Word Games (TVM 1979)

US / 94 minutes / color / Gambit, Universal, NBC Dir: Boris Sagal Pr: James McAdams Scr: Richard Alan Simmons Cine: Isidore Mankofsky Cast: Kate Mulgrew, Henry Jones, Lili Haydn, Robert Culp, Edie Adams, Bob Dishy, Rene Auberjonois, Priscilla Pointer, Allan Rich, Frederic Forrest, Barney Martin, Christopher Allport, Herb Armstrong, Neil Flanagan, Susan Connors, Miriam Nelson.

This was the pilot to a series spun off from Columbo and featuring the detection adventures of the wife whom the lieutenant constantly cites but never names. The series, by contrast, experienced a surfeit of names during its short lifetime (13 episodes), beginning as Mrs. Columbo, then becoming Kate Columbo, then Kate the Detective and finishing as Kate Loves a Mystery. As you’ll have guessed, in this spinoff the otherwise anonymous Mrs. Columbo is given a name, Kate; after a mid-series divorce from her more celebrated husband, she becomes Kate Callahan.

Kate Mulgrew as Kate Columbo.

The series never really established itself in the public’s heart, and the critics likewise failed to enthuse. Peter Falk himself described it as “disgraceful,” although I’m not certain if he was talking about the principle or the execution. However, forty years have passed since this TV movie first aired so it’s reasonable to ignore the critics of yore and come to Word Games with an open mind.

Attorney Charles Huston (Culp) has tired of wife Joanne (Adams), and so hires a professional killer whom he recently successfully defended, Martin Bader (Forrest), to knock her off. This Bader does, staging it look as if she accidentally electrocuted herself in the bath.

Robert Culp as Charles Huston.

However, thanks to a freak of electronics, the domestic intercom used by neighbor and freelance journalist Kate Columbo (Mulgrew) to talk to her daughter Jenny (Haydn) picks up conversations on the intercom system used in the Huston home, so Kate has a pretty clear idea of what might have gone down. By bizarre coincidence, Joanne Huston shared the same French tutor as Kate, Monsieur Gerard (Auberjonois), and so Kate is able to join up the dots. When she takes what she knows to the cops, Sergeant Joe Norris (Dishy) is dismissive, and in fact warns Huston of Kate’s findings.

Bob Dishy as Sergeant Joe Norris.

But Kate keeps on investigating, even at the cost of bringing down on her own head and Jenny’s the attentions of a murderer who doesn’t care how many people he has to kill in order to cover up his own tracks . . .

Word Games is actually quite good in its depiction of Kate juggling motherhood duties, laundry, ironing, cooking, trips to the vet, school ferry service, household repairs, French lessons and a part-time writing job, all while creating the space to do a little detecting on the side. And it’s good in other respects, too: despite the extreme implausibility of some of the plotting—not least the means Kate uses at the end to deal with the bad guy—the movie’s latter stages do build up a level of suspense that I can’t ever remember encountering in a Columbo episode.

Lili Haydn as Jenny Columbo.

Henry Jones as Josh Alden.

The teleplay has a few amusing lines. Here’s an exchange where Kate is pleading for help from her grizzled seen-it-all-done-it-all-nothing-surprises-me editor at the Weekly Advertiser, Josh Alden (Jones):

Kate: “Mr. Alden, there’s been a murder, two murders . . .”
Alden: “I’ll take five hundred words for next Tuesday.”

There are some fun supporting roles. Barney Martin amuses as the lugubrious vet, Dr. Prinz, to whom Kate drags the family dog; the hound seems to have modeled himself on Droopy. Priscilla Pointer plays Huston’s long-serving secretary, Mrs. Prior, whom Kate eventually befriends. In many ways the star of the show is an actor credited as if of merely supporting status, Frederic Forrest as the almost flippantly evil Martin Bader, a monster whose threat is enhanced by his boy-next-door charm and good looks.

Frederic Forrest as Martin Bader.

To judge by this feature-length pilot (subsequent episodes ran about 47 minutes to fill an hour), the series was by no means a classic of television, but neither does it seem nearly as bad as the critics seemed to think at the time. Made to modern production standards and updated in a few obvious ways, this would make a pretty credible addition to the Hallmark Mysteries line, hopefully starring someone like Alicia Witt rather than ubiquitous bonehead Candace Cameron Bure.

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4 thoughts on “Word Games (TVM 1979)

  1. The producers might have given it a better chance by making Kate unrelated to Lt. Columbo, or maybe his daughter. It’s not beyond the realm of possibility he could have a May-December marriage, but I never got that feeling from what he said onscreen.

    • I think you’re probably right. To judge by this pilot (I haven’t watched the other episodes) Mrs Columbo was a perfectly okay series, albeit bog standard, and might have fared far better without the cynical attempt to cash in on the popularity of the far more ambitious series.

    • That’s about the level of it: if it turns up on TV there are lots worse ways to waste your time, but otherwise . . . On the other hand, I personally enjoy “collecting” curios like this. I only wish it had turned out to be a genuine companion piece to the “real” series rather than just a cashin.

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