Forgotten Lady

Episode 31 – Forgotten Lady

The thirtieth episode of Columbo was titled Forgotten Lady and was the first episode of the show’s fifth season. A one-time star of stage and screen kills her husband to fund a comeback. In this podcast Gerry and Iain look at the unusual circumstances that impede Columbo’s investigation and the unlikely resolution that follows.

 

 

Holywood icon Janet Leigh is mesmerising as Grace Wheeler, a faded star who dreams of a comeback – unaware of the brain tumour that will soon kill her. Perceiving her husband, Dr Henry Willis (Sam Jaffe), as an obstacle, she kills him and fakes his suicide before forgetting her role in his death completely on account of her illness. Without recourse to a killer’s incriminating behaviour there is a greater challenge facing Columbo than usual.

 

Leigh herself was a Holywood star in the 50s and 60s, starring in a number of productions including Walking My Baby Back Home, a fictionalised version of which appears in the episode. Her face became familiar to film fans around the world when it was used to promote the Alfred Hitchcock movie Psycho – in which Leigh starred and for which she won a Golden Globe and an Academy Award nomination – in 1960. From 1966 onwards the vast majority of her work came on television, including appearances in The Love Boat and The Twilight Zone.

 

John Payne played a key supporting role as Ned Diamond, Grace’s long-term dance partner and friend, while Maurice Evans and Linda Gaye Scott were charming as Raymond and Alma, the household’s housekeeping husband-and-wife team. Johnny Carson also made an appearance as the couple tuned in to his show at the end of a day’s work.

 

Harvey Hart‘s third of four directorial stints followed By Dawn’s Early Light and A Deadly State of Mind from Season Four, while William Driskill penned the second of his three 1975 episodes to follow Troubled Waters. Neither man had any further association with Columbo past the end of the fifth season.

 

We asked on the podcast if anyone knew whether Johnny Carson recorded the clips used specifically for Columbo. If you have thoughts on that or any other aspect of Forgotten Lady please share them below, or find us on Twitter at @columbopodcast.

 

The Columbo Podcast is widely available – on iTunes, Stitcher, tunein, Pocket Casts or pretty much wherever you choose to receive and manage your podcasts. If you enjoy the show it would be greatly appreciated if you consider leaving ratings and reviews on these sites – particularly iTunes – as that can make a big difference to growing the podcast’s audience.

 

Forgotten Lady was released in 1975. It is 100 minutes long and originally aired on the NBC network. It can be viewed on Netflix in the United States and is available on DVD in other countries, including a comprehensive box set of all eleven seasons released by Universal.

 

The Columbo Podcast Team

The Columbo Podcast Team

The Columbo Podcast team develops, produces and promotes The Columbo Podcast.

  • Largo

    This Columbo Mystery Movie, “Forgotten Lady,” is so damn depressing! It appears to be some strange mixture of various parts from Sunset Boulevard (1950), the Twilight Zone episode “The Sixteen-Millimeter Shrine” (1959) and some dreary 1970s ‘Lead Actor Has Some Terminal Disease’ type television movie-of-the-week. But the bottom line for me is this: Janet Leigh, what did poor, old Sam Jaffe ever really do to you to deserve the fate that you dealt him? And I never, ever want to see the Universal Studios’ musical film, Walking My Baby Back Home (1953). Enough said, eh. Be seeing you!

    • Not one of your favourites then? Hopefully the podcast goes down better than the show!

    • Arabian Knights

      I guess we’ll have to agree to disagree. I watch certain episodes more than others and this is on my repeat viewing list.
      Agreed; poor Dr Willis did not deserve his fate, which could have been avoided (perhaps) if he had shared his knowledge with his wife. I’d personally want to know to make final plans.
      Podcast team, you seemed perplexed about the significance of the broken film reel. It seemed clear enough as it extended the playing length of the film, which Raymond certainly knew having screened it for her over and over. He knew when to leave his uncomfortable perch in the kitchen to do that.
      I think having a married British butler and maid appealed to the snob factor. Those lovely accents and stereotypes, you know.

      • Sure, except Raymond didn’t come at the usual finish time, he came at the new finishing time!

        • Arabian Knights

          Good point! Raymond made the reel change silently, after Grace repaired the film, and without any surprise that about 10 minutes remained on the reel. How is it possible to do that? And ditto to the finish time.

