“Suave, sophisticated, hep to the jive, groovin’ to the oh-so-cool jazzbo-beat, Peter Gunn was like nothing ever seen before on television or anywhere else, really,” writes Kevin Burton Smith at The Thrilling Detective Web Site. “He was a new kind of eye. While other dicks hung out in rundown offices, swilling rotgut, living hand to mouth, loners till the end, cloaked in rumpled trench coats and angst, Gunn hung out at Mother’s, a swank jazz club, wearing his Ivy League finest, pitching woo at his best gal, singer Edie Hart, drinking nothing more than an occasional tasteful martini.”
For a crime drama that lasted only three years--two on NBC, one on ABC, 114 half-hour episodes in all--Peter Gunn had a rather extraordinary impact. And not just in terms of plotting and sophisticated dialogue. As Wikipedia notes:
The show’s use of modern jazz music, at a time when most television shows used a generic, uninspired orchestra for the background, was another distinctive touch that set the standard for many years to come. Innovative jazz themes seemed to accompany every move Gunn made, ably rendered by Henry Mancini and his orchestra (which at that time included John Williams), lending the character even more of an air of suave sophistication. Most memorable of all was the show’s opening (and closing) theme, composed and performed by Mancini. A hip, bluesy, brassy number with an insistent piano-and-bass line, the song became an instant hit for Mancini, earning him an Emmy Award and two Grammys, and became as associated with crime fiction as Monty Norman’s theme to the James Bond films is associated with espionage.You can listen to that famous theme right here.
Although the series was canceled in 1961, Blake Edwards didn’t give up easily on Peter Gunn. Six years later, he revived the private eye for the big screen in Gunn, which also starred Craig Stevens. And then in 1989, he produced a new pilot film for ABC-TV, this time with Peter Strauss in the lead role. Thrilling Detective’s Smith recalls that “Strauss was perfectly cast as Gunn. Alas, other changes weren’t quite as perfect. The new Gunn was cleaned up--he didn’t smoke, or even drink much, and he had an office complete with a ditzy secretary (a role seemingly written in to accommodate Jennifer Edwards, daughter of I wonder who?). And after the nice, tightly scripted thirty-minute plots of the original series, the pilot seemed overlong and bloated. It was a nice try, but nice doesn’t cut it. If only they’d cut down on the fluff, and given Gunn a drink, a smoke, and a better script, who knows?”
Fortunately, the original show is easily available for viewing. Two DVD sets of Craig Stevens episodes have already been released by A&E, and 38 eps--including the first, “The Kill”--are available free for viewing via the Lycos Cinema site. Half a century after Peter Gunn first strolled into Mother’s for a listen and a libation, maybe it’s time to follow him through those doors one more time.
READ MORE: “Television’s Peter Gunn Turns 50,” by Alan Kurtz (Jazz.com); “Mancini’s Peter Gunn Score Launched Dozens of Careers,” by Joe Manning (Mornings on Maple Street).