A Second Christmas At War

The First World War was an unprecedented catastrophe that shaped our modern world. Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 216th installment in the series.   

December 25, 1915: A Second Christmas At War 

On Christmas Eve, 1915, John Ayscough, a Catholic chaplain with the British Expeditionary Force in France, wrote a letter to his mother which probably captured the feelings of many Europeans during the second Christmas of the war: 

By the time you get this… Christmas Day will have passed, and I confess I shall be glad. I don’t think you quite understand my feeling, and perhaps I cannot explain it very intelligently; but it comes from the contrast between the sense that Christmas should be a time of such immense joy and the unutterable suffering in which all Europe lies bleeding.

On the other side of the lines, Evelyn, Princess Blücher, an Englishwoman married to a German nobleman living in Berlin, struck a similar note in her diary, with special attention to the burden left to women who’d lost husbands and sons and were now expected to grieve in stoic silence: 

For weeks past, the town seems to have been enveloped in an impenetrable veil of sadness, grey in grey, which no golden ray of sunlight ever seems able to pierce, and which forms a fit setting for the white-faced, black-robed women who glide so sadly through the streets, some bearing their sorrow proudly as a crown to their lives, others bent and broken under a burden too heavy to be borne. But everywhere it will be the same; in Paris and London too every one will be gazing at their Christmas-trees with eyes dim with tears. 

On Christmas Eve, Blücher attended mass at a hospital which she and her husband supported as patrons, and unsurprisingly found the normally joyous ceremony a somber affair, to match the cold beauty of Nature:

… the snow had been falling unceasingly, and as we all went off together to Midnight Mass at the Convent Hospital, the silent streets and houses lay shrouded with pure white snow. The church was crowded with wounded soldiers, nurses, nuns, and pale-faced, heart-broken women, and as the solemn music slowly wound its way through the dim shadows of the pillared aisles, it seemed to me as if our fervent prayers must meet in union, and rise like a cloud up to the very feet of God – prayers for the dying and dead, for comfort for the bereaved, and for ourselves, that we might never again spend such a Christmas of anguish and suspense… 

For some people the connection between Christmas and grief was all too direct. On December 15, 1915, the British diarist Vera Brittain wrote after hearing that her fiancé Roland Leighton might not get leave in time to return for her birthday on December 29: “This is such a wretched War – so abundant in disappointments & postponements & annoyances as well as more tremendous things, – that I should scarcely be surprised to hear that everything I was looking forward to, which temporarily make life worth living, is not going to come off…” In fact Brittain was contemplating the possibility of marrying Leighton, on the spur of the moment, as she confided later in her memoirs:  “Of course it would be what the world would call – or did call before the War – a ‘foolish’ marriage. But now that the War seemed likely to be endless, and the chance of making a ‘wise’ marriage had become, for most people, so very remote, the world was growing more tolerant.” On December 27, 1915 Brittain found out that Leighton had been wounded on December 22 and died of his wounds a day later. 

But in the midst of inescapable tragedy, ordinary people still managed to observe the holiday with undaunted cheer. Wherever possible troops ate Christmas dinner or at least received extra rations (top, German soldiers with a small Christmas tree in the trenches; above, British children prepare for the holiday; below, British sailors enjoy a Christmas feast) and many received gifts from home, however modest – sometimes from perfect strangers. Jack Tarrant, an Australian soldier recently evacuated from Gallipoli, recalled a primitive Christmas on the Greek island of Lemnos, brightened by a present from Australia: 

It was a lousy looking place – a dirt road, and one pump… We got to know the people a bit and they had a little shop and you could buy a few biscuits… And we enjoyed our Christmas dinner there. Someone had a tin of pudding, someone had a piece of cake in tins, and there was a billy can with a handle for each man… My billy can came from Kapunga from a little girl called Ruth – I wrote back to her and thanked her for the billy; her mother answered and said Ruth was only six years of age. 

