Film director best remembered for the lucrative 'Pink Panther' franchise and the iconic 'Breakfast at Tiffany's'
Published 19/12/2010 | 05:00
Blake Edwards, the film director who died on December 16 aged 88, was best known for his series of Pink Panther films, starring Peter Sellers, and for Breakfast at Tiffany's (1961).
Films such as A Shot in the Dark, The Return of the Pink Panther and The Pink Panther Strikes Again assured Edwards's place as a maker of cult films and allowed him the financial freedom to undertake later projects such as 10 and SOB, both of which he wrote.
But despite his many successes, he was not immune to box office disasters. The musical spy thriller Darling Lili, which starred Edwards's wife, Julie Andrews, cost almost $20m to make and failed dramatically at the box office; his later, ill-advised decision to release another two Pink Panther films (after Sellers' death) exposed him to acrimonious, and expensive, court cases brought by the actor's widow.
Blake Edwards was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma, on July 26 1922, the stepson of the successful film production manager Jack McEdwards.
When he was three years old, Blake's family moved to California, and he was brought up in Los Angeles and educated at Beverly Hills High School.
While there he worked as a child actor, appearing in numerous B-pictures, but claimed that he "never wanted to act seriously enough to make a career of it". He left school in 1940 and continued to accept small roles -- often as a soldier -- in films such as Ten Gentlemen from West Point (1942), Marine Raiders (1944) and A Wing and a Prayer (1944).
During the war he served in the US Coast Guard and was badly injured in a diving accident. After a lengthy recuperation he decided to try to re-enter the film industry, writing and producing a Western, Panhandle, with his friend John Campion.
Edwards wrote for the radio, creating the successful Dick Powell vehicle Richard Diamond, Private Detective, then Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar and The Line Up. In 1954 he was writing television scripts for the Mickey Rooney Show when In 1954 he was taken on by the producer Richard Quine to direct B pictures for Columbia, among them the Frankie Laine musical, Bring your Smile Along.
He went to Universal where he directed the Tony Curtis picture Mr Cory and This Happy Feeling. At the end of the decade he wrote and directed the television series Peter Gunn, propelled to success in part by its catchy theme tune by Henry Mancini. He then got what he described as his "big break" with the naval comedy Operation Petticoat (1959), starring Cary Grant as the commander of a pink submarine.
Shooting was fraught because Grant wanted artistic control over the film. Typical of the many arguments between star and director was a row over which direction the submarine should be sailing in one shot.
"Cary had this idea that the audience would get confused if they saw it going the other way," Edwards recalled, "I told him I didn't think so because it was the only submarine in the damn film which was painted pink."
Despite the quarrels Operation Petticoat was among Universal's most successful ever films, and Edwards found himself in the enviable position of being able to choose his next project. He immediately started work on Breakfast at Tiffany's.
The film, based on Truman Capote's short story, was a hit both for Edwards and for his leading lady, Audrey Hepburn. Now considered a classic, it set him on a roll of winners, which began with Experiment in Terror (1962), a black-and-white thriller set in San Francisco, which marked a distinct change of direction for Edwards but won over critics, who had pigeonholed him as an adept hand at comedies and little else.
Days of Wine and Roses (1963), which was about a couple's descent into alcoholism and starred Jack Lemmon and Lee Remick, saw his star rise yet further, with both principals nominated for Academy Awards.
In 1964, however, Edwards returned to comedy, with the first of the franchise for which he would be best remembered. The Pink Panther introduced the bumbling Inspector Clouseau to the world and proved such a box-office draw that Edwards made a sequel, A Shot in the Dark, which was released just six months later.
Then, just when he seemed to have developed an unerring talent for producing reliable box-office crowd pleasers, Edwards suddenly lost his way.
The Great Race (1965) was a comedy which starred Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis. The duo, teamed for the first time since Some Like It Hot, appeared to guarantee success but instead the film scarcely covered its costs.
He began to get a reputation as a director who lost money. In an attempt to restore his falling stock he made the thriller Gunn (an adaptation of his earlier television series) and another comedy, The Party (1968), which starred Peter Sellers. Neither proved particularly successful, and in a move to restore the studio's confidence in him, Edwards agreed to produce and direct the spy thriller Darling Lili in 1969.