          Could Carson’s guest have been Della Reese? He called her Della and she appeared occasionally as a guest host. She was one of his guests on April 25, 1975, so there would have been time to use the actual clip for this airing on September 14, 1975.

          • saltyessentials

            Hah. For some reason I read “Della Street” instead of Reese and went off on an internet search to see what famous real life person had the same name as Perry Mason’s secretary.

          • digger01

            I know it’s been a while, but I wanted to comment that I believe the woman who was a guest on Carson was Ella Fitzgerald.

          • Milia Dick Ziegler

            Actually, I think it was Della Reese. She looked and sounded just the lady who was in the series “Touched By An Angel.” I could be wrong, though; it wouldn’t be the first time (-; !

          • digger01

            I definitely could be wrong too! I’m just going by my faulty memory : )

            Ella did a few appearances on the Tonight Show during the ’70s, but I can’t find any video from them. Here’s a picture of what she looked like around that time.

            Thanks for the reply!

          • Milia Dick Ziegler

            Yeah, that’s Ella, all right! I LOVE her voice!! And I have to say that I agree with SO many of your comments regarding the podcasts and episodes, especially the ones regarding Jack Cassidy. How I love watching him in any of these episodes, but Now You See Him is my favorite with him.

          • digger01

            Thank you! : ) Cassidy is definitely one of my favorites… you can tell he had a good time playing the villain. His suave cockiness is in a class by itself!

        • Peter

          Exactly. That bothered me too.

    • Give over. This was a bobby-dazzler of an episode!

    • Peter

      I hate musicals! Hate them, with the two exceptions of Oliver Twist and Sound of Music.

      • digger01

        No Grease?? : )

      • Largo

        I love musicals! Both of my parents did as well and our whole family would venture to a local cinema or gather around the TV to watch many a Hollywood musical. Here is a quick list of my favorites:

        1. The Wizard Of Oz (1939)
        2. Singin’ In The Rain (1952)
        3. West Side Story (1961)
        4. Oliver! (1968)
        5. Mary Poppins (1964)
        6. The Music Man (1962)
        7. Oklahoma (1955)
        8. Meet Me In St. Louis (1944)
        9. The Sound Of Music (1965)
        10. The Band Wagon (1953)

        • Peter

          Forgot about Wizard of Oz. yes, love that one

        • Ian Baxter

          Fiddler on the Roof worth a look in

          • Largo

            Indeed it is, eh! Plus, it’s an excellent choice to include in my Top Ten list. However, only my mom and my older sister saw this with me as the rest of the family didn’t have an interest in seeing it for some reason. Most of the family watched it when it premiered on television, however.

        • My current favourite is Book of Mormon. My girlfriend is addicted to Avenue Q though, going for the third time in 18 months come August.

          • Largo

            But I’m talking films, baby, films! But since you’re on the subject of stage musicals, I sure hope you won’t cringe when I say that two of my favorites are The Phantom Of The Opera and Cats.

          • The films are never as good!

        • How can you leave out ‘The Producers’?

        • Ian Baxter

          ‘Columbo the Musical’? Nah, maybe not 🙂

          • Largo

            I’m composing the title tune right now, Ian! It’s called “Just One More Thing …” 😉

          • saltyessentials

            I’d have to avoid that one on principle.

        • saltyessentials

          Mm. Largo, Gene Kelly is one of my childhood (and grownup) idols. Singin’ in the Rain and An American in Paris are my two favorites of his. And Music Man is also one of my all time favorites.

          What’d you (or anyone else who wants to chime in) think of the redo that Mathew Broderick did a few years back? I hated it on principle, at first, but gave it a couple watchings and have to say Broderick did a nice job of giving the character his own signature. He’s no Robert Preston, but I like what he did with it overall.

          Could never make it through Oklahoma, though….

          • Largo

            Yeah, that Mathew Broderick version was unnecessary — but okay, I guess. Robert Preston really does own the Harold Hill role, no doubt! The Music Man was my dad’s favorite musical — and hey, it’s about my home state, eh! 🙂

            I don’t understand why you couldn’t make it through Oklahoma (1955). This
            is my favorite Rogers and Hammerstein musical film adaptation. What’s not to like, eh? The entire cast is perfect, the choice of Fred Zimmerman as director is inspired, and the casting of Rod Steiger as Jud Fry is genius. This is a musical that boasts a cast of characters that includes: a narcissistic cowboy, a naïve and indecisive farm girl, a nymphomaniac in the making as her best friend and a psychopathic farm hand who likes to play with fire. Fun for the whole family! 😉

          • saltyessentials

            Well, I’ve never been a fan of singing cowboys….

