Craig Stevens in a press photo
Gail Shikles Jr. took the stage name Craig Stevens, but he’ll forever be remembered as his most memorable character, “Peter Gunn”. Produced, often written and directed by Blake Edwards, with “that” Henry Mancini theme song, Peter Gunn (1958-60) was about a sharp-dressed private eye who dug jazz. It earned 8 Emmy nominations in 1959 and introduced the American public to the “cool jazz” aesthetic.
With 300 people in attendance Craig married actress Alexis Smith at the Church of the Recessional in Glendale, California. The Hollywood couple that lived in the San Fernando Valley were married for nearly 50 years and often dined at Bob’s Big Boy Burbank.
Craig Stevens and Errol Flynn
The actor, who was originally going to be a dentist, studied theater at the University of Kansas and the Pasadena Playhouse. Following a tiny glimpse part in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) Craig Stevens signed with Warner in 1940.
He gets into a fistfight with a “Harvard man,” played by Errol Flynn in Dive Bomber (1941). The movie is a Technicolor testament to the beauty of U.S. Navy flight formations. His future wife was added to the movie when the producers decided they needed a girl. Alexis Smith and Craig Stevens, sadly, share no scenes.
Craig Stevens in How to Fly a B-26
Joining the Air Force in WWII, he begins acting in propaganda and training films at Hal Roach Studios as part of the “Culver City Commandoes.” How to Fly a B-26 Airplane (1944) is a U.S. War Department training film where Craig plays a lieutenant learning how to fly the Martin B-26 Marauder, a twin-engine cigar-shaped medium bomber heavily used in WWII.
Craig Stevens in Where the Sidewalk Ends
He has small parts playing himself in Hollywood Canteen (1944) and in another warplane movie, God Is My Co-Pilot (1945). His character Ken Paine would meet an unfortunate end at the hands of Bob’s Big Boy Burbank Hall-of-Famer, Dana Andrews, in Where the Sidewalk Ends (1950). Craig would appear in single episodes of boyhood favorites, The Lone Ranger (1950) and Gunsmoke (1974).
Movie poster for The Deadle Mantis
He’s largely committed to TV in the 50’s, but Craig Stevens does play the lead in the campy horror classic, The Deadly Mantis (1957).
Craig Stevens as Peter Gunn
Alexis Smith, Craig’s wife, recognized a talent in Blake Edwards. She set up a luncheon between her husband and the writer, director, producer. Not long after, Craig Stevens received a script from Blake and sent it back signed “Peter Gunn,” signaling his early interest and commitment to the project.
Set in a gloomy waterfront city never named, Craig Stevens plays a sophisticated and “smooth as Cary Grant” private eye. He uses a jazz club called “Mothers” as his office, where he usually finds his beautiful girlfriend, played by Lola Albright, on vocals. Peter Gunn (1958-60) is an astonishing 114 episodes, close to 57 hours of incredible binge-worthy television.
Lola Albright and Craig Stevens
Those that have never seen the TV show recognize the Peter Gunn theme song, created by Henry Mancini. With a sinister rock and roll bass rhythm, it adds a frightening sax and shouting brass. The song has been covered, adapted, reinvented, and most famously used in the popular arcade game Spy Hunter (1983).
In the first few episodes Peter Gunn drives a 1958 Two-Tone DeSoto. Subsequently it’s a series of 1959, 1960, 1961 Plymouth Fury convertibles.
Man of the World title sequence
Craig Stevens traded his pistol for a camera and went to England to make Man of the World (1962-63). He plays a famous photojournalist, “Michael Strait,” whose assignments take him to places of glamour and international intrigue. An actor’s strike in the U.K. stopped the completion of the series. The original pilot episode has since been re-released in color.
Returning to the stage he does 334 performances as part of the original Broadway cast in Meredith Willson’s Here’s Love (1963). He did David Susskind’s Los Angeles-production of Mr. Broadway (1964) and toured with his wife, Alexis, in Mary, Mary (1965).
In 1993, a day after her 72nd birthday, his wife Alexis died of brain cancer. Craig Stevens would die seven years later. Together their estate established the Alexis and Craig Stevens Performing Arts Scholarship at the University of Kansas (Craig’s alma mater).
Despite being the star of the coolest private eye TV show ever, neither he nor wife Alexis Smith were ever awarded a "star" on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Alexis Smith and Craig Stevens