Blake Edwards: Film director, screenwriter and producer best known for 'Breakfast at Tiffany's' and the Pink Panther series

Tom Vallance
Saturday 18 December 2010 01:00

The director, writer and producer Blake Edwards made such durable films as Breakfast at Tiffany's, starring Audrey Hepburn as the entrancing Holly Golightly, Victor/Victoria, the amusing musical farce about sexual identity starring hiswife, Julie Andrews, and perhaps his most famous triumphs, the Pink Panther films, starring Peter Sellers as the bumbling French detective Clouseau.

Sellers appeared in five films as the English-fracturing, accident-prone sleuth.

His career was varied – he was co-scriptwriter on several agreeable musicals directed by his friend Richard Quine, and he directed musicals himself, but he was equally persuasive in his harrowing study of alcoholism, Days of Wine and Roses, slapstick comedies such as The Party (with Sellers) and The Great Race, and taut thrillers such as Experiment in Terror, a nail-biting suspense yarn.

An only child, he was born William Blake Crump in Oklahoma in 1922, but his father left his mother before he was born and he was initially raised by relatives. When he was three years old his mother remarried and Blake joined her in Hollywood, where his stepfather, Jack McEdward, was an assistant director and film production manager. His step-grandfather, J Gordon Edwards, directed more than 50 silent movies. As a child Edwards earned pocket money working as an extra, but he later recalled that he did not have a happy childhood, and found escape watching Chaplin, Keaton and Laurel and Hardy.

After graduating from Beverly Hills High School, he had minor roles in Ten Gentlemen from West Point (1942), A Guy Named Joe (1943) and A Wing and a Prayer (1944). After serving in the Second World War in the Coast Guard, he and a friend, John Champion, wrote and produced Panhandle (1948). A tough tale of a reformed gunslinger forced into a showdown after a bandit kills his brother, it won praise for its ingenuity and wit.

After small roles in The Best Years of Our Lives (1947) and the boxing drama Leather Gloves (1948), he joined Champion again to write and produce another "B" western, Stampede (1949). "Writing is the thing that really turned me on," he said, and for radio he conceived the hit crime series Richard Diamond, Private Detective for Dick Powell. In 1952 he joined Columbia, and collaborated with Richard Quine on the screenplays for a series of medium-budget musicals including Rainbow 'Round My Shoulder (1952), Sound Off (1952) with Mickey Rooney, All Ashore (1953), and Cruisin' Down the River (1953). The pair also fashioned a script for Rooney, Drive a Crooked Road (1954) in which he gave a powerful performance as a car enthusiast whose dream of being a racing driver propels him into crime.

Edwards' first chance to direct was a Frankie Laine vehicle scripted by Edwards and Quine, Bring Your Smile Along (1953). His second was an amusing gangster spoof, He Laughed Last (1956), starring Laine, and the following year he was given Mister Cory, a vehicle for Universal's fast-rising star Tony Curtis. It was a polished tale of a busboy's rise , and he followed it with two more slick comedies, This Happy Feeling (1958), and The Perfect Furlough, a frothy vehicle for real-life couple Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh.

The same year Edwards created the hit TV series, Peter Gunn, followed in 1959 by Mr Lucky. They shared a droll sense of humour and the composer Henry Mancini, who was to be a prime participant in Edwards' later career, composing the "Pink Panther" theme and winning Oscars for the score for Breakfast at Tiffany's plus its song, "Moon River", as well as the title song from Days of Wine and Roses and the score of Victor/Victoria.

In 1959 Edwards directed an expensive screwball comedy, Operation Petticoat, starring Cary Grant and Curtis. It was Universal's biggest grossing film to that time. After the pleasant Bing Crosby comedy High Time (1960), Edwards consolidated his status as one of Hollywood's brightest young directors with Breakfast at Tiffany's (1961).

Truman Capote's best-selling novella was not the easiest property to put on screen within the strictures of the era, and some still found it offensive. Audrey Hepburn, the epitome of enchantment, won an Oscar nomination as Holly Golightly, and with Edwards' confident handling of the transitions from hilarity to pathos, and Mancini's beguiling music, the film was hugely popular. Edwards erred only in the casting of Mickey Rooney as an hysterical Japanese neighbour – an indication of the director's affection for vulgarity that would mar some of his later movies.

In 1962 he made two contrasting films – Experiment in Terror, in which Lee Remick enlists the aid of cop Glenn Ford to protect her from a vicious stalker, and The Days of Wine and Roses, which gave a harrowingly graphic portrait of alcoholism.

