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  • Writer's pictureBrittany Brinegar

Columbo vs. The Man in Black

"My ears pop in an elevator. As a matter of fact, I don't even like being this tall." - 𝐋𝐭. 𝐂𝐨𝐥𝐮𝐦𝐛𝐨

My current TV obsession is Columbo, one of the quirkiest detectives ever on television. Week after week killers judged him on his frumpy raincoat, disheveled appearance, and junky car. But most importantly, they underestimated his skills. He lured them in by playing down his intelligence. He blamed his boss for wanting the loose ends tied up for his report. But the audience knew the truth. The Lieutenant wouldn’t stop until he arrested his man.

Like most shows in the 1970s, Columbo relied heavily on the star power of their guest star. But in a show where Peter Faulk is the only actor to appear in more than a handful of episodes, it made sense. Sitcom stars Dick Van Dyke, George Wendt (Cheers), and Edie Albert (Green Acres) put their acting chops on display as serious villains. The leading ladies of Psycho – Janet Leigh & Vera Miles – flaunted their screen presence. Then there was Leonard Nimoy and William Shatner. And who can forget Robert Culp, who liked playing a killer so much he kept returning.

One of my favorite episodes so far is Swan Song where the great Johnny Cash played a killer named Tommy Brown, a country gospel singer with a troubled past.

After being released from prison he married a controlling choir singer. She blackmailed him into playing the venues she chose and financing her plans for a megachurch. So, Tommy conspired to kill her in an airplane accident. He piloted the plane and induced a crash to kill his wife. The premise alone is enough to draw you in. How does a killer count on surviving a plane crash? How does he make it look accidental? I’ll let you watch to find out!

What I didn’t expect was for Johnny Cash to be so good! Not too many singers can hold their own, especially when facing off against a pro like Columbo. The Man in Black had a commanding screen presence. He used his size and his rage to create powerful scenes that made me hold my breath. More than once I found myself legitimately scared of what he might do to our rumpled hero. And yet beneath the anger, you almost sympathized with his character.

Unlike some killers who grew agitated with Columbo as he closed in on the truth, Johnny Cash’s character seemed to develop genuine respect, even referring to the detective as “Little Buddy”. He gave Columbo tapes of his music for the Mrs. and greeted with excitement when he spotted the lieutenant snooping around his property. The dichotomy of their interaction was one of the most interesting cat and mouse games.

The actors did a fantastic job with the episode and the conclusion had me on the edge of my seat. Like Columbo, the airport left me puzzled. Johnny Cash wasn’t the typical Columbo killer and the change of pace made this one of the most memorable episodes.

𝐓𝐨𝐦𝐦𝐲 𝐁𝐫𝐨𝐰𝐧: Aren't you afraid, bein' up here alone with a killer?
𝐋𝐭. 𝐂𝐨𝐥𝐮𝐦𝐛𝐨: No, sir. No, sir, I had a feeling that sooner or later...
[𝑠𝑤𝑖𝑡𝑐ℎ𝑒𝑠 𝑜𝑛 𝑡ℎ𝑒 𝑐𝑎𝑟 𝑟𝑎𝑑𝑖𝑜 𝑝𝑙𝑎𝑦𝑖𝑛𝑔 "𝐼 𝑆𝑎𝑤 𝑡ℎ𝑒 𝐿𝑖𝑔ℎ𝑡"]
𝐋𝐭. 𝐂𝐨𝐥𝐮𝐦𝐛𝐨: Sooner or later you would have confessed, even if I hadn't caught you.
𝐓𝐨𝐦𝐦𝐲 𝐁𝐫𝐨𝐰𝐧: Yeah, you're right, Lieutenant. I would've... 'cause it was gettin' to me and I'm glad it's over.
𝐋𝐭. 𝐂𝐨𝐥𝐮𝐦𝐛𝐨: Listen, any man that can sing like that can't be all bad.

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