Another Christmas Truce 

Better still, although the practice wasn’t nearly as widespread as the first Christmas Truce in 1914, in many places soldiers in the trenches disobeyed orders forbidding fraternization and once again observed an unofficial ceasefire, allowing both sides to spend the day in peace. One British soldier, E.M. Roberts, wrote home: 

We wished one another all the good things of the season and we even included the Huns, who were about seventy-five yards away. They had hoisted up a placard over the parapet on which were inscribed the words Merry Christmas. It was a sight that touched the hearts of many of us and one that we will not forget in a hurry. 

In some places they even socialized with their foes as they had a year before, exchanging Christmas greetings and presents.  Henry Jones, a British subaltern, noted a few days later:  “We had a very jolly Christmas… In that part of the line there was a truce for a quarter of an hour on Christmas Day, and a number of Englishmen and Germans jumped out and started talking together. A German gave one of our men a Christmas tree about two feet high as a souvenir.”

One of the most complete descriptions of the 1915 Christmas Day truce was left by Llewellyn Wyn Griffith, a Welsh soldier stationed near Mametz Wood in Picardy, France, who recounted camaraderie fueled by alcohol, followed by the exchange of gifts as soldiers from both sides traded for necessities, and finally the predictably furious reaction of their superiors: 

The battalion on our right was shouting to the enemy, and he was responding. Gradually the shouts became more deliberate, and we could hear “Merry Christmas, Tommy” and “Merry Christmas, Fritz.” As soon as it became light, we saw hands and bottles being waved at us, with encouraging shouts that we could neither understand nor misunderstand. A drunken German stumbled over his parapet and advanced through the barbed wire, followed by several others, and in a few moments there was a rush of men from both sides, carrying tins of meat, biscuits, and other odd commodities for barter. This was the first time I had seen No Man’s Land, and now it was Every Man’s Land, or so it seemed. Some of our men would not go, they gave terse and bitter reasons for their refusal. The officers called our men back to the line, and in a few minutes No Man’s Land was once again empty and desolate. There had been a feverish exchange of “souvenirs”, a suggestion for peace all day, and a football match in the afternoon, and a promise of no rifle-fire at night. All this came to naught. An irate Brigadier came spluttering up the line, thundering hard, throwing a “court martial” into every other sentence… We had evidently jeopardised the safety of the Allied cause. 

As always, one of the most important orders of business during a truce was burying the dead, both out of respect for fallen comrades and to make the environment less putrid for those still alive. Of course, among irreverent frontline soldiers there was always room for sheer absurdity. Another British soldier, A. Locket, wrote home:  

I am pleased to say that I quite enjoyed myself on Christmas Day. We were having quite a spree with the Germans. We had an informal truce. Both sides met half-way between each other’s trenches. One of their officers asked one of our officers if they could come out and bury their dead, and our officer agreed, and then we went out to help them. I wish you could have seen the sight, there were hundreds of them lying dead. When they had finished their work a chum of mine fetched his mouth organ out, and you should have seen our fellows, we quite made the Germans stare. One of our chaps went across to the German trenches dressed in women’s clothes… They said that they were very sorry that they had to fight the English. 

Non-Christmas Truces 

While it’s tempting to look back on these fleeting moments of humanity as testimony to the holiday’s special power over men’s hearts, the unsentimental truth is that informal ceasefires were a fairly common occurrence throughout the war (though by no means regular or officially acknowledged). This was especially true in “quiet” parts of the line, for example on the southern portion of the Western Front, where the hilly, forested terrain impeded hostilities, and also when both sides found themselves suffering at the hands of a third adversary – Mother Nature. Thus one German soldier, Hermann Baur wrote on December 11, 1915: 

The position collapses partly, due to persistent rainfall. Our men have reached an agreement with the French to cease fire. They bring us bread, wine, sardines etc., we bring them Schnapps. When we clean up the trench, everybody is standing on the edges, as otherwise it is not any longer possible. The infantry does not shoot any more, just the crazy artillery… The masters make war, they have a quarrel, and the workers, the little men… have to stand there fighting against each other. Is that not a great stupidity. 

