Steve Martin isn't slow to acknowledge the connection between comic genius and instability. He'll even admit that there's a certain irony to one neurotic funny man following another neurotic funny man into the well-worn shoes of Inspector Clouseau, Peter Sellers's most-loved celluloid creation.
"But I think there's a difference between having a darker side and being crazy," concludes Martin, 60, who stars in The Pink Panther 43 years after Sellers's fumbling French detective debuted on the big screen. "I think Peter Sellers was slightly, at least from what I've read and heard, tortured. I think we all have our darker side, and I'm sort of in the middle there. I'm in neutral," says the actor, who has gone to great lengths, via therapy and self-help books, to ensure his own sanity.
For a time in the mid-Seventies, he drank too much. Today he mainly has his demons in check, observing a healthy lifestyle and avoiding meat and alcohol. "I think when you're a performer, and anytime you're in the arts, there's certainly high and low days because you're so vulnerable all the time to the slightest criticism - from your physicality to your anatomy to your ideas. There's always a criticism coming from somewhere, and I find that most artists can't discern between valid criticism and insane internet criticism. It's all the same," he says, shifting positions uncomfortably.
Initially, Martin refused to take on Inspector Clouseau, a project previously considered by Mike Myers, Kevin Spacey and Chris Tucker, all of whom eventually passed. However, a chance meeting in a car park with the Pink Panther director Shawn Levy persuaded him to take on the untouchable.
"You have to forget about the great. You can't live with a legend in your head. You just burrow down and start working. I had the honour of meeting Peter Sellers once, about 25 years ago, and he was very friendly with me. It was at a junket in Hawaii, he was promoting something and I was promoting The Jerk. And he was very complimentary and so I felt there was a little bit of, certainly mutual respect. I mean, my respect for him was great. And I really like our movie. In my opinion I think we have honoured the film well, and his legacy and Blake Edwards's legacy," he says.
Martin bristles at the suggestion that The Pink Panther is the latest effort in a once-brilliant career that has recently dissipated into a string of remakes: "Do I like remakes? Every one I've done has been a hit, starting with Dirty Rotten Scoundrels which was a remake of Bedtime Story, and Father of The Bride and Cheaper By The Dozen. But I know what you're saying. First of all, this is not a remake. It's a completely different script. I think there's maybe one gag from the original movie, so I don't call it a remake, but I know what you mean.
"Movies have been remade since the Twenties. Look at the number of times they've re-made King Kong, and A Star is Born. All these stories keep coming back. I've sort of justified it by saying, well its like a play. Nobody says, 'Oooh, I can't do Hamlet because Richard Burton did it'. So, to me, Inspector Clouseau is the Hamlet for comedians."
Like Sellers, Martin is not immune to beautiful women. Romances with Linda Ronstadt and Bernadette Peters were replaced by a seven-year marriage to the British actress Victoria Tennant, who broke his heart some 12 years ago when she left him for another man. For a while he sought solace with best friend and co-star Diane Keaton, followed by a rather public love affair with the actress Anne Heche, who left him for Ellen DeGeneres after coming out as a lesbian. Today he has abandoned his image as Hollywood's most famous "lonely guy", presently enjoying a relationship with the New Yorker writer Anne Stringfield, 33, who, intriguingly, is often wrongly identified as the Sex and the City actress Kristin Davis, owing to their physical resemblance.
So is Martin happy now? "All these things, I feel, are so genetic. Like some people are just happy. I have a close friend who is usually happy." He demonstrates, grinning insanely. "And when he's sad, he's like this," he says turning down the grin a slightest notch. "I'm not always on the light side but I am a happy person. You go through periods of your life where you're skewed more dark and you're skewed more light. Right now, I'm sort of dead in the middle."
Perhaps Martin's past romantic failures owe something to dreadful pick-up lines such as "A woman is like an artichoke..." a line he both wrote and delivers as Inspector Clouseau. "But I think that is true," he argues. "The line is that a woman is like an artichoke and you have to do a lot of work before you get to her heart. I think that's a very romantic sentiment and a lot of people would like to think that that's true. "I don't think any relationship is perfect and although I do have friends who seem to have thriving relationships and you always hope for the perfect one, you really have to forgive and get along and make allowances for people and your partner. I guess if you keep striving for perfection, it probably won't happen. I was married for 10 years and single for 10 years so I can see it from both sides," says Martin.
If therapy has ironed out some of the wrinkles in his somewhat introspective personality, then Martin owns up to one Sellers-worthy obsession: "I'll actually - I hate to confess - record the audience. I'll listen to how big the laughs are. I've written - or at least had my name on - at least a dozen screenplays, and the thrilling part for me is to be able to write a scene or a joke and then hear that laugh when you're now so far removed from it.
"If I'm performing live, they might laugh because its me, but when they're in a theatre and I'm not there physically, there's no obligation for them to fake a laugh or do anything - so that is the greatest feeling to be standing in the back, with your pants off - I'm kidding! - and hear that kind of laughter."
