Writer-director created 'Pink Panther'

He was a master of film comedy, with a deft touch in exploring the emotional undercurrent of humor.

Blake Edwards, the prolific writer-helmer behind the enduring “Pink Panther” series as well as such notable pics as “Days of Wine and Roses,” “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” “10,” “S.O.B.” and “Victor/Victoria,” died Wednesday of complications from pneumonia. He was 88.

Julie Andrews, his wife of 41 years and frequent collaborator, and other family members were at his bedside when he died at St. John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, publicist Gene Schwam said.

“He was the most unique man I have ever known — and he was my mate,” Andrews said in a statement. “He will be missed beyond words and will forever be in my heart.”

Edwards’ work has been compared favorably to that of other comedy auteurs such as Leo McCarey, Preston Sturges and Frank Tashlin. His slapstick visual style combined the best elements of silent comedy and often, an underlying pain.

“I would not be able to get through life had I not been able to view its painfulness in a comedic way,” Edwards once told a reporter. “So when I put life up there on the screen, quite often it resembles things that happen to me or at least comic metaphors for those things.”

Edwards demonstrated an underappreciated versatility in his early pics with such dramatic fare as the alcoholism drama “Days of Wine and Roses,” which earned Oscar noms for stars Jack Lemmon and Lee Remick, and the thriller “Experiment in Terror” (1962). He was also well known in the biz for chafing at the dictates of studio execs.

He was closely aligned with Peter Sellers through the “Pink Panther” series as well as “The Party” (1968), though the two were known for battling on the set. The indelible themes and scores by composer Henry Mancini were another constant in Edwards’ pics.

Edwards hit his stride in the late 1950s and early ’60s when he created the stylish TV detective series “Peter Gunn” and helmed such feature hits as “Operation Petticoat” (1959), “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” (1961), “Days of Wine and Roses” (1962) and “The Pink Panther” and its sequel, “A Shot in the Dark,” both released in 1964.

While the quality of Edwards’ pics was irregular, — amid frequent battles with execs over creative control of his work — his champions found good even in his most indifferent projects, such as the musical “Darling Lili” (1970), his first movie with Andrews.

But it was the box office success of “Panther” starring Sellers as the bumbling Inspecter Clouseau, and its many sequels that fueled Edwards’ career — and revived it more than once.

By the late 1960s, Edwards’ ascent had been stalled by costly flops “The Great Race” (1965) and “Darling Lili.” He moved to England and kept a low profile as a helmer until the success of “The Return of the Pink Panther” (1975). Edwards and Sellers teamed for three more Inspector Clouseau pics through 1982′s “Trail of the Pink Panther.” The helmer kept the franchise going in 1983′s “Curse of the Pink Panther” and the 1993 Roberto Benigni starrer “Son of the Pink Panther.” (MGM revived the title in 2006 with Steve Martin in the role.)

Edwards’ later comedies offered both laughs and introspection, particularly “10″ (1979), a musing on male midlife crisis starring Dudley Moore, Andrews and Bo Derek, which ranked as Edwards’ single biggest box office success. On the heels of that triumph, Edwards delivered the vitriolic Hollywood satire “S.O.B.” (1981) and the sexual identity farce “Victor/Victoria” (1982), for which he received an adapted screenplay Oscar nomination.

Edwards was born in Tulsa, Okla. His grandfather was the silent film director J. Gordon Edwards. When he was 3, his family moved to Los Angeles, where his stepfather, Jack McEdward, worked as a Hollywood production manager. Edwards did not meet his biological father until he was 40, an experience he described as interesting, but also unfortunate. “I never should have opened that Pandora’s box,” he said.

After graduating from Beverly Hills High School, Edwards was briefly under contract to 20th Century Fox and landed roles in such films as “Ten Gentlemen From West Point” and “In the Meantime, Darling.” In 1946, Edwards co-wrote and appeared in the Western “Panhandle” and produced it for Monogram Pictures, starring Rod Cameron and Edwards in a small role. He later created the radio series “Richard Diamond, Private Detective,” for Dick Powell.

Paired with director Richard Quine, Edwards wrote low-budget musical comedies for Columbia including “Cruisin’ Down the River” and “All Ashore” as well as the musical version of “My Sister Eileen.”

The well-received melodrama “Drive a Crooked Road” helped Edwards land his first directing assignments. His inaugural efforts for singer Frankie Laine, “Bring Your Smile” and “He Laughed Last,” were no laughing matters. But with a Tony Curtis vehicle, “Mister Cory” (1957), Edwards began to show some promise behind the camera.

Still it was the hugely successful TV series “Peter Gunn,” with its jazzy Mancini score and suave leading man Craig Stevens, that led Edwards to such high-profile comedy features as “The Perfect Furlough” (1958) and “Operation Petticoat.”

Edwards got a big break when John Frankenheimer dropped out of “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” and Audrey Hepburn consented to him as her director. Working with George Axelrod’s adaptation of Truman Capote’s novella, Edwards created a bubbly dramedy that was a major critical and box office hit.

The success of “The Pink Panther” however, steered Edwards toward slapstick comedy, a course from which he rarely veered. But it was the sexy “10″ that brought Edwards his best notices and is regarded as a quintessential example of his work.

“A movie as personal in its way as ‘Apocalypse Now,’ ” was how Newsweek film critic David Ansen assessed the film.

Edwards wrote and produced a stage version of “Victor/Victoria” starring Andrews that opened on Broadway in 1995 and played for two years.

In later years, Edwards’ ability to walk was restricted because of knee problems. When the Academy gave him an honorary Oscar in 2004 for his body of work, Edwards arrived on stage in an electric wheelchair. Living up to his comedic reputation, Edwards zoomed across the stage, grabbed the statuette from presenter Jim Carrey and smashed into a wall before telling Carrey: “Don’t touch my Oscar.”

Edwards was also a devoted painter and sculptor. In June he displayed many of his works in the exhibit “Lenses” and Leslie Sacks Fine Art Gallery in Brentwood, with proceeds going to the nonprofit org Operation USA to support Haitian earthquake relief.

Edwards was married for 14 years to his first wife, Patricia, with whom he had a daughter, Jennifer, and a son, Geoffrey. After marrying Andrews in 1969, the couple adopted two Vietnamese orphans, Amy Leigh and Joanna Lynn.

Survivors also include seven grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. A public memorial service is being planned for early next year. The family requests that donations be made to Operation USA.

(Erin Maxwell and Richard Natale contributed to this report.)

Selected filmography: Blake Edwards

Film

Son of the Pink Panther (1993)

Switch (1991)

Skin Deep (1989)

Sunset (1988)

That’s Life! (1986)

Micki and Maude (1984)

Curse of the Pink Panther (1983)

Trail of the Pink Panther (1982)

Victor/Victoria (1982)

S.O.B. (1981)

10 (1979)

Revenge of the Pink Panther (1978)

The Pink Panther Strikes Again (1976)

The Return of the Pink Panther (1975)

Darling Lili (1970)

The Party (1968)

The Great Race (1965)

A Shot in the Dark (1964)

The Pink Panther (1964)

Days of Wine and Roses (1962)

Experiment in Terror (1962)

Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961)

Operation Petticoat (1959)

TV series

Dante (1960-61)

Mr. Lucky (1959-60)

Peter Gunn (1958-61)

Filed Under:

Follow @Variety on Twitter for breaking news, reviews and more