A French soldier, Louis Barthas, left a record of what may have been the same encounter, viewed from the other side: 

We spent the rest of the night battling the floodwaters. The next day, December 10, at many places along the front line, the soldiers had to come out of their trenches so as not to drown. The Germans had to do the same. We therefore had the singular spectacle of two enemy armies facing each other without firing a shot. Our common sufferings brought our hearts together, melted the hatreds, nurtured sympathy between strangers and adversaries… Frenchmen and Germans looked at each other, and saw that they were all men, no different from one another. They smiled, exchanged comments; hands reached out and grasped; we shared tobacco, a canteen of jus [coffee] or pinard…. One day, a huge devil of a German stood up on a mound and gave a speech, which only the Germans could understand word for word, but everyone knew what it meant, because he smashed his rifle on a tree stump, breaking it into two in a gesture of anger… 


As noted above, informal truces were also called throughout the year to allow burial parties to venture into No Man’s Land. Maximilian Reiter, an Austrian officer serving on the Italian front, wrote in the fall of 1915: 

After the unsuccessful action into which we had been drawn on an occasion towards the end of the year, the hill slope… which stretched away ahead of us, reaching a height of some 200 feet, was strewn with the bodies of our casualties… Eventually, the nauseous stench from the whole area, whenever the breeze turned in our direction, grew too much for all of us. I organized a burial party from some very reluctant volunteers, and seeing that a heavy mist had enveloped the whole front, I sent them out with picks and shovels, under orders to get as many corpses buried as they could, no matter how shallow the graves. The party had been working away for two or three hours when, as suddenly as it had arrived, the mist dispersed, leaving our men totally exposed, trapped in the open in full view of the enemy… From the safety of our dugouts, we all held our breath in an agony of anticipation. But the expected hail of fire never materialized. Instead, to our great astonishment, and not a little relief, shadowy figures carrying spades and shovels emerged from the Italian positions beyond the slope and moved cautiously down to join our men… We watched in astonishment as the Italians set up a huge cross made out of the branches of trees: then they set about digging the graves, moving among our men, shaking hands and offering copious amounts of wine from the large flasks which they all seemed to be carrying… By first light, however, the war had resumed, chiefly on the instructions of outraged Commanders on both sides. But for some long time after this strange episode, there were probably many on both sides who pondered the senseless waste and despair of battle, and longed to cast down their weapons and return to their homes and families. 

No Truce with Nature 

As some of these letters and diary entries indicate, soldiers once again faced miserable conditions in the trenches during the fall of 1915, as they had a year before, and things were only going to get worse with the arrival of winter, heralded by cold rain giving way to snow. One of the most common complaints on the Western Front, and especially in the low-lying areas of Flanders, was the ubiquitous mud, which was often described as unusually sticky, with a consistency “like glue.” On December 4, 1915, a British officer, Lionel Crouch, was forced to begin a message to his father with an apology for the state of the letter: 

Please forgive the filth, but I am writing in the trenches and hands – everything – is mud… We have had nothing but rain, rain, rain. Some parts of the trenches are well over the knee in jammy mud. It is literally true that last night we had to dig one of my chaps out of the parapet and his thigh boot is still there. We can’t get that out. All the dug-outs are falling in… Of course they get no rest; they have to work all day and all night in order to keep the water down. The sides of the trench fall in and with the water form this awful yellow jam… There is one awful place nearly up to one’s waist… One can hardly see uniforms now for the mud. I’m caked all over – hands, face, and clothes. 

Another British soldier, Stanley Spencer, recalled one particularly muddy evening in the sodden fall of 1915: 

I spent the night partly standing on the slippery sandbags of the fire step, partly digging mud from the bottom of the trench and partly helping to remake the parapet a little further along where it had been blown in by a shell. The trench was about nine feet deep without revetment or flooring. The mud at the bottom was very thick and it was impossible to walk about in the ordinary way as we sank in a foot or eighteen inches at every step and we had the greatest difficulty in dragging our boots out again. During the night we had attempted to dig some out with spades but it clung fast and it was impossible to throw it clear. We soon gave up that method in favour of picking up large handfuls and slinging it over the parados like that. The result of this was that about a week later all my fingernails dropped off and it was several weeks before new ones grew and got hard again. 