Edwards returned to comedy with The Pink Panther (1963). David Niven was suitably suave as the gentleman crook who is planning the theft of the priceless Pink Panther jewel, but Sellers stole the film as Inspector Clouseau, whose inability to catch the thief is due to his wife being the felon's mistress. A Shot in the Dark (1964) was adapted from a French play, L'Idiote, by Marcel Achard, but its central character, a screwy judge, was turned into Clouseau for the first sequel.

The film also introduced Chief Inspector Dreyfuss (Herbert Lom) who tries to convince his superiors of Clouseau's ineptitude. "Give me 10 men like Clouseau," he says, "and I could destroy the world!" He is incensed because Clouseau insists that accused murderess Elke Sommer is innocent, while Dreyfuss regards her as a modern Lucrezia Borgia. (Dreyfuss is the killer, a fact disregarded in the sequels.)

The ambitious tribute to slapstick comedy, The Great Race (1965) was Edwards' fourth and final film with Curtis, starting a period of erratic output punctuated with fights with moguls. Curtis recalled, "Blake walked off the set because he didn't like the way Jack Warner was treating him. Warner said, 'Fine. I'll close down the movie for now until I find another director.' Blake was back on the set the next day." The Great Race went over budget, and despite some good sight gags its bloated length and overdone slapstick proved wearing.

Edwards joined with Sellers again for The Party (1968), which had several side-splitting set-pieces in its depiction of a Hollywood party att-ended by an unsophisticated Indian actor. Darling Lili (1970) was a promising musical fashioned for Julie Andrews, whom he had married in 1969. Allegedly, Andrews heard that he had remarked of her, "She is so sweet she probably has violets between her legs." She sent him a bunch of violets plus a note, and they began dating. Darling Lili, a First World War spy spoof, incurred the wrath of studio head Robert Evans, who described the production as "the most flagrant misappropriation and waste of funds I've ever seen in my career. He was writing a love letter to his lady, and Paramount were paying for it!"

Arguments with MGM's production chief James Aubrey during the shooting of the western Wild Rovers (1971) led to self-imposed exile in London and Switzerland, where he wrote and directed The Tamarind Seed (1974), another flimsy Andrews vehicle, plus three Panther sequels, though he was finding his leading man increasingly difficult. "Peter Sellers became a monster," he said. "He just got bored with the part and became angry, sullen and unprofessional. He wouldn't show up for work and he began looking for anyone and everyone to blame."

Edwards returned to favour with 10 (1979), in which a middle-aged song-writer (Dudley Moore) is smitten by a beautiful girl (Bo Derek) whom he judges an "ll" on the scale of 1-10. The film made Moore a star and was a huge hit. "I would watch him," recalled Derek, "and see this wicked mischievous expression and know that he had thought of something hilarious."

Edwards vented his ire at studio chiefs with a viciously satirical portrait of the film industry in S.O.B. (1981), for which he persuaded Andrews, who was trying to get rid of her virginal image, to bare her breasts. Trail of the Pink Panther (1982), was the result of an ill-judged decision to make another sequel after Sellers' death, utilising footage discarded from earlier films because it was not funny enough. It so infuriated Sellers' widow that she sued, winning $1m in damages.

Edwards finally gave his wife a good film in the delightful musical Victor/Victoria (1982), in which she is an entertainer who pretends to be a man impersonating a woman. It had an amusing script, a splendid co-starring performance by Robert Preston and some good numbers for Andrews. Blake won an Oscar nomination for his script, and in 1995 wrote the book for a stage musical based on the film.

The Curse of the Pink Panther (1983), for which he brought back David Niven for his last film, was another failure. Burt Reynolds was the star of Edwards' ponderous 1983 remake of Truffaut's The Man Who Loved Women, after which he reunited with Dudley Moore for Micki + Maude (1984), but the best of his later films is the autobiographical drama, That's Life (1986) in which a patriach celebrates his 60th birthday with a revealing family gathering. Lemmon and Julie Andrews starred in the film, shot in Edwards and Andrews' Malibu home.

Edwards suffered with depression, and for the last 15 years battled chronic fatigue syndrome. "My work has been one of the great therapies of my life," he said. "Being able to express myself and have it validated by laughter is the best of all possible worlds."

William Blake Clump (Blake Edwards), film producer and director: born Tulsa, Oklahoma 26 July 1922; married 1953 Patricia Walker (divorced 1963, one daughter, one son), 1969 Julie Andrews (two adopted daughters); died Santa Monica, California 15 December 2010.

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