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

Eli Countryman
·4-min read

William Link, a writer and producer known for co-creating “Columbo” and “Murder, She Wrote,” died of congestive heart failure in Los Angeles on Sunday, his niece confirmed to Variety. He was 87.

Over the course of Link’s decades-long television career, he became known for working alongside screenwriter and producer Richard Levinson. The duo collaborated on a number of projects, including both “Columbo” and “Murder, She Wrote.”

More from Variety

Steven Spielberg, who directed the first episode of “Columbo,” paid tribute to Link on Tuesday.

“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’s first-ever writing credit came in 1959 when he worked on the story for an episode of “Westinghouse Desilu Playhouse.” That same year he also contributed to five other series. This work ethic would foreshadow the rest of his career, as Link would go on to lend his writing skills to over 70 shows and movies over the next 50 years.

But the writer only started down the path to television success after first using his talents in print. Prior to serving in the U.S. Army from 1956 to 1958, Link and Levinson — who died in 1987 — published a mystery-themed story entitled “Whistle While You Work” in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine.

Their character of Lt. Columbo, the bumbling police detective, first appeared on the “Chevy Mystery Show” in 1960. Peter Falk played him in “Prescription: Murder” in 1968, and again in “Ransom for a Dead Man” In 1971, which sold the series to NBC. “Columbo” became part of the “NBC Mystery Movie” wheel in the fall of 1971, with both Link and Levinson at the helm as producers. The series remained in production until 2003.

Link and Levinson struck upon another long-lasting concept with their collaborative creation of “Murder, She Wrote.” The show lasted from 1984 to 1996, and the TV movie “Murder, She Wrote: South by Southwest” aired in 1997. Starring Angela Lansbury, the series centered around a novelist who solved murder mysteries. It also challenged concepts for what audiences would tune into, as it lacked factors that networks often looked to when approving shows: sex and heightened violence.

Link and Levinson also created the World War II series “Jericho” in 1966; the long-running private eye series “Mannix” in 1967; and the Hal Linden mystery series “Blacke’s Magic” in 1986. They developed the critical favorite “Ellery Queen” for TV in 1975. After Levinson’s death. Link co-created “The Cosby Mysteries” In 1994.

The pair wrote some of the most acclaimed and groundbreaking television films of the 1970s. Their “My Sweet Charlie” (1970) won three Emmys for its daring depiction of a pregnant white girl and a black New York lawyer, both on the run, in rural Texas.

“That Certain Summer” (1972) cast Hal Holbrook and Martin Sheen as gay partners, the first TV-movie to treat the subject sympathetically; it won a Golden Globe as the year’s best TV-movie. “The Execution of Private Slovik” (1974), also starring Sheen, told the story of the only American soldier to be executed for desertion since the Civil War, earned a Peabody and was cited as the third greatest TV-movie of all time in the 2016 history “TV: The Book.”

They also wrote, for TV, “Murder by Natural Causes” (1979), “Crisis at Central High” (1981) and “Rehearsal for Murder” (1982). After Levinson’s death, Link wrote “The Boys” (1991), loosely based on their long professional relationship. Their feature-film scripts included “The Hindenburg” (1975) and “Rollercoaster” (1977).

The screenwriter’s work earned him two Emmy award wins and nine other Emmy nominations. He shared both awards with Levinson, and the duo were inducted into the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences Hall of Fame in 1994 — a posthumous honor for Levinson.

The writer’s final credit came for the “Where Do the Balloons Go?” short in 2009, capping off a lengthy and fruitful career.

Link is survived by his wife Margery Nelson, his grandchildren Anabelle Robertson, Bennett Nieberg, Fin Nieberg and Levi Nieberg, and his nieces and nephews Amy Salko Robertson and John Robertson, Karen Salko Nieberg and Owen Nieberg.

Best of Variety

Sign up for Variety’s Newsletter. For the latest news, follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.