As the season wore on, the plunging temperature was an especially grueling trial for colonial troops who hailed from warm tropical climates. A Senegalese soldier named Ndiaga Niang, who served in the French expeditionary force in Salonika in northern Greece, recalled almost losing his feet to the brutal cold:

I was walking, but my hands began to get paralyzed because of the cold. I had my rifle in my hand, but I couldn’t let go of it because my fingers were completely bent. But I was still walking. After a while my toes began to be[come] paralyzed too, and I realized that I had frostbite and I fell down… I was taken to the infirmary to get healed. The next day I was taken to the hospital in Salonique, where all of the soldiers had their feet frozen. When the sun [became] hot enough, our feet were hurting so badly that everybody was shouting and crying in the hospital. And the doctor came and told me that he had to cut [off] my feet. [But]… when he arrived he found that I was sitting [up in bed]. So he told me “you are very lucky… you are going to get better.” 

Adding to these natural miseries was the detritus of war, including unburied bodies but also all manner of more prosaic refuse, from empty food containers and feces casually tossed over the side of the trenches to huge mounds of broken or abandoned equipment, which no one could dispose of safely due to enemy fire. J.H.M. Staniforth, an officer in the 16th Irish Division, painted a disgusting picture of their surroundings in a letter home written December 29, 1915:

Imagine a garbage-heap covered with all the refuse of six months: rags, tins, bottles, bits of paper, all sifted over with the indescribable greyish ashen squalor of filthy humanity. It is peopled with gaunt, hollow-eyed tattered creatures who crawl and swarm about upon it and eye you suspiciously as you pass; men whose nerves are absolutely gone; unshaven, half-human things moving about in a stench of corruption – oh I can’t describe it… Because there’s no romance in it, oh, no; just squalor and sordid beastliness past all describing. However, I mustn’t say this, lest is should “prejudice recruiting” – good Lord! 

Turning his gaze inwards, in the same letter Staniforth went on to describe the psychological impact from constant exposure to random incidents of horrifying violence, which inevitably gave rise to a strange indifference: 

Well, I had my share of experiences. The Boche lobbed over a trench-mortar shell beautifully, which fell just a traverse away from where I was standing. One poor fellow was sponged out quite, we couldn’t find enough of him even to bury, and another had his head blown off. Do you know, although I was standing not half-a-dozen yards away, and of course I’d never seen anything like it before, I have absolutely no emotions of any sort to record. It just seemed part of the life there. That’s curious, isn’t it?

This emotional atrophy was complemented by a whole range of physical ailments – including typhus, transmitted by omnipresent lice; cholera and dysentery, spread by contaminated water, which could often prove fatal; tetanus; bronchitis; jaundice; scurvy and other nutritional deficiencies; “trench foot,” resulting from standing in cold water for extended periods of time; “trench fever,” a bacterial disease spread by lice first reported in July 1915; “trench nephritis,” an inflammation of the kidneys, sometimes attributed to hantavirus; and frostbite. 

Lice proved to be the bane of soldiers’ existence in the trenches, as they were almost impossible to get rid of until the soldiers went on leave, when they were required to bathe with medicated soap. Barthas wrote in November 1915: 

Each of us carried thousands of them. They found a home in the smallest crease, along seams, in the linings of our clothing. There were white ones, black ones, gray ones with crosses on their backs like crusaders, tiny ones and others as big as a grain of wheat, and all this variety swarmed and multiplied to the detriment of our skins… To get rid of them, some rubbed themselves all over with gasoline, every night… others… powdered themselves with insecticide; nothing did any good. You’d kill ten of them, and a hundred more would appear. 

With tens of thousands of soldiers going on leave every month, controlling lice became an industrial operation. An Alsatian soldier in the German Army, Dominik Richert, recounted visiting a delousing station on the Eastern Front in late 1915:

This was as big as a small village. Every day thousands of soldiers were freed from their lice there. We first of all came into a large heated room where he had to undress. We were all in our birthday suits; most of the soldiers were so thin that they looked like a frame of bones… We moved on to the shower room. Warm water sprayed down on us in more than two hundred jets. Each of us positioned himself under a shower head. How good it felt as the warm water trickled down your body. There was enough soap, so we were soon all white from the lather. Once more under the shower, then we went into the dressing room. We were each given a new shirt, underwear and socks. In the meantime our uniforms had been collected into large iron tubes which were heated to ninety degrees [Celsius]. The heat killed the lice and nits in the clothes. 

