Thursday, May 06, 2010

Did Peter Gunn Need Alanon?

I just watched "Fill the Cup," an interesting episode from the old Peter Gunn TV series that ran from 1958 to 1961. If, like me, you're too young to remember the series (I was a year old when it debuted), it was a hip private-eye show starring Craig Stevens. Classic noir. With music by Henry Mancini and cool jazz and everything. 

The few episodes I've seen before have been scripted with some humor, which is not surprising considering that the show was created (and sometimes written and directed) by Blake Edwards.

But "Fill the Cup?" Not lighthearted at all. This one is about alcoholism, and it's grim.  Right here, I'm impressed, because it would have been so easy to make the episode a comedy. Who knows, maybe it was originally written as one.

Here's the plot: William Getty (played by character actor John McIntire) plays an alcoholic who desperately wants to keep from drinking until his daughter arrives by plane the following day. He tells Gunn he can't do it alone, and wants Gunn to keep him sober for the next 12 hours.  Getty warns Gunn that even though he doesn't want to drink right now, he'll be desperate for a drink later on.  Gunn takes the job, takes Getty's keys and money, and settles in to Getty's apartment for the night.

Of course, it's not long before Getty has second thoughts about this whole arrangement, especially after Gunn pours the mouthwash down the drain when he catches Getty about to drink it. Getty tries everything he can think of to escape or convince Gunn he can drink. And Gunn does the stuff all families of alcoholics do to prevent him from drinking. At one point, he ties Getty to the bed with a necktie. Getty, by now somewhere beyond desperate, eventually manages to chew his way out of it. Then he knocks Gunn out, and leaves.

Once Getty leaves his apartment, drinking seems inevitable, but every time he's close to a drink something gets in the way. He manages to get a quarter from someone so he can buy a shot; but the drunk next to him swipes the quarter while he's not looking. After several attempts, Getty finally busts out a liquor store window and steals a bottle -- but then he drops the bottle and breaks it.

Gunn finally catches up to him, and they finish out the night. Getty is sober when he meets his daughter at the airport the next day. Obviously pleased to see Getty, she suggests that they go into the airport bar and have a drink. Getty agrees, following her straight into the airport bar, with Gunn looking on.

And that's how the episode ends.

I'll admit the episode was a tad melodramatic in a couple places. But it did a great job conveying the desperation of addiction, that "incomprehensible demoralization" we've experienced. And it does so compassionately and without judgment. Throughout the episode, Gunn refers to his client as Mr. Getty. I haven't watched enough episodes to know if that's Gunn's usual demeanor, but here it demonstrated respect. At all times, Getty was portrayed as a sick man, not just a worthless drunk.

I especially appreciated the ending, which was understated and chilling. No big speech about how Getty doesn't drink anymore. No debate about whether or not he should go into the bar. He just walks in because his daughter suggested it.

Somebody involved in that episode knew what they were doing.


  1. Huh. A surprisingly astute and sophisticated storyline, for its time and genre, I'd say. Interesting how life, and art, changes every time we change our our lenses.