This isn't a funny moment for Bill Link, who is trying to explain the nearly symbiotic relationship he explores in this week's TV movie The Boys (April 15 on ABC). But trying to sum up the greatest friendship of his life, the television writer and producer thinks of a famous couple from the comics. "We were like Mutt and Jeff," says Link, 56, who spent more than 40 years brainstorming, writing scripts, creating series (Columbo, Mannix and Murder, She Wrote) and just palling around with Dick Levinson. At 5'8", Link—quiet, slightly formal in his customary bow tie-would have been the small one, the Jeff; Levinson, the Mutt: 6'2", loquacious, a cigarette always smoldering in his hand. Now, though, Link is left to stand alone in this room and survey walls filled with career trophies—two Emmys; a TV Guide cover featuring Columbo himself, Peter Falk; a photo with Princess Grace from 1973, when Levinson and Link's groundbreaking TV movie about homosexuality. That Certain Summer, was given a special screening in Monte Carlo. It was here, in Link's Beverly Hills home, that the team—who worked on 50 series over a 26-year period—collaborated almost daily until 1987, when the 52-year-old Levinson died of a massive coronary, partly brought on, doctors say, by a three-pack-a-day cigarette habit.

Jeff probably would have just scratched his head in puzzlement if the Great Cartoonist brought down his eraser and rubbed out Mutt, but Link—who tries to sound philosophical—can't keep an edge of resentment from his voice. "Dick took life on his own terms," says Link. "If he wanted to smoke like he did when he was a teenager, he did. Life would have to conform—he would not. He knew what he was doing was wrong, but he was hooked." Levinson's widow, Rosanna, 52, says her husband had cut back from three packs to one pack a day in 1984 and had further reduced that to eight cigarettes a day in his last months. "Richard did it all by himself," she says—acknowledging, however, that no amount of nagging could get him to quit altogether.

As a nagger, Link was as dogged as Columbo. "I was after him and after him," Link says. "I said, 'You're never going to see your daughter graduate from high school.' " (And he didn't. His only child. Christine. 18, graduated last spring.) "He had pains in his arm, and he had chest congestion, which I told him were classic symptoms of an impending coronary. And he would not act on it, until the end. I got him an appointment to see a doctor. He canceled. Twenty-four hours later, he was dead. I never got to say goodbye."

Link bids his farewell with his script for The Boys. Not surprisingly, it's about two TV writers; surprisingly, though, the one who's a chain-smoker (John Lithgow) is the one who survives. His partner (James Woods) dies of lung cancer caused by so-called passive smoking—inhaling someone else's fumes. (Rosanna Levinson has a small part as Lithgow's first wife.) But Link, who hasn't smoked in 29 years and whose chest X rays are fine, thanks, says what counts is the emotion. "This," he says, "is about a great friendship destroyed by one man's carelessness."

In a sense, the team behind The Boys began even before Link and Levinson—both 13—connected on their first day of junior high in Elkins Park, Pa., an affluent Philadelphia suburb. "Mutual friends had told me to look for a tall guy who loved murder mysteries and did magic," says Link, the son of a textile broker. "Dick was told to look for a short guy who loved murder mysteries and did magic. Instant friendship."

Young Link and Levinson, son of an auto-parts dealer, swam laps together at summer camp in the Poconos, wrote scripts for the radio club at Cheltenham High and performed magic at birthday parties. Then—presto!—they both went on to the Wharton School of Finance at the University of Pennsylvania. They were always more interested in showbiz than business, though, contributing scripts to class musicals and publishing fiction in Alfred Hitchcock and Ellery Queen magazines. "We wrote everything together," says Link, "sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph," and, as they evolved into professional scriptwriters, show by Show—Desilu Playhouse, Dr. Kildare, Alfred Hitchcock Presents. "We'd start at 9, and by noon have five good pages. Dick did the typing, and I did the pacing."

Out of all that typing and pacing emerged a rumpled yet cagey police detective named Columbo, who first appeared in a live teleplay in 1960. ("He was played by a great character actor named Bert Freed," Link notes.) The team brought back Columbo for a 1971 series, with Peter Falk squinting his way into TV history. Actually, says Link, he and Levinson had wanted Bing Crosby for the part, "but he was happy playing golf."

Falk is happy that Bing was happy. "My life would've been totally different without Bill and Dick," he says. "They were a study in contrasts. Dick did a lotta talking, Bill did a lotta watching." Link, now sole producer of ABC's occasional Columbo specials, is a bit more vocal these days. "Whenever Bill sees," says Falk, with a conspicuous inhale of nicotine, "he'll say, 'Get ridda that cigarette!' "

Link and Levinson also had a lotta influence on a story writer they hired in 1971. "I marveled watching them Ping-Pong an idea," says Stephen Bochco, who went on to create Hill Street Blues and L.A. Law. "Dick had a machine-gun mouth and a wicked wit. Bill would just sit back and listen and then—whap!—he'd come up with a crack. Whenever I said something that irked him. Bill would say, 'Ah—another Bocholism.' "

It hurts Bochco that there's no one there now to play Pong to Link's Ping. "Every time I see Bill, I feel a sense of loss," he says. Link's wife senses the loss every day. "Bill was so devastated," says Marjorie Nelson, 43, the producer and actress Link married in 1980. "I remember the phone call from Dick's daughter, Christine. I heard Bill yell. It was like he lost a brother. There are times now when Bill sounds like Dick. It's almost as if he's both of them."

Now he has to do the typing and the pacing. It was almost a year before he had the nerve to sit down and get to work on a new screenplay, he says. "My confidence was shaken. But when I sat down, I found that I really had no impediments. Writing seemed natural." Then he banged out The Boys over four weekends. "I felt terrific afterward," he says. "It was my therapy." And Levinson was, perhaps, his muse. "Dick's still calling good lines and bad lines," says Link, who recently wrote the script for a Universal movie project called Hit. "It's like I have a sympathetic critic."

A critic to attend to and, sadly, an example to avoid. "I've learned through Dick's death that you can't be careless," says Link, who recently was given an all clear in his annual physical. He also knocks wood in thanks for Nelson. Like Link and Levinson, they met through mutual friends. "Then we kept bumping into each other," says Nelson, "until one day we bumped and the timing was right." The couple, who have no children, live in a three-bedroom home crammed with 5,000 books and Link's art collection, which is heavy on contemporary Mexican.

Together, Link and Nelson witnessed a rite of passage that Levinson didn't live to see: Christine Levinson's graduation from the Crossroads School in Santa Monica. "She's very bright, just like her dad," says Link. "She's going to Barnard. I told her, 'When you get out, pitch some good pilot ideas, and it'll be Link and Levinson all over again.' "

—Tom Gliatto, John Griffiths in Los Angeles

  • Contributors:
  • John Griffiths.