The new face of Clouseau

Steve Martin has big shoes to fill in his latest role as the clumsy but endearingly inept Inspector Jacques Clouseau in the slapstick comedy “The Pink Panther,” which opens Friday.

It was the late great Peter Sellers who made the role of Clouseau famous in Blake Edwards’ classic 1964 comedy “The Pink Panther” and in four subsequent films, 1964’s “A Shot in the Dark,” 1975’s “The Return of the Pink Panther,” 1976’s “The Pink Panther Strikes Again,” and 1978’s “Revenge of the Pink Panther.”

Edwards even “resurrected” Sellers two years after the actor’s 1980 death for “Trail of the Pink Panther,” by cobbling together outtakes and unused footage from “The Pink Panther Strikes Again,” with stand-ins used in long shots.

The result was more creepy than funny.


Although Martin is one of cinema’s acclaimed contemporary clowns and a master of the pratfall, Clouseau purists may be crying “mon Dieu” that he is stepping into the iconoclastic role.

Shortly after it was announced that Martin would be reviving the “Panther” franchise, Edwards said in a December 2003 interview with The Times: “Why put himself in competition with Sellers? He’s not even going to come close to Sellers. He may do something great on his own. That I don’t know. He is not going to be Clouseau.”

But Martin isn’t the only actor who would be Clouseau. In fact, Peter Ustinov was Edwards’ first choice to play the bumbler in the original caper comedy. When Ustinov pulled out, Edwards cast Sellers, who was well known in England for such films as “The Ladykillers” and “I’m All Right Jack” but not a familiar face to American audiences.

When Sellers decided to pass on 1968’s “Inspector Clouseau,” directed by Bud Yorkin, Alan Arkin was tapped to play the Frenchman with the indecipherable accent. Arkin was no stranger to comedy -- he had received a best actor Oscar nomination for 1966’s “The Russians Are Coming! The Russians Are Coming!” -- but even Arkin couldn’t save the critical blunder that resulted.

Ted Wass of “Soap” fame was the next actor Edwards chose to play a bumbling detective in 1983’s “Curse of the Pink Panther.” Though he didn’t portray Clouseau -- the character was named Sgt. Clifton Sleigh -- there were high hopes that the character would be spun off into his own series. Instead, this “Pink Panther” was cursed at the box office and with the critics.

Ten years later, Edwards dusted off the franchise again with “Son of the Pink Panther,” starring a pre-"Life Is Beautiful” Roberto Benigni as Clouseau’s son, Gendarme Jacques Gambrelli. “Son of the Pink Panther” grossed just $2.4 million at the box office. It was Edwards’ last feature film.

-- Susan King