Bing Crosby passed on playing Columbo because he'd rather golf
Columbo creators begged, "Just one more, Bing."
Bing image: The Everett Collection
That hunch. The messy hair and rumpled appearance. The hand to the forehead as he mumbles with a cigar-weathered rasp. When you think Lieutenant Columbo, you immediately think Peter Falk — and vice versa. It's hard to imagine any other actor filling the tan raincoat of the iconic TV crimesolver. Falk even provided his own wardrobe.
However, Falk was the third man to play the character. Columbo was dreamt up by writer William Link, and made his screen debut in 1960, in an installment of the anthology series The Chevy Mystery Show. Bert Freed, a character actor who went on to play both murder victim and murderer on Perry Mason, first played the LAPD flatfoot. The story, performed live on television, was titled "Enough Rope." Though his Columbo had a dishelved suit and a cigar, Freed portrayed the detective with his own unique style.
In 1962, Link and cowriter Richard Levinson adapted "Enough Rope" into the stage play Prescription: Murder, which made its debut at the Curran Theatre in San Francisco. This time, Columbo was portrayed by Thomas Mitchell, the first man to win an Emmy, Oscar and Tony.
At last, six years later, Link and Levinson were called to adapt Prescription: Murder into a TV movie. But who would they get to play the lead? The co-creators envisioned an older actor filling the role. Lee J. Cobb, in his late 50s at the time, was suggested. However, the 12 Angry Men and Death of a Salesman actor was not available, presumably filming Coogan's Bluff or some other film.
And that's where Bing Crosby comes in.
Close your eyes and try to imagine the crooner in the role, saying his catchphrase, "Just one more thing," in that smooth, buttery bass-baritone voice. Seems far-fetched, yet the role was his to turn down.
And, as we all know, he did turn it down. Crosby preferred a semi-retired lifestyle and was reluctant to jump into the grind of a television series. More importantly, he said it would interfere with his golfing. At that point, in his late 60s, the Hollywood legend would have rather spent his time on the green than on the screen.
Golf was no minor passion of the singer. The White Christmas star had a handicap of two. Two decades earlier, he had revolutionized the radio biz by mandating that his variety show be pre-taped, not performed live. Nobody had done that. Again, he wanted to spend more time on the links.
Despite his younger age, Falk, just in his 40s, landed the Columbo role. For that, we thank Bing's addiction to the ping of the golf ball.