Gene Barry as Dr. Ray Flemming, smarmy psychiatrist
Los Angeles, Spring 1967
Film: Prescription: Murder
Original Air Date: February 20, 1968
Director: Richard Irving
Costume Designer: Burton Miller
This week in 1968, TV audiences were introduced to an unassuming yet indefatigable homicide detective in a wrinkled raincoat whose humble mannerisms and appearance belied an uncanny ability to bring murderers to justice. Oh, and just one more thing… that detective was named Columbo.
Peter Falk wasn’t the first to play the detective, nor was he even the first choice when Richard Levinson and William Link’s stage play was adapted for TV as Prescription: Murder, the first episode of what would become the long-running series Columbo. Bert Freed had originated the role in a 1960 episode of The Chevy Mystery Show, to be followed by Thomas Mitchell when Levinson and Link debuted the play Prescription: Murder two years later in San Francisco.
Prescription: Murder establishes many trademark elements of Columbo, including the delayed introduction of the shrewd but shabbily dressed lieutenant himself until after we watch the murderer of the week commit his—or her—crime.
Gene Barry set a standard in Prescription: Murder that the killers foiled by Columbo would follow for decades to come: arrogant, well-dressed, and clever enough to pull together a murder scheme that keeps them above suspicion… from all but Lieutenant Columbo, of course.
We spend a little more time with Dr. Ray Flemming than we typically do with Columbo’s adversaries, and Barry creates a memorable murderer out of the pretentious psychiatrist who murders his wife Carol (Nina Foch) in the hopes of building a life with his younger mistress and former patient, Joan (Katherine Justice).
Barry is debonair and dangerous as the devious Dr. Flemming, though the scenes he shares with Falk illustrate why NBC would have requested a full series featuring the detective, similar to how the first film in The Pink Panther series centered around David Niven’s smooth jewel thief though it was Peter Seller as the bumbling Inspector Clouseau who would become the breakout character at the center of about a half-dozen more films. (Of course, Columbo and Clouseau would occupy opposing ends of the competence spectrum.)
Though Falk looks relatively polished compared to Columbo’s later incarnation on the series proper, his wardrobe is understandably outshined by the dashing doctor. Indeed, this wasn’t Gene Barry’s first time playing a dangerous but well-dressed man, as his portrayal of real-life gunfighter Bat Masterson on the NBC series of the same name even included an episode with a plot driven by Bat visiting his favorite tailor.
I’m grateful to Matt Spaiser, whom we know as the brilliant writer behind Bond Suits, for mentioning Gene Barry’s excellent tailoring to me as a potential BAMF Style focus and sharing with me some additional context that draws a connection to agent 007:
When one of my readers suggested I write about Gene Barry’s wardrobe in the Columbo premiere for my blog, I was excited to be reminded of a wardrobe that could rival any James Bond film’s. My father has often spoken about Barry being one of the most stylish men ever to grace the screen, and there’s nothing he’d rather watch than interplay between Peter Falk and Gene Barry.
Barry’s well-tailored suits in grey, navy, and glen check paired with dark ties loosely recalls Bond’s wardrobe, but Barry does not play a spy. He merely plays a character who shares a name with Bond’s creator and wears a dinner jacket as well as Bond does. Rather than shoehorn Columbo into my blog, I thought it was a perfect fit for BAMF Style.
What’d He Wear?
As Columbo’s only antagonist we encounter during the 1960s, Dr. Flemming avoids some of the fashion excesses that would mar some of his brothers-in-murder across the following decade, and the interesting details he adds to his eight stylish suits are tastefully incorporated rather than being garish distractions.
As you can see, Dr. Flemming spends much of Prescription: Murder talking on the phone, putting on gloves, and enjoying glasses of bourbon. I may follow this post with more in-depth looks at some of his other standout looks, such as that dinner suit and the glen plaid suit when matching wits against Columbo, but I wanted to begin with the fawn-colored suit he wears when committing the actual murder that drives the episode.
This fawn tonal-striped wool suit stands apart from the others with its warmer-hued suiting, certainly earthier than his business suits in their conservative shades of gray and navy. The deviation makes sense when considering that Dr. Flemming was ostensibly dressing for a TWA flight to Acapulco where he and his wife would be enjoying a vacation for their anniversary, and thus he’d be dressed more for travel than business. (Note that for our debonair doctor, decorum still calls for a full suit, tie, and cuff links.) The self-striped light fawn suiting is a shade closer to khaki than taupe, interestingly similar to the color of the rumpled suit Lieutenant Columbo would wear throughout the episode. We get a quick glimpse at the tailor’s label sewn onto the puce satin-finished lining under the right breast, though I’d defer to more eagle-eyed readers to identify from this.
