LOS ANGELES — Screenwriter William Link, half of a celebrated writing team out of Cheltenham High, first met his writing partner, Richard Levinson, on the first day of their first year at Elkins Park Junior High when they were told they ought to connect.

“I was told to find a tall guy who liked to do magic and read mysteries, and he was told, ‘There’s a short guy who reads mysteries and does magic,’” he told Inquirer TV critic David Bianculli in 1987 when Mr. Levinson died.

“Our sensibilities coincided as people,” Mr. Link said then. “In our formative years, we read the same books, saw the same movies, did the same things.”

Screenwriters William Link (left) and Richard Levinson, collaborating when they were students.
Courtesy Link family
Screenwriters William Link (left) and Richard Levinson, collaborating when they were students.

The two would go on to win Emmys and acclaim — always as a team — for the hit series Columbo and Murder, She Wrote and for 1970s and ’80s TV movies about social issues then largely shunned by television.

Mr. Link died of congestive heart failure Sunday in Los Angeles, his wife of more than 40 years, Margery Nelson, said in a statement Tuesday. He was 87.

Mr. Link’s writing partnership with Levinson blossomed in their years together at Cheltenham High School and the University of Pennsylvania, where they collaborated on several Mask and Wig productions, wrote film criticism for the Daily Pennsylvanian, and founded the school’s Highball humor magazine.

After graduation, Mr. Link was drafted into the Army for two years. Levinson served briefly, then worked at what is now NBC10. When Mr. Link returned, they sold a script to Desilu Productions and moved to Los Angeles.

And the rest, as they say, is television history. The “Foxcroft” in their ubiquitous Fairmont Foxcroft Productions comes from the Elkins Park street where Mr. Link grew up — “638 Foxcroft,” Nelson told The Inquirer on Thursday. “They were just two Philly boys. When we went back for his Cheltenham reunions, we would stand in front of the house.”

Levinson described the chemistry between himself and Mr. Link in a 1970 interview with Inquirer reporter Harry Harris. “We’re in general agreement as both producers and writers,” he said. “A collaboration is like a marriage. Sometimes one capitulates, sometimes the other. If you can resolve differences painlessly, you have a viable partnership. ... Sometimes we flip a coin. It’s usually something minor, like a line of dialogue. We don’t write anything unless we both dig it.”

‘Columbo,’ ‘Murder,’ and ‘Mannix’

Columbo was a highlight of their award-winning body of work. The series featured a brilliant, deceptively unkempt police detective that the pair originally created for a 1960 TV anthology episode.

They earned a writing Emmy for the series, with four acting trophies going to star Peter Falk. He played the role in the 1971-78 Columbo run on NBC and when the crime drama moved to ABC from 1989 to 2003 as more occasional TV movies.

The fight “for justice and equality” was a central theme in their projects, said Mr. Link’s niece Amy Salko Robertson, a producer who handled business matters for her uncle. Columbo, for one, tended to pit the wily detective against wealthy and powerful criminals.

Their TV movies included 1970′s My Sweet Charlie, a rare small-screen depiction of an interracial romance that earned them a writing Emmy, and That Certain Summer (1972), a groundbreaker for its sympathetic portrayal of gay characters.

Dramas such as those “were not getting on TV, and they really fought for them,” Salko Robertson told the Associated Press.

The duo also wrote and were executive producers for the Emmy-winning The Execution of Private Slovik (1974), about a World War II soldier who became the first executed for desertion since the Civil War.

Murder, She Wrote, with film and stage star Angela Lansbury as an amateur sleuth, was created by Mr. Link, Levinson, and Peter S. Fischer. The series was a durable, 12-season success for CBS, airing from 1984 to 1996.

Other Levinson-Link series included the 1967-75 crime drama Mannix and 1973-74’s Tenafly, an early show with an African American lead character, a private eye played by James McEachin.

The pair wrote screenplays for the ’70s big-screen films The Hindenburg and Rollercoaster and for 1980’s The Hunter, among actor Steve McQueen’s final movies.

The partnership ended in 1987 when Levinson had a fatal heart attack.

“I couldn’t write for almost a year,” Mr. Link told Inquirer TV critic Gail Shister in 1991. “I had never written by myself. I had a fear I couldn’t write solo.”

He got back in the game with Boys, a 1991 black comedy for ABC about a 20-year writing partnership and friendship.

“I wrote the whole script in eight days,” Mr. Link told Shister. “It usually took Dick and me a month. It poured out, like automatic writing. I felt like Dick was still in the room with me.”

Mr. Link continued to write after Levinson’s death, including stories for Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine.

His family helped him mark his Dec. 15 birthday by playing YouTube videos of interviews in which he recounted his long career, Salko Robertson said.

“He loved it. It was the best birthday present we could have given him.”

Besides his wife and Salko Robertson, Mr. Link’s survivors include nieces and nephews John Robertson, Karen Salko Nieberg, and Owen Nieberg. A memorial will be held “when we’re in safer times,” Nelson said. Donations in Mr. Link’s memory may be made to the Chemotherapy Foundation at www.chemotherapyfoundation.org.

Reporting from The Inquirer and Daily News archives by David Bianculli, Jim Nicholson, Gene Seymour, and Gail Shister contributed to this article.