Lieutenant Columbo as Role Model

I teach two Academic Success Courses (How to Be a College Student for Millennials). Each course has a separate literary focus: Murder Mysteries and Lord of the Rings.

At the end of both courses, students are required to write a five-paragraph cause/effect essay about role models. For the Murder Mystery course, the question that the essay answers is "What detective would make the best role model and why?"

And yes, Sherlock Holmes is a common choice! I also get essays about Agent Hotchner from Criminal Minds, Shawn from Psych, Nero Wolfe, Father Brown (!), Nancy Drew, the Scooby-Do Gang, and Magnum P.I. ("His mustache!").

My choice--and example--is Columbo.

1. Columbo rarely loses his cool. 

Columbo is known for his ability to stay on task ("one more thing"). What I find even more impressive is his immunity to others' anger during the investigation. Murder suspects lose their tempers, threaten to report Columbo to his superiors, chide, criticize, and--in the case of the "Columbo Goes to College"--mock. Through it all, Columbo not only doesn't get upset, he even goes along. In the Columbo pilot, "Prescription: Murder" the sophisticated psychiatrist "profiles" his detective tormentor:
Dr. Ray Flemming: I'm going to tell you something about yourself. You say you need a psychiatrist? Maybe you do, maybe you don't. But you are the textbook example of compensation.
Lt. Columbo: Of what, Doc?
Dr. Ray Flemming: Compensation. Adaptability. You're an intelligent man, Columbo, but you hide it. You pretend you're something you're not. Why? Because of your appearance. You think you cannot get by on looks or polish, so you turn a defect into a virtue. You take people by surprise. They underestimate you, and that's where you trip them up. Like coming here tonight.
Lt. Columbo: Boy, you got me pegged pretty good, Doctor. I'm gonna have to watch myself with you, 'cause, uh, well, you figure out people pretty good.
Dr. Ray Flemming: Now you're trying flattery.
What makes this exchange so great is Columbo's complete acquiescence to the "profiling." He doesn't bridle. He doesn't argue. He doesn't protest. He uses the conversation to find out more about Flemming. Even better, he reacts to Flemming's analysis with a shrug and his elfin smile.

Columbo does get angry--precisely, in "Stitch in Time" and in "An Exercise in Fatality." Those two times are all the more noticeable because his anger is such a rarity.

2. Columbo isn't afraid to look silly. 

He's got his "foreign" car. He's got his hard-boiled eggs. He's got his rumpled raincoat (in one very funny sequence, he keeps trying to "lose" the fancy new coat his wife bought him). He's got his dog.

Maybe he comes off as geeky or nerdy or weird. Whatever it is, Columbo doesn't care. Peer pressure? Columbo's never heard of it--not because he is some grand rebel. He simply knows what he wants and what he believes. He is centered without being self-centered.

Columbo is perfectly willing to let other people educate him about art, cuisine, dentistry, horse racing, wine . . . He'll ask an entire bar of strangers what the weather was "last Tuesday." Or play chopsticks to a world-class conductor. Or--my personal favorite--run all over London acting exactly like an American tourist. And if people snicker--so what?

What makes Columbo's indifference to others' opinions so wonderful is that he really doesn't mind looking foolish. He isn't trying to be rude when he asks questions about abstract art; he truly wishes to find out more.

Speaking of which, when Columbo is embarrassed (mistaking an air vent for a sculpture, for instance), he says, "Oh, I'm embarrassed," and the whole thing blows over.

Columbo also treats his fellow officers with respect.
In "Negative Reaction," he relies on several officers
to testify to the murderer's self-incriminating behavior:
"Did you see what he did?"
3. Columbo is kind. 

His kindness, like the kindness of Lucy Liu's Watson, entails bringing out the best in others rather than crumbling under the weight of empathy (a hard line to tread).

In "Dead Weight," he encourages the witness to the murder to trust herself--despite her history of emotional problems. In "Dawn's Early Light," he allows the murderer a final moment of dignity. In "Forgotten Lady," he warns the troubled murderess's devoted admirer and partner of her impending arrest. In "Try and Catch Me," he states the following:
Lt. Columbo: [to group of murder mystery fans] I like my job. Oh, I like it a lot. And I'm not depressed by it. And I don't think the world is full of criminals and full of murderers because it isn't. It's full of nice people just like you. And if it wasn't for my job, I wouldn't be getting to meet you like this. And I'll tell you something else. Even with some of the murderers that I meet, I even like them too. Sometimes like them and even respect them. Not for what they did, certainly not for that. But for that part of them which is intelligent or funny or just nice. Because there's niceness in everyone. A little bit anyhow. You can take a cop's word for it.
He still makes the arrest but he does it courteously and without fanfare or humiliation.

A cool head, a kind heart, and immunity to pressure: great traits for anyone to have!

3 comments:

  1. If I were asked about a detective who would make a good role model: I'd say Philip Marlowe. (I would not say Sam Spade who was a lot seedier than people seem to think. I love The Maltese Falcon, but he would be a horrible role model.) Marlowe attempts to remain honest in a corrupt world. I admire that. That said no one should emulate his drinking habits.

    I do agree with your points on Columbo. I particularly wish I had his cool head.

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  2. However he has been known to leave his dog in the car. Other than that, yes Columbo is a good role model.

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  3. I've long loved Columbo but never thought to consider why. (other than the sexy voice) Thanks for the lovely explanation.

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