Bill Link on Columbos Rules
“The mystery writer Mary Roberts Rinehart was notorious for having her heroines exclaim “Had I but known,” recalling their past naivete. I might place myself in the same category years after my collaborator and best friend Dick Levinson and I wrote a certain script in the hot New York summer of l960 in a rented apartment on Broadway and 75th Street. The hour-long script was called “Enough Rope” and it introduced a little police homicide detective in a tattered raincoat who brandished a chewed cigar. This was Lieutenant No-First-Name Columbo who has gone on to be a folk hero in almost every country that enjoys television.
We had fun with the character while writing the script but we had no idea that people of diverse cultures all over the world would identify with him. We saw this as a “one-shot,” a television term for a quick place in the sun before the marquee goes dark for good. No such luck for this very rumpled, bemused cop.
Columbo could be diagnosed by a psychiatrist as a passive-aggressive personality, mildly paranoid, complicated by decidedly hidden agendas. He is absent-minded, funny, Scotch-tape tenacious, unkempt, a man for all seasons, especially a rainy one. Why would anyone in their right mind identify with such an innocuous, average-seeming Every Man? Probably because he is much smarter than he appears and because he is also a master communicator who almost always understands his adversary’s viewpoint, fears, and motivation.
Which brings me to the subject of this preface: Conrad Giller’s challenging concept. Had could I have known that someday a very astute man would write a entire treatise dissecting and deconstructing the Columbo “technique,” sort of a bloodless autopsy of the wily detective’s methods.
When Dick and I originally created the character, much of the process involved what in America we call “off the top of the head,” also known as “winging it.” Translation: we adlibbed his personality using the template of Petrovitch, the Russian cop in Dostoevsky’s classic “Crime and Punishment.” We also threw in a soupcon of G.K. Chesterton’s little priest-detective Father Brown. It all comes down to the Eleventh Commandment: If you’re going to steal, steal only from the best. Providing they are not alive and have a good lawyer!
Giller’s brilliant concept was to pluck the Columbo technique from its crime context and apply it to everyday relationships: Employer and employee, husband and wife, father and child, etc. He understands that Columbo is basically non-judgmental which leads to one of his other principle perceptions: Columbo is very hard on solving problems but not fighting people.
In all of his investigations, he enters into confrontation with his opponent with no real advantages and with little if any information. This is like holding a poker hand of all blank cards while your opponent has the four aces in his. Isn’t this our position in many situations in normal life when we come up against a wife or business associate or anyone else we need to persuade?
Over the years many people have tried to analyze what really makes Columbo tick. Some have pointed out that in only one or two shows does Columbo actually exhibit any anger. This is important and directly underlines Giller’s premise: getting your own way, conquering a conflict, must be achieved by peaceful means. This is a strategic lesson that I think all of us should learn in a world that seems more and more inclined to violence.
In conclusion I would like to say that I am flattered and more than impressed that Conrad Giller has constructed a helpful problem-solving program that evolved from what two young men concocted long ago in that hot summer apartment in New York City. Had we but known…
William Link, Los Angeles, Thanksgiving 2003