REVIEWED BY MICHAEL SHONK:


MRS. COLUMBO. NBC / Universal Television / Gambit Productions. 26 February 1979 to 9 March 1979 and 9 August 1979 to 6 September 6 1979; 5 episodes. Cast: Kate Mulgrew as Kate Columbo, Lili Haydn as Jenny Columbo, and Henry Jones as Josh Alden. Executive Producer: Richard Alan Simmons.

KATE LOVES A MYSTERY. NBC / Universal Television. 18 October 1979 to 6 December 1979; 8 episodes (one not aired). Cast: Kate Mulgrew as Kate Callahan, Lili Haydn as Jenny Callahan, Henry Jones as Josh Alden, and Don Stroud as Sgt. Mike Varrick. Executive Producer: Bill Driskill

        * Credits above from Variety reviews and website “Totally Kate.”

   Perhaps the most infamous TV mystery series ever made was MRS. COLUMBO. The story behind MRS. COLUMBO and KATE LOVES A MYSTERY is an epic farce of clueless decisions, confusion among the involved, and the ineptness of a troubled TV network that could not stop shooting itself in the foot.

   COLUMBO time on NBC was ending. As for why, that depends on who you are asking. Let the confusion begin!

   Variety in its review of MRS COLUMBO first episode “Word Games” (which can currently be viewed below) claimed Peter Falk had walked off the series to enjoy his growing theatrical career. But according to an article in American Film Institute (June 1979), Falk as well as COLUMBO creators Richard Levinson and William Link claim all were still interested in continuing the series. One point of view claimed NBC and Universal had grown weary of Falk’s demands and the rising costs of the series. Another view was NBC no longer wanted the series. Note, NBC was now run by the same TV network executive that had cancelled HARRY O before its time.

   It was the 1970s, a decade when the name Fred Silverman meant genius TV programmer. Silverman had run CBS while it was number one in the ratings. He left CBS for ABC and quickly made the network that had been the laughing stock of television since the DuMont network left the air and made ABC number one in the ratings. NBC hired Silverman in 1978 with hopes Freddie could go three for three.

   From all accounts it was Silverman’s idea to do a TV series featuring Lt. Columbo’s never seen wife. The AFI article linked above goes into great detail about what was happening in pre-production and the involvement of Link, Levinson, and Peter Fischer (the three who would end up creating MURDER SHE WROTE in 1984). A script was written, but the problem was who would play Mrs. Columbo.

   Silverman had turned ABC around by aiming its programs at the younger audience. So it was no surprise he preferred a younger actress. Silverman’s choices varied from Carol Wayne to Brenda Vaccaro. Vaccaro would have been my choice but she turned the role down and ended up doing DEAR DETECTIVE (CBS, 1979). As for Levinson, Link and Fischer, they wanted a woman Peter Falk’s age, mid-forties to fifties and ethic looking such as Maureen Stapleton or Zohra Lampert. Ugh.

   And that is why the series was doomed. Silverman never understood the magic of Mrs. Columbo was: she could exist in whatever form the viewer wanted.

   The network ordered a six-hour five-episode long mini-series pilot from Universal, the studio that produced COLUMBO. NBC would air the mini-series pilot during the 1978-79 mid-season then decide if it wanted to add MRS. COLUMBO as a weekly series for the fall 1979-80 season.

   The inverted mystery (where we know the killer and the drama is watching the detective catch the killer) is one of the hardest forms of television drama to write. Even COLUMBO run by Levinson and Link had scripts problems.

   NBC and Fred Silverman continued to show a lack of understanding of the creative process and quickly drove the people behind the success of COLUMBO off the project. The network would eventually turn over the production to Richard Alan Simmons who produced the final season of COLUMBO on NBC (1978) and would executive produce COLUMBO return to TV on ABC in 1989.

   The premise was not a bad one – a young mother tries to raise her child while her cop husband is always off screen. To fill her time she writes for a local throwaway newspaper and solves murders. But for the wife of our hero Lt. Columbo this was a terrible idea. The addition of the daughter ruined our view of the fun-loving marriage between two independent adults with their own lives but still devoted to the other.

   Not surprisingly the audience was curious and eager to see the mysterious wife of its favorite detective. The two-hour episode “Word Games” aired February 26,1979 on NBC Monday Night Movies and did well with a 34 share opposite ABC’s HOW THE WEST WAS WON (26 share) and CBS lineup of MASH (38 share), WKRP IN CINNANTI (33) and LOU GRANT (29).

   Robert Culp played a brilliant defense lawyer with a problem. He doesn’t love his wife, and she loves him too much. A divorce would destroy her, so he asks a killer he saved from a murder charge to kill his wife.

   And don’t think the plot can’t get worse. Mrs. Columbo had installed a new intercom system that picks up the intercom of an unknown neighbor (guess who). As Mrs. Columbo listens into her neighbors’ private conversations, she hears the lawyer and killer discuss the wife’s murder.

