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William Link - An Obituary

William Link – TV and film writer and producer

Born December 15, 1933; died December 27, 2020

 

 William Link, who has died aged 87, was the co-creator of one of the most iconic characters to ever shuffle on to a television screen. With Columbo, Link and long-term collaborator Richard Levinson found that the shabby Los Angeles police lieutenant famously brought to life by actor Peter Falk had a mass appeal that made him a people’s hero. 

 

Link and Levinson based their cigar-chomping blue-collar detective partly on Porfiry Petrovitch, the chief investigator in Dostoyevsky’s novel, Crime and Punishment, partly on G.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown. Dressed in a dirty raincoat and in a seemingly permanent befuddled state, Columbo was a deceptively shrewd figure. 

 

Despite being patronised by the high-flying felons he brought to book in a show that subverted the murder mystery genre by revealing the killer at the top of the show, Columbo’s forensic tenacity paid off. With a casual “Just one more thing,” he always got his man or woman, exposing the hypocrisy of those who believed their wealth and power somehow made them superior to the law. 

 

Following a couple of feature length pilots, the first regular Columbo episode, Murder by the Book, introduced Falk’s detective in a film directed by Stephen Spielberg, and written by future Hill Street Blues and NYPD Blue co-creator, Stephen Bochco. 

 

In 1984, again with Levinson, and with Peter S. Fischer, Link co-created Murder, She Wrote. The series starred Angela Lansbury as murder mystery novelist and amateur sleuth, Jessica Fletcher, a hybrid of sorts of Agatha Christie and the real life novelist’s Miss Marple creation, who Lansbury had previously portrayed on screen. 

 

Like Columbo, Murder, She Wrote similarly avoided the shoot-outs, car chases and action sequences that fuelled many of the era’s cop shows. Link and Levinson preferred to invite their audience to become complicit in a gradual unravelling of clues that exposed the guilty. In this way, Link’s work with Levinson applied a cerebral sense of morality to mainstream entertainment.

 

William Theodore Link was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to William Link, a textile broker, and Elsie (nee Roerecke). As a child, Link enjoyed doing magic tricks, and on his first day of junior high school, met Levinson, who did likewise. The pair began writing radio scripts, and, while at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business, penned film reviews for the college magazine.

 

In 1954, Levinson and Link sold their first short story, Whistle While You Work, to Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine. They began writing for TV in 1959, with Chain of Command, an episode of Westinghouse Desilu Playhouse, and cut their teeth on various westerns and cop shows. 

 

The roots of Columbo go back to a character called Fisher in another short story by the pair, Dear Corpus Delicti, published in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine. With the story renamed May I Come In, Levinson and Link adapted it for an episode of The Chevy Mystery Show titled Enough Rope (1960), with Columbo played by Bert Freed. 

 

Inbetween penning episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents (1961-1962), Dr Kildare (1963), and The Fugitive (1964-1965), Link and Levinson subsequently adapted their script into a stage play, Prescription: Murder (1962), featuring Thomas Mitchell as Columbo. After creating spy series, Jericho (1966-1967), in 1968, Link and Levinson turned Prescription: Murder into a full length TV film, with Falk cast as Columbo after Lee J. Cobb and Bing Crosby turned it down. The film’s success prompted a series pilot, with more than forty episodes that followed running from 1971 to 1978. The show was revived in 1989, with another ten films made over the following year, and occasional specials appearing right up to 2003. 

 

Link and Levinson won an Emmy for interracial romance drama, My Sweet Charlie (1970), and portrayed gay characters with what was then a rare sympathy in That Certain Summer (1972). They penned the screenplay for Robert Wise’s film, The Hindenburg (1975) the same year they created Ellery Queen, a 1940s-set show drawn from the canon of its fictional mystery writer turned detective. Link and Levinson had Queen break the fourth wall to set TV viewers a challenge to solve the mystery. Several episodes were credited to Ted Leighton, a nom de plume used by Link and Levinson when they had their material scripted by other writers.

 

In1983, Link and Levinson’s magic based musical, Merlin, appeared on Broadway, featuring a score by Elmer Bernstein and lyrics by Don Black. Murder, She Wrote began the following year, with the show’s 265 episodes running until 1996.  

 

Following Levinson’s death of a heart attack in 1987, Link wrote The Boys (1991) in tribute. The TV film starred James Woods and John Lithgow as veteran writing partners who discover one of them has cancer. Link went on to write The Cosby Mysteries (1994-1995) for Bill Cosby. Late in life, Link discovered his Jewish roots from genealogical research done by his father, and kept in a suitcase that had previously remained unopened.

 

In 2010, Link’s only book, The Columbo Collection, was published, featuring twelve new short stories starring his most famous creation. Half a century on from first introducing a prototype Columbo on the page, Link’s greatest character continued to find just one more thing to help crack the case.

 

He is survived by his wife, Margery Nelson, who he married in 1980, and various nieces and nephews.


The Herald, March 3rd 2021

 

ends

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