It all began in 1960 as a stage play called Prescription: Murder written by whodunit enthusiasts Richard Levinson and William Link. Joseph Cotten starred as a prominent society doctor who smugly believed he had committed the perfect murder when he knocked off his wife. The detective assigned to the case was a slovenly, disorganized seemingly aphasic old coot played by Thomas Mitchell. Secure in the assumption that so cloddish and unprepossessing a detective would ever be smart enough to tumble to his guilt, the doctor allowed the elderly cop to engage in a game of cat and mouse as they affably discussed possible motives and methods related to the murder. But the doc had underestimated the detective, who had a mind like a steel trap, and by the end of the play had ever so politely and unassumingly allowed the murderer to hang himself with his own words. "Prescription Murder" never made it to Broadway, but Levinson and Link revived the property as a one-hour TV drama on the NBC anthology The Dow Hour of Great Mysteries, with Bert Freed in the role of the unkempt but cagey detective, now named Lt. Columbo.
In 1968, Prescription: Murder was remade as an NBC TV movie starring Gene Barry as the homicidal doctor. Originally, Levinson and Link wanted Bing Crosby to take the role of Lt. Columbo, but when Crosby turned them down, Peter Falk was cast in the part -- and as it turned out, the role fit Falk like a glove. The actor repeated his Columbo characterization in another TV movie, Ransom for a Dead Man (1971), whereupon NBC commissioned Levinson and Link to fashion a regular series built around Columbo. Dressed in a tattered, stained raincoat, tooling around in a beat-up, old heap of a car and generally chewing on a unlit cigar, Lt. Columbo (his first name was never revealed) almost invariably arrived on the scene after the audience had witnessed the "killer of the week" (usually a major guest star) committing a murder and cleverly covering his or her tracks so that no one would ever suspect what had really happened. Deferential to a fault (he always addressed the suspect as "sir" or "ma'am," even when making an arrest), forever chattering inanely about seemingly inconsequential details or relating banal anecdotes about his (never-seen) wife, and in general coming off as the biggest dolt and buffoon ever to walk the halls of the L.A. Police Department, Columbo lulled the suspects into a false sense of security. Then, at the crucial moment, Columbo would burrow deeper and deeper into the case, turning up tiny but important clues that the perpetrator had assumed were nonexistent and forever pausing at the door after finishing what seemed to be a thorough interrogation and muttering "Oh, excuse me...just one more question." Virtually without fail, by the end of the episode Columbo had subtly manipulated the oh-so-clever killer into making the proverbial "fatal slip" that sealed his or her doom. Contrary to popular belief, Columbo was never telecast as a weekly series. Debuting September 15, 1971, the property was but one component of the rotating anthology The NBC Mystery Movie, turning out anywhere from six to eight new episodes per year, each one running between 90 and 120 minutes. In this form, the series remained on NBC until the fall of 1977. Twelve years later, Columbo was revived, again as a component of the crime anthology The NBC Mystery Movie. The property continued to be represented in sporadically telecast two-hour doses until 1993, after which Peter Falk would revive Columbo on an increasingly infrequent basis -- usually whenever he felt like it -- during the next decade.