    • CarlosMu

      I agree Largo, the small clip of that awful movie shown in this episode is way too much already.

      • Largo

        Exactly! As much as I adore Janet Leigh, I’m not gong to watch this one — ever.

  • From the opening frame to the closing one, I absolutely loved this episode. In fact, it may even rank above ‘Etude in Black’ for me, and that’s saying something. You know the bit I particularly liked? The part where Columbo turns up to the party and literally saunters around the banister. To me, that was a lovely touch. It was also great to see him in a tux, of course. I must admit that I found the fact that Grace’s bedroom had scores of pictures of herself very amusing. In fact, it reminded me of my mother-in-law. Don’t worry – I told her so!

    I really enjoyed Danny Wells’s performance as the bookstore clerk. His accent reminded me a lot of Sheldon Leonard aka Nick out of ‘It’s A Wonderful Life’.

    Sam Jaffe was superb – just a shame he was done away with so quickly. John Payne as Ned provided excellent support, as did Maurice Evans, as Raymond, who brought to mind the wonderful Mrs. Peck from ‘Double Shock’ back in season 2. Goodness – that seems such a long time ago, doesn’t it?!

    All in all a first class production and the twist about Grace’s condition made this a tricky predicament for our eponymous detective.

    I’m now looking forward to listening to the podcast…

    Bye for now.

  • Ian Baxter

    I was reading that Peter Falk was asked by a TV broadcaster to select his top four episodes and then invited to give an introduction to those episodes before they were shown. He selected ‘Any Old Port in a Storm’, ‘Forgotten Lady’, ‘Now you See Him’ and ‘Identity Crisis’. This is a summary of Peter’s own thoughts about this episode…

    “Peter spoke of what a pleasure it was for him to work with Janet Leigh. He also enjoyed the humorous interplay between Columbo and the snobby butler, Maurice Evans.

    Falk enthusiastically praised the writers, saying that “they really outdid themselves”, that Columbo’s observations were very good here, and that this episode was “one of our better efforts”.

    He said that the “first investigation scene,” where Columbo picks up a series of small clues that the death was not a suicide, was later used as a model, to show other “Columbo” writers how these scenes are supposed to be done.

    Peter recalled that this episode was the first time we ever saw Columbo not wearing his raincoat — not literally true, but this was indeed the first time Columbo appeared in a tuxedo.

    And he described this episode as “a real rarity” because of the unusual ending where Columbo does not bring in the murderer.”

    Personally I really like this episode… regardless of whether Janet Leigh’s character makes a sympathetic killer… the sympathy of the two men at the end is touching. The lighter moments about pistol practice are fun too. Thanks for another good podcast… delivered with style in your socks and sandals 🙂

    • digger01

      Great post, Ian! And I really like Falk’s pick of those episodes.

  • Peter

    Few quick points: 1) Being in the field, even given the fact that it’s the 1970’s, the heyday of American medicine in financial terms, there is no way a family practitioner makes more than even a washed up Hollywood movie star 2) Not sure if Hollywood has changed in regards to actresses or if cosmetic surgery has changed. Julia Roberts and Sandra Bullock now look much younger now then Leigh did then 3) Can’t believe that an actor as good as Maurice Evans has had so many minor roles. I wish for Planet of the Apes sake Raymond could have said to Columbo, ” You are going to find what you are looking for, lieutenant, and you are not going to like it”

    • Milia Dick Ziegler

      I agree with the point about the husband’s salary, but it could be that in the past he had inherited a large sum of money that is never mentioned. But I wonder if somehow when he and Grace crossed paths many years ago (I’m guessing), she saw in him a possible investor. Not that he was particularly wealthy, but if he wasn’t married nor had children, he could have accumulated a nice little amount with which he could pick and choose the projects in which he could invest. And if a beauty like Janet Leigh AKA Grace was fawning all over him, he could very well have made the decision to invest in her movies if she married him. I could see her agreeing to that kind of bargain if it meant she got to further her career. To me, she is the quintessentially spoiled, egotistical, stereotypical actress who can’t bear the sun coming down on her career. There are just too many things she said in the course of the show for me to have any sympathy for her. In fact, this is one of the very few episodes that I don’t come back to very often b/c of that very point. We see enough of that behavior these days w/Hollywood! I have to admit that hearing she was only in her 40s makes more sense to me than thinking she was in her 60s. She moves way too well on the dance floor, and her skin doesn’t look anywhere near her 60s.

