Panther roars again with Martin

Franchise has more than nine lives

There have been several attempts to revive the Pink Panther in the 24 years since the death of Peter Sellers — the man who minted the bumbling, dry-humored Inspector Jacques Clouseau — without much success.

The lesson of films such as “Curse of the Pink Panther” (1983) and “Son of the Pink Panther” (1993), starring Roberto Benigni, was that without Sellers, there was no Panther.

A quarter of a century later, MGM isn’t making any pretense of trying to revive the spirit of Sellers in its latest Panther pic, which has the tabula rasa title “The Pink Panther” and stars Steve Martin as Clouseau and Kevin Kline as his archnemesis Dreyfuss.

Yet by drawing only loosely on the original Panther pics, the new film becomes more of a remake than an extension of the franchise. And, as history has so recently reminded Hollywood (“Alfie,” “Around the World in 80 Days,” “Flight of the Phoenix”), remakes are a risky proposition.

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(This could be why the film’s producer Robert Simonds prefers the term “reconception.”)

Whatever the word, the main gamble with the “re”-genre is that auds who remember the original films tend to prefer them, while younger viewers need to be sold on an idea they’ve never heard of and that, in some cases, is no longer culturally relevant.

Perhaps sensing this quandary, MGM recently pushed back the release date for “Panther” from July to September, saying the film would fare better away from the summer blockbuster clutter.

Others say the reason for the switch is that with Sony’s buyout of MGM closing this summer, there was fear the movie would get lost in the transition. By pushing it into fall, the film will have the solid backing of Sony’s marketing and distribution teams.

Nonetheless, giving up a juicy July date, when kids are out of school and auds flock to the movies, seems to signal some hesitation, considering “Panther” had been pitched as one of MGM’s summer tentpoles.

The pink cat has long puzzled MGM, and even the new film spent years gestating. At one point Ivan Reitman was set to direct and produce, with Mike Myers playing Clouseau, but MGM wouldn’t cough up Myers’ $20 million. The project lagged until Martin came aboard, on the condition that he could write his own part and choose a director — Shawn Levy, who directed him in “Cheaper by the Dozen.”

“Steve felt it was imperative that he put his comic stamp on the piece,” Levy says. “To do that thoroughly, he needed not just the performance, but the words. It’s very accurate to say that Steve came to (the project) as a ‘yes’ as an actor by way of a ‘yes’ as a screenwriter.”

Based on the trailer and a sequence in which the French-accented Clouseau is coached in Americanese, Martin’s perf is more reminiscent of his “Saturday Night Live” sketches than of “A Shot in the Dark.”

The film’s insurance policy is pop diva Beyonce, who co-stars and performs her own music in the film.

“She’s the X factor,” Levy says. “Beyonce is a massive star who lends this movie huge pop cultural cachet.”

Although a broad, star-studded cast may alienate dyed-in-the-fur Pantherites, the Sellers films, directed, written and produced by Blake Edwards, were not without their weaknesses.

Some argue that besides Sellers, there wasn’t much to the pics: Their production values weren’t stellar, and when Sellers wasn’t knocking over Grecian urns or tumbling into fountains, the films fell flat.

And while the Panther pics are considered golden nuggets in MGM’s library, the movies were more prestige films than blockbusters. The highest-grossing film in the series, “Return of the Pink Panther,” made $41 million at the domestic box office in 1975, the same year “Jaws” grossed $260 million.

All of the above, however, is moot, says Simonds.

“I’m not banking on everybody knowing the ‘Pink Panther’ movies,” he says. “What we get is cultural goodwill toward the concept of the franchise. People haven’t necessarily seen the ‘Pink Panthers,’ they’ve heard about them. They know they’re funny, they know it’s a bumbling detective.”

In essence, the central characters of the new film are the same, as is the Henry Mancini score and the whodunit setup — which revolves around the murder of a soccer coach and the disappearance of the Pink Panther diamond — but that’s about it for homage.

Despite this clean-slate approach, the filmmakers did have discussions with producer Walter Mirisch (who produced the early Panther pics), which led to new material using an old approach.

(Edwards was not involved in making the film, though he had preliminary rights discussions with MGM.)

“Bob (Simonds) and I sat down with Walter at length, and he shared the story of the franchise and some really fascinating aspects of the Edwards/Sellers collaboration,” Levy says. “He said, ‘However great the script is, you’ve got to let the performer run wild with whatever crazy ideas pop into his head.’ ”

The filmmakers took this to heart. While shooting in New York, Martin and Kline spent afternoons in Martin’s apartment improvising scenes, while Levy scribbled it all down.

About a third of the film resulted from those sessions. Yet despite all the efforts to update the Sellers pictures (and in a twist the pranksterish Brit would relish), HBO’s recent telepic — “The Life and Death of Peter Sellers” — is racking up awards at this year’s kudofests.