This background cop on Columbo had an entire TV series based on his life
Real-life detective Dave Toma worked the force in New Jersey.
Dave Toma learned to be a master of disguises. Born to a big family in New Jersey, Toma joined his hometown Newark Police Department. After years as a patrol officer, Toma made the leap to the narcotics department. As a detective, he often worked undercover. Infiltrating criminal enterprises foster his skill as a man of disguise.
If fact, he was so good, you probably never noticed he snuck into a few classic television shows, too.
Toma made his acting debut in 1973. Admittedly, his character was not so much a disguise as it was a flashback. The real-life cop popped up as a patrol officer in "Lovely but Lethal," the season-three premiere of Columbo.
Dressed in uniform, Toma interrupts a conversation between Peter Falk and Columbo regular John Finnegan. Look for the scene about 20 minutes into the episode.
"Excuse me, sergeant," Toma's character says, "The kid's boss is outside."
That's it. That's his role. But Toma would hold much more influence on network television in 1973.
Back in 1971, his exploits as an undercover agent landed Toma a guest spot on The Mike Douglas Show. There, he showed off his disguise skills. A network executive must have been paying attention.
ABC premiered Toma in 1973. The action-drama was based on the Toma's career, showcasing his stellar arrest record and ability to crawl under the skin of his superiors. Tony Musante portrayed Toma, while the real-life Toma turned up as an extra in several episodes. He was everything from a doorman to a dental assistant to, naturally, a detective. The series lasted a mere season.
However, Toma was not the only TV detective inspired by Dave Toma. ABC based its Baretta off the man, too. Like Toma, Robert Blake's character was a cop with a penchant for disguises.
Established as a celebrity cop of the 1970s, Dave Toma made similar small cameos on Police Woman and Police Story. It all began on Columbo.
And he is not the only fascinating background character in "Lovely but Lethal." Later in the mystery, Columbo visits a luxurious "fat farm." He wanders into a gorgeous tiled pool area. There, a masseuse gives a rough back massage to a client.
The uncredited spa worker? That is Anne Ramsey. You might know her as Mama Fratelli in The Goonies and the "Mamma" of Throw Mamma from the Train.
It's a lesson you learn from Columbo — always pay attention to the details.
The other character was Rockford, played by James Garner. This would have allowed them to film two episodes at once. However, Tony Musante wasn't interested in making short appearances in what essentially was someone else's episode, so the episode wasn't filmed and Toma had to show a rerun. [Another version says that Toma's network ABC didn't like it; the script was also too long for an hour episode and Huggins didn't want to edit it down.]
The episode that would have been filmed was filmed as a TV Movie with Garner as Rockford and was broadcast later that season on NBC. The rest is history, with few people remembering Toma, while Rockford is known worldwide.
A footnote to this is after Musante left the series after a year (and the series morphed into Baretta), he made a guest appearance on the first season of Rockford the following year.