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Remembering Screenwriter William Link, Co-Creator Of 'Columbo,' 'Murder She Wrote'

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. Screenwriter William Link, who co-created some classic TV shows, including "Columbo," "Murder, She Wrote" and "Mannix," died December 27 in Los Angeles. He was 87. For decades, Link's writing partner was Richard Levinson, who he met in junior high school. They also wrote groundbreaking TV movies about social issues. "The Execution Of Private Slovik" was the story of an Army deserter. "That Certain Summer" starred Hal Holbrook as a divorced man who comes out as a homosexual. Terry spoke with William Link in 1989. And they talked about some of his TV series, including "Columbo," which featured episodes that were between 78 and 90 minutes long. Here's a scene with Peter Falk as Columbo, engaged in one of his meandering interrogations of a suspect.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "COLUMBO")

PETER FALK: (As Columbo) I've been chasing guys like you for 25 years. Caught every one, except you. I hate to lose.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) So do I.

FALK: (As Columbo) You heard the one about the wealthy old lady? She hated her kids, but she loved her dog?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: I'm afraid not.

FALK: (As Columbo) The dog always wore a rhinestone collar. And when the old lady died, the kids couldn't find the money - disappeared. Eight years later, the dog died and was cremated. Nothing left except a mound of ashes and a $450,000 pile of diamonds. So that wasn't a rhinestone collar the dog had on. No, sir. No, that was a $450,000 diamond collar.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Fascinating.

FALK: (As Columbo) You see, sir, diamonds don't burn. But you already know that, sir. That's why you took Dorothea Page's necklace off our dead neck, opened her mouth and dropped it down her throat. So you could cremate the body the next day and take the diamonds out of the oven and put them in your pocket. Why am I telling you this? Because it makes me feel good.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

TERRY GROSS: Tell us how you created the character of Columbo.

WILLIAM LINK: Columbo was originally born in 1960 in Hollywood. And one of the brand-new color shows on NBC called "The Chevrolet Mystery Show" was a summer replacement for Dinah Shore. And we wrote an hour suspense drama in which we introduced a cigar-chomping, rain-coated detective. It was originally played by Bert Freed on that show. It was a one-shot and was successful. Then we got the idea of doing it as a stage play. And then Dick and I were astonished because the character of Columbo in the play was really a secondary character. But he always got the greatest applause at the end, and people seemed to pick up on him. It was then that Universal approached us to doing it as a two-hour movie for television. That was in the very, very early halcyon days of the movie for television - actually, the very beginning. It was extremely successful. It was one of the top shows of the week. And then NBC said, well, let's do this as an hour show with Peter Falk. Luckily for us, Peter did not want to do an hour show, 22 one hour segments he found much too constricting. And also, we could never do "Columbo" as an hour show. It's impossible because you need a whole half an hour to set up the perfect crime that the brilliant murder indulges in. that's really the history of Columbo.

GROSS: Now, the actors you originally used were considerably older than Peter Falk was when he was cast as Columbo.

LINK: Yes, yes. Dick and I, proving how crazy we were - our first choice was Bing Crosby.

GROSS: (Laughter).

LINK: And we contacted his agent and contacted Bing. But he wanted to play golf.

GROSS: (Laughter).

LINK: He did not want to return when he was in his mansion in Hillsboro outside of San Francisco. And Peter Falk we had known socially for many years in New York when he was a struggling, young actor. He didn't struggle that long. And he did his first movie movie in which he was nominated for an Academy Award. And he somehow got hold of the script, as actors do in Hollywood, called us and said, I will kill to play this cop. And we said, well, you know, he's a little young, but he's got that rough-hewn, that New York-ish, that very down-to-earth demeanor. And he did it.

GROSS: Was that mumbly quality something you wrote into the script or something he just brought with him?