   All of the episodes of the mini-series are currently on YouTube minus opening themes and closing credits. “Word Games” is shown in two parts.

       and

   Much of the audience was not pleased. This was not the Mrs. Columbo they knew and loved. Beyond the fans feelings of disappointment and betrayal was the fact the show was not very good.

   “Murder is a Parlor Game” aired March 1, 1979 in its regular timeslot of Thursday at 10pm to a rating share of 27 opposite of ABC’s FAMILY 33 share and CBS’ BARNABY JONES 31 share. While “Word Games” finished 18th in the ratings that week, “Murder is a Parlor Game” was 45th.

   The audience had tried and rejected MRS. COLUMBO. The reported refusal of Peter Falk to get involved even in a guest appearance made it apparent one would hope to even NBC that the series link to COLUMBO was a mistake.

   And now the farce truly began. The mini-series pilot had ended. It was unlikely MRS. COLUMBO would be picked up for the fall season. In fact, according to the AFI article above, on March 8th NBC announced it had “dropped” MRS. COLUMBO. Did that mean the show was cancelled or at least in the terms of the day “not renewed”?

   But NBC was desperate for programs to fill its upcoming fall 1979-80 Schedule. Silverman decided to add KATE COLUMBO to the fall schedule in the same Thursday at 10pm time slot. There it would go up against ABC’s 20/20 and CBS’ BARNABY JONES.

   NBC decided to rerun MRS. COLUMBO in August and September. Why NBC reminded everyone of the mini-series hated by so many is probably the same reason NBC was in such ratings trouble.

   NBC continued down it epic path of self-destruction. This time thanks to its bungling promotional department who couldn’t decide on the series title and sent out promotional materials using the different titles (KATE COLUMBO or KATE THE DETECTIVE) and character’s name (Kate Columbo) for KATE LOVES A MYSTERY with character Kate Callahan. The promos can be seen here.

   By now the press was having too much fun with NBC bumbling behavior to not add public ridicule to the situation. And NBC press department helped. Note the name differences on promotional material continued into the run of KATE LOVES A MYSTERY.

   Without on air titles and credits it is difficult to confirm what changes, if any, were made in the production staff. But changes were made to the series. The most important was the change made in the mystery format as KATE LOVES A MYSTERY abandoned the inverted mystery used in COLUMBO and MRS. COLUMBO for the average action TV whodunit format.

   Kate divorced someone whose name is never mentioned and called herself by her maiden name Callahan. She and Kate Columbo shared the same young daughter and the same boss who now ran a daily newspaper Valley Advocate. The change that best showed how much the creative side tried to flush COLUMBO out of KATE LOVES A MYSTERY was the addition of Sgt. Mike Varrick (Don Stroud) as Kate’s police contact and potential boyfriend.

   The changes in the opening themes reflected the different styles of the two series – Kate Columbo as Mom and amateur detective in MRS COLUMBO versus Kate Callahan as Mom and serious reporter in action mystery KATE LOVES A MYSTERY.

       From MRS. COLUMBO episode “A Puzzle For Prophets”

       From KATE LOVES A MYSTERY episode “Feelings Can Be Murder”

       All of the KATE LOVES A MYSTERY are currently available to watch on YouTube minus its openings and closing credits.

   “Ladies of the Afternoon” was the first episode of the new weekly series with all the different titles and aired 10/18/79 opposite of ABC 20/20 and CBS Barnaby Jones.

   Fearless reporter Kate tries to uncover who is behind the group of housewives turned hookers and how it was connected to the murder of a women Kate knew from the PTA. How far away from COLUMBO is this show? How about a long pointless car chase with Kate and the cops to end the episode?

   Here is a link to the Variety review.

   Deservedly, KATE LOVES A MYSTERY quickly made itself home in the bottom ten of the ratings. In December (Broadcasting, 10 December 1979) NBC cancelled KATE LOVES A MYSTERY.

   Today there are some COLUMBO fans still in denial who claim Lt. Columbo’s wife has never been seen, that the series featured a woman married to another Lt. Columbo.

   But check out the NBC ads promoting the first three episodes of the mini-series pilot that left no doubt this was the Mrs. Columbo and wife of the character played by Peter Falk.

   However, despite NBC’s mishandling of the two series and popular character Columbo, we can claim the mini-series pilot failed and ended MRS. COLUMBO. While we can’t explain why Kate Callahan and Kate Columbo shared the same daughter and home we can see the intent of those producing KATE LOVES A MYSTERY (except for NBC which wanted it both ways) was to remove all COLUMBO connections from KATE LOVES A MYSTERY including Mrs. Columbo.

   Three episodes from the mini-series MRS. COLUMBO are available on DVD, “Murder Is A Parlor Game” is on COLUMBO COMPLETE THIRD SEASON, “Riddle For Puppets” is on COLUMBO COMPLETE FOURTH SEASON and “Cavier With Everything” is on COLUMBO COMPLETE FIFTH SEASON.