Aug 17, 2019

The 1970s Debacle of "Mrs. Columbo"

Columbo (1971-1979, and many movies thereafter) turned the whodunit on its head.  Instead of a two-fisted man's man detective, Lt. Columbo (Peter Falk) is frumpy, disheveled, disorganized.  And the viewer knows who the murderer is; the fun is seeing Columbo outwit them with his scatterbrained persona ("Just one more thing...I can't understand how...")

Columbo often mentions his wife, a frumpy, disheveled, middle-aged housewife cooking pasta fazool in the kitchen and saying "Bring your sweater, it's cold outside."

So, the suits at NBC thought, wouldn't it be fun to have Mr.s Columbo solving some murders of her own?

Who did they cast as the frumpy, disheveled, middle-aged housewife cooking pasta fazool in the kitchen?  Glamorous, elegantly-attired  24-year old soap star Kate Mulgrew, later to become Captain Janeway on Star Trek: Voyager and Red on Orange is the New Black

WTF?  There is no way on Earth that Kate Mulgrew could be the Mrs. Columbo described in the series. Al Molinaro from Happy Days would make more sense, and have a lot more chemistry with Peter Falk.

Fortunately, Mr. Columbo never appeared in the series.  That would have been a painful interaction.

Mrs. Columbo premiered on February 28, 1979, a Thursday night, up against Barnaby Jones (an old person solves crimes) and Family (angst).

The plot was hackneyed: Kate overhears her neighbor plotting to murder his wife (Didn't I Love Lucy it, and before that My Favorite Wife on radio?  )

Next episode: the author of a book on perfect murders is accused of murder.  Why is Kate investigating this?  Why not call her husband, who, you know, is like a real detective?

After two episodes of horrible ratings, the suits realized that they had made a mistake, and tried to divest Mrs. Columbo from Columbo.

On March 15th, 1979, the show was suddenly called Kate Columbo, and a line added to the script explaining that Kate was divorced from Lt. Columbo.  That was fast! 

The plot: A ventriloquist's dummy is commiting murder.  Seen it!

The ventriloquist is played by Jay Johnson, who starred in Soap.

Two more episodes of atrocious ratings (a caterer plans to murder her husband, a psychic is accused of murdering her husband), and the show was yanked.

The suits reasoned that the problem couldn't be the cliched plots and horrible writing.  It must be Columbo. 

So when the show returned on October 18. 1979, it was called Kate the Detective.  No mention of Columbo, and Kate has a new ex-husband. Philip.  She works for a newspaper, which gives her an opportunity to actually investigate cases rather than overhearing someone plotting murder.  And 1970s hunk Don Stroud joins the cast as Lt. Varick, a police officer for Kate to bat ideas off of.

Did that help the ratings?  Nope.  Maybe the fact that Kate wasn't actually a detective?

After five episodes, the show was retooled again, and appeared on November 22nd (Thanksgiving Day) as Kate Loves a Mystery. Better -- maybe a sort of Murder, She Wrote?

Nope.  A candidate for Congress is accused of murder, but didn't do it.  A psychologist conducting sensitivity training classes is accused of murder, but didn't do it.

How about we just call the whole thing off?

Three more episodes of Kate Loves a Mystery aired.  13 episodes total under 4 titles.  That's got to be a record.

Kate Mulgrew is a gay ally: "I'm flattered to be a lesbian pin-up," she says in 2017.  "Lesbians loved Janeway."

No other gay connection that I can find.  But wasn't the whole debacle wacky?

See also: Peter Falk: When Columbo Played Gay


  1. So, when did the show jump the shark? I'm inclined to say when Colombo stopped appearing, but the "ugly guy, hot wife" cliché helps no one.

    1. Columbo never appeared on the show. Most early episodes ended with the sound of a door opening, and Mrs. Columbo looking up in rapt admiration as her Lord and Master appeared off-camera. That always bugged me -- she didn't act like she was greeting her husband of 20 years, she acted like she was seeing God.

  2. I only dimly remember this show. It must have been on during the weekend when I was out to no good. I didn't realize Captain Janeway was Mrs. Columbo!

    1. It was on Thursday nights. But most people were watching "Family" instead.

  3. Oh, yes! I loved that show. I remember when the teenage boy's best friend came out as gay (I think it was Robby Benson)? That must have been a first.

    1. You must be thinking of another program. Mrs. Columbo had a preteen daughter, not a teenage son, and Robby Benson didn't do any tv work until 1986, when he starred as a cop in a short-lived series.

    2. No this was on 'Family,' not 'Mrs. Columbo.' The Kristy McNichol character had a crush on the older brother's friend (I think played by Robbie Benson, or a look-alike) and was disappointed (but supportive) when he came out to her. It was the first TV show I remember where the gay character was portrayed sympathetically.

    3. I looked it up. Robbie Benson was not the guest star. The show was called 'Rites of Friendship' and it aired on 12/28/1976.

    4. Right, I remember that show handling "controversial" issues. I didn't see the episode -- "Family" was always too depressing for me, and I wasn't out yet -- but Buddy was played by Kristy McNichol, and her "one episode" gay friend Zeke played by Brian Byers, who has quite a list of credits, extending from the 1970s to 2019.

  4. And he doesn't look anything at all like Robbie Benson! I'm not sure exactly how I got them mixed up.

  5. I watched that episode...I was a bit embarrassed viewing it when the kid was hanging out under his "buddies'" window.....


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