Monday, September 22, 2008

Gunn with Occasional Music

Given that it’s fall premiere time, September tends to bring TV anniversaries of one sort or another. But this month offers two particularly noteworthy ones. Last Friday, of course, marked 40 years since the debut of The Name of the Game. And it was exactly 50 years ago today, on September 22, 1958, that the NBC private-eye drama Peter Gunn was first broadcast. The creation of director-screenwriter Blake Edwards (who had earlier given us radio’s Richard Diamond, Private Detective and would subsequently be responsible for the Pink Panther film series), Peter Gunn starred Craig Stevens as the eponymous but untraditionally “cool” gumshoe working the mean streets of a never-identified port city.

“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 cultural 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 Gunn 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, also starring Craig Stevens (together with the lovely Sherry Jackson). Then in 1989, he produced a new pilot film for ABC-TV, this time with Peter Strauss in the lead role. The 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?” ABC passed on reviving the series.

Fortunately, the original program is easily available for viewing. The first two DVD sets of Craig Stevens episodes have already been released by A&E*, and a number of installments—including the debut show, “The Kill” (from which the film clip embedded below was taken)—can be enjoyed for free on YouTube. 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.

* A complete DVD series set of Peter Gunn was released later.

READ MORE:Television’s Peter Gunn Turns 50,” by Alan Kurtz (; “Peter Gunn—The Smoothest P.I. on TV,” by Mitchell Hadley (It’s About TV!); “Peter Gunn (1960),” by Beestguy (Television’s New Frontier: The 1960s); “Mancini’s Peter Gunn Score Launched Dozens of Careers,” by Joe Manning (Mornings on Maple Street).

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