Killer Celebrities: Big Stars Give Away the Ending in TV Crime

Celebrities who dun it.
Celebrities who dun it.
I’ve got this actor friend, Brian Kerwin. He’s been working in the business for over thirty years. You’ve seen him in the movies, the soaps, TV sitcoms and dramas, and, if you’ve been lucky enough, on the Broadway stage. Suffice it to say, he’s one of those real recognizable faces. And therein lies the problem.

Recently, I was watching an episode of the new CBS show, Elementary. It’s a decent update on the Sherlock Holmes character. Sherlock’s in rehab and his “sober companion” is a female Dr. Watson. Anyway, they’re on this case that requires a visit to an airplane company involved in a crash that killed some passengers. The scene took place before the first commercial break. The owner of the company was played by Brian. Bam! I had the case solved well before Sherlock. About forty minutes before Sherlock.

Now, I’m a fairly sharp guy. I love reading and watching mysteries—I’ve even written a few—and I enjoy trying to keep up with the detectives. But I shouldn’t be solving the mysteries first because I watch more TV than they do. I don’t think that skill would translate into the real world of crime detection.

“The killer must be…that guy who looks like the guy who played the father of the bride in 27 Dresses!”

It happened another time this season on Elementary. Holmes and Watson were investigating a series of murders—disguised as deaths by natural causes—at a hospital. An early part of the investigation brought them into the room of the latest victim. Sherlock used his highly tuned sense of observation to pick up a few clues the police had missed. What Sherlock had missed, though, was that the janitor pushing a mop bucket past him was Walter White’s crystal meth partner for a while on Breaking Bad, a psychopathic hitman on Damages, and the husband of a groupie on Flight of the Conchords. (The guy’s name is David Costabile and he works a lot because he’s a really good actor.) Case closed. For me, at least. Sherlock had to keep detecting because he doesn’t have the same cable package as I do.

Come on now, can’t you give us a smile?
Come on now, can’t you give us a smile?
The worst offender of this type of casting is the Law & Order franchise. They’ve been churning out quality TV stories for two decades now, but seem to feature lots of well-known faces as culprits, as well as many familiar Broadway actors. (One of the many benefits of shooting in New York City.) They bring these actors on for a quick five to ten lines, leave them for an act or two, only to reveal after the last commercial break it was the TV/Broadway star all along. Whoa! It’s time for this guy to open up his own private investigation office.

Now, as I see it, there are two easy ways around this issue. One, hire an actor who is not so widely recognized. An actor who needs work. There are thousands of them out there. I know. I’ve had drinks with many of them at McCoy’s in New York City’s Hell’s Kitchen. Two, do what Columbo did so well. Cast the well-known actor as your killer, but let us see the actual crime. That way it’s not a “whodunit” but more of a “how and why whodunit done it.” The joy then lies not in feeling somewhat superior to the detective, but rather in watching the detective put together the pieces of the puzzle.

There’s also a third way, I guess. I—we—could stop watching so many movies and TV shows. I don’t think that’s gonna happen, though.

Tim O’Mara is a teacher in the New York City public school system. Raised on Long Island, he lives in Manhattan’s Hell’s Kitchen with his wife and daughter. He is the author of Sacrifice Fly.

Read all posts by Tim O’Mara for Criminal Element.


  1. Dana King

    There’s one more way: use the recognizable actor in a part that could plaisibly be the villain, but is not. This little bit of misdirection could lead to someone like you settling back to see how they unfold the story to show the killer you expect, then jerk you out of the chair when it isn’t him.

  2. Saundra Peck

    Tim, you are soooo right! As a 40 something serious tv watcher, (wish I knew Brian…he has always been a favorite of mine) I know SO many of the guest stars that it is really hard to not see the plot line right away. I adore the updated Elementary, so I just keep my mind open to the beauty of the relationship developing between Sherlock and Watson….and hope the series makes it to season 2! I would hate to see my “old favorites” get passed over for guest roles if they still want them, so writers….think!

  3. Nicholas Winter

    Don’t blame the writes as they have no say ‘tall over who’s cast. That’s entirely up to the casting director with (someimes) input from the show runner. And fitting in a given performer depends a lot on availability, what their agent wants fir a fee, and even what the physical traits if that character are thought to be.

    Listen to enough full cast audio works and you’ll hear the same thing happen. Same thing happens on animated series.

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