Thursday, June 2, 2011

Peter Gunn: Dum-dum, dum-dum, dum-dum, dum-dum....

Craig Stevens as Peter Gunn.
When the Cafe conducted an online poll in November 2009 to determine the Top 25 TV Themes of All Time, the No. 1 spot went to Peter Gunn. It's no wonder--Henry Mancini's signature tune is not only instantly recognizable from its opening notes, but Mancini's music was integral to the success of the Peter Gunn TV series.

Debuting on NBC in 1958, the half-hour Peter Gunn series centered on a suave, cynical private eye who worked in a crime-infested, fictional city. Though he rarely looked ruffled, Gunn wasn't afraid to use his fists or revolver. In the episode "The Kill," Gunn threatens to murder a thug (Jack Weston) if a friend dies--and it's clear from the detective's steely voice that he's willing to carry through on his threat. When not investigating cases, Gunn frequented Mother's, a nightclub operated by an elderly woman called (what else?) Mother and featuring his girlfriend Edie as the in-house chanteuse. While Gunn didn't have a partner, he often received unsolicited--but timely--assistance from homicide detective Lieutenant Jacoby (Herschel Bernardi).

Stevens and Lola Albright.
Photographed in a film noir style and with voiceover narration, Peter Gunn comes across as a small-screen version of tough private eye films such as Murder, My Sweet. It also borrows heavily from the earlier series Richard Diamond, Private Eye (with Dick Powell playing the lead on radio and David Janssen on television). That's no surprise, since Diamond and Gunn were both created by writer-director Blake Edwards. Although Peter Gunn looks great, moves quickly, and features snappy dialogue (sometime penned by Edwards), it ultimately adds little to the private eye genre--except for the music.

Henry Mancini was still a relative unknown in 1959. He had played piano with Glenn Miller's Orchestra and done uncredited work on numerous films, such as The Creature from the Black Lagoon. He and Edwards had also worked together on the movies Mister Cory (1957) and This Happy Feeling (1958). When Edwards turned to Mancini to create a jazz score for Peter Gunn, magic happened. "The Peter Gunn Theme," with its driving beat and blaring horns, was an instant classic. Mancini won an Emmy and two Grammy awards. The soundtrack album, Music from Peter Gunn, was such a big hit that a follow-up, More Music from Peter Gunn, was released. The theme has been covered by artists as diverse as The Art of Noise, Herbie Hancock, the Blues Brothers, and even Jeff Beck.

While its music earned acclaim, the Peter Gunn series only cracked the Nielsen top 20 shows once, peaking at #16 for the 1958-59 season. It was probably always a niche show, lacking the mainstream appeal of more popular crime shows like 77 Sunset Strip. Its limited success may also be due to star Craig Stevens, who certainly projects "cool" but comes across as detached and, frankly, not very interesting. The sultry Lola Albright fares only slightly better as Edie, but that's because her character comes across as desperate--mooning over the emotionally-detached Pete. The most likable character is Mother, played by Hope Emerson (who died in 1960) and then Minerva Urecal.

When NBC dropped Peter Gunn after its second season, Blake Edwards took the series to ABC for a third and final season. He never gave up on the character, though. By 1967, Edwards had enough clout to mount a theatrical version called Gunn, co-written by William Peter Blatty (The Exorcist). Craig Stevens returned as Peter Gunn, but the rest of  the TV series' cast was replaced. Alas, with action heroes like James Bond dominating the box office, audiences weren't interested to see a movie about a TV private eye and the film faded quickly.

Edwards revived the character again in a 1989 made-for-television movie with Peter Strauss as the urbane private eye. It received respectable reviews, but didn't generate enough interest to warrant a revival TV series. Since then, there have been a couple of attempts to produce another Peter Gunn theatrical film, but none has materialized.

What remains is a pretty good TV series with a deliciously moody atmosphere...and that incredible Mancini theme. It's a testament to the music that you'll find people who recognize it by sound, without even knowing that it came from a private eye TV show called Peter Gunn.

(Never seen Peter Gunn? Check out the clip below!)