Aside from its color, the fawn suit shares the same characteristics as most of the others, comprised of a single-button jacket and beltless trousers and appointed with a nattily non-white pocket square and mod black loafers. The mid-to-late 1960s saw a brief rise in the fashionability of single-button suit jackets, appropriated from the more formal dinner jacket and dapperly deployed by stylish screen spies from Patrick Macnee’s John Steed to Sean Connery’s 007 as Matt Spaiser explored for Bond Suits. Regarding Barry’s suits specifically, Matt suggested to me the possibility of Hollywood tailor Harry Cherry—who made similar suits for Craig Stevens and Dick Van Dyke during this period—and shared additional background knowledge:
If you couldn’t get out to see the Bond films in the 1960s, tuning into American television was just as reliable to see perfect tailoring. Barry’s clothes epitomize the best of 1960s Beverly Hills style. Single-button jackets were ubiquitous on American television throughout the decade, but the style was a speciality of the exclusive West Coast tailors and was uncommon elsewhere. The single-button style with slanted hip pockets and single cuff buttons has a slightly flashy yet minimalist look that puts the focus on the cut of the suit. And the cut of Barry’s suits could not be more perfect.
The proportions of Dr. Flemming’s suits suggest the quality of his tailoring, the single-button closure perfectly meeting the rise of his trousers for the optimal effect of shirt-and-tie above the button and trousers below it.
The suit jacket has balanced notch lapels, straight and soft padded shoulders, and a single vent, the latter detail differentiating this from some of his double-vented but otherwise similarly tailored suits. The shorter length and closer fit—guided by darts—are contemporary with the trending direction of late ’60s tailoring. The sleeveheads are roped, and each sleeve is finished with a single functioning cuff button.
The flapped hip pockets slant gently rearward, and the welted breast pocket is decorated by the addition of a silk pocket square, patterned with a dark navy grid that neatly arranges the kerchief into a series of brown boxes, positioned askew to present as diamonds.
Apropos the earthier tones of his outfit, Dr. Flemming wears a solid brown satin silk tie, held in place just above the blade with a gold tie pin that appears to be shaped like a horse’s head.
Dr. Flemming’s pale yellow cotton shirt softens the overall effect of the outfit more than a plain white shirt. The box-pleated breast pocket and elegantly rolling button-down collar both serve to signal that this may be a more informal shirt appropriate for travel, though the shirt boasts a seemingly incongruous combination of a button-down collar and cuff links, a configuration championed by Cary Grant.
The cuffs appear not to be traditional double (French) cuffs but instead reinforced single cuffs, similar to the classic barrel cuff but with link closures rather than buttons. One of his patient—but ultimately doomed—wife’s last acts while alive is to help Dr. Flemming by fastening his gold rectangular cuff links onto the shirt, commenting that “you’re a brilliant man but not very mechanical,” to which he responds: “That’s what wives are for.”
The flat front suit trousers are self-suspended with a set of slide-through adjusters on each side of the waist. Detailed with gently slanted side pockets and jetted back pockets, the trousers slightly taper toward the plain-hemmed bottoms that break cleanly at the tops of his slip-on shoes.
The short break of his trousers shows Dr. Flemming’s surprisingly uninspired black socks, which echo the black leather of his cap-toe loafers. The shoes appear to have black elastic side gussets which expand to guide his feet into the high-vamp shoes, a surprisingly dressed-down style for the distinguished doctor to wear with all of his suits, including the dinner suit at the episode’s opening.
Shining from his right pinky, Dr. Flemming wears a chunky gold ring with a bulging teal ovular stone. He wears no wedding ring, which wasn’t uncommon for men at this time but may have suggested to poor Carol that her husband’s disinterest in their marriage went dangerously beyond her suspicions of his infidelity.
Dr. Flemming slips on a pair of dove-gray three-point gloves made from a soft sueded leather, fastened with a single gray snap under each wrist.
As a contrast to the reportedly inexpensive watches worn by Lieutenant Columbo, Dr. Flemming wears an elegantly thin all-gold wristwatch with a slim oval dial against a rectangular case. I’ve seen similar-dialed watches from this era by Longines and Patek Phillippe, but those oval dials tend to be elongated vertically rather than horizontally like Dr. Flemming’s watch.
Like his soon-to-be-met nemesis, Dr. Flemming carries a raincoat, though he never wears it and we never see much more than the beige water-resistant shell fabric and the tattersall check lining.
How to Get the Look
From its first televised installment, Columbo illustrated that fine clothing was never a substitute for failed character. It’s okay to dress like the fashionable Dr. Flemming as long as you act more like Columbo!
- Light fawn self-striped wool suit:
- Single-button jacket with narrow-notch lapels, welted breast pocket, slanted flapped hip pockets, single-button cuffs, and single vent
- Flat front trousers with slide-buckle side adjusters, slanted side pockets, jetted back pockets, and plain-hemmed bottoms
- Pale yellow cotton shirt with button-down collar, front placket, box-pleated breast pocket, and single cuffs
- Gold rectangular cuff links
- Brown satin silk tie
- Black leather side-gusset cap-toe loafers
- Black socks
- Dark brown check-patterned silk pocket square
- Dove gray suede three-point gloves
- Gold pinky ring with teal oval stone
- Gold luxury watch with oval-shaped dial on rectangular case
Do Yourself a Favor and…
I highly recommend Columbophile as a comprehensive and entertaining online resource for fans of the series!
People see what they expect to see.