When the wife of Lieutenant Columbo finally appeared on television, she turned out to be nothing at all like her husband. She was neither ethnic nor eccentric, and she appeared to be some twenty years younger than her detective spouse. The writers even gave her a ten-year-old daughter, who will no doubt be a surprise to the lieutenant if he ever shows up. Kate Columbo is, the NBC biography hypes, “a lady in perpetual motion. She is always trying—and somehow succeeds—to juggle the conflicting demands of being a mother, a free-lance detective, part-time student, writer for a weekly newspaper, and wife of a police man.”

“Once upon a time,” Mrs. Columbo says in the first show, “I studied journalism—I even worked at it— I got married—I’m a terrific housewife—I’m the world’s champion mother—I worship my husband— and I still want something left over for me. Mine. Selfish. A few hours a day: all mine. Nobody else’s. Six months ago I woke up and wondered, Whatever happened to me?”

Will audiences accept Kate Mulgrew as the wife of Peter Falk? The show’s guiding force, Richard Alan Simmons, thinks they will. “I always thought the idea of a distaff Peter Falk was all wrong,” he said. Levinson doesn’t agree. “NBC’s idea,” he said, “is that after one or two segments, you will forget your objections to her—which I think is wrong.”

Fischer lamented, “I wanted to call her ‘Mrs. Schwartz,” and then reflected on the days when he wrote the “Columbo” scripts. “One of the hardest things in the world is to write a script for ‘Columbo,” he said. “You must not leave a single hole. We always had murders that were meticulously planned and carefully executed—we never had any killings of an accidental nature [as happened in the second episode of ‘Mrs. Columbo’]. The murderer had to keep outsmarting Peter Falk. Just when you thought he would drop the noose around the killer’s neck, the killer would produce an alibi or a piece of evidence or a logical explanation. He kept topping Lieutenant Columbo. It was all cat-and-mouse.”

Link and Levinson had one remaining obligation to the new series—their contracts required them to submit comments to the “Mrs. Columbo” producers on each new script. Of the first two shows, Levinson thought the second, “Murder Is a Parlor Game,” was more in the old “Columbo” format, but he told the producers that the script was much too slow. “Also,” Levinson said, “it was an old rule that Lieutenant Columbo should be more likable than his adversaries.” The second show featured an elderly English detective, played by Donald Pleasence, and Levinson felt that Pleasence, the murderer, was distinctly more likable than Kate Mulgrew. “She put this kindly old man on the spot,” Levinson said, “then seemed to gloat about it. And I don’t think audiences are going to like her for it.”

The third episode was pulled and replaced with an old “Quincy” show when it was apparent that the show simply would not be finished. The cast and crew got a breather, but remained behind schedule. “I haven’t had a day off since mid-December,” said executive producer Simmons, “and when you work twenty hours a day, have two days to write a script and one day to prepare it, you get tired.” Why did Simmons accept such an unreasonable schedule demand from the network? “If I go to Fred Silverman,” he said, “and tell him it’s impossible for me to do my job—you write the next line of dialogue.”

Three days before the premiere of “Mrs. Columbo,” Silverman addressed hundreds of producers and writers at a Television Academy Forum in Los Angeles. He took note of the criticism aimed at NBC for not giving studio suppliers sufficient preparation time. “I think it’s unreasonable, and I don’t blame you for screaming about it,” he told his audience. “No one can do his best work under that kind of deadline pressure, and you have done an extraordinary job under impossible conditions. I am not at all satisfied that the mid-season schedule we are presenting—which, incidentally, represents the best of what was available to us—is truly the best you and we can do.” What Silverman failed to mention, one producer commented, was that the shows he was unhappy with were all his ideas—the concepts, the casting, and the execution were all Silverman’s.

“Lately,” Silverman continued, “a harsh tone has crept into the discussions between us. I have the feeling that we’re in some sort of adversary relationship. I know that some of you, on bad days, have had day dreams about a life without networks, a Land of Oz where there are no late orders, no arguments about creative content, and no last-minute schedule changes.... But we have to stop acting like the Hatfields and the McCoys. We’ve got to come up with a working relationship that protects our responsibilities and lets you do your job. You don’t get creativity from a committee. The road to ‘The Gong Show’ is paved with good intentions. You and we don’t necessarily have to walk down life’s road hand in hand, but I’m betting we can replace the Hatfields and the McCoys with a less-violent family drama.”

Eighteen days later producer Norman Lear spoke to the same producers and writers, and he blamed the networks for the antagonistic relationship between them. “Though they call for new ideas,” Lear said, “the networks are so fiercely competitive that they are no longer willing to risk innovation, so they attempt to ensure success in the ratings by copying earlier hits, often misunderstanding why they succeeded. Some of us do pander—but we do so in a marketplace that operates under the laws of supply and demand.”

On March 8, after “Mrs. Columbo” had been on the air for exactly one week, NBC announced in a carefully worded statement that the show was being “dropped” from the schedule. Dropped, not canceled. NBC promptly announced six new shows, also in “limited” runs—sort of replacements for the replacements. Despite the noncommittal language, the announcement left the impression that “Mrs. Columbo” had been canceled, and Kate Mulgrew was upset: “How could we be canceled? We only agreed to make six hours—the two-hour pilot and four episodes.”

The third episode slipped even further in the rankings to fifty-ninth, and the fourth episode was fifty-sixth. At that point NBC still hadn’t decided whether “Mrs. Columbo” would live to sleuth again.

Meanwhile, Kate Mulgrew let it be known that in early April she would be leaving for Ireland, whether or not “Mrs. Columbo” was finished. She was scheduled to play opposite Richard Burton in a film version of Tristan and Isolde. “Our story,” she said, “covers six centuries and examines all the legends about the lovers. I don’t really know too much about it, but I can’t wait to gaze into Richard Burton’s weathered face.”

About the series, Kate Mulgrew said, “I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if everyone said, ‘Uggghhh.” She was wrong. NBC recently announced the continuation of the series in the fall —under the new title “Kate Columbo,” starring Kate Mulgrew.

Mrs. Columbo
Cast Info
Episode Guide & TV Guide Ads
Variety Review
Kate Columbo/Kate Loves A Mystery/Kate The Detective
Cast Info
Episode Guide & TV Guide Ads
Variety Review