Most everyone has heard the famous theme song by Henry Mancini. But how many people have seen Peter Gunn, which ran from 1958-1961? This was the golden age of U.S. television, before broadcasters figured out that TV didn’t need to be good. Each episode was a gem of clever storytelling, with a film noir sensibility and a killer jazz soundtrack. The series was created by Blake Edwards, who also wrote and directed many episodes. And best of all? The star was Craig Stevens, a long tall drink of water (at 6′ 4″, he towered over just about everyone else in the show) whose indefinable air of cool has never been equaled to this day in a spy or private detective show on television.
Craig Stevens has always reminded me of Cary Grant, but with a more American, low-key affect that’s perfect for a private eye walking the streets of an unnamed waterfront city…
Let’s bathe the retinas in some images from the first season, shall we? Peter’s “office” is a jazz club called “Mother’s” and his unofficial assistant is Mother herself (played by Hope Emerson in Season 1). Peter delights in flirting with Mother, who absolutely adores him, in spite of her tough old broad act…
Peter’s girlfriend is the long-suffering Edie (played by Lola Albright), the nightclub singer at Mother’s. In the very first episode, we learn that Edie is hoping for a ring and a white picket fence (or at least a lot more uninterrupted nights with Peter). He loves her too, but one gathers that Peter’s line of work doesn’t fit the marriage scenario. Emmett, the piano player and band leader, is sweet on Edie (who wouldn’t be?) and Peter tells her, “You could do worse.” She shrugs and gives him a rueful smile. “Don’t I always?”
Herschel Bernardi plays Lt. Jacoby, the police detective who regularly crosses paths with Peter. The two have a certain camaraderie and a healthy respect for each other. Bernardi is one of the many excellent character actors in the show, people with real faces and bodies who seem much more convincing and interesting than today’s television actors. Below: one of Peter’s more eye-catching suits.
Most episodes featured a jazz number for Edie or another singer, as well as more nightlife scenes; all the music was arranged (and some of it composed) by Henry Mancini. In Episode 2, Carlo Fiore was Streetcar Jones, a vibraphone player locked up for a murder he didn’t commit. Part of the fun of the club scenes is the 50’s Beat lingo used by the patrons and musicians, and the many references to classic jazz.
Lt. Jacoby: Pass Mr. Gunn to see Streetcar Jones. How’d he ever get a name like Streetcar?
Peter Gunn: The way I hear it, when he plays, all you gotta do is get on and ride.
Streetcar Jones: Lodi?
Peter Gunn: Yeah.
Streetcar Jones: There’s a cool, old cat. Swings way back – Oliver, Bechet, Ory… wild sounds. You dig Lodi?
Peter Gunn: Yeah. You dig murder?
Another regular character is Wilbur (Herbert Ellis), an impresario, painter and sculptor whose nightclub is devoted to Beat poetry. His sexy girlfriend is named “Capri,” and his self-portrait looks like something out of H. P. Lovecraft…
Peter is quite the clotheshorse, and has the perfect body for the late 1950’s suits. During that period, the trousers were very high-waisted, and a man had to be slim to look good in them.
In spite of his refusal to commit, Peter can’t take his eyes off Edie when he sees her in Mother’s. She always suggests meeting up after work… and ends up falling asleep on Peter’s couch while he pursues thugs on the waterfront or meets with crime bosses. The pair seem to have keys to each other’s apartments. By their level of physical comfort with each other, it’s clear that they are sleeping together, but we never see them in bed. His pet name for her is “Silly.”
Most episodes featured one or more lovely ladies who were either victims in need of rescuing or femmes fatales. Season 1.6, “The Chinese Hangman,” starred the beautiful Marion Marshall as Joanna Lund, a mysterious woman whose attractions are powerful enough to make Peter forget Edie… at least temporarily.
My favorite episode in Season 1 is “The Frog,” a tale of two lonely people on the waterfront who find companionship together, until one of them is murdered. Peter visits the other, an old woman whose shanty is full of cats, and brings back a little surprise for Edie…
Craig Stevens died in 2000 at age 81. And here is something that I find touching. He was married to the same woman, Alexis Smith, for almost 50 years. The pair married in 1944, and his wife without a doubt had a far more high-profile career than he did, starring alongside the likes of Errol Flynn and Cary Grant.
Given his looks, charm and talent, I think Stevens should have had a more brilliant career than he did. Instead, he was relegated to supporting roles during a 20-year career in Hollywood before achieving fame as Peter Gunn. Afterwards he had a lengthy career on TV and on the stage (at one point playing Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady).
He got plenty of work (The Love Boat! Fantasy Island!), but he never reached the same level of national success. What a blessing that we have all 114 episodes of Peter Gunn as a document of his extraordinary Beauty. I leave you with a final screen cap from a training film he made for the US Army, “Resisting Enemy Interrogation.”