The series is noted by TV critics and historians for the way it reversed the cliches of the standard whodunit story. In a typical murder mystery, the identity of the murderer is not revealed until the climax of the story, and the hero uncovers clues pointing to the killer. In an episode of Columbo, the audience sees the crime unfold at the beginning and knows exactly who did it. This allows the story to unfold more from the criminal's point of view, rather than that of Columbo himself. The real star of the story is the criminal, and the audiences watches as he (or she) frantically tries to cover his tracks, being hounded by the persistent police lieutenant at every step, until he finally slips up and Columbo catches him.
From 1989 through 1995, the Columbo series was revived and a number of successful TV movies were produced, documenting the further detective adventures of Lieutenant Columbo. Steven Spielberg and Jonathan Demme both directed episodes of the show. Steven Bochco was once a writer.
Guest stars who played murderers included Leonard Nimoy, Robert Culp (three times, sporting various moustaches!), Jack Cassidy (again, three times), Ross Martin, Ed Begley Jr, Tyne Daly, William Shatner (twice), Patrick McGoohan (many times!), Robert Vaughn, Lawrence Harvey, Ruth Gordon, Janet Leigh, John Cassavetes, Ray Milland, George Wendt, Johnny Cash, Martin Landau, Donald Pleasance, Louis Jordan, Vera Miles, Roddy McDowall, Faye Dunaway, Fisher Stevens, Rip Torn, Billy Connolly, Ian Buchanan, Dick van Dyke, Jose Ferrer, and Oskar Werner.
A spin-off TV series, Mrs. Columbo, was aired in 1979, but it received a dismal reception and was swiftly cancelled.
Columbo's first name is never directly revealed in the series, but fans have noted that his badge has the name 'Phillip' on it.
Columbo was born and raised in New York City. Located near Chinatown, the Columbo household included the future policeman's Italian grandfather, parents, five brothers and a sister. His father wore glasses and did the cooking when his mother was in the hospital having another baby. His grandfather let him stomp the grapes when they made wine in the cellar. He is Italian on both sides.
Columbo's father, who never earned more than $5,000 a year, taught him how to play pool, an obsession that stuck with the future detective. Hardly a model child, Columbo broke street lamps, played pinball and ran with a crowd of boys that enjoyed a good prank. His boy hood hero was Joe DiMaggio, although he liked gangster pictures.
During High School, he dropped chemistry and took wood shop. While he dated a girl named Theresa in high school, he met his future wife. After serving in the Army during the Korean War, Columbo joined the New York police force and was assigned to the 12th precinct. He trained under Sergeant Gilhooley, a genial Irishman who tried to teach him the noble game of darts. He moved to Los Angeles in 1958.
He's compulsive about little details. Little things keep him awake at night and he likes to bounce ideas off his wife. The Columbo's have an unknown number of children and a basset hound named dog. Columbo doesn't carry a gun. Columbo drives a 1959 Peugeot 403 convertible (licence plate # APD 403). He is prone to airsickness and seasickness and he can't swim.
He is not good with numbers. He likes pool, cooking, limericks, Westerns, Italian opera, Strauss waltzes, golf, classical music and football on television. It is normal for his blood pressure to be a little low. He goes bowling when depressed. Mysteries relax him, but he can't figure them out. He can't hold a pencil. In 1972, he made $11,000 a year. His parents and his grandfather are dead. His favourite food is chilli (with crackers) which he eats at a greasy spoon called Burt's. Columbo also loves coffee and drinks it black. His breakfast is usually hard-boiled egg. Cooking is a hobby. He speaks Italian and a little Spanish.