William Link, 'Columbo' and 'Murder, She Wrote' Co-Creator, Dies at 87

The Academy of Television Arts & Sciences inducts TV legends into the Television Hall of Fame, from left: William Link, Dick Van Dyke, Betty White, Bill Moyers, Jim McKay.
Courtesy of Everett Collection

William Link (far left) at his induction into the TV Academy's Hall of Fame in 1995.

Link and writing partner Richard Levinson also collaborated on 'Mannix,' 'Ellery Queen' and several TV movies, winning two Emmys over the course of their partnership.

William Link, the co-creator of TV series Columbo and Murder, She Wrote, has died. The two-time Emmy winner died Sunday in Los Angeles of congestive heart failure. He was 87.

Link and his writing and producing partner, Richard Levinson, collaborated on Columbo, Mannix, Ellery Queen, Murder, She Wrote and several other series and television movies. The pair won two Emmys for writing — for the 1970 TV movie My Sweet Charlie and for Columbo in 1971. They were nominated nine other times, including a best drama series nod in 1985 as executive producers of Murder, She Wrote.

Link was born Dec. 15, 1933, in suburban Philadelphia and met Levinson (who died in 1987) in junior high. The two began a partnership that would last some 40 years, first writing short stories and radio scripts and later moving into television with scripts for Desilu Playhouse, Alfred Hitchcock Presents and Dr. Kildare, among others.

Link and Levinson created the character of Lt. Columbo, the cigar-chomping, perpetually underestimated detective, for an episode of the Chevy Mystery Show in 1960. Eight years later, they revisited the character (and the initial story) with a telefilm called Prescription: Murder, which starred Peter Falk as Columbo. It became a regular series in 1971, running for seven years of wealthy and powerful killers thinking themselves a step ahead of Columbo, but always slipping up just enough for the detective to catch them in a lie that cracked the case.

The pair also gave a young director named Steven Spielberg the reins of the first episode of Columbo, "Murder by the Book," in 1971.

"Bill's truly good nature always inspired me to do good work for a man who, along with Dick Levinson, was a huge part of what became my own personal film school on the Universal lot," Spielberg said in a statement. "Bill was one of my favorite and most patient teachers and, more than anything, I learned so much from him about the true anatomy of a plot. I caught a huge break when Bill and Dick trusted a young, inexperienced director to do the first episode of Columbo. That job helped convince the studio to let me do Duel, and with all that followed I owe Bill so very, very much. My thoughts are with Margery and his entire family."

Link and Levinson created Murder, She Wrote with Peter S. Fischer and saw the series enjoy an even longer run than Columbo; it lasted 12 seasons on CBS. The three also collaborated on the short lived Blacke's Magic, which marked Link and Levinson's last series together before the latter's death.

In addition to My Sweet Charlie, Link and Levinson wrote and produced a number of television movies including 1972's That Certain Summer — which featured one of the first sympathetic portrayals of a gay character on TV — 1974's The Execution of Private Slovik, which earned Martin Sheen his first Emmy, and 1977's The Storyteller.

Link continued to work as a writer and producer into the 1990s on series including Burke's Law and The Cosby Mysteries and movies The Boys (inspired by his relationship with Levinson) and Whispers in the Dark.

Link is survived by his wife, Margery Nelson; nieces and nephews Amy Salko Robertson, John Robertson, Karen Salko Nieberg and Owen Nieberg; grandchildren Anabelle Robertson, Bennett, Fin, and Levi Nieberg; sisters-in-law Elizabeth Nelson and Laurie Nelson; and brother-in-law Jonathan P. Nelson.