'SHOOTING SCRIPT', WRITTEN WITH JAY COCKS IN 1973, WAS NEVER PRODUCED
An unproduced script for an episode of NBC's Columbo, credited to Joseph P. Gillis and Brian De Palma, has recently been discovered. The episode, titled Shooting Script, is dated July-August 1973, which means it would have been aiming to be part of the third season of the iconic show. As Joseph P. Gillis is a character from Billy Wilder's Sunset Boulevard, I asked De Palma if it was a pseudonym for someone. He said Gillis is actually Jay Cocks, the TIME magazine film critic who was one of De Palma's best friends, and who later worked with De Palma on the Nazi Gold screenplay (the two of them together also rewrote the opening crawl for their friend George Lucas' Star Wars). De Palma said he came up with an idea that he thought would be good for Columbo, but he could not recall why it was never produced. It was the only TV work De Palma has ever done. "The beginning and the end of my TV career," he said.
A shame it was never produced, as it is a terrific script very much in the De Palma vein. Columbo usually began each episode showing a crime in all its detail, and De Palma's script opens with a movie-within-the-movie, actually a videotape shot by a crime author who seems to have been modeled somewhat on Truman Capote. Quoting Dostoyevsky in his narration, Quentin Lee is making a video diary of what he calls "a perfect crime," in which he plans to record a murder, the victim seemingly chosen at random, although it happens to be a popular talk show host (named Duane Downs) whose show the author has appeared on several times.
One key character is an actor named Lynn Loring who does a one-man show. "I'm famous for my Treplev," Loring tells Downs, who is clueless as to the reference, but we later find that the well-read Quentin Lee is able to explain in full to Lieutenant Columbo (he tells Columbo that Treplev is "a young and rather impetuous poet in Chekhov's play -- The Seagull").
At one point in the story, Quentin Lee has taken over hosting duties for Downs' talk show for a special tribute to Downs, of which the script naturally takes a cynical view. Columbo visits the set during taping to ask Lee some questions, and Lee tricks him during a commercial break, so that Columbo suddenly finds the bright lights shining on him as he uncomfortably becomes part of the show. This of course makes it all the easier for Lee to include his conversation with Columbo as part of his video diary of the "perfect crime." Prior to this scene, Lee once tries to tape Columbo, who has arrived unannounced at the author's apartment, and Columbo tells him to stop. "Uhh," says Columbo, "would you mind not doing that, Mr. Lee? I get awful self-conscious. I don't even let my wife take home movies of me." Lee presses Columbo to make a statement about the murder on tape, and effectively chases him out the door with his camera.
Loring's glossy headshots lead to a Blow-Up-style investigation of some photographs, and get this-- the photographer's name is Spielberg. This was in 1973, before Steven Spielberg had made Jaws and become a household name (otherwise, the reference may have been too obvious). Spielberg had directed one of the earliest episodes of Columbo in 1971. Titled Murder By The Book, Spielberg considers it one of his two best TV episodes. A later 1974 episode of Columbo did feature a boy genius character named Steve Spielberg.
In Shooting Script, Spielberg is one of three graduate students who are shadowing Columbo as he investigates the crime. Their first names are never mentioned, so they are known as Chapman, Brooks, and Spielberg. "May I ask you a question," Columbo says to Spielberg early on. "Why is it you don't ask any questions?" Spielberg replies, "I'm into electronics. Surveillance devices. Photographic equipment." The Spielberg character seems very much like the De Palma surrogate played by Keith Gordon in De Palma's Dressed To Kill, and while he doesn't say much, when he finally does have something to say, everybody perks up-- it is Spielberg who provides the spark of the idea that allows Columbo to finally catch Quentin Lee. When Columbo and the graduate students are trying to figure out how they might find Quentin Lee's incriminating video tapes, it is mentioned by Chapman that keeping the tapes at his apartment would be too obvious. "I think that's exactly what he'd do," Spielberg suddenly chimes in...
They all stop -- turn to Spielberg. This is the first time he's really said much, and they are all taken aback.
Let's don't depart too soon from his megalomania. First, he wouldn't let the tape be far from his sight. Second, his overweening ego would go for a stunt like the Purloined Letter, as it was described in the story by Edgar Allan Poe. In that story, the incriminating letter was placed on a desk in plain view -- but along with a number of other letters. The analogy to Lee's tape library would be perfect -- and it is the kind of pseudo-literary trick that would appeal to Lee. No matter what diversionary ploy is used, it is quite accurate that there are too many tapes to go through all of them. Therefore, I suggest that we get Lee to lead us to the tape itself.
The chili is very good, Lieutenant.
There is a really nice write-up of the script by Dene over at The Story Of Euston Films. Dene fits the script in nicely with the Columbo timeline, and suggests that Paul Williams could have played the author/criminal.