"Murder By the Book," the first episode of the long-running detective series Columbo, debuted 50 years ago today, on September 15, 1971. The episode, directed by Steven Spielberg, was actually the third time audiences had seen Columbo (Peter Falk) on TV, with the first two installments airing as TV movies. Once those proved the concept, Columbo launched as an ongoing series in 1971, and ran until 1978 as part of a rotation of shows that aired as The NBC Mystery Movie. Other shows in the rotation included McCloud, McMillan & Wife, and Quincy, M.E. Columbo, though, was the most influential of the shows.
"Murder By the Book" was stacked with talent. In addition to being directed by a young Spielberg, the episode was written by Steven Bochco, creator of Hill Street Blues, L.A. Law, Doogie Howser, M.D., Cop Rock, and NYPD Blue.
Columbo popularized the "howcatchem" subgenre. As opposed to the "whodunit," where the emphasis is on solving the mystery, Columbo allows the audience to see who committed the crime early in the episode, and the suspense comes from how Columbo will bring them to justice. Instead of tracing evidence to find a suspect, then, audiences knew who the killer was, and spent the episode trying to guess what evidence they may have accidentally left behind.
Always seen wearing his wrinkled trench coat and sporting a casual demeanor in spite of the high stakes of his job, Lieutenant Columbo was the audience surrogate: a blue-collar guy outsmarting the killers, almost all of whom were rich and arrogant. The character became synonymous with his catchphrase -- "just one more thing" -- always delivered casually, but a giveaway for the audience that Columbo had figured things out.
Columbo is chatty, and his train of thought seems meandering, which frustrates the suspects at first because it's annoying, and frustrates them even more as he begins to tease out evidence and back them into incriminating themselves.
Columbo was created by Richard Levinson and William Link, also known for creating the similarly charming and disarming Jessica Fletcher, star of the long-running mystery series Murder, She Wrote. The pair also made Mannix, Ellery Queen, and a number of TV movies.
Columbo ran for ten seasons with 69 episodes, and continued to come back for TV movies and specials until 2003, with murderers played by actors like William Shatner, Faye Dunaway, and Cheers's George Wendt.