Blake Edwards, 'Breakfast at Tiffany's' director, dead at 88

By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 20, 2010; 10:57 AM

Blake Edwards, a prolific filmmaker who kept alive the tradition of slapstick comedy in his Pink Panther franchise and nimbly showcased his dramatic range with "Breakfast at Tiffany's" and "Days of Wine and Roses," died Dec. 15 of pneumonia at a hospital in Santa Monica, Calif. He was 88.

In a six-decade career that rejected easy categorization, Mr. Edwards received an honorary Academy Award in 2004 for "writing, directing and producing an extraordinary body of work."

Some of his best-known films included the sophisticated romance "Breakfast at Tiffany's" (1961) with Audrey Hepburn, the bleak story of a couple in an alcoholic spiral in "Days of Wine and Roses" (1962) starring Jack Lemmon and Lee Remick, and the taut manhunt story "Experiment in Terror" (1962) with Remick and Glenn Ford.

There also was "10" (1979), featuring Dudley Moore as a pop composer going through male menopause and Bo Derek as the object of his fantasies; "S.O.B." (1981), a scathing portrait of Hollywood personalities; and "Victor/Victoria" (1982), a cross-dressing farce starring Mr. Edwards's real-life wife, Julie Andrews.

The non-competitive Oscar was more a tribute to his craftsmanship, versatility and endurance as a filmmaker than consistent appreciation by audiences and reviewers. Few directors have worked so long with such checkered results commercially and critically, and yet have revived their fortunes with bursts of astonishing creative energy.

Film scholar Jeanine Basinger called Mr. Edwards a "major figure in modern filmmaking" and a "bold interpreter of traditional genres who wanted to treat film as a more sensitive and malleable medium, one that can in its running time can take you through a range of moods."

To that end, he crossbred all kinds of genres with wildly varied results. There was the espionage musical ("Darling Lili," 1970), the comic combat film ("What Did You Do in the War, Daddy?," 1966) and a chase movie ("The Great Race," 1965) that paid simultaneous homage to westerns, silent comedies and the adventure yarn "The Prisoner of Zenda."

Mr. Edwards, the descendant of a silent-film director, developed an audacious and risque comic style as a producer, director and writer that was rooted in the pratfalls, sight gags and otherwise preposterous sensibilities of pre-sound movie comedy.

Yet even in his most exuberant fare, Mr. Edwards was often drawn to material that led him to explore the anxieties of love, marriage, work and sexual stereotypes. In the first of the Pink Panther outings, a detective is on the trail of a jewel thief who is cuckolding him.The Panther series, which began in 1964 with "The Pink Panther" and "A Shot in the Dark," brought Mr. Edwards his most devoted following. The films' inspired lunacy owed a great deal to actor Peter Sellers, who played the unbearably snobbish, pompous and incompetent French police inspector Jacques Clouseau.

"We decided to try to make Clouseau a real clumsy, accident-prone, well-intentioned, but idiotic character," Mr. Edwards said, according to Sam Wasson's admiring study of Mr. Edwards's films, "A Splurch in the Kisser." "We decided that the one thing about Clouseau that could make him succeed was that he embodied what I considered to be the eleventh commandment, which is 'Thou Shalt Not Give Up.' He never figured he could lose, never figured that he could fail."

Over the course of the series, Clouseau gets his hands snapped in doorways, chain mail and floor-standing globes. Disguises involving putty noses, fake parrots and hunchbacks go ludicrously awry. "Undercover" visits to nudist colonies are masterful orchestrations of sight and sound.

In all, Mr. Edwards wrote and directed seven of the "Pink Panther" films - five of which starred Sellers until his death in 1980. Their relationship was tense.

"Peter Sellers was literally bi-polar, a raging schizophrenic," Mr. Edwards told author Franz Lidz. "Once, in the middle of making a movie with him in England, he called me at midnight to say he had spoken to God and figured out how to play his character in the following day's scene. I said, 'Great! I'll see you in the morning. Now let me sleep.'

"The next morning he appeared on set and interpreted the scene. He was terrible - didn't get a single laugh from the crew! I told him, 'Peter, next time you talk to God, tell him to stay the hell out of show business.' Peter was so mortified that he flew to France and didn't come back for a week."

After Sellers's death, Mr. Edwards directed "Trail of the Pink Panther" (1982), which featured outtakes from the earlier movies, and "Son of the Pink Panther" (1993) with Italian comic actor Roberto Benigni as Jacques Clouseau Jr.

Mr. Edwards was born William Blake Crump in Tulsa on July 26, 1922. His father abandoned the family, and he was shuttled around among relatives until he joined his mother and new stepfather in Los Angeles. His stepfather's father, J. Gordon Edwards, directed several films in the 1910s starring the silent-screen vamp Theda Bara.

While in high school, Mr. Edwards began working on film lots as a script courier, and his husky, all-American good looks won acting parts onscreen. He served in the Coast Guard during World War II and had a rare leading role in the low-budget thriller "Strangler of the Swamp" (1946).

