”Columbo – Étude in Black” at its 50th anniversary, illustrated by Tony Stella
Who wears a raincoat in sunny LA all the time? Columbo, that’s who. Why? Just instinct.
His crumpled raincoat, his cheap cigar, his rusty car, his humble manner. Elements that shaped up the image of one of the most distinctive, recognisable and beloved film characters of all time. Peter Falk’s disheveled and disarming, enormously engaging and quirky lieutenant Columbo lives on popular culture in a way that few television and movie characters ever manage. I sometimes find myself opening the Columbo cigar case-resembling box set and rewatching an episode. I never tire of it, I still find it incredibly interesting, unexpected, ingenious and believable. But it mostly has to do with the character, of course, played by Peter Falk, an ordinary guy… and a great actor. Columbo is just a regular guy… with a brilliant mind. He is likable, polite. He has got his mannerisms, absentmindedness, a sense of humour and no change of clothes. But behind his coat and nonthreatening face, he has an obsessive streak. His mind never rests until he gets the answer. These opposite traits residing within the same man, that’s what fuels my never-ending fascination with Columbo.
This Christmas I am treating myself to a Columbo Étude in Black illustration by Tony Stella – the pairing of these two, Peter Falk and John Cassavetes, in a classic Columbo under the brilliant brush stroke of Tony Stella is simply unmissable. It is a great pleasure to have one of my absolute favourite illustrators as my guest today, sharing his wonderful work and his own fascination with Columbo.
”Columbo” illustration by Tony Stella
More than 50 years on since the air of the first episode and we are still talking about (and still watching) Columbo. What made it so special, what is the secret to its endurance? And what is it that fascinates you personally about it?
As 80s kids, we grew up with the TV culture of the 60s and 70s in endless reruns. Besides its brilliant structure and perfect match in Peter Falk – Columbo does not only satisfy the nostalgia we have for the times as a healing “comfort food”, but it also connects us to our loved ones – since Columbo was always mandatory family viewing. In the age of social media and streaming, we lost many of those connections – nevertheless a whole new generation seems to have now caught on during the pandemic… I definitely noticed it in the reception to my old illustrations…
Maybe a need for a kind of wholesome justice is the ingredient that makes it connect in recent years…
The character of Columbo was the heart of the show. How would you describe Columbo? Why did people identify with him to such extent?
Columbo was first played by Bert Freed and Thomas Mitchell and has quite a number of predecessors who more or less display his characteristics, but it was only in Falk’s brilliant take that the character came into its full form. He provided his own wardrobe and went off script to expand the Lieutenant’s eccentricities. Although Jewish, Falk translated his NY/Bronx upbringing seamlessly into a warm Italian nature that made him a role-model in the community. And, in my case, a grandfather role-model.
How many times have you watched it? Do you have a favourite episode? How about particular scenes?
Many, many times over the years – especially before streaming, it was hard to catch them all, still not sure I’ve seen all the modern ones. I love all the classics of course: “Any Old Port in a Storm”, “Murder by the Book”, “A Friend in Deed”, “Double Exposure”, “Prescription: Murder”, “Ransom for a Dead Man”…
I particularly love when Columbo comes up against “modern art” as in “Playback” or “Suitable for Framing” – as Falk was a talented but very conservative draftsman himself, it’s so much fun to see him take jabs laced with a lot of his own opinions.
Looking at your “Étude in Black” illustration makes me rewatch the entire episode in my head. Tell us a few words about it.
I had planned a whole Columbo art-book maybe 10 years back – it had all the villains, LA locations… episode posters, imagined book covers etc… a whole world of Columbo collected in paint. It didn’t go anywhere, but I’ve got an entire archive of work and so far I’ve released a few as art-prints and two 50th anniversary episode posters: “Murder by the Book”, which was given to Spielberg as a gift from his staff at Amblin, and “Étude in Black”, which of course, pairs the irresistible friends and introduces everyone’s favourite DOG.
”Any Old Port in Storm” and “Murder by the Book” illustrations by Tony Stella
You can order your own Tony Stella Columbo poster art here.
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Read instead…in print #14: Cassavetes on Cassavetes