Question: Who played Peter Gunn in the late '50s or early '60s? Thank you. Lorenzo
Televisionary: Actor Craig Stevens played the titular lady-magnet P.I. on Peter Gunn, which ran for two years on NBC beginning in September 1958 before jumping to ABC for another year and moving to the big screen for a movie version. And while you struggled to remember the star's name, I'm betting you have no trouble recalling the familiar Henry Mancini theme, a tune even those who've never seen a Gunn episode have heard, even if they're not aware of its origin. (Sorry, I can't do any better than that for those of you who don't remember the tune, folks I'm whistling my heart out, but I'm betting that's no help.)
Matter of fact, having Mancini (the Pink Panther theme and a whole host of soundtrack and jazz work too huge to sum up here) score each episode was key to Gunn's groundbreaking atmosphere and style, which helped it stand out from other private-eye series of the time. (The music also generated a following of its own; RCA released two hit Gunn soundtrack albums.)
The style started with Gunn himself, a suave tough-guy who hung out at a jazz joint called Mother's, where his songbird girlfriend Edie (Lola Albright) worked. Show creator Blake Edwards obviously intended for his character to benefit from a Cary Grant-like demeanor, though, for some reason, Edwards tried to downplay that fact. "Definitely no," Edwards told TV Guide when asked about the Grant influence in 1959. "It was not in the original concept. And at the same time, yes in a sense. Cary is the epitome of all the things I enjoyed in the movies. When we got Craig, and I found he looked a lot like Grant with a crewcut and had a few of the mannerisms, I said, 'Wow! Let's emphasize it.'"
Well, Edwards did more than "find" that Stevens resembled Grant. After all, he was the guy who put Stevens, who didn't initially wear his hair short, in a barber chair. Not that he didn't worry a little over doing so. The sight of his star losing his locks wasn't the easiest sight to endure, Edwards admitted. "It was an awful feeling" he said, watching all that beautiful dark stuff hit the floor of the barbershop. I remember thinking, 'If this pilot doesn't sell, the guy will never speak to me again.'"
It sold, all right. And if Stevens was unhappy with his new buzz, he didn't hold much of a grudge since, he said in 1964, he "couldn't get arrested" before landing the Gunn role. "Obviously, I owe Peter Gunn a lot," he said. "As a result of that series I was suddenly a star after 18 years as an actor."
Of course, Stevens didn't have the market on obscurity cornered when Edwards first started putting his show together. Edwards didn't have much, if any, of a name at the time, and he wasn't entirely familiar with the people he ended up signing. Take the late Herschel Bernardi (a talented actor most familiar to people as the voice of Charley the tuna and the source of the Jolly Green Giant's "ho-ho-ho"), for instance, whose Lt. Jacoby helped pal Gunn out of many a pinch on the series.
"[My] agent talked me into at least seeing this producer," Bernardi recalled in 1961. "Well, he had one of those hole-in-the-wall offices and he looked like an Ivy League kid short haircut and all that. Name was Blake Edwards, which didn't mean a thing to me. How was I supposed to know he was a genius? He asked me what I'd done and I snapped back at him. I said, 'Haven't you ever seen me, for heaven's sake?' So I described the latest role I'd done, which happened to be a plain-clothes cop very much like what he had in mind for Jacoby and that was that. I didn't even have to read for him."
As they say, thick skin goes a long way in the entertainment business, and Bernardi had to develop his early on, especially given the prominent proboscis hanging on his face. At the tender age of 21, he journeyed out west to L.A. to meet a director he'd worked with in New York. "Hersh, go back home until your face settles," the director told him. "He was absolutely right," the actor admitted. "I had this big schnoz and I just had to wait until my face grew into it."
Wow patience with one's looks. The plastic-surgeon community of Beverly Hills better hope that trait doesn't make a comeback.