Feb. 24 - Mar. 2, 1979
Here comes Columbo's wife
We never saw Lieutenant Columbo’s wife on that fine old Peter Falk series, but I’m sure many of us, picking up clues he dropped in six years of solving homicides, shared a similar view of what she must be like. We knew that she was a movie buff, a reader of fan magazines, a good cook. We assumed that to stay married to an ambulatory city dump she had to be a bit of a frump herself; an ample hausfrau in her 40s, faintly redolent of lavender and old cabbage; a good-natured nag—”Will you do something about getting that raincoat cleaned? . . . You know I don’t mind your smoking those cigars, but would you please collect the butts and throw them in the trash!”
But wait. Excuse us, please, just one more question. Ah . . . you say we shall be seeing Mrs. Columbo in the flesh this Monday night on NBC, on the two-hour premiere of a series called—of all things—Mrs. Columbo? Well, sir, if you don’t mind our saying so, we have met the lady who will play Kate Columbo and, begging your pardon, we wonder if there isn’t some mistake.
Kate Columbo, who is in her 30s, will be played by Kate Mulgrew, a blue-eyed, peachy-cheeked, dulcet-voiced actress out of Dubuque, Iowa, by way of New York City, who is 23. This Kate has a long way to go to qualify as frump or nag. There is about her no trace of cheap perfume or stale cabbage. But she is no mistake. Ms. Mulgrew will be the lieutenant’s loving wife, mother of their 8-year-old daughter Jenny, up to her lovely shoulders in homemaking, French lessons, reporting for a neighborhood newspaper, and now, in her husband’s absence, the solving of capital crimes.
There is a substantial difference, however, in the ways the two Columbos break their cases. The lieutenant was of the neo-Holmesian, cerebral school— strictly an ah-ha! man. His wife roots out malefactors through serendipity and happenstance, by being in the right place first at the wrong time, then at the right time. Sort of an overage, suburban Nancy Drew.
The dramatic demands of the role, to judge by the initial script, will strain Ms. Mulgrew’s talent along the spectrum of stage directions from “She reacts with astonishment” and “She looks at him long and hard,” all the way to “an agonized gaze” with “hands flying to her throat, scintillating with fear.” All right, she’s only a kid starring in her first prime-time series. What more could she expect of it, or we of her?
In this case, a lot more. For Kate Mulgrew is a comer, remarkably accomplished for her years and glowing (if not scintillating) with the promise of a bright future. Since dropping out of college, in 1975, she has: played the lead in a soap opera, Ryan’s Hope; played David Janssen’s mistress on the miniseries “The Word”; and was a guest star on Dallas as a bitchy country-western singer. She was Desdemona in the American Shakespeare Theatre’s “Othello” and Emily in their production of “Our Town,” in which her fellow leads were Fred Gwynne, Eileen Heckart and Geraldine Fitzgerald.
This summer she will be in Ireland doing a movie based on the medieval legend of Tristan and Isolde. The producer, Clair Labine, is negotiating to sign Christopher Reeve (‘Superman”) to play Tristan to Kate’s Isolde. Just two months ago she was committed to go to Indianapolis to do Oscar Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest.” She didn’t make it.
What happened? What is an actress of this stripe doing in a TV series called Mrs. Columbo? Granted, it is a cut above Charlie’s Angels or Flying High or any of the other video Venus traps for pretty young girls. But it is an even further remove from Shakespeare or Thornton Wilder. What happened may be explained in two words: Fred Silverman. Kate Mulgrew has become, apparently, the fair-haired brunette of the president of NBC.
“I was very excited about doing ‘Earnest’ in Indianapolis,” she says. “My bag was packed to go catch the plane, when Ethel Winant, who’s in charge of talent at NBC, called and asked if I could come see her about doing something called Mrs. Columbo. I said I was very sorry, but I could not give up my first chance to do Oscar Wilde. She was very persistent. How about if I just had lunch with her to explain face-to-face why I couldn’t do the series? Well, so I put off Indiana for one day. It seemed the courteous thing to do.
“We had lunch. She said she understood how I felt about stage roles. But she had obviously talked to Fred Silverman right after lunch. No sooner was I back in my apartment when Freddie called. And next day I had lunch with him. How could I not see him? He had been the head of ABC when I was doing Ryan’s Hope for them and I knew he liked my work.
“Well, when Fred Silverman wants something, he gets it. You can’t win. The sheer energy emanating from behind that well-composed veneer! I am in awe of this man. He is a genius of a kind. So here I am, in Hollywood.”