Killing lice wasn’t just a matter of comfort; as vectors for typhus they threatened to undermine the war effort by spreading disease in the civilian population behind the front, incapacitating factory and agricultural workers. They were also a constant threat in prisoner of war camps. Hereward Price, a Briton who became a naturalized German citizen, fought in the army and was eventually taken prisoner on the Eastern Front, recalled the terrifying spread of typhus in a Russian prison camp: 

Men died where they lay, and it was hours before anybody came to remove them, meanwhile the living had to get used to the sight of their dead comrades. We were told how the disease started at one end of the barracks, and you watched it gradually approaching you, man by man in the line being struck down, and only a few left here and there. You would wonder how long it would take to come to you, and see it creeping nearer day by day… There were over eight thousand prisoners at Stretensk when the disease broke out, and to combat it there were two Austrian doctors. They had at their disposal a room capable of holding fifteen beds, and for medicine a quantity of iodine and castor oil. 

While vaccines were available for some diseases, the pain involved with primitive mass inoculation methods could seem even worse than the disease itself. An Irish soldier in the British Army, Edward Roe, recalled receiving an anti-tetanus shot after getting wounded in May 1915: 

On arrival all men who have been wounded file into a room wherein presides a gentleman in a white smock. He is armed with a syringe as big as a football pump. He is very businesslike and wields it as an expert clubswinger wields a club. “Open your jackets and shirts – First man.” “Oh! Oh!” He recharges the syringe. “Next!” I felt myself going white… I managed not to faint like some. The contents of the syringe raised a lump on my left breast as big as a toy balloon.

Finally, there were other, less serious conditions which nonetheless resulted in numerous hospital visits, reducing the effective manpower of all the combatants. Although there are few mentions of it in letters or diaries for obvious reasons, sexually transmitted disease was commonplace, with 112,259 British soldiers treated for various ailments including syphilis, chlamydia and gonorrhea in 1915-1916 alone, and around one million cases of gonorrhea and syphilis in the French Army up the end of 1917. Meanwhile the German Army recorded a total of 296,503 cases of syphilis over the course of the war. 

Private Robert Lord Crawford, a nobleman who volunteered as a medical orderly on the Western Front, lamented the spread of another seemingly minor affliction with major consequences – scabies. Though easily cured, he noted that it was often left untreated: “It is a damnable infliction tickling one to merriment, then irritating to the point of torture and finally, if unchecked, scabies will prevent sleep, injure digestion, destroy temper and finally land the victim in a lunatic asylum. Madness indeed is the ultimate outcome of this disease.”

See the previous installment or all entries.

Netflix Is Testing Commercials, and Subscribers Aren't Happy

iStock
iStock

Save the occasional "Are you still watching?" message popping up between episodes, it's possible to watch an entire Netflix series in one sitting with little to no distractions. Now, the streaming service is testing something that could upend that: As CNN reports, Netflix has quietly started sprinkling advertisements into its programming, something the subscription-based service has been able to avoid up to this point.

The promotional content Netflix is experimenting with differs from conventional cable commercials in some fundamental ways. The promos won't be advertising third-party brands, Netflix promises: Rather, they'll exclusively show off Netflix original content, like seriesGlow and Stranger Things (though one Reddit user did report seeing an ad for Better Call Saul, which Netflix licenses from AMC). And instead of inserting ads throughout the program, as some non-subscription streaming services do, Netflix will only include them at the end of some episodes with a "skip" button similar to the one that allows viewers to bypass a show's opening credits. And each promo subscribers see will be personalized based on their viewing habits, hopefully turning them on to new shows and not just annoying them in the middle of their binge-watching sessions.

Despite these assurances from Netflix, viewers aren't happy. Many customers have taken to social media threatening to cancel their service if the promos become the norm, which likely may not happen: They've only been shown to a select number of test viewers so far, and based on user response, Netflix may decide to pull the plug on the experiment.

The good news is that as long as the ads are still in the test phase, you can choose to opt out of them. Just go to Netflix.com/DoNotTest and toggle off the switch next to the words "Include me in tests and previews." Now you're ready to resume your binge-watching marathon without interruption.