      One more point that always puzzles me in this episode is the very obvious age discrepancy between the butler and his wife. When I watched it for the first time and didn’t pay close enough attention to things he said, I thought it was his daughter. Then, in subsequent viewings, when I heard him say to Columbo that she was his wife, I was like, “WHAT??” She looks like she could have posed as a centerfold while he…well, like you said, Peter, he WAS Dr. Zaius in Planet of the Apes (-; . Yeah, I loved your comment about him saying that Columbo wouldn’t like what he found (-: . We’re big fans in my family of Planet of the Apes, so I thought your

  • Peter

    Why would someone dog-ear a book when you are about to kill yourself? Thought this was a very weak clue on Columbo’s part.

  • digger01

    This is one of the episodes I most enjoy coming back to, much like Arabian Knights stated. I can’t quite decide if the hole in the story, Raymond arriving at the end of the movie and not noticing it had run 15 minutes over, is truly a hole.

    The film started at 11 pm, and Raymond made the reel changes. After he had made the final reel change he went to finish watching Johnny Carson. My thinking is that he wasn’t concerned with when the movie ended. Grace would simply retire to bed when it was over and Raymond would come in later to clean up. When Carson ended at 1 am he went to the screening room to clean up and the movie was just ending. I don’t know if he would be expected to remember the run times of all the movies she would watch.

    Regardless of that possible hitch, I really like the story and the performances in Forgotten Lady. Leigh and Payne were sometimes a little over the top, but that is consistent with the Hollywood egos they are portraying.

    This just feels like it has all the classic elements of a quintessential ’70s Columbo episode.

  • Peter

    A question for our lawyers: if Columbo brings his wife and she hears conversation that could be used in court, could she be forced to testify in the trial? Would imagine Columbo would not want his wife ensnared in any of his investigations.

    • He probably also doesn’t want her socialising with murderers!

    • Ian Baxter

      Perhaps Mrs Columbo is the real brains behind all these solved cases! She is the Sherlock, he is the Watson. He goes home at night and tells her everything he saw and heard and then she sends him back with clear instruction about who to pester and what lines to follow. Not appearing is a way of concealing her mastermind status from the the criminal underworld. 🙂

  • Roberto

    Oh boy, what an episode. Very enjoyable. Great actors and enjoyable scenes abound. Crime story and detection were weak (I imagine we all agree on that). Overarching dementia/alzheimers arc does not overwhelm episode.

    I cannot recommend the episode as a quintessential Columbo episode, but it is enjoyable entertainment.

    P.S. This episode is further “evidence” that Columbo does not have a wife. I would love to see that issue debated a la oxford debate. I know which side I think would win!

  • Largo

    In just a few weeks, my youngest niece will turn sixteen. Two months ago I asked my niece what she wanted for her birthday, and she replied that she wanted to watch some murder mysteries on DVD. So I felt that I should purchase one major theatrical film and an example from television that were both in the murder mystery genre. I just ordered these two items from Amazon — do you think my niece will enjoy both of them? 🙂

    • Ian Baxter

      The Murder on the Orient Express is an excellent choice, classic film with a rather eccentric Poirot but a bullish Sean Connery thrown in for good measure. The David Suchet version is also worth a look in. As for Columbo… the everymans Poirot? 🙂 Great choices.

      • Largo

        Columbo is so incredibly more enjoyable to be around than Poirot! Hercule Poirot is just as much the genius detective, but he is such a fastidious snob. With Columbo, I can see myself discussing world affairs with him over a bowl of chili at Barney’s Beanery.

        • Ian Baxter

          Totally agree!

    • Excellent choices!

