Oh, One More Thing: Columbo Is Back on Stage

Apr 28th, 2011 | By | Category: Art and Entertainment

Peter Falk is a tough act to follow, but John Guerrasio is doing a worthy job of carrying on the cigar in a British stage revival of the original Columbo play Prescription: Murder. Guerrasio wrapped up a spring tour of the play last week at the Buxton Opera House.

E89 Peter Falk Columbo 239x300 Oh, One More Thing: Columbo Is Back on Stage

Peter Falk as Lieutenant Columbo

Before Falk took over the role, Columbo was originally introduced by writers William Link and Richard Levinson in a story called “Dear Corpus Delicti” that appeared in a 1960 issue of Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine. The story was adapted to TV as “Enough Rope” for an episode of the The Chevy Mystery Show that aired on NBC July 31, 1960, with Bert Freed playing Lieutenant Columbo.

Freed played the Lieutenant in a fairly straightforward manner lacking some of Columbo’s later comic characteristics. These first began to appear when acclaimed Gone with the Wind and Stagecoach actor Thomas Mitchell brought Columbo to the stage in an adaptation of “Enough Rope” called Prescription: Murder. Joining Mitchell onstage were two famed veterans of Orson Welles’ Mercury Theater, with Joseph Cotten playing the killer and Agnes Moorhead playing the victim. It was the last role Mitchell played before he died of bone cancer in 1962.

In 1968 Peter Falk took over the role in a two-hour TV adaptation of the play, spawning the 35-year TV series that established the definitive Columbo. After a pilot episode where the character actually appears well-dressed, Falk began wearing the same trenchcoat every episode, changing it only once over the course of the series. In one episode he complains that his wife insisted on sending it to the dry cleaners. Columbo’s dilapidated 1959 Peugeot 403 convertible and lethargic pet basset hound are equally disheveled. Asked to pick out a car for the character, Falk spotted one that didn’t run or even have an engine. “This is the one,” he announced.

But crooks who mistake Columbo for a bumbling hobo soon learn that he’s more like a pit bull than a basset hound. The villainous psychiatrist Columbo is investigating in Prescription: Murder describes the Lieutenant’s M.O.: “You’re an intelligent man, Columbo, but you hide it. You pretend you’re something you’re not. Why, because of your appearance you think you can’t get by on looks or polish, so you turn a defect into a virtue. You take people by surprise. They underestimate you. And that’s where you trip them up.” Another captured killer complains, “Columbo, you’re a devious man.” “That’s what they tell me,” Columbo replies.

After Falk began to suffer dementia as a complication from dental surgery in 2007, his definitive interpretation of Columbo was brought to the stage in a 2010 British revival of Prescription: Murder featuring Battlestar Galactica and A-Team star Dirk Benedict in the role of the Lieutenant. Benedict tried to go back to the original play instead of imitating Falk, but audiences reacted that he had done a perfect imitation of Falk. “They tell me I’m doing Peter Falk, but I never watched the show,” Benedict explained. “I wanted to make it my own Columbo and I find out. . . I must be channeling Peter Falk. . .”

Guerrasio takes the opposite approach of deliberately caricaturing Falk’s Columbo. Guerrasio took over the role this spring following Benedict’s retirement. He pursues a killer played by Brian Capron, reprising the role previously played by Joseph Cotten and Gene Barry. Capron, who previously played serial killer Richard Hillman in Coronation Street, gives a sinister twist to the villain. Elizabeth Lowe plays Capron’s accomplice, following in the footsteps of Nina Foch, while Alexandra Boyd plays the role of the victim previously played by Agnes Moorhead and Katherine Justice.

Prescription: Murder is produced by the Middle Ground Theatre Company, based in Malvern Wells, Worcestershire. For more information about upcoming tours, visit http://www.columbo-prescription-murder.com/.

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