by PETER TATCHELL (copyright 2011)
Arguably Peter Sellers’ greatest achievement on film, the adventures of Inspector Jacques Clouseau are perhaps the finest examples of screen slapstick since the movies learned to talk (or at least since Stan and Ollie parted ways with Hal Roach). A laugh-out-loud mixture of clumsiness, verbal gymnastics and cleverly crafted stunts.
But though the character will forever be identified with Sellers, the part has actually been portrayed by at least three other actors and Peter doesn’t appear in nearly half the productions that form the series collectively known as The Pink Panther.
The driving force behind the venture (until its revival in recent years) was director Blake Edwards and it was his behind-the-scenes creativity coupled with Sellers’ inspired interpretation that resulted in the success of the movies.
And despite being featured in the title of all but two of the films, the Pink Panther is of course not a character at all, but a precious diamond stolen by the villain of the piece in the first film (and has only a tenuous link to most of the subsequent instalments). An animated feline bearing the name also enlivened the various credit sequences (to the accompaniment of Henry Mancini’s legendary theme tune) and has also been featured in a separate series of popular cartoons.
But centre of attention is the inept French policeman, though in his first appearance he has a supporting role in the proceedings. The original choice for the part was Peter Ustinov, but he departed just before cameras started rolling, amid a cloud of litigation. Producers hurriedly signed Peter Sellers to replace him and director Blake Edwards soon realized they both shared a passion for the early days of the movies and a physical style of comedy. Filming of the Clouseau scenes began to take a more improvisational approach as both director and actor contributed to the performance.
The Pink Panther was ostensibly about a notorious jewel thief, played by David Niven, who makes off with the priceless gem and is pursued by the authorities. But, in Hollywood parlance, the resulting film was in fact stolen by the Clouseau character, with everyone else taking second place to his bumbling antics.
Though critics were not particularly enthusiastic, the public was delighted and the movie was a hit.
Some months later when Sellers was finding himself unable to work with his current director, he invited Edwards to take the helm of the comedy murder mystery. He agreed, but on the proviso that Peter played his role as Clouseau … the film was A Shot in the Dark.
This time, the detective has to solve a shooting at the country mansion of millionaire Benjamin Ballon, played by George Sanders. (It’s interesting to note that one of Sellers’ main Goon Show voices Hercules Gryptype-Thynne was in fact based on Sanders). Follow-up killings lead the Inspector to visit several Parisian nightspots and investigate the goings on (and comings off) at a nearby nudist resort.
The film is notable for introducing several supporting characters who would become mainstays of the many subsequent revivals … Clouseau’s increasingly frazzled superior Chief Inspector Dreyfus (Herbert Lom), his assistant Francois (Andre Maranne) and houseboy/martial arts sparring partner Cato (Burt Kwouk), Also involved were acting friends Graham Stark and David Lodge, who would appear in several later Panther films in various roles and actor/director Bryan Forbes (billed in the credits as Turk Thrust).
Both Clouseau movies did big business for United Artists and they were eager for more but a serious rift had developed between director and star midway through filming. As a result Edwards announced he was no longer willing to work with Sellers (who had also suffered a series of major heart attacks soon after the film’s release).
Upon his eventual recovery, Bud Yorkin was signed to direct the proposed Inspector Clouseau, but now Sellers refused to take part, citing creative differences with the new production team. American actor Alan Arkin took over the role and filming began, again in Britain.
This time, the Frenchman is summoned to England to help thwart another heist by the criminals behind the Great Train Robbery, but the resulting movie lacked the sparkle of the two earlier efforts and was not nearly as financially successful.
By the late-1960s Sellers and Edwards patched up their differences and agreed to work on a largely improvised venture called The Party. This time the pair enjoyed a less volatile relationship but, though having some marvellous moments, the film wasn’t a hit.
In fact both parties were having trouble finding favour with the movie-going public at the time, and by the mid-1970s were suffering severe career slumps. Edwards decided to approach TV mogul Lew Grade and suggest he acquire the rights to the (now also ailing) Clouseau character and produce a television series spinoff. Grade liked the idea, but had to be further convinced when (Blake’s real motive) a new feature film was pitched to him.
