Blake Edwards, 88, director of films comic and classic

Blake Edwards, shown on the set of ‘‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s,’’ specialized in comedy but also made Blake Edwards, shown on the set of ‘‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s,’’ specialized in comedy but also made (Paramount Pictures)
By Ty Burr
Globe Staff / December 17, 2010

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Blake Edwards, the film director who brought old-school slapstick into the modern movie era with the “Pink Panther’’ series and who turned a tart novel about a Manhattan call girl into the elegant screen classic “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,’’ died at 88 yesterday at St. John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, Calif.

The cause was complications of pneumonia; Mr. Edwards’s wife, actress Julie Andrews, and his children were at his side.

During four decades as a director, Mr. Edwards established a freewheeling filmography notable as much for the acrid cynicism underneath the laughs as for the laughs themselves. In effect, he gave the physical comedy of the silent era and the character-based humor of Hollywood forebears such as Preston Sturges and Billy Wilder a modern, neurotic spin. Late in life, especially, Mr. Edwards channeled his discontents with the film industry and his own life into hilarious cinema. His “S.O.B.’’ (1981) may be the most bitingly funny poison-pen letter to Hollywood ever made.

If Mr. Edwards specialized in comedy, he could also make stark dramas, like 1962’s “Days of Wine and Roses,’’ an uncompromising tale of alcoholism. The director had big hits — “Tiffany’s’’ (1961), “The Pink Panther’’ (1963), the midlife crisis comedy “10’’ (1979), the gender-bending farce “Victor/Victoria’’ (1982) — but he also presided over some of the more notorious bombs of his era, and he almost killed his wife’s career with their first two films together, “Darling Lili’’ (1970) and “The Tamarind Seed’’ (1974).

Mr. Edwards found success in radio, television, and even on stage, with the successful 1995 Broadway adaptation of “Victor/Victoria.’’ The movies, however, were where he made his mark. The “Panther’’ series, starring Peter Sellers’s bumbling Inspector Clouseau, became a personal franchise for the director, established with the first film and “A Shot in the Dark’’ in the early 1960s, arguably peaking with 1975’s “The Return of the Pink Panther’’ (“Do you ’ave a lee-sance for your minkey?’’).

Mr. Edwards also worked multiple times with Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis; and the director’s relationship with composer Henry Mancini extended over three decades and resulted in 12 Oscar nominations for music and four wins, including for “Moon River’’ in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.’’

The considerable pain in Mr. Edwards’s personal life took some time to surface in his films. Born William Blake Crump in Tulsa in 1922, he was abandoned by his father at an early age. His mother relocated to Los Angeles and married Jack McEdwards, a Hollywood assistant director. The young Blake escaped into movie theaters and the world of slapstick pioneers such as Laurel and Hardy and Buster Keaton.

Serving in the Coast Guard during World War II, he took a drunken dive into a shallow swimming pool and spent five months in an LA naval hospital with a broken neck. Even when he was in traction, comedy wasn’t far away: Mr. Edwards woke up one day to find Eleanor Roosevelt, wife of the sitting president, at his bedside, asking in what battle he’d been wounded.

A stint as a child actor energized Mr. Edwards for his postwar career. He wrote and starred in a low-budget 1948 Western called “Panhandle’’ and created the oddball singing-detective radio series “Richard Diamond.’’ Working his way into television in the mid-1950s, Mr. Edwards created the “Peter Gunn’’ series (1958), with its memorable Mancini opening theme, and “Mr. Lucky’’ (1959), both of which enjoyed healthy runs. By then, he had made the leap to movie directing, after a fertile writing apprenticeship with director Richard Quine, best remembered for the delirious 1957 army comedy “Operation Mad Ball.’’

The similarly rambunctious “Operation Petticoat’’ (1959) starred Cary Grant and Tony Curtis and established the young director as an up-and-comer, and when John Frankenheimer was taken off “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,’’ Mr. Edwards had his chance. To him can be charged the film’s bittersweet chic, its softening of the original Truman Capote novel, its timeless veneration of star Audrey Hepburn, and the appalling racial caricature of Mickey Rooney’s “Japanese’’ neighbor.

The next few years saw Mr. Edwards trying out different genres with “Days of Wine and Roses’’ and 1962’s darkly bizarre suspense film “Experiment in Terror.’’ With “The Pink Panther’’ and the superior “A Shot in the Dark,’’ though, the director found his métier: impeccably staged physical madness.

