Connoisseurs of television adventure series consider the 1960s the golden age of the genre. A number of factors in broadcasting and in the real world came together to produce a decade of remarkable mysteries, spy thrillers, science fiction and fantasy series that have never been equaled in the 30 years since.

The forerunners of that explosion of creative entertainment began showing up on the air in the late 50s. Maverick became TV's first series with a subversive agenda when it premiered in 1957, sending up the ubiquitous strait-laced westerns of the period with its family of shifty gamblers as heroes and sly spoofs of the venerable Hollywood approach to cowboys and Indians. The Twilight Zone presented television's first sophisticated fantasy and SF beginning in 1959. And in 1958, TV's coolest detective series appeared when Peter Gunn debuted Sept. 22 on NBC.

Peter Gunn was the creation of Blake Edwards, who used the show's huge success as the launching pad for his long career as a writer-director-producer of feature films (“Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” “The Pink Panther,” “The Days of Wine and Roses,” “10,” “SOB,” “Victor Victoria,” et. al.). Before Gunn, Edwards had a modest career in radio, where he created the Richard Diamond, Private Detective series for Dick Powell, and as a writer of movie screenplays. Powell wanted him to produce the TV version of Richard Diamond but Edwards had a new idea.

Peter Gunn was not your standard-issue private eye. In fact it was never clear if he was a licensed private investigator. He was described, and described only rarely, as a “man for hire.” Word got around — you have a problem, Peter Gunn is the man to solve it. Word also got around where to find Gunn if you needed him. He didn't have an office or a secretary. He hung out every night at Mother's, a bar and jazz joint run by a blowsy old dame known only as Mother.

Also unlike most private eyes, Pete did not indulge in romantic dalliances every week. He had a steady girl, Edie Hart, the singer at Mother's, who loved him and who he seemed to genuinely love in return. The character who came closest to being standard issue was the inevitable friend on the police force, Lt. Jacoby, a hangdog but intelligent and dedicated officer who, like Lt. Columbo years later, never had a first name, unless his first name was Lieutenant.

Gunn also did not operate in the usual private eye stomping grounds of Los Angeles, in spite of descriptions of the show, including A&E's own video packaging, that say he did. The setting was a city that was never identified but was obviously much smaller than LA, built along a river that apparently divided the good side of town from the bad. Mother's was on the river, and the long waterfront frequently figured in the show's plots.

Like all very successful and memorable series, Peter Gunn was blessed with a great cast, led by Craig Stevens as Gunn. As is so often the case, the actors gained fame and glory in a hit series after years as workaday performers. Stevens had been in films since the early 40s without breaking into leading roles. Edwards had worked with him and knew he'd fit the character to a tee. Stevens delivered his lines with a clipped, laconic style reminiscent of Cary Grant, and Edwards capitalized on that by giving him amusing Grantish dialogue, a crew cut and stylish Brooks Brothers suits. The result was a great evocation of Grant without drifting into an impersonation that would have ruined the whole effect.

Lola Albright played Edie as sultry and sexy, of course, but with an appealing, ever so slightly offbeat delivery of her lines and songs. She had been in a few good movies like “Champion” and “The Tender Trap,” but like Stevens had never had a breakthrough role until Edwards cast her in Peter Gunn.

Versatile actor Herschel Bernardi hit the perfect sardonic note as Jacoby. He went on to roles as varied as Tevye in “Fiddler on the Roof” (replacing Zero Mostel as the Broadway lead) and the voice of Charlie the Tuna in Star Kist commercials.

Hope Emerson, a veteran character actress who was over six feet tall and weighed more than 200 pounds, played Mother in the show's first season. The similarly proportioned Minerva Urecal succeeded her in the second and third years.

And in addition to the great cast, memorable lead characters, Pete's string of wacky underworld informants, the jaunty, character-defining dialogue, a sexy, adult relationship between Pete and Edie, Peter Gunn may be best remembered for its music. Like Edwards, Henry Mancini used his acclaimed work on Peter Gunn to move on to a long and highly successful career in movies (often on Edwards' pictures). His jazz scores and the still famous theme music for Gunn received as much comment as any other aspect of the show. Previously, there had been very little original music written for TV series (union rules that were finally changed in the late 50s had made it prohibitively expensive to write and record original music for weekly filmed TV shows). And there had never been anything like the cool jazz sound Mancini used every week on Peter Gunn. His work on Gunn made Mancini the first TV and film composer to become a household name and he released not one but two best selling albums of music from the show. In addition to the scores, most episodes had a scene at Mother's with the jazz combo playing a number and Edie singing a great old song.


Peter Gunn is an important show in the development of television, and a very entertaining series in its own right that has undeservedly gone unseen for years and is largely forgotten now. Its surprising appearance on video and DVD should be a cause for joy. So it's very painful to report that A&E's first two Gunn sets are lousy packages, largely because of the appalling condition of the source material.

