This October 9, let’s all celebrate the greatest Italian to ever set foot on American soil: LAPD homicide detective Lieutenant Columbo. Yes, there is already a holiday planned for October 9 intended to pay tribute to another famous Italian with a very similar name, but it’s time for America to update its calendar. End Columbus Day. Embrace Columbo’s Day. Columbo deserves a holiday way more than that old-timey sailor. Here are just a few reasons why.
1. He relied on wits and hard work rather than brute force
Lieutenant Columbo hated violence. “I want everyone to die of old age,” he said, in season two’s episode “Etude in Black.”
He never chased a suspect on foot. He never tackled a suspect to the ground. He never hit anybody with a baton. He never put a suspect in a chokehold. He never won a fistfight. He fainted at the sight of blood. He hated using guns; he even tried to get out of taking a marksmanship test (in Columbo’s defense, it’s probably hard to aim a gun with a glass eye).
Instead, the detective always relied on his wits and his nose-to-the-grindstone work ethic. He never left one question unanswered; he never left one loose end untied-up. Mallory Ortberg writes:
He is deliberate. He moves at the pace of justice. Unflagging, unwearying, unrelenting; he is the Anton Chigurh of goodness. The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards Columbo. It is his fundamental goodness, as much as his native intelligence, that make him a good detective. He is not a remote genius; he is not a refined gentleman; he is a good man, and it is this that makes him not just a good detective but my detective. He is America’s detective. A good and a quiet man who brings his own lunch and will not go away until order is restored.
Columbo was probably Catholic, but is there any television hero who better embodies the spirit of America’s Protestant Work Ethic? No; no there is not.
2. He did not commit genocide
In the span of two years, Christopher Columbus and his men caused the deaths of 250,000 Indians in Haiti. As viceroy and governor of the Indies, Christopher Columbus maintained power with savage violence. The Guardian writes:
One man caught stealing corn had his nose and ears cut off, was placed in shackles and was then auctioned off as a slave. A woman who dared to suggest that Columbus was of lowly birth was punished by his brother Bartolomé, who had also travelled to the Caribbean. She was stripped naked and paraded around the colony on the back of a mule.
Bartolome de las Casas (not his brother — this was another guy named Bartolome), who accompanied Columbus on his journeys, described the behavior of the explorer’s men:
They attacked the towns and spared neither the children nor the aged nor pregnant women nor women in childbed, not only stabbing them and dismembering them but cutting them to pieces as if dealing with sheep in the slaughter house. They laid bets as to who, with one stroke of the sword, could split a man in two or could cut off his head or spill out his entrails with a single stroke of the pike. They took infants from their mothers’ breasts, snatching them by the legs and pitching them headfirst against the crags or snatched them by the arms and threw them into the rivers, roaring with laughter and saying as the babies fell into the water, “Boil there, you offspring of the devil!” Other infants they put to the sword along with their mothers and anyone else who happened to be nearby.
They made some low wide gallows on which the hanged victim’s feet almost touched the ground, stringing up their victims in lots of thirteen, in memory of Our Redeemer and His twelve Apostles, then set burning wood at their feet and thus burned them alive. To others they attached straw or wrapped their whole bodies in straw and set them afire. With still others, all those they wanted to capture alive, they cut off their hands and hung them round the victim’s neck, saying, “Go now, carry the message,” meaning, Take the news to the Indians who have fled to the mountains.
They usually dealt with the chieftains and nobles in the following way: they made a grid of rods which they placed on forked sticks, then lashed the victims to the grid and lighted a smoldering fire underneath, so that little by little, as those captives screamed in despair and torment, their souls would leave them.
These deeds were committed against a population Columbus’s own accounts described as timid and generous:
They have no iron or steel or weapons, nor are they that way inclined, not because they are not well built and of fine bearing, but because they are amazingly timid. They have no other weapons than those made from canes cut when they are in seed, to the ends of which they fix a sharp stick; and they dare not use them, for many times I have happened to send two or three men ashore to some town to speak to them and a great number of them have come out, and as soon as they see the men coming they run off…
The truth is that, once they gain confidence and lose this fear, they are so lacking in guile and so generous with what they have that no-one would believe it unless they saw it. They never refuse to give whatever they have, whenever they are asked; rather, they offer it willingly and with such love that they would give their hearts, and whether it is something of value or of little worth, they are happy with whatever they are given in return, however it is given.