Jack Lemmon, in a 1991 Los Angeles Times article, said of his six-time helmer, “I don’t know a director better at visual comedy than Blake. He’s the best I’ve ever worked with at what is not shown on the screen.’’

Lemmon cited an example in the “Pink Panther’’ movies in which Clouseau moves off-screen into a hotel bathroom and is followed seconds later by the hurtling body of his manservant Cato (Burt Kwouk); sounds of mayhem and a jet of water ensue. “Ninety-nine percent of directors would have hired two stunt guys . . . it would not have been as funny,’’ said Lemmon.

The working relationship with Sellers was legendarily fraught: Mr. Edwards once surmised the reason the two fought so much was that they were so alike. In addition to the “Panther’’ films, Mr. Edwards and Sellers collaborated on the outrageous 1968 comedy “The Party,’’ as politically incorrect a film as can be imagined — the star plays a clueless East Indian at a wild Hollywood bash — and probably the purest and funniest distillation of Mr. Edwards’s gift for comedy timing.

A 1953 marriage to Patricia Walker ended after 14 years and two children, Geoffrey Edwards and actress Jennifer Edwards. In the late 1960s, an indirect flirtation with squeaky-clean movie star Julie Andrews — she heard Mr. Edwards had said she had violets for pubic hair (or lilacs; the story varies) and sent him a bouquet of violets (or lilacs) in response — led to courtship, marriage, and two costly flops that soured the director on the American film industry.

Front office intervention on “The Wild Rovers’’ (1971) and “The Carey Treatment’’ (1972) added insult to injury, and Mr. Edwards decamped to Europe for a few years, returning only to fire up the Clouseau series with Sellers again.

Battles with the studio continued. At one point, an MGM executive flatly refused to green-light one of Mr. Edwards’s scripts. He bought it back and eventually turned it into “10,’’ the sex comedy (but not really) that returned him to the front ranks and briefly made star Bo Derek a household name. His next film, “S.O.B.,’’ was frank revenge. It is a dark, crass, hilarious take-down of Tinseltown idiocies that climaxes with the unthinkable subversion of a topless Julie Andrews.

“S.O.B.’’ offended all the right people and some of the wrong ones, but Mr. Edwards mended fences with the following year’s “Victor/Victoria,’’ one of the breeziest, most smartly written comedies of the 1980s. That was the high point: The rest of the decade saw the films slope off from antically funny (“Micki + Maude,’’ 1984) to the merely antic “Blind Date’’ (1987) and “Sunset’’ (1988). After one more ill-advised gender-bender (1991’s “Switch’’) and an attempt to restart the Clouseau franchise with Roberto Benigni (the unspeakable “Son of the Pink Panther,’’ 1993), Mr. Edwards called it a day.

The successful two-year run of “Victor/Victoria’’ on Broadway, with Andrews reprising her lead role(s), was a late-career highlight, and in 2004, Mr. Edwards was awarded an honorary Academy Award for his “extraordinary body of work.’’ The award was presented by Jim Carrey, a personal fan.

Mr. Edwards’s only other Oscar nomination was for writing “Victor/Victoria.’’

He gloried in the nuances of timing; for him, comedy was close to ballet, especially during his peak middle years. You don’t remember scenes in his movies so much as you treasure precise moments: The gorilla in the sports car in “The Pink Panther’’; Holly Golightly and her cat in the rain; Sellers and the endlessly unrolling toilet paper in “The Party’’; the discreet crunch of Herb Tanney’s finger in the closet door in “Victor/Victoria.’’

Mr. Edwards liked big, messy pratfalls but he adored the tiny calamities far more, because he knew they built toward the kind of profound cosmic chaos that can only be faced with helpless laughter.

In addition to his two children from his first marriage, Mr. Edwards leaves daughters Amy and Joanna, two Vietnamese girls adopted during his second marriage; a stepdaughter, Emma Walton; seven grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren.

Ty Burr can be reached at Follow him on Twitter at @tyburr.

Correction: Because of a reporting error, an earlier version of this obituary mistakenly credited actor Alex Karras with having his finger crunched in a closet door in a scene in “Victor/Victoria.’’ Actor Herb Tanney was the person who had his finger crunched.