Peter Falk’s ‘Columbo’: The TV Detective’s 1st Name, How It Surfaced in a Lawsuit, and What the Star Had to Say

Depending on which fan of the crime drama Columbo you ask, the rumpled yet brilliant detective may or may not have had a first name.

It didn’t really matter at the time the show aired, as the character played impeccably by Peter Falk was simply referred to by colleague and criminal alike as “Columbo.”

In any event, the question of the character’s first name ended up in a courtroom. Here’s how it happened and what Falk had to say about the controversy.

American actor Peter Falk, best known for his role as Lieutenant Columbo in the television series 'Columbo', 1987
American actor Peter Falk, best known for his role as Lieutenant Columbo in the television series ‘Columbo’, 1987 | Pool DUCLOS/ PELLETIER/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

‘Columbo’s co-creator said the detective never had a 1st name

William Link helped create the character of Columbo and was as well a writer and producer on the mystery series. In 2002, he spoke with the Television Academy Foundation about his career in television and ardently denied the existence of Columbo’s first name.

Link, who died in 2020, said: “Never had a [first name] and never will. [Columbo] never had one. We tried that with [1960s and ’70s detective series] Mannix. Because it becomes like a signature thing and people talk about it.”

Link remarked on a tabletop trivia game that claimed to know the detective’s first name.

“There was that Canadian board game that everybody was playing a while back,” he recalled. “And there was the question: ‘What is Peter Falk’s first name?,’ and the answer was ‘Philip.’ Wrong. Columbo never had a first name. You’ll never hear a first name just like you’ll never see Columbo’s wife. Ever. Peter was very adamant about that, and so were we.”

The lawsuit that said Columbo did indeed have a given name

The story begins with accomplished trivia book author Fred L. Worth who, it should be noted, Jeopardy! champ and guest host Ken Jennings has referred to as “the omniscient trivia guru of my childhood.”

Worth suspected that his factual material was being used and circulated without properly citing his work.

Setting about to catch culprits in the act, he inaccurately — and purposefully — stated in one of his books that Columbo’s first name was ‘Philip.’ As it turned out, Worth had reason to worry as soon enough, the board game Trivial Pursuit included his intentionally wrong ‘Philip’ Columbo “factoid” on one of their game cards.

Actor Peter Falk poses for a photograph
Peter Falk | McCarthy/Daily Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

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In due time, the author slammed the board game with a $300 million lawsuit. The board game creators admitted their wrongdoing but in the end, the judge deemed it was “not an actionable offense.”

Columbo actor Falk touched on the controversy surrounding Columbo’s 1st name

In a 1999 chat with James Lipton’s Inside the Actor’s Studio, Falk was put on the spot to reveal his famous character’s birth name.

Falk began, “There’s something I like about this character, and that’s the fact that he’s embarrassed by his first name. I like that. I don’t know what it is, but it embarrasses him. And he says, ‘Only my wife uses it.’ He’d never tell anybody else.”

In the end, Falk left it up to the show’s fans. “You guess what it is,” he said. “I don’t know.”