Columbus’s reign as dictator was so heinous that even Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand, the people who established the Spanish Inquisition, had him arrested.
Lieutenant Columbo, on the other hand, did not kill anybody, though some of the murderers he arrested before 1972 or after 1992 might have faced the death penalty (though probably not — they were really rich).
3. He was a working-class man unfazed by displays of wealth
Columbo was a regular working schmo with a cheap suit, a beat-up old car, a lousy apartment and an unremarkable paycheck. He lunched on chili and hot dogs at greasy spoon diners. And yet he brought down Los Angeles’s elites.
Columbo spent his days investigating murders committed in palatial estates he could never hope to afford, questioning world-famous celebrities adored by millions (including, always, the lieutenant’s possibly-imaginary wife). But these displays of extraordinary wealth and power never intimidated him; his suspects’ offers of expensive wines and better-paying jobs never tempted him to abandon his mission to find the truth and see justice done.
The villains are uniformly movie producers, physicians, famous writers, monied gentry and globe-trotting business people. They are also usually good looking and well dressed, and look down on the rumpled, uncouth, Columbo, so clearly out of place in “their” world.
And of course we the audience know they are underestimating our hero, who despite outward appearances is morally and intellectually superior to them. They send him on wild goose chases and he doggedly checks each out (“Yes, sir, we did look into your theory of mobsters, we questioned 100 of them and none of them were involved”), because he is a dedicated working class guy who unlike the upper crust suspects, isn’t sloppy or arrogant enough to forget that one critical detail that undoes the whole endeavor.
There are many conversations in the series that are suffused with class resentment. Columbo asks one villain “How much does a home like this cost?” and when he finds out says “Oh, sir, I could never afford that on a policeman’s salary”. And we love these exchanges, because we know that this working class hero is still conning his prey, and he’s going to bring that smug, rich S.O.B. down in the end.
Now, more than ever, it’s incredibly satisfying to see a working-class stiff with a public-sector job arresting evil members of the 1 percent.
4. He never enslaved indigenous people to serve his insatiable lust for gold
Lieutenant Columbo preferred to do his own dirty work, unlike Columbus, who enslaved people.
Columbus forced the people of Hispaniola to collect gold for him. Those who did not collect enough gold got their hands chopped off.
Columbus really liked gold! In a 1503 letter to Ferdinand and Isabella, he wrote, “Gold is most excellent; gold is treasure, and he who possesses it does all he wishes to in this world.”
Columbus even stole from his own men, claiming the reward money for being the first to spot land even though one of his crew member Rodrigo de Triana had beaten him to the punch a few hours before.
5. He respected women
Columbo always treated a woman with empathy and respect, whether she was a delightful old mystery writer played by Ruth Gordon or a Texan millionaire murder victim’s gleefully gold-digging ex-wife. Unlike many real-life police officers, he never dismissed a woman’s concerns as hysterical.
He was a gentleman, too, taking pains to keep a respectful distance from cat-suited Julie Newmar as she did gratuitous yoga in season two’s “Double Shock.” He spoke of his wife often and even took to wearing an unfortunate new coat to please her, despite the fact that this was the only instance in recorded history in which a heterosexual man’s fashion sense was the superior option.
A middle-aged man working in the 1970s, Columbo managed to straddle old-school chivalry and second-wave feminism with aplomb.
6. He did not take part in sex trafficking
Christopher Columbus, on the other hand, had a habit of kidnapping women and giving them to his men as sex slaves. The viceroy’s close friend Michele de Cuneo recounted one such incident:
While I was in the boat I captured a very beautiful Carib woman, whom the said Lord Admiral gave to me, and with whom, having taken her into my cabin, she being naked according to their custom, I conceived desire to take pleasure. I wanted to put my desire into execution but she did not want it and treated me with her finger nails in such a manner that I wished I had never begun.
But seeing that (to tell you the end of it all), I took a rope and thrashed her well, for which she raised such unheard of screams that you would not have believed your ears. Finally we came to an agreement in such manner that I can tell you that she seemed to have been brought up in a school of harlots.
