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Jewish Journal

‘Columbo’ creator solves his own family mystery

by Tom Teicholz

February 22, 2011 | 6:29 pm

William Link

William Link

“Now, Tom, do I look Jewish?”

William Link, 77, was asking the question. Link is one of, if not the most successful producer and writer in television history, having put, with his late partner Richard Levinson, 16 series on the air, including creating “Columbo,” “Murder, She Wrote,” “The Cosby Mysteries” and “Mannix.” They also created any number of important TV movies, including “The Execution of Private Slovik,” which launched Martin Sheen’s career, “That Certain Summer,” which was the first sympathetic portrayal of gay men on television, and the 1988 “Terrorist on Trial: The United States vs. Salim Ajami,” which was hauntingly prescient.

When I met him, Link was wearing a yellow sweater adorned with dogs, sitting in his art-filled Beverly Hills home with his wife, Marjorie. The answer to his question was not obvious, but the question was being asked with some irony because of Link’s situation. His whole life had been spent as a non-Jew, while everyone in his life — his best friend and writing partner, his wife, most of his professional colleagues and associates — all were Jewish. Yet, a few weeks before we met, Link had discovered that he was, in fact, Jewish.

A man whose past was hidden from him has spent his life writing mysteries. Coincidence? And what of the fact that Link, having turned to writing Columbo short stories, may have solved the two most nagging mysteries in his life — his background, which we might call “The Case of the Blue Suitcase,” and another, a question that has dogged him his entire career: How did he and Levinson come up with the name “Columbo” for Peter Falk’s character? But more on that later.

There is an episode of “Curb Your Enthusiasm” where, for a brief time, Larry believes he’s not Jewish and suddenly becomes un-neurotic, self-confident, a doer, saddled with loving parents and a happy family. This is sort of that story — in reverse.

Link’s grandfather walked out on his family when Link’s father was 13. As a result, Link’s father never knew much about his family background. His mother’s lineage traced back to the Huguenots, and she spoke German.  His father had grown up on the Lower West Side of New York (first tip-off) and was a self-made man, working as a textile broker (second tip-off), and because his father was in a primarily Jewish industry, he spoke some Yiddish (big alarm goes off). Regardless of these indicators, as far as Link is concerned, his father never knew he was Jewish, and Link was raised as a non-Jew. He had a happy childhood and loved his parents. “They were terrific people, and I miss them to this day,” he said.

Link was interested in storytelling even before he could write — he started drawing comic strips as a child. Later, he graduated to writing mystery short stories. 

At 10, he was already reading Weekly Variety (another clue, perhaps?). On the first day of junior high school, he was told to look out for a tall boy who wrote mysteries and performed magic. Similarly, Levinson was told to look out for a short boy who loved magic and writing mysteries. So began a partnership that lasted 43 years, until Levinson’s death in 1987.

But first, Link played a small part in a Hollywood story. When “Dragnet” premiered as a radio program in 1949, Link recognized the famous opening notes as being the same as the theme from Miklos Rozsa’s 1946 “The Killers.” He wrote to the show’s composer, Walter Schumann, noting the similarities. Schumann wrote back saying, “Yes, Mr. Link. With Mr. Rozsa’s permission, I took the theme from ‘The Killers.’ Keep listening to ‘Dragnet.’ ”

A while later, when Link read in a front-page story in Variety that Rozsa’s music publishers were suing Schumann for plagiarism, he found the letter at the bottom of his closet and gave it to his father, who in turn passed it along to his attorney, who in turn gave it to Rozsa’s music publisher.  As a reward for Rozsa’s victory, Link was invited up to New York to stay at the Plaza hotel, and, as thanks, given tickets to every Broadway musical then playing.

Levinson and Link started writing mystery short stories, and selling them as teenagers to Ellery Queen mystery magazine and Alfred Hitchcock Mystery magazine. They both attended the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, but business held no appeal for them. Before the notion of cinema studies was invented, Levinson and Link studied movies and teleplays. Their favorite writer-director was Billy Wilder — they were crazy for anything he did — and their favorite teleplay author was Paddy Chayefsky. For their college theses, they were allowed to submit “publications,” so they submitted three screenplays — all of which they eventually sold. After graduation, the school closed the “publications” loophole.