Happily the go-ahead was given and The Return of the Pink Panther reunited the mainstays of A Shot in the Dark. This time, the core group of Sellers/Lom/Kwouk/Maranne (with Stark and Lodge in new roles) were joined by Christopher Plummer and Catherine Schell, taking over the roles previously played by David Niven and Capucine in the original film. Also present was music by Henry Mancini and the popular animated opening credits.
For his third interpretation of Clouseau, Peter added a quirkily exaggerated French pronunciation and became involved in even wilder slapstick sequences. The plot had to do with yet another theft of the unlucky gem, though it appears this time the Phantom may not be responsible.
The film saw a welcome return to the success of the first two outings and things were apparently quite harmonious behind the scenes. A year later the team was back for more of the same with The Pink Panther Strikes Again, though (apart from the cartoon credits) the panther itself had little relevance to the proceedings. In fact, this time the villain is none other than Chief Inspector Dreyfus who has finally gone over the edge and escaped from an insane asylum to threaten the world with a dastardly Bond-like laser weapon. The series was back on course, but things were once again strained off-camera with Edwards finding it harder and harder to cope with his star’s eccentricities.
By the late 1970s, Peter Sellers’ health was again becoming a problem and a pacemaker had to be fitted to maintain his severely-weakened heart. Revenge of the Pink Panther, with a plot involving mafia plans to target Clouseau himself, relied on additional outlandish stunts not requiring the actor to participate.
The escapade still found a loyal audience at the box office despite more behind the scenes trauma, with Edwards and Sellers once again vowing they would never work together again.
In fact Peter then decided to set up his own Clouseau project with a different director, to be titled Romance of the Pink Panther, but it was not to be. Before scheduled heart bypass surgery could take place, Sellers collapsed and died in London in July 1980.
But Inspector Jacques Clouseau (and the series of Pink Panther films) lived on.
Three years later, Blake Edwards was back on the scene with two Panther productions, filmed concurrently. Gathering cast members Lom, Kwouk, Maranne, Stark and original players David Niven, Robert Wagner and Capucine, his first venture was to link a number of Sellers out-takes with newly filmed footage.
The Trail of the Pink Panther begins with a number of unused scenes shot for the previous two excursions, leading up to the detective suddenly vanishing (just when the out-takes run out). The rest of the movie follows a TV reporter (played by Joanna Lumley) who profiles the missing Clouseau by interviewing his associates and his aged father (played by Richard Mulligan, from TV’s Soap).
The follow-up movie The Curse of the Pink Panther sees a young, but similarly accident-prone, Clifton Sleigh of the New York Police (Ted Wass, also from Soap) investigating the disappearance and attempting to locate the missing detective. Eventually we find the subject of his pursuit has undergone plastic surgery (to elude the mafia) and now appears the spitting image of the actor Roger Moore. The credits list Turk Thrust II as playing the part.
Neither movie was particularly successful and Edwards was annoyed that M.G.M. did little at promoting the latter film, which he thought deserved better.
Despite this, ten years later he was back directing and writing yet another instalment, Son of the Pink Panther, with Italian Roberto Benigni portraying Clouseau’s illegitimate and clumsy offspring, a policeman who is caught up in kidnapping caper. In addition to regulars Lom, Kwouk and Stark, Claudia Cardinale (from the original film) appears in the proceedings, with Robert Davi as the villain of the piece.
It was the last throw of the dice for Blake Edwards and, while the picture had some funny moments, it didn’t lead to any Benigni sequels.
But still, Clouseau wouldn’t go away.
A dozen years later, inveterate master of the remake Steve Martin decided to take on the role in a movie in which he’d not only star, but would also co-script. The Pink Panther (2006 version) brought together a new director, Shawn Levy, and an entirely new cast. In the role of the perpetually-exasperated Dreyfus was Kevin Kline, Jean Reno appeared as Clouseau’s offsider Gilbert Ponton, and Emily Mortimer was seen as the devoted secretary at the Surete.