LINK: No, Peter brought that quality. Everything else was in the stageplay - the raincoat, the cigar. You see the murderer do the dirty deed. Enter the cop who appears to be somewhat of a schlub. Actually, you know, that outward shoddy facade hides this brilliant computer brain. All that was in the stage play. Peter brought the humanity to it and a lot of the humor.

GROSS: Let's talk about some of the made-for-TV movies that you've written. You were talking about "Columbo," which was one of the early TV movies. Do you remember when you first found out that there were going to be movies made for TV and what your reaction was?

LINK: Yes, we were under contract at Universal. This is in the late '60s. We were quite excited because up to that point, we were freelance writers. And we had been writing, you know, the one-hour segments. And two hours - you really have a chance to stretch out as a writer. You can build character better. You just have a lot more time.

GROSS: Now, you did one of the first docudramas, "The Execution Of Private Slovik," which was...

LINK: Yes. That was our favorite movie and still is.

GROSS: Was it?

LINK: Yeah.

GROSS: Tell briefly the storyline.

LINK: Eddie Slovik was the first American GI since the Civil War who was executed for desertion. And the story really explores his character and the military justice or lack of same in the armed forces during the Second World War.

GROSS: Now, since this was based on a real story?

LINK: Oh, yes.

GROSS: Were there legal complications that you had to deal with?

LINK: No. We bought the book by William Bradford Huie, "The Execution Of Private Slovik." We owned that because we bought the rights from Frank Sinatra. Sinatra wanted to film it as a motion picture years before, but he got into a lot of trouble because it was about an Army deserter. And the Hearst press really took after him, Hedda Hopper, etc. And he wanted Steve McQueen, who was a very young actor, to play Slovik. And then he made a mistake in those days of hiring a blacklisted writer, Albert Maltz, to write the screenplay. And that was the end. And he capitulated and took ads in The New York Times and various other newspapers saying that the American public had spoken. Actually, the Hearst press had spoken. And he decided not to do the picture. Every year, Dick Levinson and I called his attorney in Hollywood saying, can we buy the rights from Mr. Sinatra? And finally, one year we called and we found out, much to our chagrin, that he had sold the rights to a New York commercial filmmaker. And we made a deal with him, acquired the rights and made the picture with Martin Sheen.

GROSS: I remember the story from your book "Stay Tuned" that your big fear was that at the end of the execution of Private Slovik, after the execution, that the credits would be rolling and Ed McMahon's voice would come on...

LINK: Yes.

GROSS: ...Promoting the Johnny Carson show...

(LAUGHTER)

LINK: That's correct, yes.

GROSS: ...And the whole spell would be broken.

LINK: Well, we called the president of NBC, and he pulled some strings, and Ed McMahon was silent that evening.

GROSS: (Laughter).

LINK: Except what happened was, as that some of the engineers are sometimes prone to do, since we had no music score per se, no dramatic score in the picture, they turned up the wind at the end. We just had a low rural wind in the background as they carried out the coffin. It became a full-fledged gale, a hurricane. But there was nothing we could do.

GROSS: Tell me about casting. Have you ever had problems with getting someone who you really think is wrong for the role but who an executive wants to put in because it'll be good for tune in?

LINK: It's always a fight with the two-hour movies. The networks have very, very, I think, bizarre choices about who brings people in. Luckily, I cannot think of being forced to use an actor or actress in a role for one of our television movies that we really didn't want. Problem is, sometimes, you know, they'll want - like, oh, get us Dustin Hoffman. Well, Dustin Hoffman is not going to do a movie of the week. So sometimes what you do is you come back and you tell them, yes, we talked to the agent, and he's not available. Sometimes we even do nefarious things like never calling an agent and telling the network the person is not available. Now, that's a trade secret, and I really shouldn't say that on public radio.

GROSS: (Laughter).

LINK: But hopefully they're not listening.

DAVIES: Screenwriter William Link speaking with Terry Gross, recorded in 1989. Link died two days after Christmas. He was 87. Coming up, we remember legendary Vietnam War correspondent Neil Sheehan. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.