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Movies : Is There Ruhm for Another? : Blake Edwards attempts to revive the once hugely successful 'Pink Panther' series, but will a new generation fall for an Italian comedian playing the son of the bumbling Clouseau?

August 22, 1993|JACK MATHEWS | Jack Mathews is the film critic for Newsday. and

It has been nearly 30 years since Peter Ustinov walked away from a role in a Blake Edwards picture and inadvertently cleared the way for one of the most successful comedy series in movie history. Ustinov had agreed to play the part of Jacques Clouseau, the bumbling French inspector Edwards and co-writer Maurice Richlin had written into their diamond caper comedy "The Pink Panther." But days before production was to begin, he changed his mind.

"We had sets built and everything, we had to find another actor fast," Edwards recalled, recently. "Our only alternative was to sue Ustinov, and that would have been non-productive."

For the Clouseau fans among us, it is hard to think of anyone other than Peter Sellers playing him, but it was fate born of desperation.

"I didn't know much about Sellers," Edwards said. "He had finished 'Dr. Strangelove,' but it wasn't released yet, and the only thing I'd seen him in was 'I'm All Right Jack.' He was this pudgy Englishman speaking cockney. When someone suggested him, I thought, 'He doesn't remind me of the character.' But we were desperate, so I said, 'Get him in, let's do it.' "

Since they got him in and did it, the Clouseau movies have grossed more than $300 million worldwide, made an international star of Sellers, and turned the series' insouciant, animated pink mascot into a merchandising phenomenon.

There have been a long-running "Pink Panther" TV cartoon series; an endless variety of Panther dolls, clothing, puzzles, comic books, video games and food stuffs, and the character often hires out for corporate work. He has been the official spokesman for Owens-Corning in the United States for 14 years, and IBM-Europe, looking for an equally recognizable image, picked the panther to replace Charlie Chaplin in its advertising.

But the driving force for the franchise, of course, has always been the movie series, and, like a pop star going on tour to boost album sales, the Pink Panther is returning to the big screen, appearing in the opening and closing credits of "Son of the Pink Panther."

The new Clouseau movie, the eighth overall, the first in 10 years, and the third since Sellers' death in 1980, stars Italian actor-comedian Roberto Benigni as Jacques Clouseau's illegitimate son, a hyperkinetic bicycle cop who inherited his father's genes for studied incompetence and mangled syntax.

Benigni is a huge star in Italy, and though he uses some of Sellers' Clouseauisms, his is a much broader and more physical comedy performance. Sellers' Clouseau was uptight and comically disoriented; Benigni's Clouseau Jr. is an amiable clown, vulnerable and unself-consciously scattered.

Edwards tried to perpetuate the series with a new character before, in the 1983 "Curse of the Pink Panther," and failed, largely because Sellers fans would not accept a substitute. The panther merchandise continued to move--an MGM/UA executive said there have never been fewer than 160 licensees--but how strong the cat will be in the next century may depend entirely on whether moviegoers are ready for a second-generation Clouseau.

For those unfamiliar with the Clouseau series, it began in 1964 with "The Pink Panther," which Edwards synopsizes as "a story about a police inspector whose wife is sleeping with the jewel thief he's trying to catch." The thief was played by a suave David Niven and Clouseau's wife by Capucine.

That was followed the same year by "A Shot in the Dark," the only Clouseau movie not involving the theft of the museum diamond called the Pink Panther, because of the panther-shaped flaw at its center. The movie was adapted from a French play, and Edwards, who was brought in as a last-minute replacement for Anatole Litvak, merely substituted Clouseau for one of the main characters. And Sellers, who had already been cast in the movie, responded with the defining Clouseau performance.

Eleven years later, when both Edwards and Sellers needed career boosts, they teamed up for "The Return of the Pink Panther," followed in 1976 by "The Pink Panther Strikes Again," and in 1978 by "Revenge of the Pink Panther."

Two years after Sellers' death, Edwards assembled a film crew and shot two movies simultaneously, "The Trail . . . " and "The Curse of the Pink Panther," the first intended as an homage to Sellers, the second as a vehicle for introducing a new character into the series.

Neither film was successful. Many people were offended by the use of outtakes and clips of Sellers from previous "Panther" movies in "Trail," which followed a makeshift story about a reporter trying to find the missing Clouseau. And they were appalled at the idea of using Ted Wass' bumbling New York cop, Clifton Sligh, as a Clouseau soul mate in "Curse."

Edwards acknowledges having miscast Wass, an amiable actor with no gift for physical comedy, in the "Curse," but it's doubtful anyone could have stepped in that soon after Sellers' death and found acceptance.

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