We (and probably you) have been much enjoying Kate Mulgrew’s Russian cookie and cell-block boss lately in Orange is the New Black. I’ve come across much online chatter to the effect of “Who knew Captain Janeway had it in her?” Well, I’m here to tell you that I have a much earlier association with Mulgrew. Indeed when I first saw her on Star Trek: Voyager my first reaction was “Who knew Mrs. Columbo had it in her?”
Mrs. Columbo (1979-1980) was the hare-brained innovation of NBC president Fred Silverman, whom at the time was the KING of harebrained innovations. Long time fans of Columbo know that the detective’s oft-mentioned “Mrs.” was a constant presence on the show, but NEVER seen. One pictured a dowdy, ethnic, middle-aged housewife stirring tomato sauce in the kitchen and gabbing to her friends on the phone about soap operas. The joke was that she was never seen; to ever show her would be a kind of violation — much like the mythical “Charlie” of Charlie’s Angels. But if she ever WAS to be seen, one would want the kind of Mrs. Columbo that Peter Falk’s character had been alluding to for ten years. Someone like Maureen Stapleton, which was the Columbo producers’ reluctant choice for the part, if there had to be a choice at all.
Instead, Silverman cast the beautiful 24 year old Kate Mulgrew. By what odd alchemy Lt. Columbo, with his dirty, smelly raincoat and his cigar habit, ever bagged this hottie was not explained. This Mrs. Columbo is a reporter for a local newspaper who goes around solving mysteries in an amateur sort of way. It was Silverman’s attempt to keep the franchise alive after Peter Falk had moved on.
As was to be expected, no one liked the show. Mulgrew was perfectly great in the role, but the deck was stacked against her. Columbo fans felt betrayed (we were a die hard Columbo family and we only bothered with one or two episodes). People checked the show out, were disappointed, and stopped watching. The network responded by edging the show away from its original premise, changing the name from Mrs Columbo to Kate Columbo to Kate the Detective, to Kate Loves a Mystery, and eventually changed her character’s name from Kate Columbo to Kate Callahan. (H’m….the next logical step is that wonderful tv series Mrs. Dirty Harry). By that time, of course, they probably asked themselves, “Why are we making this show again?” After 13 episodes of this nonsense they called it quits.