      • Largo

        I know. Oops — I mean thank you very much! I’m not sure how my niece will take to these productions since she’s really into those forensic shows. In fact, she wants to specialize in criminology and forensics when she enters into college within the next few years.

    • Looks like the Albert Finney version to me. Splendid actor who was particularly good in the musical ‘Scrooge’ (take note!).

      • Ian Baxter

        Certainly is the superb Albert Finney… don’t know about the musical Scrooge but he certainly throws himself into the role of Poirot, a great film.

        • Largo

          I concur most heartily. Albert Finney is Hercule Poirot! But that business with his bedtime mustache care and all is kind of creepy, eh. But that’s the character and Finney lives and breathes this classic fictional detective in the film! An absolutely brilliant performance!

          • saltyessentials

            I’ll have to give this movie a watch, Largo. I absolutely *love* David Suchet’s Poirot, but the only other actor I’ve seen play him is Peter Ustinov–truly abominable. Ugh.

            A quick lookup says he was portrayed by Tony Randall–that would be worth a cursory glance, even if it was a spoof–and Alfred Molina. I could see Molina doing a decent job, too.

            Ooh, here’s a Columbo link: Mind Over Mayhem’s Jose Ferrer played Poirot in an unaired 1961 TV pilot. At least, so says Wikipedia.

          • Largo

            Please avoid that Tony Randall as Poirot adaptation because it’s just an atrocious spoof. I’ve seen most of the Peter Ustinov as Poirot films, and even though he is totally miscast, most of the supporting players are fun as is the beautiful scenery. But David Suchet absolutely rules as Hercule Poirot in the same way that Jeremy Brett does as Sherlock Holmes.

          • saltyessentials

            I couldn’t agree more on Suchet and Brett. I thought Ustinov was deplorable, but remember loving the scenery and cinematography in the one of his I did watch. And, yeah, after taking a closer look at the Tony Randal thing, I think I’ll pass on it, too.

          • Totally agree on Brett – he is, and will always be – the definitive Sherlock Holmes. God rest his precious soul.

  • Wow. I’ve listened to most of this whopper of a podcast, with the exception of the last 20 minutes, which I’ll get round to later today. Exemplary standard, as ever, with some interesting observations, particularly the one about JL’s age when she filmed this episode. As per Peter’s second point, that got me to thinking further about how cosmetic surgery is so much further advanced these days and considering how many botched jobs there were in the 70s, so it would present quite a risk, I imagine. Having said that, there were several A listers who went under the surgeon’s knife. Interesting point about John Payne having the option for Moonraker. It seems that there were several actors who were lined up to play James Bond. I do agree with your overall synopsis about Grace’s condition. She certainly displayed a cold-blooded callousness and knew exactly what she was doing, so from that point of view, even if she genuinely had no memory of it, that certainly does not excuse her by any means. Who’s to say she doesn’t get mad at the butler and decide to do away with him if her muffin is a bit raw? As far as the ending is concerned, she is free to kill again. In fact, I would go further than that and say she is a timebomb waiting to go off. Put simply, sentiments aside, Columbo is failing in his duties. So let’s see, in this episode he has:

    1. Bribed a fellow officer
    2. Let a murderess remain at large
    3. Taken an innocent man in for questioning

    I’m actually quite surprised that you didn’t mention his hair when he first arrives. He had a kind of ‘shark’ bit in his hair which was very evident and highly amusing (to me, at least). Certainly the most unkempt I’ve seen him in a while.

    In summary, a great (as usual) thought-provoking podcast to suit a great episode.

  • CarlosMu

    Grace Wheeler is one of my least favorite villains. They seem to expect us to be sympathetic with her but like you said in the podcast she’s not sympathetic at all. Compare her to the murderer played by Lee Grant in the last episode, the murder and the motive are very similar. But Lee Grant is much more fun as I see it. She’s smart, she’s witty, etc. Grace Wheeler is an airhead and she’s boring. Columbo matches wits with Lee Grant but he pretty much just fawns over Grace Wheeler. That’s no fun. I imagine that in order to have some sympathy with her, you have to have some affection for the kind of Hollywood that she was a part of. Maybe I’m left cold because I have no interest in that, that type of movie is just corny to me.

    Aside from my lack of interest in the murderer, I liked other things about the episode, like the butler and the maid, and the Columbo corruption subplot. That sergeant he bribes shows up in a few other episodes and I like him, he’s a funny character, he works well with Columbo.