Darling Lili became notorious as one of the greatest financial disasters in film history. Edwards nearly doubled the original budget and shooting was beset by problems, not the least of which was the studio's insistence on making it a musical because it starred Julie Andrews, who had become Edwards's wife earlier that year.
Edwards wanted to film in the US, but studio bosses insisted he film in Ireland to give an authentic feel to the action. Rain held up filming for over two months until Edwards finally decided it would have to go ahead in the downpours. He shot half of the script, only for the skies to clear. All the footage then had to be reshot in the sunshine.
It proved a financial calamity, one observer describing it as "the film that put the nails in Paramount's coffin". The studio was so distraught it even tried to sue Edwards for "flagrant misappropriation and waste of funds".
Edwards countered that he was being made a scapegoat and moved immediately to MGM, where he was offered the chance to make an epic western, Wild Rovers, in 1971. Despite MGM's promise that he would have complete artistic control of the film, the final cut was edited by the studio, which took out 40 minutes of action, rendering the storyline so nonsensical that audiences could not understand it. Inevitably, it proved a box-office flop.
After MGM also interfered with his next film, The Carey Treatment, Edwards announced that the studio was a place in which "no one with any integrity or ability can possibly function".
He and Julie Andrews abandoned Hollywood for exile in Europe where, in 1974, he released The Tamarind Seed, a Cold War spy story which he hoped would provide a more worthy showcase for his wife's talents than the misbegotten Darling Lili.
In the meantime Edwards had been approached by Sir Lew Grade, who wanted to make a television series of The Pink Panther.
Edwards was unwilling to transfer to the small screen, but did agree to make another Panther film. Shooting began in 1975, and both he and Sellers agreed to forgo any payment, accepting instead a percentage of the profits. This proved highly lucrative when The Return of the Pink Panther, which cost only $2m to make, grossed over $100m on its release.
By 1976 Edwards was complaining that Sellers was "completely insane" and that he could no longer work with him. The prospect of another huge financial success proved irresistible, however, and despite their fraught relationship the pair went on to make the yet more successful The Pink Panther Strikes Again (1976) and Revenge of the Pink Panther (1978). "Peter was impossible to work with," Edwards recalled, "he was arrogant and made everyone, including the crew, miserable."
Having restored his financial credibility in Europe, Edwards once again found himself in demand in Hollywood.
He started work on 10, starring Dudley Moore as a man sexually obsessed with a young woman he sees on a beach, and Bo Derek as the object of his desire. "This is the sort of classical Hollywood comedy that will still look good in 30 years," noted one critic, and it duly proved a big winner with audiences.
Such was its success that, in 1981, Edwards was invited to return to Paramount, the studio which had tried to sue him just a decade earlier, to make SOB, a satirical portrait of Hollywood and its denizens.
Although praised by the critics as a "savage satire", SOB was better known to the public as the film in which Julie Andrews bared her breasts.
It did moderately well at the box office and Edwards followed it with Victor/Victoria (1982), also starring Andrews, which told the story of a singer masquerading as a female impersonator in order to find work.
But the early Eighties marked another turning point in Edwards's turbulent career. After the death of Sellers in 1980, the director made the extraordinary decision to embark on yet another Pink Panther film. Trail of the Pink Panther was made up entirely of old footage of Sellers which had been rejected because it was not considered funny enough for the earlier films.
Sellers's widow was so enraged by the picture that she sued Edwards, winning $1m in damages. Edwards protested that the film had been conceived as an "homage" to the late star of the Panther films and fought the ruling in the appeal courts. He lost for a second time.
Undeterred, he went on to make The Curse of the Pink Panther (1983), in which he gathered together the remains of the original cast, David Niven (in his last film role) and Robert Wagner. Without Sellers as Clouseau, however, the film proved a complete failure at the box office, with critics describing it as "a waste of time and talent".
Edwards's career then went into decline. Despite making the critically acclaimed That's Life! in 1986, tepid comedies such as Micki and Maude (1984) and A Fine Mess (1986) did nothing to restore his reputation. Towards the end of the Eighties he began to make commercial sex comedies such as Blind Date (1986) and Skin Deep (1989).
Despite what he described as his "love-hate" relationship with Hollywood, Blake Edwards continued to divide his time between Los Angeles and his home in Switzerland.
He is survived by his wife, by two children from his first marriage, and by the two children he and Julie Andrews adopted together.