the face of Columbo's mystery Mrs.
15 Nov 1979
When Lieutenant Columbo hung up his raincoat, TV chiefs hung their heads. The series had been one of the most successful in television history and had made a millionaire out of its star, Peter Falk. Then he said "enough," and suddenly there was a gap where a smash-hit used to be.
"Fill it," ordered the bosses at America's NBC network. "With what," moaned the underlings. Then, as only TV writers can, they came up with the answer: bring in Mrs. Columbo, the unkempt police lieutenant's old lady.
Nobody had even seen her before, he'd talked about her... and her bad driving, her terrible cooking, her favourite TV programmes. What a show they would have with Mrs. Columbo solving all those murder mysteries the way her husband used to. Why, she could even have a raincoat like him - but cleaner, of course.
The network was ecstatic. Find Mrs. Columbo, the bosses ordered, and actresses throughout Hollywood started scrambling into raincoats and practicing their accents.
One actress didn't bother. She was in New York, which she loved, had no intention of going to Hollywood, hated the thought of getting involved in another long running TV series, and anyway didn't want to leave her boyfriend, a New York lawyer.
She was the one everybody wanted for Mrs. Columbo. You can have everything, they told her. Everything? asked Kate Mulgrew. She ticked off a long list - money, hours, script changes, a three year contract, other projects, time off for New York and boyfriend - and within four hours she had packed her bags. The next day she was in Hollywood, cursing the sun and the palm trees, working on the first script and trying to catch her breath. It was all done in such a mad rush the writers hadn't even been able to come up with a Christian name for Mrs. Columbo, so everyone simply called Kate by her own name - and it stuck.
Kate Mulgrew is breathlessly recounting all this in her studio trailer, in between large bites of hamburger and chips and gulps of gooey soft drink. Miss Mulgrew isn't one to stand on ceremony and she passed around the chips. An old childhood habit - she's one of eight children in an Irish - Scottish - American family from Iowa, and she's been well used to communal belongings all her life.
"It was bliss when I moved to New York by myself and put down a lipstick and came back half an hour later to find it still there," she says with a laugh. It's a strong, raucous laugh and it matches her deep voice and strong face. She's eating, drinking, smoking, talking and wise-cracking non-stop and she doesn't miss a trick. You somehow get the feeling Peter Falk would approve of Kate Mulgrew, even if he doesn't approve of Mrs. Columbo.
He's seen the show a couple of times and thinks his "wife" is too middle-class and well-dressed. "She ought to have eight or nine kids hanging around her skirts. Her mother should live in, with cousins and aunts and uncles around the place. Instead she's got one kid and takes it to ballet lessons. Somehow I can't really seeMrs. Columbo in the house."
Kate sniffs and says she thinks Mrs. Columbo has class, just as she had thought Mr. Columbo had class, although she admits she has seen only one of Falk's shows. "I had my own clear ideas about Kate Columbo and the first script was rewritten for me. It was originally designed for a much older, much uglier woman. Not much fatter though," she laughs, piling on the chips and thumping her stomach. She's a well-built lady - she describes herself as "very Irish, very strong" - and it comes as a surprise when she tells you her age. She's 23 and worries because she looks older and has been cast in a much older role.
Kate Columbo is supposed to be in her mid-30's and Kate Mulgrew moans: "Who is going to believe I'm 26 when this series is over? I'm going to be the eternal older woman."
She won't of course, have any such problems. Kate Mulgrew is an accomplished actress, despite her tender years. She is methodical and ambitious, a winning combination for an actress, and she isn't as overwhelmed as you would think at being given her own starring series at the age of 23.
Other actresses might be buying a chocolate brown Mercedes, a luxury house in the Hollywood hills and expensive clothes, but Kate, daughter of a middle-class building contractor, just wrinkles her nose at all that.
"The kind of girl who gets overwhelmed by this sort of thing is somebody who wants instant stardom. I want to be a good actress. If I do it through Mrs. Columbo, great. If I do it through making a few dollars a week on the stage, great. I was very clear-headed when I got this offer. I was thrilled, but never for one moment did I shriek for joy about it.
I'd been locked in a TV soap opera for two years playing a girl called Mary Ryan. Very Irish. Very American. Very strong. Me, really. My brother used to switch on the TV and say it was just like listening to me going on at home. I got that job by pretending I had an appointment with an agent. I walked into his office, read for him, and got the part. The same day I won a stage role at the American Shakespeare Theatre at Stratford, Connecticut, so I spent that summer commuting between the two."
Since then she has played Desdemona in Othello, David Janssen's mistress in The Word and a sexy country and western singer in an episode of Dallas. That part attracted the attention of NBC bosses and ultimately the Kate Columbo role. Then she went to Ireland where she filmed Tristan and Isolde with Richard Burton - she couldn't wait to gaze into Burton's weathered face - and now she is back in her far-from-beloved Hollywood working 14 to 15 hours a day, and six days a week.
"Hollywood, schmollywood," she says, disappearing to brush her teeth and calling out from the trailer bathroom: "I hate it, but luckily I never get a chance to see it. All I get is a drive from hotel to studio, studio walls, trailer, glimpse of sun and palm trees, car back to hotel, then bed.
"My mother came out here with me at first and she hated it. My brothers and sisters won't come, although one of my brothers was interested in being my chauffer.
Ambition is a funny thing: "It's a horrible word, but he's not ambitious, nor are most of my brothers and sisters. Jenny is 15 and wants to be a dancer, but the others are less inclined to be so public, to achieve so much.
I am ambitious. I'm the oldest daughter and my mother says the children all have a new game now. They sit around the table every Sunday morning discussing what they're going to do with my money. They come to my apartment in New York – every time I turn around someone is there.
"Sometimes I think I'll never talk to another person as long as I live. It's lovely to get away and be by myself. We had a kind of mad, screaming family life. I used to wear my brother's underwear to school because someone else always had mine. They're wonderful and I love them, but I love them even morenow that I'm away from them."
The family has had more than its share of tragedy. Two of Kate's sisters died, one in infancy and one at the age of twelve with a brain tumour. "That was terrible, unimaginable. Those who didn't drink prayed. A lot of us went back to religion. My mother and myself. I try to live a good Christian life. I want to get married and have 10 kids - I also want to be a good actress, a very good actress.
"I want to stay away from the Hollywood social scene, the partying and the gossip. It's extraordinary what people will sacrifice for their talent, but I'm not about to do that. If they wanted a beautiful, sexy girl to play this part and go Hollywood, they can find plenty of girls willing to do that. I'm not. I won't be a social butterfly.
"I'm dead serious when I say if I can't stretch myself in a show, forget it. I think Mrs. Columbo has potential - otherwise I wouldn't be doing it, but if it doesn't work out, my heart won't be broken. I want to do Chekhov's play The Three Sisters on Broadway and be good. Very good. I want to do TV, films and theatre and be very good. I told you I was ambitious..."