    • Good point Carlos. I (Gerry) think that the lack of jousting and battle of wits with the murderer in this episode means that it cannot be considered a top tier episode. The great ones all have a conceited villain desperately trying to outsmart Columbo.

      I still really enjoy this one though.

  • Gummo Marx

    If the Museum of the Maudlin ever opens up a video wing, the last 10 minutes of ‘Forgotten Lady’ (get the title wordplay?) should be running on a loop. Largo nailed it with his Sunset/Shrine comparison. While I did enjoy the scene with Falk in the projector’s glare, the weakness of the clues simply proved to be too distracting. I disagree with Gerry (or was it Iaian) who said that there were no legit clues–i think the extra pill is somewhat of red flag. But otherwise, he’s right in that each and every clue is paper thin:

    * the tree – Yes, it’s impossible to climb a tree with no limbs. And impossible to get up on a 10 foot high deck. It’s never been done.

    * dog eared book – no one dared to ask why a guy committing suicide would dog ear a book?

    * the broken reel – if janet leigh (shocked that she was 48 in this..sorry but she looked older) was in right mind, she could’ve simply said she fell asleep during the movie, then woke to fix the reel.

    And all this ends with a cop strolling out the door leaving a dangerous, mentally ill murderess alone.

    • A bird can sing with a broken wing but you can’t pull feathers from a frog…

  • saltyessentials

    This is a favorite for the missus and me, plot holes and weak clues not withstanding. I like the idea of a murderer throwing Columbo off the scent, not acting guilty because they’ve forgotten they did it! But that whole piece, in this episode, was bumpy.

    Like many said, it was hard to pin down when she actually forgot as she seemed to remember and not remember, remember and not remember. Then again, for all we know, that’s what was happening. Somehow I doubt 70s TV writers were thinking that intricately, though.

    One of my favorite scenes is Columbo very unathletically scaling that tree. Loved the whole pistol range thing, too. Although his colleagues were coming down pretty heavily on the guy–three cops, including Internal Affairs, in 24 hours?

  • saltyessentials

    Oh, and regarding last week’s Patricia Mattick: I did manage to find a couple of things online with her. One was a short and her last credit, called The Walter Ego. Her part was literally just a few lines and they were delivered like she was reading them from a monitor or something, so hard to tell what her skill might be there. Also found an episode of Trapper, M.D. on YouTube with her in it. It was a sizable supporting role and I thought she did a reasonable job there. On par with the other 80s TV actors she was interacting with. I can’t say she was amazing by any stretch, but she was far better than her portrayal of the daughter in Ransom….

  • Robert MacDonald

    I liked this episode, I agree it wasn’t the strongest, but it was the most poignant. My mother has mild dementia, and while that by no means makes me an expert, she has good moments and bad. In the case of Grace Wheeler, I would say what was happening was she was mood swinging back and forth, which could be a symptom of her condition: super high and happy one minute, then dark and broody the next. Factor in as well the pressure she was putting on herself, plus Ned’s growing suspicions and Columbo’s investigation, everything built up on her and that caused her final breakdown at the end of the episode. I think she forgot the murder after she broke down during the rehearsal at Ned’s studio, it was the first really frustrating moment since the beginning of the episode.
    The ending was where the emotion was. Both Columbo and Diamond were wrestling with the dilemma of what the facts were, versus their own feelings about Grace, who is not acting like Diamond remembered her, which we can infer from their earlier scenes together. I think what happens after Diamond and Columbo leave, is that she died as the movie faded to black.
    Just a few observations from a guy who hasn’t had enough coffee.

  • epaddon

    I love this episode so much because never before did I see a richer subtext of backstory among guest characters on a Columbo, in particular the tragic relationship of Grace Wheeler and Ned Diamond who should have ended up together in a happier world decades earlier. I even wrote a Columbo/Quantum Leap crossover fanfic where Dr. Beckett ends up “setting right” the lives of the two of them in the 1950s which lets them live happily and keeps a murder from taking place 19 years later.
    Regarding the Johnny Carson clips, those are from the actual show of June 27, 1975. The funny thing is that show was a Friday, and Johnny specifically says in the close how the next show will be “Monday” yet the next day in the story is Friday!