[h/t CNN]

10 Things You Might Not Know About Columbo

Universal Pictures Home Entertainment
Universal Pictures Home Entertainment

For more than 40 years, Peter Falk entered living rooms around the world as Lieutenant Columbo, an unconventional L.A. homicide detective known for his ruffled raincoat and trademark cigar. The actor would go on to win four Emmys for the role, while the series itself remains a benchmark for television crime dramas. But if series creators William Link and Richard Levinson went with their initial choice, the iconic role of Columbo would have gone to a syrupy-smooth crooner rather than the inelegant Falk. Get familiar with one of TV's most unique heroes with facts about Columbo.

1. BING CROSBY WAS ORIGINALLY EYED FOR THE ROLE.

Columbo creators Richard Levinson and William Link's first choice to play their low-key detective was crooner Bing Crosby. Der Bingle loved the script and the character, but he feared that a TV series commitment would interfere with his true passion—golf. It was probably providential that Crosby turned the role down, since his death in 1977 occurred while the series was still a solid hit on NBC. 

2. PETER FALK WAS AN UNEXPECTED SEX SYMBOL.

Peter Falk in 'Columbo'
Universal Pictures Home Entertainment

Character actor Lee J. Cobb was also considered for the role, until Peter Falk phoned co-creator William Link. Falk had gotten a copy of the script from his agents at William Morris and told Link that he’d “kill to play that cop.” Link and Levinson knew the actor back from their days of working in New York, and even though he was the opposite of everything they’d originally pictured for Lt. Columbo, they had to admit that Falk had a certain likeability that translated to both men and women. Falk was described by a certain female demographic as “sexy,” and males liked him because he was an unthreatening, humble, blue-collar underdog who was smarter than the wealthy perps he encountered.

3. FALK WAS A GOVERNMENT WORKER BEFORE BECOMING AN ACTOR.

Peter Falk wasn’t too far removed from the character he played. In real life he tended to be rumpled and disheveled and was forever misplacing things (he was famous for losing his car keys and having to be driven home from the studio by someone else). He was also intelligent, having earned a master’s degree in Public Administration from Syracuse University, which led to him working for the State of Connecticut’s Budget Bureau as an efficiency expert until the acting bug bit him. He was also used to being underestimated due to his appearance; he’d lost his right eye to cancer at age three, and many of his drama teachers in college warned him of his limited chances in film due to his cockeyed stare. Indeed, after a screen test at Columbia Pictures Harry Cohn dismissed him by saying, “For the same price I can get an actor with two eyes.”

4. COLUMBO'S DOG WASN'T A WELCOME SIGHT AT FIRST.

Columbo's dog
Universal Pictures Home Entertainment

When Columbo was renewed for a second season, NBC brass had a request: they wanted the lieutenant to have a sidekick. Perhaps a young rookie detective just learning the ropes. Link and Levinson were resistant to the idea, but the network was pressuring them. They conferred with Steven Bochco, who was writing the script for the season opener, “Etude in Black,” and together they hatched the idea of giving Lt. Columbo a dog as a “partner.” Falk was against the idea at first; he felt that between the raincoat, cigar, and Peugeot his character had enough gimmicks. But when he met the lethargic, drooling Basset Hound that had been plucked from a pound, Falk knew it was perfect for Columbo's dog.

The original dog passed away in between the end of the original NBC run of the series and its renewal on ABC, so a replacement was necessary. The new pup was visibly younger than the original dog, and as a result spent more time in the makeup chair to make him look older.

5. FALK'S REAL-LIFE WIFE PLAYED A ROLE IN THE SERIES.

Falk first met Shera Danese, the woman who would become his second wife, on the set of his 1976 film Mikey & Nicky. The movie was being filmed in Danese’s hometown of Philadelphia, and the aspiring actress had landed work as an extra. They were married in 1977, and she was able to pad out her resume by appearing on several episodes of Columbo. Her first few appearances were limited to small walk-on parts—secretaries, sexy assistants, etc. By the time the series was resurrected on ABC in the early 1990s, she was awarded larger roles.