  1. Great write-up, Rick, and I completely agree with your assessment that the music is, essentially, what made PETER GUNN such a memorable series. Many people are familiar with the theme, but not so many have actually watched the show. As you suggested, themes can play an important part in a show, getting viewers amped for 30-60 minutes of rooting for a character. Mancini's theme is superb, and actually an easy (and fun) piece of music to play on guitar and/or bass guitar. I would recommend it for beginners, who could eventually move on to another Mancini piece, THE PINK PANTHER. Thanks, Rick, for an informative and intriguing focus on Peter Gunn and his show!

  2. Rick, this was really enjoyable -- loved the clip! I don't remember Richard Diamond -- I was 6 when Peter Gunn came out, and I swear I remember that music even at that age. Of course, we did have the album and played it a lot, so maybe that was it! Craig Stevens may have been bit wooden, but even at 6 or 7 I remember thinking he was so cool (also a term that dates me!)

    I haven't seen it since it was first on, but I do know the music must have made a lukewarm detective story seem better than it was. I have always believed good music can make a so-so movie good, and a great movie an unforgettable classic. Now I'm going to be humming that song for the rest of the day...but that's OK with me!

  3. I do remember Richard Diamond (Yes, I'm THAT old!) and remember that Janssen wore a hat as all private detectives did in those days. He was terrific in this early pre-FUGITIVE show. Didn't Mary Tyler Moore's legs star as his discombobulated lady love? Or secretary or something of that kind? I even remember ROCKY KING, Private Eye with Roscoe Karns as the snappy detective but that's probably WAY before your time... I loved PETER GUNN, loved reading about the show. What a great post, Rick. Memories...

  4. Rick,

    A great job on one of the hippest series on TV at the time. Way too cool for its time, from the theme song to the dialogue even if a less stiff actor than Craig Stevens would have been better. Have you ever seen Johnny Stacatto with John Cassavettes? A Peter Gunn ripoff but good and with a better actor in the lead.

  5. Rick, while I'll agree that PETER GUNN is long on style, that doesn't mean there's zero substance. I watch it on RTV in our area, and in addition to being witty, suspenseful, and too cool for school (from me, that's a compliment), I like the relationships between Pete and Edie (especially in the second season, when Edie opened her own restaurant/nightclub, Edie's, and got more independent), and Pete and Lt. Jacoby. I always got a kick out of Pete's various eccentric informants, too, including Billy Barty as a pint-size pool shark, and Henry Corden before he took over for the late Alan Reed as Fred Flintstone. In one episode where Pete has to dive for buried treasure/evidence, fans of Hitchcock's REAR WINDOW will recognize Georgine Darcy, Miss Torso herself! Heck, Jack LaLanne even appeared on a second-season episode! You're entitled to your opinion, Rick, but I just can't help lovin' that Gunn man. :-)

  6. Dorian, Pete was indeed too cool for school--I might liked his relationship with Edie better during the second season. In the first season, she seemed kinda needy. Sark, I'll looking for a podcast now of you playing PETER GUNN on guitar! Yvette, you're right--MTM's legs were famous in RICHARD DIAMOND, but the rest of her was never shown. John, I don't think I've seen JOHNNY STACATTO, but it sounds promising and I can envision Cassavettes in that kind of role.

  7. Becky, I had the first PETER GUNN album, too; in fact, I still have it (yes, I have retained my vinyls). Some of the tracks have hip names like "Pete's Pad." I think it was one of the first albums I ever bought with my own money (along with HAWAII FIVE-O by Mort Stevens...which we played in junior high band...badly).

  8. Rick, I have never seen "Peter Gunn" though I do know the score. It was quite fascinating reading how often Blake Edwards tried to revive interest in it. Great post!

  9. Watching an episode of Peter Gunn with The Wife a few weeks back, I was amazed to hear some background music that shared many riffs and motifs from the Pink Panther theme. It's interesting to listen to the music and hear bits of tunes that he'd later expend into proper songs.

  10. Come on...Moore turned 75 and I want to know whether those were her legs in Peter Gunn or not.. Can't somebody give me the straight skinny on this??? Greg Wittenmeier

  11. Mary Tyler Moore's legs were shown on RICHARD DIAMOND, not PETER GUNN.

  12. can someone PLEASE tell me who's legs were used in PETER GUNN