The Pink Panther features Beyoncé Knowles, Jean Reno and Kevin Kline along with uncredited cameos by Jason Statham and Clive Owen. Plans for David Beckham to make a brief cameo were ditched early on. The producer Robert Simonds says: "It was a great idea, but when you actually try to make it happen this man is booked in 15-minute increments, seven days a week. We could never access his schedule in a way where we could get him to do what we needed to do."
Though undaunted at taking on Sellers's Panther legacy, Martin confesses to certain pressures when it comes to being funny: "If you're doing a comedy and it's not funny, then it's not funny. So you have the responsibility of not only delivering the character but also making sure that there's a laugh, whereas in drama, if you just wanted silence, you'd be fine: 'That was totally silent. Fantastic!' But in a comedy, that's the last thing you want. Doing comedy has this, 'yes, there's a man jumping up and down!' factor," says the banjo-playing psychology graduate whose career has also seen him tackle drama, including LA Story, Leap of Faith, Grand Canyon and Pennies from Heaven as well as the recent Shopgirl, which is based on his own novella.
Turning 60 last year proved not as traumatic as he'd once envisioned: "The reflection actually took place five years ago, so I was exhausted before I actually reached that milestone. You get to a place where you tell yourself: 'I'm 60: I don't have to do the things I don't want to anymore'," says Martin who confesses to having the same vanities as the next actor, daily spreading generous quantities of skin-cream on his face: "Men want wrinkles as much as women do. I use an alpha-hydroxy cream every night and my skin has never looked better.
"Fortunately for me, ageing can be a gift for male actors. Look at Walter Matthau. He just became funnier and funnier the older he got, the more his face became saggy and old and craggy. I think it all depends on what the actor's doing. You don't care if Robert de Niro looks old but you do care if Tom Cruise looks old. Like many men my age, I wish I could turn the clock back, yet I'm content to have accomplished some things in my life and no longer feel I must prove myself."
While Martin's Clouseau is firmly rooted in Sellers and Edwards, he says: "I bent it a little bit because I am different. When I looked at those movies, I understood that Peter Sellers could ad-lib all day within the context of the character. He understood Clouseau so well and I could tell he felt funny. I was a long way from that when I first started thinking abut the part, but I knew it had to feel funny to me and the only way that would come out is through my own comic sense. I can't tell you exactly what it is, because it's a little mysterious, which I think is a good thing.
"It's funny because, when I first got offered the part, I said 'no'. I didn't think it was right for me. But I thought about it and thought about it and I tried writing a few scenes to see if I could get my head around it, and they seemed funny," says Martin, who is presently writing a follow-up to his novella Shopgirl. "Except it won't be anything like Shopgirl!" says the actor. He has an infuriating habit of attempting to change the topic by fiddling with your tape-recorder or randomly discussing his reading glasses and begging you not to disclose the fact he is very short-sighted. "I've been writing a few memoir-ish type things. I'm not sure why. Its not my history of show business. Its just my history in life really," says Martin. His early effort in this genre produced a most candid story in The New Yorker outlining how he'd attempted therapy with his father, in an effort to understand him, before his death a few years ago.
If The Pink Panther has received poor reviews in the US, at least Martin can console himself with the fact he thoroughly enjoyed making the film, whatever critics felt after watching it.
"What's not to like about filming in Paris?" asks this ardent art collector and gourmet. "Can you imagine waking up and walking out in the morning? Its warm, its summer and you're going to work. You walk out on the Place Vendôme, and then you're picked up and driven to a beautiful place where you work a little bit and then there's lunchtime and there's 50 fantastic restaurants within walking distance, plus the art, and the city's beautiful. It was just a dream. I loved it. Even though I speak very limited, restaurant, French."
If Sellers's private life was an open book, then Martin's, to a certain extent, is a closed one. The actor explains why: "I think that many celebrities give away their private lives quite easily, and I don't. The reason I don't is that it's like the Heisenberg uncertainty principle - when somebody's looking at something, it changes. So I don't think you can conduct a private life when everybody's looking at it. I have a lot of celebrity friends and I also have a lot of friends who aren't celebrities, and it's unfair to drag them into the celebrity world. So I like to keep that separate. They're not there to be focused on and have attention paid to them; my best friends are people who are not interested in celebrity at all.
"I enjoy wit in my relationships, and I think my favourite thing to do is to have dinner with friends, outside, talking. I'm very French in that way," says Martin, dissolving into a Clouseau-style French accent. "Talking, talking, talking, and fun and laughter and kidding around. I like to kid. And to have friends you can joke with and nobody's offended. People who are self-deprecating instead of the opposite - some kind of ego thing. And whether we do actually have big egos or not, at least we hide it."
Whether he's talking about himself or Clouseau is anyone's guess.
'The Pink Panther' opens on 17 MarchReuse content