He began writing radio scripts and screenplays on the side, leading to a partnership with film director Richard Quine. They collaborated for Columbia Studios on a series of workmanlike films in the 1950s with titles including "Sound Off," "All Ashore" and "Drive a Crooked Road." Perhaps the best was the witty script to Quine's "Operation Mad Ball" (1957) starring Jack Lemmon as an Army private who uses his wiles to throw a party.

Mr. Edwards gained confidence as a director on two vehicles for pop singer Frankie Laine before moving on to bigger-budget productions. He directed Cary Grant and Tony Curtis in the wartime comedy "Operation Petticoat" (1959). Maurice Richlin, a co-writer on "Operation Petticoat," developed the idea for the Pink Panther films.

Mr. Edwards reached a creative and popular peak over the next several years, both on television and film. Mr. Edwards produced the stylish detective TV series "Peter Gunn" (1958) starring Craig Stevens and whose jazzy theme song by Henry Mancini became a pop hit. He and Mancini also collaborated on the short-lived program "Mr. Lucky" (1959), about a suave gambler.

Mr. Edwards frequently teamed with Mancini, who wrote the slinky "Pink Panther" theme, the melancholy title song (with Johnny Mercer) for "Days of Wine and Roses," the indelible ballad "Moon River" for "Breakfast at Tiffany's," and "Le Jazz Hot" for "Victor/Victoria."

'Breakfast at Tiffany's'

Mr. Edwards was credited with transforming a Truman Capote novella about a cynical call girl into the immensely likable "Breakfast at Tiffany's." Starring Hepburn, the film became an enduring popular success in large part because of Mr. Edwards's ability to balance the heroine's cynicism toward sex and power with an engaging comic approach that did not alienate audiences.

Mr. Edwards's adoration of silent-screen comedy was apparent in a party scene, when Hepburn's Holly Golightly accidentally sets a hat aflame in a crowded room.

New York Times film critic A.H. Weiler called the film "a completely unbelievable but wholly captivating flight into fancy composed of unequal dollops of comedy, romance, poignancy, funny colloquialisms and Manhattan's swankiest East Side areas captured in the loveliest of colors."

"Days of Wine and Roses" was an unexpected project for Mr. Edwards, but he came to the film on the recommendation of Lemmon, who praised the director's ability to find the "bizarre, comedic side to tragedy." Both Lemmon and Lee Remick earned Academy Award nominations for their portrayals of alcoholics, and reviewers found Mr. Edwards's direction taut and gripping.

As the 1960s went on, Mr. Edwards's commercial viability seemed increasingly to depend on whether he directed a Pink Panther movie. His other films had little impact with critics or on the box office, including the comedy "The Party" (1968) with Sellers as a hapless Indian actor in Hollywood who destroys almost everything he touches.

After confrontations with studio bosses, Mr. Edwards lost control over the editing of his movies. Humiliated and angry, Mr. Edwards and his wife went into self-imposed exile in Gstaad, Switzerland.

"If I had continued to make box office hits, then I could have been an axe-murderer or a child-molester and there would still have been a place for me in Hollywood," he told the Times of London in 1982. "I like the old Chinese proverb: If you wait long enough by the river then the bodies of your enemies will float by. That used to console me through the dark patches. And then one day I realized that downstream from me there was this whole gang of people I'd been rude to, all waiting for me to float by."

Then as swiftly as his career had earlier tanked, Mr. Edwards returned to popular and critical acclaim in 1979 with "10." He followed with "S.O.B.," an acid farce based in large part of his own experiences. It featured a washed-up filmmaker (played by Richard Mulligan) who, in suicidal desperation, reshoots a poorly received "family film" as soft-core pornography.

Mr. Edwards caused a stir when he showed Andrews topless in "S.O.B." and then featured her in "Victor/Victoria" playing a woman impersonating a man impersonating a woman in the cabarets of Depression-era Paris. He directed Andrews in a 1995 Broadway adaptation of "Victor/Victoria," whose plot was based on a German film from the early 1930s.

His first marriage, to actress Patricia Walker, ended in divorce. Besides Andrews, whom he married in 1969, survivors include two children from his first marriage, Geoffrey Edwards and actress Jennifer Edwards; two Vietnamese orphans he adopted with Andrews, Amelia Edwards and Joanne Edwards; and a stepdaughter with Andrews, Emma Walton.Despite Mr. Edwards's public reputation as a comedy master, he suffered at times from severe depression and chronic fatigue syndrome, which he spoke about in Kim A. Snyder's 2001 documentary "I Remember Me." A longtime patient of psychoanalysis, he wrote two film scripts with his therapist, including "That's Life!," and made other films that explored the male psyche and sexual roles in society ("Skin Deep" and "Switch").

When he received his honorary Oscar, he saluted "friends and foes alike. ... I couldn't have done it without the foes."

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