Columbo: The Most Crucial Game

Originally aired: November 5, 1972

Two things to note here…

1. The moustache. It was real and it threw me for a loop. He looked so different with it! Outside of a game show appearance from the same year and a photo of Culp from a documentary on race relations from around the same time period (’71?), I was used to seeing Culp pretty much sans facial hair. (The Grizzly Adams beard in Hannie Caulder is a different story).

2. The Los Angeles Coliseum. If I’ve got the timeline right in my mind, about the time Culp filmed his first appearance on Columbo in 1971, he either just completed or was just about to start on filming for Hickey & Boggs. By the time this episode aired in November of 1972, Hickey & Boggs had been out in the theatres for about a month. So you could watch Culp on the big screen running around the Coliseum and then come home and watch him in the same place on the small screen!

Culp plays Paul Hanlon, general manager for a pro football team owned by Eric Wagner. Eric inherited the sports empire from his father but would rather spend his days partying and playing. Paul, however, sees a better and brighter future for himself – if he can get Eric out of the way.

Paul arrives at the Coliseum and makes his way up to the owners box. He dismisses the busboy for the afternoon, explaining that it would only be him in the box and no guests. After the busboy leaves, Paul gets on the phone to Eric, rustling him out of bed (it’s already afternoon) and telling him to do some laps in the pool and be ready to be picked up as soon as the game was over. They had a flight to catch to Montreal for a business meeting regarding the purchase of another sports team.

Eric grudgingly says he’ll be ready but honestly couldn’t care less about buying another sports team. As soon as Paul is off the phone with Eric he phones down to the team locker room and talks to the head coach giving him a hard time about the team’s performance and what plays to do (and the game hasn’t even started yet). While doing this, Paul puts the phone on speaker phone and carries on the conversation while beginning to change his clothes.

Yeah, we’re not five minutes into this thing and Culp’s taking his shirt off.

What he changes into is the uniform of a concession man. Complete with paper hat and popcorn box. (I couldn’t help but laugh when he grins at his reflection after he puts the hat on.) The get up allows him to leave the stadium unnoticed.

With a commandeered “Ding-a-Ling” ice cream truck, Paul drives out to Eric’s house. He carries a transistor radio with him to keep tabs on the game. Just before getting to Eric’s house, he stops at a payphone and calls Eric to make sure he was out of bed and in the pool, as requested earlier.

At first, Paul can’t get through because Eric is on the phone ordering food or booze or something. Paul waits a minute or so and then dials again. Eric answers and is right where Paul wants him to be.

Paul gets back in the ice cream truck and drives away from the payphone…just as a little girl is calling after him for ice cream down the road. He arrives at Eric’s house and selects his weapon of choice from the back of the ice cream truck, a big chunk of ice. (No, no Death By Drumstrick). Chunk of ice in hand, Paul sneaks onto the property and does his dastardly deed, killing Eric at the pool.

Before he leaves, however, Paul has to cover his tracks. Literally. His wet shoes leave footprints behind on the deck, so he removes his shoes and hoses down the deck.

Then he’s back in the ice cream truck, racing down the highway back to the football game. Ah but he takes a moment to have fudgesicle on the way. And if I’m sounding smarmy by this point it’s because I couldn’t take any of the rest of this episode seriously. The changing of shirts, his grinning after putting the hat on and then the fudgesicle. The fudgesicle did me in.

Back at the stadium, Paul returns by the halftime – in time to meet with the head coach (and thus further substantiate his alibi). Paul smoothes over whatever issues he had at the start of the game and tells the coach that he’s doing a fine job. As he says, he has bigger fish to fry now…

When Lieutenant Columbo arrives at Eric’s house he suspects a little too quickly that Mr. Wagner’s death was no accident. When Columbo goes to the stadium to report of Eric’s death to Paul, Paul reacts appropriately enough.

And the most crucial game begins as Columbo investigates and spends the rest of the episode dogging Paul Hanlon. The scenes between Falk and Culp are worth watching the episode for because Columbo really just annoys the hell out of Paul. He shows up at Eric’s house to ask questions and poke around.

He follows Paul to the airport, which irritates Paul to no end. And Paul can’t shake the Lieutenant loose for the life of him until Mrs. Wagner’s plane arrives.

Yes, Mrs. Wagner. Eric had a wife. And Mr. Hanlon had his sights set on more than just Eric’s fortune. Columbo casually remarks how she’ll inherit everything now and continues his pestering of Paul until she arrives.

Columbo, respectfully, leaves Mrs. Wagner alone. He remains zeroed in on Paul Hanlon, showing up at a media event for the basketball team and informing him that his office phone and the phone at the Wagner house had been bugged, turns out, by the family lawyer. Columbo has everyone (including Mrs. Wagner) gather at the house to listen to some choice cuts of phone conversations, particularly Paul’s phone calls to Eric just before Eric was killed.

The recorded phone conversations seem to further reinforce Paul’s alibi, but Columbo’s bothered by something with the calls. Eventually, he does figure it out. There’s one minor innocent sound that’s missing from Paul’s phone calls to Eric and when Columbo shows up at the stadium on another day he casually blows Paul’s alibi all to pieces.

My favorite exchange of dialogue in this scene is Paul – thoroughly annoyed with Lt. Columbo – says, “Columbo, I’m going toss you out of here on your ear!” to which Columbo calmly replies, “I wouldn’t do that sir. Because then you’re gonna miss the best part…”

Compared to the first Columbo episode, this one wasn’t as good. The performances were all great and the episode has its moments, but the storyline itself was lacking somewhat.  I didn’t really full grasp Hanlon’s motive for murder and didn’t pick up on much malice forethought on the first viewing of the episode. The second viewing, when I capped it, I at least picked up on the motive but still found it vague.

Would I watch it again? It’s Culp, of course I would!

“The Most Crucial Game” is available on the second season Columbo DVD set available at