1990: Columbo vs. Hugh Hefner (sort of)

Sean Brantley (Ian Buchanan) conducts a con game with Lt. Columbo (Peter Falk).

Over the years, there have been many takeoffs based on Hugh Hefner and Playboy magazine.

Hefner’s death this week reminded the blog of one of the most amusing versions from 1990 when Lt. Columbo (Peter Falk) dealt with a Hefner-like character.

Columbo Cries Wolf did more than that. Writer William Read Woodfield (1928-2001) very much played with the normal Columbo formula. Years earlier, Woodfield, with his then-partner Allan Balter (1925-1984), had written key episodes of Mission: Impossible

Sean Brantley (Ian Buchanan) is the founder of a Playboy-like magazine, Bachelor’s World. Instead of Playmates, there are “Nymphs.” Instead of the Playboy Mansion, there is the “Chateau.”

However, in this story, the Hefner figure has a business partner (Deidre Hall) who owns 51 percent of the enterprise. She appears to want to sell out to a Rupert Murdoch-like media baron. But the partner goes missing and Lt. Columbo is assigned the case as a possible homicide.

Woodfield even works in a reference to a British police detective played by Bernard Fox in a 1972 Columbo story, Dagger of the Mind.

The first three-quarters of Columbo Cries Wolf unfolds as a typical Columbo outing. But Brantley pulls a switch, basically begging for publicity as Columbo’s investigation proceeds.

Los Angeles officials (including a nervous mayor played by David Huddleston) aren’t sure. The Police Chief (Columbo veteran bit part player John Finnegan) assures the mayor that the department’s “best man” (Columbo, finally getting some recognition for a spectacular record) is on the case.

Woodfield pulls a big switch when it’s revealed that no murder actually occurred, with Brantley and his partner pulling a con game on Columbo.

Despite that, Brantley’s business partner still wants to sell to the media baron (albeit at a higher price). So Brantley kills her for real this time.

Columbo, with egg on his face from the first fiasco, takes another turn at bringing Brantley to justice. The climax depends on early 1990s tech (which new viewers wouldn’t recognize.

Still, it’s one of the best episodes of the Columbo revival on ABC that ran from 1989 to 2003. (The original Columbo series ran from 1971 to 1977 on NBC.)

Jonathan Demme’s Columbo episode

Louis Jourdan and Peter Falk in Murder Under Glass, directed by Jonathan Demme

Jonathan Demme, a well-regarded director, has died at 73. He’s understandably remembered for Silence of the Lambs, Philadelphia and other films.

Demme, though, shares something in common with another major director, Steven Spielberg. Both had early credits directing an episode of Columbo.

Spielberg directed a first-season episode, Murder by the Book. (It was the first series episode telecast after two pilot TV movies.) Demme’s turn came toward the end of the detective’s 1971-78 run on NBC (the show was revived later on ABC).

Murder Under Glass, featured Louis Jourdan as an influential food critic (who has his own television show) who has extorted owners of restaurants for favorable reviews that has made their businesses successful.

When one of them (Michael V. Gazzo) balks, the food critic poisons him through an ingenious method, thanks to the critic’s own formidable culinary skills and knowledge.

Lt. Columbo (Peter Falk) plays his normal game of cat and mouse before bringing in his man. The good detective (a good cook in his own right) also manages to eat quite well along the way.

As often was the case with Columbo, it wasn’t the outcome as it was the journey.

Jourdan’s Paul Gerard was a worthy adversary for the detective. Gerard even tries to do in Columbo while the two are having a meal. The attempted murder is the last thing Columbo needs to make his case.

The episode was a highlight for Columbo’s final NBC season. For Jonathan Demme, bigger things lay ahead.

Lt. Columbo’s encounters with spies

Peter Falk passed away last month and obituaries SUCH AS THIS ONE IN THE LOS ANGELES TIMES documented his varied career while noting he was most famous for playing Lt. Columbo, who wore a rumpled raincoat but had a sharp mind. We thought we’d take some time out to detail a couple of enounters the character had with spies.

In “Identity Crisis,” in 1975 from Columbo’s fifth season on NBC, the murderer Columbo pursues is Nelson Brenner. The CIA operative is played by Patrick McGoohan, who seems to channel his John Drake and Number Six personas. McGoohan, who also directed the episode, was back for his second turn as a murderer on the show. McGoohan even works in his “Be seeing you!” line from The Prisoner.

The script, by Bill Driskill, is pretty complex. The murder victim (Leslie Nielsen) is another agent. There’s a non-existent operative named Steinmetz and….well, you get the idea.

Brenner has a cover identity as a business consultant. At one point, the CIA director (David White) pays a visit on Columbo, telling him to can his investigation in the interest of national security. Columbo, of course, doesn’t give up that easily but knows it’ll be even trickier to bring in Brenner.

The CIA shows up in a more indirect role in “Columbo Goes to the Guillotine,” the first Columbo to air on ABC when the show was revived in 1989. Elliott Blake (Anthony Andrews) is trying to convince the agency he’s a genuine psychic who can be of aid in intelligence work. The CIA hires a magician, Max Dyson (Anthony Zerbe), who has also exposed other psychics as frauds, to test Blake’s abilities.

The two men, however, have met before. They were in a prison in Uganda years earlier. They meet the night before the test and rig it in Blake’s favor. Afterward, Dyson says he agreed because of what the two mean to each other while in prison. Blake, though, knows that Dyson sold him out to get out of that prison. He kills Dyson, making it appear the magician was killed in an accident involving a guillotine trick.

Columbo engages in his usual cat-and-mouse games with Blake. Meanwhile, the CIA’s Mr. Harrow (Alan Fudge) is convinced Blake is the real thing. The agency is ready to whisk Blake away with a new identity. Columbo, armed with a court order, prevents that. He duplicates the Dyson-Blake test, ending the CIA’s interest in Blake.

The episode was written by William Read Woodfield (a writer on the original Mission: Impossible series and a magician himself) and directed by Leo Penn. It ends with Columbo taking a big chance to make his case against Blake: