Much has been written in honor of “Columbo” star Peter Falk, who died last week at 83, but his biggest legacy may be the way he defined a prevailing ritual of modern culture, the celebrity confessional.
As the rumpled Los Angeles detective who headlined “Columbo,” Falk sleuthed through dozens of episodes that featured a Who’s Who of guest stars, but the basic formula remained the same:
In each installment, a fictional titan of entertainment, politics or industry would commit the seemingly perfect murder, prompting a series of socratic exchanges in which Columbo, ruffled in wardrobe but never in intellect, would cheerfully guide the suspect to come clean about his venality.
Columbo’s earnestly neutral demeanor — and the villain’s inevitable sense of relief at being guided to an admission of guilt — was a charming exercise in criminology as personal therapy, much in keeping with the show’s origins in the I’m-OK-You’re-OK 1970s.
Fans of the show also couldn’t help noticing the not-so-subtle populist message of the premise, as working-class Columbo bested the best and brightest of Tinseltown’s jet set.
“Columbo” seemed inspired not only by its time, of course, but also its locale —the tastelessly opulent landscape of Los Angeles high society.
We’ve since devolved into crime franchises such as “Law & Order” and “CSI” that are as blandly interchangeable as fast-food chains, with various indistinguishable versions set in several cities.
But except for a couple of novelty episodes in which the title character landed in London or on a cruise ship, “Columbo” was a local vintage, a show that alternately celebrated and mocked its Hollywood environs as the world’s epicenter of vanity.
Whatever its eccentricities of time or place, “Columbo” endures because its essential plot — the comeuppance of the rich and famous — remains as topical as the morning headlines.
The trajectory of the classic “Columbo” plot — misdeed, evasion, self-justification and, finally, the anti-climax of a full confession — continues to be as much a part of the celebrity news cycle as John Edwards or Anthony Weiner. One looks at the spectacle of Charlie Sheen, to cite but one more example, and wishes that some modern-day Columbo would quietly nudge him to fess up.
What also made Falk’s performance worth watching was Columbo’s modestly persistent refusal to be jaded by the egotism and self-absorption of the Beautiful People he was about to knock down a few pegs.
As we say goodbye to Peter Falk and wait for the next celebrity scandal, Columbo’s good cheer seems all the more admirable — and increasingly difficult to imitate.
Advocate editorial writer Danny Heitman contributes “At Random” to the People section each Friday.