In Memoriam: filmmaker and artist Blake Edwards, 88

LOS ANGELES (AP) – Blake Edwards, the director and writer known for clever dialogue, poignance and occasional belly-laugh sight gags in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, 10 and the Pink Panther farces, is dead at age 88.

Edwards died from complications of pneumonia late Wednesday at St. John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, said publicist Gene Schwam. Blake’s wife, Julie Andrews, and other family members were at his side. He had been hospitalized for about two weeks.

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

Edwards had knee problems, had undergone unsuccessful procedures and was “pretty much confined to a wheelchair for the last year-and-a-half or two,” Schwam said. That may have contributed to his condition, he added.

At the time of his death, Edwards was working on two Broadway musicals, one based on the Pink Panther movies. The other, Big Rosemary, was to be an original comedy set during Prohibition, Schwam said.

“His heart was as big as his talent. He was an Academy Award winner in all respects,” said Schwam, who knew him for 40 years.

A third-generation filmmaker, Edwards was praised for evoking classic performances from Jack Lemmon, Audrey Hepburn, Peter Sellers, Dudley Moore, Lee Remick and Andrews, his wife of 42 years.

Actor Robert Wagner credits Edwards with giving him some of the greatest opportunities of his career.

“There won’t be anybody passing by like him again. He was a genius,” Wagner said Thursday. “Personally, we were so very close friends and he was so kind to me throughout my entire life.”

Edwards directed and often wrote a wide variety of movies including Days of Wine and Roses, a harrowing story of alcoholism; The Great Race, a comedy-adventure that starred Lemmon, Tony Curtis and Natalie Wood; and Victor/Victoria, his gender-bender musical comedy with Andrews.

He was also known for an independent spirit that brought clashes with studio bosses. He vented his disdain for the Hollywood system in his 1981 black comedy, S.O.B.

“I was certainly getting back at some of the producers of my life,” he once remarked, “although I was a good deal less scathing than I could have been. The only way I got to make it was because of the huge success of 10, and even then they tried to sabotage it.”

Because many of his films were studded with farcical situations, some reviewers criticized his work.

However, Richard Schickel wrote in Time magazine: “When director Edwards is at his best, there is something bracing, and in these days, unique about his comedy. … He really wants to save the world by showing how stupid some of its creatures can be.”

Steve Martin expressed his thoughts on Twitter, writing, “Blake Edwards was one of the people who made me love comedy. Sorry to hear of his passing.”

Although many of Edwards’ films were solid hits, he was nominated for Academy Awards only twice, in 1982 for writing the adapted screenplay of Victor/Victoria and in 1983 for co-writing The Man Who Loved Women. Lemmon and Remick won Oscar nominations in 1962 for Days of Wine and Roses, and Hepburn was nominated for Breakfast at Tiffany’s in 1961.

The motion picture academy selected Edwards to receive a lifetime achievement award in 2004 for “his writing, directing and producing an extraordinary body of work for the screen.”

When he collected the award, he jokingly referred to his wife: “My mother thanks you, my father thanks you, and the beautiful English broad with the incomparable soprano and promiscuous vocabulary thanks you.”

Edwards had entered television in 1958, creating Peter Gunn, which established a new style of hard-edged detective series. The tone was set by Henry Mancini’s pulsating theme music. Starring Craig Stevens, the series ran until 1961 and resulted in a 1967 feature movie Gunn.

“Peter Gunn” marked the beginning of a fruitful collaboration between Edwards and Mancini, who composed melodic scores and songs for most of Edwards’ films. Mancini won Academy Awards for the score of Breakfast at Tiffany’s and the song Moon River, the title song of Days of Wine and Roses and the score of Victor/Victoria.

The Edwards family history extended virtually the entire length of American motion pictures. J. Gordon Edwards was a pioneering director of silent films, including more than 20 with the exotic vamp Theda Bara. His son, Jack McEdwards (the family name), became a top assistant director and production manager in Hollywood.

William Blake McEdwards was born July 26, 1922, in Tulsa, Okla. The family moved to Hollywood three years later, and the boy grew up on his father’s movie sets.

Edwards began in films as an actor, playing small roles in such movies as A Guy Named Joe and Ten Gentlemen From West Point. After 18 months in the Coast Guard in World War II, he returned to acting but soon realized he lacked the talent. With John Champion, he wrote a Western, Panhandle, which he produced and acted in for the quickie studio, Monogram. He followed with Stampede.

In 1947, Edwards turned to radio and created the hard-boiled Richard Diamond, Private Detective; it was converted to television in 1957, starring David Janssen with Mary Tyler Moore as his secretary, whose face is never seen on-screen.

Tiring of the TV grind, Edwards returned to films and directed his first feature, Bring Your Smile Along. After a few more B movies which he usually co-wrote, he made the big time in 1958 with The Perfect Furlough, starring Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh, and Operation Petticoat with Cary Grant and Curtis.

Breakfast at Tiffany’s in 1961 established Edwards as a stylish director who could combine comedy with bittersweet romance. His next two films proved his versatility: the suspenseful Experiment in Terror (1962) and Days of Wine and Roses (1963), the story of a couple’s alcoholism, with Lemmon in his first dramatic role.

The Great Race, about an auto race in the early 1900s, marked Edwards’ first attempt at a big-budget spectacle. He spent Warner Bros.’ money lavishly, raising the ire of studio boss Jack Warner. The 1965 release proved a modest success.

Edwards’ disdain for the studios reached a peak in the 1970 Darling Lili, a World War I romance starring his new wife, Andrews, and Rock Hudson. The long, expensive Paris location infuriated the Paramount bosses. The movie flopped, continuing Andrews’ decline from her position as Hollywood’s No. 1 star.

For a decade, Edwards’ only hits were Pink Panther sequels. Then came 10, which he also produced and wrote. The sex comedy became a box-office winner, creating a new star in Bo Derek and restoring the director’s reputation. He scored again in 1982 with Victor/Victoria, with Andrews playing a woman who poses as a (male) female impersonator. His later films became more personal, particularly the 1986 That’s Life, which he wrote with his psychiatrist.

After Sellers’ death in 1980, Edwards attempted to keep the Pink Panther franchise alive. He wrote and directed Curse of the Pink Panther in 1983 and Son of the Pink Panther in 1993 but both were failed efforts.

A 2006 remake of the original with Steve Martin as Clouseau was modestly successful; its 2009 follow up was less so. Both had new directors, with Edwards credited as a writer.

He continued to supervise Andrews’ career, which included a short-lived television series and her 1996 return to Broadway in a $8.5 million version of Victor/Victoria. Edwards directed the show, which drew mixed reviews. When Andrews was the only one connected with the musical to be nominated for a Tony, she announced to a matinee audience that she was declining the nomination because her co-workers had been snubbed.

Andrews and Edwards married in 1968. She had a daughter, Emma, from her marriage to Broadway designer Tony Walton. Edwards had a daughter, Jennifer, and a son, Geoffrey, from his marriage to Patricia Edwards. He and Andrews adopted two Vietnamese children, Amy and Jo.

A longtime painter, Edwards began sculpting in mid-life, and his bronze works in the style of Henry Moore drew critical praise in shows in Los Angeles and Bucks County, Pa.

Edwards is survived by his wife, five children, seven grandchildren, and two great grandchildren. His family says a private memorial is planned and a public memorial will be scheduled in the new year.


Associated Press writers Bob Thomas and Sandy Cohen contributed to this story.

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From The Party, starring Peter Sellers and directed by Blake Edwards