After serving in the Army and continuing to collaborate on stories via airmail, the two decided to head to Hollywood. Levinson flew ahead, and Link drove cross-country with his good friend Mike Rosenfeld, who would go on to become an agent at William Morris and be one of the founders of Creative Artists Agency (CAA).

Succeeding in television was no angst-filled journey for the duo — their first year, they made $50,000, a fortune in those days, which, according to Link, impressed his mother and made his brother jealous. For the next decade, they freelanced, writing episodes for mystery and drama series of all sorts, from “Johnny Ringo” and “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” to “Honey West,” “The Fugitive” and “Burke’s Law.” And then, in 1968, they adapted a play they had written, “Prescription: Murder,” as a TV movie. It featured a character named Lt. Columbo, played by New York actor Peter Falk. And the rest — well, the rest is not just TV history, but hours and hours of pleasure for families (including mine), generations of writers and shows inspired, and the mentoring and fostering of so many careers, including that of the 21-year-old director of the first on-air episode of the “Columbo” series. What was his name? Oh, yes — Steven Spielberg.

As Link tells it, Lew Wasserman, who ran Universal/MCA, and Sid Scheinberg, who ran Universal TV and would eventually run Universal, showed him and Levinson a short film, “Amblin,” which Spielberg had made, and then asked: “What should we do with this kid?”

“I said, ‘Put him under contract,’ ” Link recalled, “and they did.” Link said of Spielberg, “At 21, he was brilliant. He knew every lens. He knew how to move the actors within the frame without having to cut to a close-up. He would only use a close-up when it was important. Spielberg had it all at 21. The nicest guy you ever worked with ... and he’s that way today.”

Levinson died of a heart attack. He had been a three-pack-a-day smoker (four when stressed), and Link, who was with Levinson the day he tried his first cigarette as a teenager, knew that it would one day kill his friend. Levinson knew it, too, “but he was hooked.” The loss devastated Link and sent him to a shrink, who helped him continue, and continue to write. But he still feels his partner’s presence.

“I think Dick sits on my shoulder, telling me, ‘Bill, you can do better with that line.’ ” TV series, movies and more “Columbo” followed. Link continues to write seven days a week. He no longer writes TV shows, but he still writes mysteries. Stories. And he sells every one.

Recently, Crippen & Landru published Link’s “The Columbo Collection,” 12 original short stories featuring Lt. Columbo. Once again, the most persistent detective in the world is hounding the arrogant murderers who think a detective wearing a raincoat in L.A. is someone they can outsmart. The fact they are — to a person — wrong does not diminish the pleasure of reading how Columbo unravels each crime, often by asking “one more question.”

As for how Columbo got his name — for years Link and Levinson were asked that question. For years, they gave an assortment of answers. They couldn’t remember. There was a nightclub in Philadelphia called Palumbo’s. There was a crime family in New York called Colombo. In the introduction to “The Columbo Collection,” Link offers a theory: Fighter Rocky Marciano’s trainer was named Allie Colombo. A.J. Liebling wrote about him, Link watched the fights. Could that be the genesis of the name? Link was not sure.

But when I met him, Link told me confidently that he had finally solved the puzzle. One of Wilder’s greatest movies is “Some Like It Hot.” Levinson and Link went to see the film on its opening day in 1959. They studied the screenplay. They watched the film often. But it was only recently that Link was struck by what was staring him in the face all along: The gangster that Curtis and Lemmon are on the run from, played by George Raft, is called, memorably, “Spats.” His full name? “Spats Colombo.” Link is now convinced that is the source of the detective’s iconic name.

As for that other mystery, the one about Link’s Jewish heritage, it turns out that Link’s father was troubled by his father’s running out on the family and by not knowing anything about him. When Link’s father went to serve in Europe in World War II, he hired a genealogist to research his family tree. The report remained in a manila envelope that was placed in a blue suitcase, to which Link’s mother added other family documents, such as birth and marriage and confirmation certificates. Upon his mother’s death, the blue suitcase passed to Link. He gave it all a cursory look but never examined it thoroughly.

Only recently, Link’s niece, Amy, decided to do her own family research and went through the blue suitcase. There, in the old manila envelope, was a family tree, listing Ezekiel, Jacob and Sarah — and, no, the family was not Amish. They were Jewish.

The reaction of most of his friends, thus far, has been, “We always knew.” Link says he couldn’t be happier. But then again, he’s always happy when he’s solved a mystery.

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