She had been there all of three days, having had just time to rent a studio apartment on a quiet street bordering Beverly Hills, to rent a compact car, to learn the route from apartment to studio (Universal, where the original Columbo was filmed), locate the nearest Mandarin restaurant, open a bank account and read the revised script of “Word Games,” the opening episode of her series. This was Wednesday. The following Monday would be the first day of production, and Kate had yet to meet her director, or anybody else in the cast (including her “daughter”), or be fitted for wardrobe.
Kate was not predestined for the stage or screen by her background. It was all her own doing. The oldest of eight little Mulgrews, daughter of a contractor father and an artist mother, Kate was born and raised in Dubuque, Iowa— that quintessential mid-American city that the founders of “The New Yorker” proclaimed snootily their magazine would never be edited for. The Mulgrews, Irish on both sides, are strongly Catholic, and Kate went to parochial schools.
“I am so grateful for the education I got from the sisters,” she says today. “Not that I acquired all that much knowledge—but I learned how to learn.” When she was 12 she had to do a dramatic reading in class. She chose Alice Duer Miller’s “The White Cliffs.” “When I finished,” she recalls, “I saw tears streaming down Sister Benedict’s face. I have been an actress ever since.”
After graduating from high school she spent two years at New York University. She was not yet 20 when she joined the sisterhood of Aspiring Actresses, in which dues are paid in the currency of dogged rounds, endless auditions, dashed hopes and hunger pangs.
And there were the usual menial part-time jobs.
“Oh yes,” she says, “I was hired as a waitress for an East-side restaurant, the Friar Tuck Inn, a businessman’s lunch place. I didn’t last there very long. My anger, as those who know me will tell you, is short-lived but awesome. On a very busy lunch time, one of the customers really bugged me. ‘Where’s my fettucine, baby?’ he kept saying, and when I passed his table he reached out and made a grab for my fanny. The next time I came by, he gave me another pinch. ‘Hey, where’s my noodles?’ I went to the kitchen and got his order, a big plate of hot, creamy, cheesy fettucine, and gave it to him, right in the face, and said ‘Here are your noodles, sir.’ He was a beautiful mess. And, of course, I was fired on the spot.
“So I changed tactics. I am by nature a very honest person. But there are times in this profession when a little, ah, deception is called for. I had read that they were auditioning for a new soap opera on ABC, Ryan’s Hope. I went to the producer’s office. His secretary intercepted me. Did I have an appointment with Mr. Hasseltine? ‘Oh,’ I said, ‘I guess not—but we met at a party last weekend and he told me to be sure to come by and see him.’ Well, he came out of his office, we saw each other for the first time, and he said to himself—or so he told me later—This is my Mary Ryan’.”
Almost concurrently, a stage reading paid off, with the part of Emily in a prestige production of “Our Town.” She has never gone back to being a waitress— nor likely ever will.
Nor is it likely that Kate Mulgrew will ever buy a Bel Air hacienda, or hire a press agent, or make the disco scene, or run up a big account at Gucci. She is essentially, she maintains, a very private person. “Something about growing up in a big family,” she says. “There was room and time for only so much love. So now I have my five friends in New York and my two friends out here, and that’s it.
Ideally, she will work a split year: half in Hollywood doing television or films, half in New York doing theatre. She has too many passionate interests in life, she says, to stay confined in one place. There is music: Bach, Vivaldi; books, most recently the biography of Alma Mahler Werfel and “War and Peace,” which she actually finished; and Chinese food, particularly Mandarin and Szechwan.
Marriage? “Someday, of course. I long to be a mother, have lots of children.” What would she have become if she hadn’t gone into the theatre? “A writer, probably. Well, more probably, a doctor.”
Her deepest passion, at least the one most eloquently voiced, centres on her Catholic upbringing. “For all that has happened to me,” she says, “I must give thanks to my faith. Nothing is more important to me than the giving back of some measure of the love and faith I have received so much of.”
But we must return to the business at hand. Will Lieutenant Columbo ever appear on Mrs. Columbo? He will not. He will always be away from home, for some good reason. Not only that, but Peter Falk does not want to know, thank you. The only link with the old show is that Universal owns the name. Columbo creators Richard Levinson and William Link first pitched the idea of Mrs. Columbo, but Silverman took the idea from there and they are no longer involved.
May we assume that Kate has, in preparing for her series, seen all episodes of the original Columbo? “No,” she says. “I did see one Columbo once, quite a while ago.” Well then, what did she watch regularly on television? Her answer was simple: “Nothing.” Nothing? “Yes. I don’t own a television set, never have.”
Aware that this might be taken as something of a heresy, she said it with a defiant flash of Irish eyes and jut of assertive Celtic chin. The defiance, having evoked no shock, was short-lived. She laughed. “Please, don’t think I’m some kind of snob. Two things I could never be—a snob, or a femme fatale. I am just what I look like—an all-American package.”