After what proved to be the final outing, 2003’s Columbo Likes the Nightlife, Falk planned one more Columbo episode, Columbo’s Last Case (that would start at Columbo’s retirement party). But a combination of lack of network interest and Falk’s age and declining health meant it wasn’t to be. Falk died in June 2011 from Alzheimer’s at the age of 83. “We used to say the show would just ‘Peter out’, which is what happened,” Horger says. “Because that wouldn’t have been his last episode. There was always one more thing. He loved playing the character”.
Just over 10 years on from Falk’s death, Columbo has enjoyed a resurgence during the coronavirus pandemic, as it is not just remembered by those who loved it initially, but discovered by a new generation (Twitter is currently full of Columbo memes and posts). For a show that on the surface seems antiquated – “it just reeks 70s,” Koenig laughs, “I mean, the hairstyles and the clothes and everything” – it has found an audience with younger people.
“I think why it became so doubly popular during the pandemic was because we were all locked in, and it takes people back to a simpler time,” Koenig says. “You’re part of this easier, more predictable, more understandable time where things don’t change quite as quickly. And, it’s a mystery in which you already know the answer, so it’s comforting in that way.”
A Columbo reboot, possibly staring Mark Ruffalo or Natasha Lyonne, has been much touted for years. “It’s inevitable” Koenig says (although the ill-fated and borderline sacrilegious 1979 spinoff Mrs Columbo, starring Kate Mulgrew as Columbo’s hitherto unseen wife, might give anyone pause for thought). Yet even if the character is resurrected, it is the original TV run, and Falk’s iconic performance of Lieutenant Columbo, that will continue to keep audiences gripped.
“It’s stood the test of time for 50-plus years now,” Koenig says. “That character is still vibrant and alive, appealing to people. People love that central character, that basic format, that fact that it’s not political, it’s not violent, it’s not all the things television shows are today, it’s something different. And that’s its charm. That’s what people love about it.”
Love TV? Join BBC Culture’s TV fans on Facebook, a community for television fanatics all over the world.
And if you liked this story, sign up for the weekly bbc.com features newsletter, called The Essential List. A handpicked selection of stories from BBC Future, Culture, Worklife and Travel, delivered to your inbox every Friday.