What is Lieutenant Columbo's first name?
Freeze frame Columbo flashing his badge and there's your answer, or is it?
In a series where the main character habitually refers to his spouse only as ‘my wife’ and who’s Basset Hound is called ‘dog’, it’s hardly surprising that Columbo was coy about his name too.
He regularly name checks cousins and relatives, but he only ever introduces himself as ‘Lieutenant Columbo’. In ‘Undercover’ (Season 12, episode 3) he jokingly gives his first name as ‘Lieutenant’ to Major General Martin J Hollister, played by Eddie Albert.
As reticent as Morse: a similar ruse was employed by the popular British detective character of Inspector Morse, who was also shy when it came to his Christian name, and Morse himself – played by John Thaw – similarly joshed that his first name was ‘Inspector’. In fact the riddle was revealed by author Colin Dexter at the end of the 1996 Morse story - Death is Now My Neighbour - to be 'Endeavour'.
Frank Cannon (played by William Conrad) and Endeavour Morse (John Thaw)
Philip, surely not? Anyone who played Trivial Pursuit back in the 80s may remember that the answer to Columbo’s first name question was Philip. Philip? This alleged fact was the one deliberate mistake among the question cards, inserted by Fred L Worth who wrote a book called ‘The Trivia Encyclopaedia’. He used this false fact as a trap for would be plagiarists, much in the same way that map makers have done in the past by inserting fictitious lakes or lanes in remote places to catch out potential copy cats.
Worth found that around a third of the questions in the blockbusting game of Trivial Pursuit were pinched from his encyclopaedia - including the rogue Columbo question. He threatened to take the manufacturers to court, but the case never came to trial; the Trivial Pursuit people didn't deny that they had culled Worth's book, but they and the judge reasoned that facts cannot be copyrighted.
The prank ran and ran though, and Peugeot claimed in an advert that 'Lt Philip Columbo' as the world's most famous Peugeot convertible driver, and the 1997 Cop Cookbook includes a recipe from Peter Falk for pumpkin lasagne and a reference to his TV character, Philip Columbo.
Writer's block: the creators of Columbo were Richard Levinson and William Link, who said that he was never given a first name. However, there is on screen evidence at odds with this. Columbo flashes his L.A.P.D. badge several times over the course of Columbo's run on TV, first in the ‘Dead Weight’ episode (Season 1, Episode 3). The first name 'Frank' is clearly visible on this ID.
Columbo in his clapped out Peugeot 403
To be Frank: given that there were 69 episodes that didn’t mention or refer to his first name, it seems likely that this was put on the ID for expediency by a prop person. This was in the days before being able to stop the film stably with a pause button was possible, so it’s likely that nobody would have thought it a blunder.
It doesn’t seem an inspired or even likely name really, running as it did at the same time as ‘Cannon’ – a successful TV detective that ran from 1971-1976. The portly detective's first name really was Frank. The role was played by William Conrad: and due respect to him for narrating The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle as a by the by.
And also contemporary to the crumpled detective was an Italian bodybuilder and actor, Francu Columbo. It would seem a little strange for the shabbiest of TV detective's name to so strongly echo a famous bodybuilder of the day.
Francu Columbo (upside down) with Arnold Schwarzenegger and friends
One more thing...If it was an oversight/accident to use the name Frank, it had consequences if you happen to be watching the series in Cologne or Klagenfurt, as in the German language dubbed Columbo’s he is occasionally referred to as Frank by other police officers.