7. He was curious about other people’s interests and cultures
Columbo was not a cultural sophisticate, but he was a fast learner. He took a quick course on wine in order to outsmart arrogant vintner Donald Pleasence in “Any Old Port in a Storm.” He learned about vocal arrangements to trip up a murderous country musician played by Johnny Cash in “Swan Song.” He even overcame his squeamishness about blood and guts and studied medical technology in order to outwit surgeon Leonard Nimoy in “A Stitch in Crime.”
And remember that time he went to the UK and got all excited about meeting a genuine English butler? That was the best.
8. He did not attempt to destroy other cultures or extinguish Judaism
In a letter to Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand, Christopher Columbus wrote:
YOUR HIGHNESSES, as Catholic Christians and Princes who love the holy Christian faith, and the propagation of it, and who are enemies to the sect of Mahoma [Islam] and to all idolatries and heresies, resolved to send me, Cristóbal Colon, to the said parts of India to see the said princes … with a view that they might be converted to our holy faith …. Thus, after having turned out all the Jews from all your kingdoms and lordships … your Highnesses gave orders to me that with a sufficient fleet I should go to the said parts of India …. I shall forget sleep, and shall work at the business of navigation, so that the service is performed.
Columbo did not celebrate the expulsion of the Jews from any territory, nor did he travel to another land with the goal of stamping out the local people’s faith. If he had traveled to India, Columbo probably would have studied Hinduism super-hard and used his newfound knowledge to outwit an upper-caste Bollywood producer who murdered an ivory dealer attempting to blackmail him for carrying on an affair with a beautiful sitar player.
9. He loved his dog
Remember Columbo’s dog? How he named his dog Dog? He tried to name the pup Fido but a sassy tween made fun of him so he just gave up and started to call the animal Dog.
Columbo’s dog, a droopy-eared puddle of fur, was a rescue animal whom the detective adopted from the pound to save him from being put to sleep. Remember how worried Columbo got whenever he had to take the dog to the vet? Or that time the dog nearly leaped into a waste disposal and Columbo freaked out and exclaimed, “He likes garbage! I don’t know why!” That was the best.
10. He did not feed his dog human flesh
Columbus and his men fed their victims to dogs:
In the early years of Columbus’ conquests there were butcher shops throughout the Caribbean where Indian bodies were sold as dog food. There was also a practice known as the montería infernal, the infernal chase, or manhunt, in which Indians were hunted by war-dogs.
These dogs — who also wore armor and had been fed human flesh, were a fierce match for the Indians. Live babies were also fed to these war dogs as sport, sometimes in front of horrified parents.
Columbo probably fed his dog regular store-bought dog food and the occasional half-eaten bowl of chili.
11. He’s just as real as the Christopher Columbus you learned about in school
Christopher Columbus, the courageous explorer who discovered America, did not exist.
He didn’t figure out that the earth was round; people had already known that for thousands of years.
He was a terrible navigator who vastly underestimated the size of the earth. If he hadn’t accidentally stumbled upon an uncharted land mass, he and his crew would have died of thirst after running out of fresh water after too much time spent on the open seas. Howard Zinn explains:
Columbus would never have made it to Asia, which was thousands of miles farther away than he had calculated, imagining a smaller world. He would have been doomed by that great expanse of sea. But he was lucky. One-fourth of the way there he came upon an unknown, uncharted land that lay between Europe and Asia-the Americas.
He probably wasn’t the first European to cross the Atlantic. It looks like the Vikings beat him to it.
And he never actually set foot on what later became the United States anyway:
It’s quite possible that he wasn’t even Italian. His actual origins are still up to debate.
Instead of honoring a false hero who in reality was a sort of sea-bound proto-Hitler, why not celebrate a false hero who in reality was a perfectly charming character actor? Peter Falk was great in Wings of Desire and The Princess Bride, and he never once committed genocide.
Just one more thing…
So this October 12, let’s celebrate the Italian-American community by putting on a rumpled raincoat, lighting up a cheap cigar and binge-watching Columbo. Stop cheering for a genocidal sex-trafficker and start cheering for literally anybody else. Even the Jersey Shore cast would be better.
Previously published October 8, 2015.