Columbo, a police detective, wears a wrinkled trench coat, knee-high leggings made to resemble rumpled trouser legs, a gravy-stained shirt and tie, and a pair of basic black shoes that he bought from a Salvation Army thrift store. He wears the coat and leggings so that he can open the coat and expose himself to unsuspecting women as he pretends to be an exhibitionist.
Known for his stupidity and his penchant for asking a series of questions, preceded by the tagline "Just one more question" or "Just one more thing," he embodies government inefficiency and bureaucratic incompetence. To symbolize his intellectual vacuity, he put one eye out, sporting a glass eye replacement rather than an eye patch. The effect makes make him appear even stupider than he actually is.
Because of his obsequious manner and his obvious mental retardation, the criminals he pursues often become overconfident, but Columbo is too dense to capitalize on their hubris, and he never solves even the most obvious cases assigned to him.
Autistic, the detective, who, despite (or, perhaps, because of) his ineptness, rose to the rank of lieutenant, focuses on the most insignificant and irrelevant "clues" he encounters and hounds suspects until they leave the country, give up their U. S citizenship, and live the rest of their lives abroad. Columbo regards these actions as "suspicious." Although he tries to extradite them, he is unable to figure out how his ballpoint pen works and, as a result, is unable to complete--or even to begin--the necessary paperwork.
Lee Falk, the creator of The Phantom comic strip, played Columbo on an NBC Proud-as-a-Peahen television series, four other so-called actors having quit the show, but finds the character "too asinine" to continue to portray. In his portrayal of the detective, Falk followed his brother Peter Falk, Lee J. Cobb, Bing Crosby, and Thomas Mitchell.
The first villain whom Falk's Columbo attempts to convict is the wily Gene Barry, who commits his crimes while dressed as Bat Masterson. Like all the succeeding suspects on the show, Barry's character is never convicted or even arrested. For his true-to-life portrayal of the infamous detective, Falk (Lee, not Peter) earned an Enema Award for Worst Acting.
Viewers enjoyed the first three episodes because they were fond of spotting clues that Columbo overlooked while obsessing about insignificant red herrings and how to get the gravy stains out of his shirt and tie. The show's creators (if they can be called that), attributed the success of these episodes to the audience's enjoyment of their sense of superiority.
A handful of fan letters, representing thousands of viewers, according to the network, suggested ways by which Columbo could become a better detective, such as "collect evidence at the crime scene, especially the murder weapon" and "identify and interview more than one suspect." The tone of the fan letters was always the same--condescending. "Clearly, viewers thought they were much brighter than Lee's Columbo and enjoyed being patronizing in offering their advice as laymen to a true professional." After half a season, however, the series was canceled. Its three viewers, representing thousands, according to the network, had tired of the formulaic plot, calling it "too predictable." A mosquito could solve the crimes Columbo is assigned, but he never does, ex-fans claimed.
Instead of going to Las Vegas after their careers died, many veteran actors made cameo appearances or starred as the villain of the week, including Oliver Wendell Douglas (Green Eggs and Ham), Rob Petrie (The Mary Tyler Moore Show), and has-been Napoleon Solo (The Man Who Cried Uncle). The appearance of Peg Bundy (Married My Children) added some much-needed oomph, earning the show an Enema Award for Biggest Breasts on a Mindless Detective Series.
A spin-off series, Dick, starring Columbo's trench coat, which would walk and talk by itself, solving the crimes that had baffled its owner, was never aired because the crew who filmed the pilot was unable to bear the stench of the sweat-stained, food-stained, semen-stained, unlaundered garment.
Although he often alluded to his wife, Mrs. Columbo was never shown, and viewers believe that the detective, not being too bright, actually meant his 13-year-old pet poodle, Pussy, when he made mention of his spouse.