All of A&E's previous TV releases have been British series and the source material, with a few minor exceptions, has been first rate. It was a bit surprising that the company would choose Peter Gunn as its first American release. The show has rarely been seen in syndication since the 1960s and has never gotten a second life on Nick at Nite or any other cable venue. Selling it on Edwards' and Mancini's reputations seems like a shaky idea at best. Nevertheless, we fans of great old television were glad to see it — until we got a look at the disks.

Almost every episode released on these DVD sets is a syndication print. Most of them are scratchy and dirty. Some even have spliced jump cuts where the film broke. Some of them are lousy dupes, so low-contrast and soft that the opening titles almost look out of focus.

When the show went into syndication in 1961, it was sold to a distributor called Official Films, a company so tacky and tasteless it added its own huge ugly logo to the end of the opening titles, which usually resulted in the title sequence fading out before the theme finished playing. Most of the episodes on DVD have that opening, although one has an opening that just cuts to black and then shows another distributor's logo, Cinecastro. Another version of the open simply leaves Blake Edwards' credit up until the sequence ends, but most of those also fade out before the theme finishes playing.

On a few episodes you can actually see the picture rocking back and forth in the film gate, the way you used to see beat up old film prints running on crummy little UHF stations in the middle of the night. Still other episodes are syndie tape transfers from a more recent distributor that has the decency to add its logo in the customary spot after the closing titles, but also ruins the closing by inserting a still frame to add its own name to the show's original copyright notice.

After deciding to release Peter Gunn, A&E obviously has further decided to dump the series out as quickly as possible. So we're getting eight episodes on each disk, meaning these first two double-disk sets contain 32 episodes, almost the entire first season of the show (but not quite — back then, Edwards and company managed to turn out 38 episodes a year).

One of the show's little stylish touches was commercial bumpers at the end of each act, five seconds of animation that showed some swirling mist coming together to spell out the title before going to commercial. Those have generally been in the syndication prints I've seen, but they are in only three — three! — of the 32 on A&E's disks. They've been cut out of all the rest.

Most disturbing of all, two episodes actually have scenes cut, making the standard “complete and uncut” claim on the packaging a bald-faced lie (I suppose the “digitally remastered” claim refers to the digital transfer and compression applied to any DVD master). This makes you wonder what, if any, quality control A&E applies to its video releases. Obviously no one with any presence of mind watched the shows or the painfully obvious cuts would surely have been noticed. Or would they? If anyone timed the episodes they would have noticed these two coming up way short of the 25 minutes and 30 seconds the uncut episodes run.

The cut episodes are both in the second DVD set. “Murder on the Midway” on disk three has two-and-a-half minutes lopped right off the top of act one. After the opening titles, the show comes back in the middle of a scene that's obviously been running for some time. On disk four, “Pay Now, Kill Later” has had three minutes removed in a series of cuts throughout the episode. These are typical cuts syndicators make to allow for the disgusting load of commercials on TV now. Again, anyone paying attention would realize these abrupt transitions are not the way the show was made.

Even more amazing, three episodes of these 32 still have the original network opening titles sequence, which ends with a card reading “Presented by Bristol-Myers.” Those prints look much better than the tattered syndication prints — which proves decent source material was available (although the three episodes with the network open are missing the bumpers — so who knows what these idiots have done to the show).

A&E is not even giving its Peter Gunn disks packaging equal to its previous DVD releases. Instead of two plastic keep cases in a cardboard slipcase, Gunn just comes in a plastic case thick enough to hold two disks. And there's virtually nothing about the show on the packaging or on the disks.

Series like The Avengers, The Prisoner, Secret Agent, Thunderbirds, Monty Python's Flying Circus, and others A&E has released on DVD have decades-old fandoms that have produced books, fanzines and Web sites overflowing with everything known about those shows. A&E simply uses those resources to pluck out synopses, air dates and bits of production trivia for its liner notes. But no one's ever written a book about Peter Gunn (too late now since nearly everyone connected with the show is dead). And A&E's marketing people weren't about to do their own research. So, no synopses, no air dates, no production notes whatsoever. The disks do not contain even the perfunctory text bios and filmographies you'd expect to see for Stevens, Edwards and Mancini. The only “DVD Bonus” is a moronic “Peter Gunn Trivia Game” which simply plays a scene from an episode then asks three multiple-choice questions about it. The thrill is unbearable.

Of course Peter Gunn fans will have to grit their teeth and buy these sets since no one is going to release anything better in the foreseeable future. But why A&E is releasing such horribly compromised material is a mystery even Gunn couldn't solve.

Peter Gunn

From A&E Home Video


Released March 2002


Black-and-white, original television aspect ratio (1.33:1),

two disks in keep case

Special Features

Scene selection

Trivia game

SRP: $39.95 per two-disk set