By Sally Carpenter
A seasoned writer knows how to roll with the punches when obstacles arise. William Link, co-creator of what many consider the finest TV mystery series ever, said, “Columbo would probably never been created if there hadn’t been a writers’ strike.”
In 1960, shortly after Link and his long-time collaborator, Richard Levinson, had started writing for TV, a strike prevented them from working on filmed programs. But instead of biding their time beside a Hollywood pool, they shifted gears and penned a spec script for live TV, which wasn’t covered under the strike.
Their story, “Enough Rope,” had a quirky cop named Lt. Columbo. “The Chevy Mystery Show” produced the script in a one-time airing, with Bert Freed playing Columbo. The cop kept stealing the show from the murderer, the central character, so much so that the director made Freed tone down his acting.
Link was unhappy with the production but he and Levinson were undaunted. They felt “Enough Rope” would make a good stage play, so they left TV to revise the script into “Prescription: Murder.” The play toured America with Thomas Mitchell as Columbo and Joseph Cotton as the killer. During curtain calls Mitchell received more applause than Cotton, the star.
The producers wanted to put the show on Broadway but Link and Levinson refused because they were not allowed to make needed changes to the script. It seemed that Columbo might not live to solve another case until Universal Studios announced it was interested in TV movie projects.
The duo adapted “Prescription: Murder” into a teleplay. But Mitchell had since died; who would play the detective? According to Link, Peter Falk, who was not on the list of actors under consideration, called and said he would “kill to play that cop.” And TV history was made.
Often the death of one-half of a writing team will end the other’s career, but Levinson’s passing in 1987 did not stop Link from working. He continued writing for TV and stage.
And Columbo lived on as well.
The original series ended in 1978 but new “Columbo” TV movies ran sporadically from 1989 to 2003. According to Link, a new script had been under development, a mystery set in a “Big Brother”- type house, but Falk’s ill health and the network’s perception that an audience no longer existed for the show ended the detective’s TV run.
But that didn’t stop Link from writing about the cop.
Columbo returned first circle to the stage with Link’s script “Columbo Takes the Rap,” which premiered at the 2007 International Mystery Writers Festival in Kentucky.
In 2010, he published a book of short stories, “The Columbo Collection.” I had the honor of meeting the author at a book signing held at a tiny, indy mystery bookstore (since closed) in Thousand Oaks, Calf. Link was soft spoken and getting on in years, but polite and charming. He was impressed at my knowledge of the “Columbo” show (I’ve watched the episodes numerous times).
I asked how he and Levinson wrote together. He said Dick sat at the typewriter and put down the ideas as they talked. Levinson typed with his two index fingers only and pounded the keys (I used this quirk for a character in one of my books). Link said Dick’s death was probably timely because he didn’t believe his friend would adapt to writing with a computer.
Oh, and one more thing. I just learned that Link and I share the same birthday! How mysterious . . .
Factual information is from: “The Columbo Phile” by Mark Dawidziak (1989, Mysterious Press). Quotes are cited from the forward of “The Columbo Collection” by William Link (2010, Crippen & Landru Publishers).