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Why We Never Got to Crack Columbo’s Last Case

Steve Palace
Peter Falk, Lee Montgomery, Robby the Robot (Photo Credit: NBC / MovieStillsDB)

Columbo’s final episode was broadcast in 2003. Star Peter Falk passed away in 2011, from pneumonia and complications with Alzheimer’s.

But did you know that his last case wasn’t supposed to be his last? Falk planned one more outing for the legendary detective – “Just one more thing” if you will.

A script was written and producers were on board. Ultimately, it didn’t happen. Why? Let’s open the files on Columbo’s sleuthing swansong…

Columbo’s Last Case

Following production on Columbo Likes the Nightlife, another installment entered production. Originally called Hear No Evil, it came to be known by another title: Columbo’s Last Case.

Details are scarce but the BBC mentions it opening with the Lieutenant’s retirement bash. Columbo was definitely leaving the force. And it appears another murder was waiting for him on the way out.

Quoted by TV Series Finale in 2007, NBC Universal Exec VP Charles Engel described it as a “darn good script with a really clever twist ending.”

Columbo standing near his car on the set

Peter Falk as the detective, standing near his car on set (Photo Credit: NBC / MovieStillsDB)

The 2021 book Shooting Columbo by David Koenig does its own detective work, however, the contents are generally regarded as a mystery. Appropriately enough, perhaps!

It’s a safe bet that the story would have seen Columbo up against another powerful figure trying to get away with a major crime, as per the format. As for the reported twist, well, maybe Falk was looking to close the book on Columbo for good. The episode kicked off with a party. Might it have ended with a funeral?

Why Peter Falk never got to film the final episode

TV Series Finale notes that Columbo’s Last Case would have seen Falk pull on the battered raincoat for a record 70th time. And the 2008 broadcast marked 40 years of this blue-collared bamboozler of prestigious perps.

Network ABC – who aired the series between 1989 and 2003 – passed on Columbo’s Last Case. Charles Engel commented: “No one wants to buy a movie with an 80-year old lead.”

Not that Falk’s white hair and crinkly appearance had stopped him before. Penultimate case Murder with Too Many Notes (from 2000, with guest villain Billy Connolly) and Columbo Likes the Nightlife both unashamedly featured the detective in his twilight years.

Peter Falk and Billy Connolly

Publicity still (Photo Credit: NBC / MovieStillsDB)

There was talk of production money coming from overseas investors. Yet time wasn’t on Peter Falk’s side. Columbophile notes his deteriorating health. News broke of Falk’s Alzheimer’s diagnosis in 2008. He reportedly didn’t remember Columbo, along with other parts of his life.

What fans ended up with

Lieutenant Columbo’s official send-off placed him firmly in the 21st century. Columbo Likes the Nightlife was set in the clubs of LA, where Matthew Rhys’ scheming music promoter tried to cover up the death of a nosy reporter.

IMDB mentions a callback to the 1971 episode Death Lends a Hand. This was part of Columbo’s first season. The victim is killed by a glass table, which is what happens here. So while fans didn’t get closure, they at least spotted a nice reference.

Viewers are also treated to the sight of two iconic characters locking horns. Unbeknownst to Falk, Rhys would go on to play Perry Mason in the acclaimed HBO revival.

Peter Falk being awarded a badge

American actor Peter Falk, best known for his role as Lieutenant Columbo in the television series Columbo, poses for a photograph during a visit to receive the medal of ‘The Brigade des Tigres’ (Tigers Squad) from Martine Montiel, Director of the detective division of the French police force on November 23, 2006 in Paris, France. (Photo Credit: Pool BENAINOUS/HOUNSFIELD/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)

The legacy of Lt. Columbo

Columbo is still popular today. It’s regularly broadcast on TV around the world and reportedly found a new audience in lockdown.

Created by Richard Levinson and William Link, Columbo’s famous style showed you who dunnit and why. The fun lay in watching the Lieutenant rock up and crack the case, aggravating and typically trapping the murderer in the process.

“Here was a murder mystery where the murder was no mystery,” the BBC writes. David Koenig is also quoted, describing it as “an anti-cop show.”  Another word often applied to the series is “Howcatchem,” or an inverted detective story.

Peter Falk turned in his badge in 1978, having played the role since 1968 pilot film Prescription: Murder. He then returned in 1989, though the format was tweaked here and there. “This modern phase veered towards outlandish plots and slapstick,” notes The Guardian.

Falk was quite involved in the writing throughout. Some guest stars from the “classic” era came back, such as William Shatner, Patrick McGoohan and George Hamilton.

William Shatner and Peter Falk shoot a scene

Columbo: Fade In To Murder, William Shatner, Peter Falk, Ward Fowler, 1976. (Photo Credit: FilmPublicityArchive/United Archives via Getty Images)

William Link authored a short story collection titled The Columbo Collection in 2010. The same year Prescription: Murder went back to its roots as a stage play. The A-Team star Dirk Benedict played Columbo.

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Reports of a Columbo comeback have landed over the years. Mark Ruffalo and Natasha Lyonne are two of the names connected with it. Whoever takes on the mantle, there will only be one definitive detective and that’s Peter Falk.