She originally auditioned for the role of the titular rock star in 1991’s “Columbo and the Murder of a Rock Star,” but her husband adamantly refused, since the role included a scene of her in bed making love to a much younger man. She instead played the role of a co-conspiring attorney, and was also allowed to sing the song that was the major hit for the murdered star.

6. THE CHARACTER'S TRADEMARK RAINCOAT CAME FROM FALK'S CLOSET.

The initial wardrobe proposed for Columbo struck Peter Falk as completely wrong for the character. To get closer to what he wanted for Columbo, the actor went into his closet and found a beat-up coat he had bought years earlier when caught in a rainstorm on 57th Street. And he ordered one of the blue suits chosen for him to be dyed brown. The drab outfit would become one of the trademarks of the character for decades.

7. STEVEN SPIELBERG GOT AN EARLY BREAK ON COLUMBO.

“Murder by the Book” was the second Columbo episode filmed, but it was the first one to air after the show was picked up as a series. Filming was delayed for a month, though, when Falk refused to sign off on this “kid”—a 25-year-old named Steven Spielberg—to direct the episode. Finally he watched a few of Spielberg’s previous credits (all of them TV episodes) and was impressed by his work on the short-lived NBC series called The Psychiatrist. Once filming was underway, Falk was impressed by many of the techniques employed by the young director, such as filming a street scene with a long lens from a building across the road. “That wasn’t common 20 years ago,” Falk said. He went on to tell producers Link and Levinson that “this guy is too good for Columbo."

8. COLUMBO'S FIRST NAME WOUND UP THE SUBJECT OF A LAWSUIT.

Fred L. Worth, author of several books of trivia facts, had a sneaking feeling that other folks were using his meticulously researched facts without crediting him. He set a “copyright trap” and mentioned in one of his books that Lt. Columbo’s first name was “Philip,” although he had completely fabricated that so-called fact. Sure enough, a 1984 edition of the Trivial Pursuit board game listed the “Philip” Columbo name as an answer on one of their cards, which led to a $300 million lawsuit filed by Mr. Worth.

The board game creators admitted in court that they’d garnered their Columbo fact from Worth’s book, but the judge ultimately determined that it was not an actionable offense. By the way, years later when Columbo was available in syndicated reruns and HD TV was an option, alert viewers were able to freeze-frame a scene where the rumpled lieutenant extended his badge for identification purposes in the season one episode “Dead Weight” and determine that his first name was, in fact, “Frank.”

9. THE SERIES DIDN'T FOLLOW A STANDARD MYSTERY FORMAT.

The premise of Columbo was the “inverted mystery,” or a “HowCatchEm” instead of a “WhoDunIt.” Every episode began with the actual crime being played out in full view of the audience, meaning viewers already knew “WhodunIt.” What they wanted to know is how Lt. Columbo would slowly zero in on the perpetrator. This sort of story was particularly challenging for the series’s writers, and they sometimes found inspiration in the most unlikely places. Like the Yellow Pages, for example. One of Peter Falk’s personal favorite episodes, “Now You See Him,” had its genesis when the writers were flipping through the telephone book looking for a possible profession for a Columbo murderer (keep in mind that all of Columbo’s victims and perps were of the Beverly Hills elite variety, not your typical Starsky and Hutch-type thug).

A page listing professional magicians caught their eye, and that led to a classic episode featuring the ever-suave Jack Cassidy playing the role of the former SS Nazi officer who worked as a nightclub magician. When the Jewish nightclub owner recognized him and threatened to expose him, well, you can guess what happened. But the challenge is to guess how Lt. Columbo ultimately caught him. 

10. THERE WAS A SPINOFF THAT KIND OF WAS BUT THEN WASN'T.

The 1979 TV series entitled Mrs. Columbo was not technically related to the original Peter Falk series. In fact, Levinson and Link opposed the entire concept of the series; it was NBC honcho Fred Silverman who gave the OK to use the Columbo name and imply that Kate Mulgrew was the widowed/divorced wife (the series changed names and backstories several times during its short run) of the famed homicide detective. The “real” Mrs. Columbo was never mentioned by her first name during the original series, but actor Peter Falk possibly slipped and revealed that her name was “Rose” when he appeared at this Dean Martin Roast saluting Frank Sinatra and asked for an autograph.

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