Blake Edwards, a writer-director who battled depression in his personal life yet was known as a modern master of slapstick and sophisticated wit with hit films such as the "Pink Panther" comedies, "10" and "Breakfast at Tiffany's," has died. He was 88.
Edwards died of complications of pneumonia Wednesday evening at St. John's Health Center in Santa Monica, said Gene Schwam, Edwards' longtime publicist. His wife, Julie Andrews, and members of the immediate family were at his bedside.
Film historian Jeanine Basinger, head of the film studies program at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn., said Edwards is "at the absolute top of comedy filmmaking."
"His movie comedies wed the American traditions of physical slapstick and sophisticated, witty dialogue," Basinger told The Times in 2003. "But he also knows how to be funny cinematically through cutting, camera movement and framing. So he's a consummate comedy film director."
Edwards, who suffered from what he called "monstrous" depression throughout his life and at one point contemplated suicide, found release in making movies.
"My work has been one of the great therapies of my life," he told GQ in 1989. "Being able to express myself and have it validated by laughter is the best of all possible worlds."
During a more than five-decade career, it was as co-writer and director of "The Pink Panther" and "A Shot in the Dark" (both released in 1964), starring Peter Sellers as the bumbling French police inspector, Clouseau, that Edwards earned his reputation for bringing slapstick and sight gags into the modern era.
Writer Maurice Richlin approached Edwards with the idea for a French inspector of police trying to catch a notorious jewel thief, and they collaborated on the script for "The Pink Panther."
A reviewer for Variety called the film "intensely funny" and praised Sellers as Clouseau, saying he was "perfectly suited as a clumsy cop who can hardly move a foot without smashing a vase or open a door without hitting himself on the head."
Sam Wasson, author of the 2009 book "A Splurch in the Kisser: The Movies of Blake Edwards," said Edwards "has as many films that are respected as films that are reviled."
"He hasn't quite made it into the pantheon of great directors," Wasson said. "People don't really know where to place Blake Edwards because so much of his material is outwardly goofy, even though it's sophisticated."
And although Edwards had as many flops as hits, Wasson said, "I position him along the line of Hollywood's greatest directors of comedy, beginning with [ Charlie] Chaplin and continuing with [ Ernst] Lubitsch, [ Preston] Sturges and [ Billy] Wilder.
"He was certainly the last great writer-director of mainstream Hollywood comedy."
A onetime minor movie actor who began writing for films and radio in the late 1940s and a decade later created the TV series "Peter Gunn" and "Mr. Lucky," Edwards launched his big-screen directing career in 1955.
He scored his first box-office hit with "Operation Petticoat," a 1959 comedy about a World War II submarine crew starring Cary Grant and Tony Curtis. But a turning point in Edwards' film career came in 1961 with "Breakfast at Tiffany's."
The sophisticated romantic comedy- drama based on the Truman Capote novella earned Audrey Hepburn an Academy Award nomination for best actress. Composer Henry Mancini also won an Oscar for his score, and he and Johnny Mercer won Oscars for their memorable song "Moon River."
Edwards tackled darker fare in 1962 by directing the thriller "Experiment in Terror" and "Days of Wine and Roses," a grim drama about a young couple ( Jack Lemmon and Lee Remick) battling alcoholism. But in the '60s he also directed such comedies as "The Great Race," "What Did You Do in the War, Daddy?" and "The Party."
As a director, Edwards had a career marked by his share of box-office failures, including "Darling Lili," the notoriously over-budget 1970 musical World War I spy film that marked his first collaboration with Andrews, whom he had married in 1969.