"My work has been one of the great therapies of my life," Blake Edwards once said. "Being able to express myself and have it validated by laughter is the best of all possible worlds."
The writer-director-producer who died aged 88 on Wednesday night US time in a Santa Monica hospital from complications from pneumonia after enduring a long bout of chronic fatigue syndrome leaves the world with a formidable legacy of nearly 50 films. His wife Julie Andrews and other family members were at his side.
Although he will be best remembered for broad farces such as Victor/Victoria, the Pink Panther capers, The Great Race and What Did You Do in the War, Daddy?, his credits also included Breakfast at Tiffany's and the drama Days of Wine and Roses.
He never won an Academy Award and was nominated only once, for his Victor/Victoria screenplay, but received an honourary Oscar in 2004 for “an extraordinary body of work for the screen.”
Among the tributes which poured in from industry luminaries, Steve Martin declared, “Blake Edwards was one of the people who made me love comedy. Sorry to hear of his passing.” Roger Ebert tweeted, “He gave us Inspector Clouseau and the Perfect 10. Blake Edwards, RIP.”
Bo Derek, who starred in 10: said, “We've lost a true genius of entertainment. It was my greatest fortune, my life-changing fortune, that he believed in me. He selected me for the role which shaped everything that ever happened to me. He was a loyal friend and I will miss him and that mischievous expression that would come over his face when he was about to come up with something hilarious.”
As with many comically-gifted talents, his humorous works masked a troubled man who wrestled with his own demons. According to The Los Angeles Times, he was a lifelong depressive who spent most of his adult life in therapy.
In 2001, he decided to slit his wrists on the beach at Malibu while looking at the ocean. But while he was holding a two-sided razor, his Great Dane started licking his ear, and his retriever dropped a ball in his lap. Trying to shoo away the dog, Edwards threw the ball, dropped the razor and dislocated his shoulder. “So I think to myself,” he told The New York Times, “this just isn't a day to commit suicide.”
Born William Blake Crump in Tulsa Oklahoma, he served in the Coast Guard during WWII then tried his luck as an actor, playing bit parts in more than two dozen movies between 1942 and 1948. In the late 1940s he switched to writing, creating the Richard Diamond radio series, which starred Dick Powell as a light-hearted detective, before directing Powell in the TV anthology series Four Star Playhouse.
In 1958, he created the TV private eye series Peter Gunn, his first collaboration with composer Henry Mancini, who subsequently wrote the scores for most of his movies over the next 30 years.
As a director his first break-out hit was Operation Petticoat, a 1959 comedy about a WWII submarine crew starring Gary Grant and Tony Curtis. In 1961, his sophisticated rom-com Breakfast at Tiffany's earned a best actress Academy Award nomination for Audrey Hepburn and an Oscar for the song Moon River.
Edwards teamed up with Curtis again in The Great Race (1965) and worked with Peter Sellers as the bumbling Inspector Clouseau in five Pink Panther movies including The Pink Panther (1963) and A Shot in the Dark (1964), plus The Party (1968).
After his first marriage to actress Patricia Walker ended, he wed Julie Andrews in 1969. Their first joint effort, espionage musical Darling Lili (1970), was an unmitigated commercial and critical disaster, but they worked successfully in the scathing Hollywood satire S.O.B. (1981), in which Andrews cast off her goody-two-shoes image by appearing topless, and the cross-dressing comedy Victor/Victoria (1982).
After bitter confrontations with studio bosses during the production of Wild Rivers (1971) and The Carey Treatment (1972), Edwards and Andrews went into self-imposed exile in Gstaad, Switzerland, before he made a successful comeback with 10 in 1979.
When he received his honourary Oscar, he saluted "friends and foes alike,” wryly observing, “I couldn't have done it without the foes."
Besides his wife, he's survived by two children from his first marriage, two Vietnamese orphans he adopted with Andrews and her stepdaughter.
Image © AMPAS