(As with his earlier remodelling of the Sergeant Bilko role) Martin created a new take on a part strongly identified with another actor. His Clouseau doesn’t abandon the Sellers’ created characteristics of speech and movement (not to mention trenchcoat), but adds his own interpretation. And it should be noted the movie is aimed primarily at a new generation of moviegoers, many of whom would not even be familiar with the earlier films.
This time, Clouseau and co. are assigned to solve the murder of a famous tennis player and current owner of the legendary diamond, which has again been stolen.
The result was successful enough at the box office (and for the ancillary DVD market) to lead to a sequel three years later, The Pink Panther 2.
Martin, along with director Levy and actors Reno and Mortimer, were joined by John Cleese (as Dreyfus) in a plot about a group of international detectives combating a wave of art thefts. Alfred Molina and Andy Garcia played British and Italian members of the team, and Lily Tomlin appeared in an amusing cameo.
Whert next for the redoubtable Jacques Clouseau? Who knerz?
The Pink Panther (1963, 114 min)
David Niven, Peter Sellers, Robert Wagner, Capucine, Claudia Cardinale, Brenda de Banzie, Colin Gordon, John Le Mesurier, Fran Jeffries
A Shot in the Dark (1964, 101 min)
Peter Sellers, Elke Sommer, George Sanders, Herbert Lom, Tracy Reed, Graham Stark, Andre Maranne, Douglas Wilmer, Martin Benson, Burt Kwouk, David Lodge
Inspector Clouseau (1968, 96 min)
Alan Arkin, Delia Boccardo, Frank Finlay, Patrick Cargill, Beryl Reid, Barry Foster, Clive Francis, Wallas Eaton, David Bauer
The Return of the Pink Panther (1975, 113 min)
Peter Sellers, Christopher Plummer, Catherine Schell, Herbert Lom, Burt Kwouk, Peter Arne, Gregoire Aslan, Graham Stark, Peter Jeffrey, David Lodge, Eric Pohlmann, Andre Maranne, John Bluthal, Victor Spinetti, Peter Jones
The Pink Panther Strikes Again (1976, 103 min)
Peter Sellers, Herbert Lom, Colin Blakely, Leonard Rossiter, Lesley Ann Down, Andre Maranne, Burt Kwouk, Marne Maitland, Richard Vernon, Michael Robbins
Revenge of the Pink Panther (1978, 100 min)
Peter Sellers,. Herbert Lom, Dyan Cannon, Robert Webber, Burt Kwouk, Paul Stewart, Robert Loggia, Graham Stark, Andre Maranne, Sue Lloyd
The Trail of the Pink Panther (1983, 96 min)
Peter Sellers, David Niven, Herbert Lom, Richard Mulligan, Joanna Lumley, Capucine, Robert Loggia, Harvey Korman, Burt Kwouk, Graham Stark, Andre Maranne, Ronald Fraser
The Curse of the Pink Panther (1983, 110 min)
Ted Wass, David Niven, Robert Wagner, Herbert Lom, Joanna Lumley, Capucine, Robert Loggia, Harvey Korman, Burt Kwouk, Graham Stark, Andre Maranne
Son of the Pink Panther (1993, 93 min)
Roberto Benigni, Herbert Lom, Robert Davi, Debrah Farentino, Claudia Cardinale, Burt Kwouk, Graham Stark, Shabana Azmi
The Pink Panther (2006, 93 min)
Steve Martin, Kevin Kline, Beyonce Knowles, Jean Reno, Emily Mortimer, Henry Czerny
The Pink Panther 2 (2009, 88 min)
Steve Martin, John Cleese, Jean Reno, Alfred Molina, Andy Garcia, Lily Tomlin, Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, Emily Mortimer
All eleven movies have been released
PETER SELLERS: A FILM HISTORY
by Michael Starr (McFarland, 1991)