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Blake Edwards is a born storyteller

The writer-director will receive an honorary Oscar
/ Source: The Associated Press

Several weeks ago, when motion picture academy President Frank Pierson telephoned Blake Edwards with some “good news,” the filmmaker said, “Wait — tell Julie first.”

He handed the telephone to his wife, Julie Andrews, who listened and then shrieked with joy. The academy’s Board of Governors had voted Edwards an honorary award for his remarkable career.

Edwards’ reaction: “Thank God we can now balance the bookcase.” Andrews won as best actress in 1964 for her first film, “Mary Poppins.”

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is notorious for slighting comedy in the major categories and giving honorary awards as compensation. Examples: Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, Buster Keaton, Stan Laurel, Groucho Marx.

Edwards’ credits include such comedies as “Operation Petticoat,” “The Great Race,” “10” and the “Pink Panther” movies — “but I hope the academy is not rewarding me for just comedies,” remarks Edwards, who wrote or co-wrote most of his films. Some of his non-comedies: “Days of Wine and Roses,” “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” “Experiment in Terror.”

Edwards and Andrews live a block off Brentwood’s main drag in a cottage hidden from the outside world by high hedges. The house is sandwiched between two lush gardens with velvet lawns, blooming azaleas, geraniums and other flowers. “That’s Julie’s work,” her husband says proudly.

The interior is cozy and devoid of ostentation. After a few minutes, Edwards enters, hobbling with a cane, his still-boyish face resembling a losing boxer’s.

“I came around a corner, slipped on a rug and went flying,” he explains. He’s been hiding out ever since, though he did attend the Oscar nominees’ luncheon a few weeks ago. Andrews brought her makeup artist from Disney studio to make him presentable.

A passion for writingEdwards, 81, who continues to write scripts, comes from a family of movie people — his grandfather directed silent films and his father was a production manager. Blake hung out on his father’s sets as a kid and occasionally got acting jobs. Later he played small roles in big films, but his heart wasn’t in it.

“I was told I was a good actor, but I wouldn’t work at it,” he says. “I was making some money and having a good time.”

His real passion was writing. He started in grammar school and blossomed in high school when a sympathetic teacher encouraged him. Years later, a girlfriend showed him a radio script she had written. “I can do better than that,” the young Edwards said. She showed his rewrite to the radio producer, who became his agent and found him steady employment.

Edwards ascended from radio to television to movies, first writing scripts for Columbia Pictures, then directing. When Columbia boss Harry Cohn fired him in a sudden pique, Edwards moved to Universal, where he directed “Operation Petticoat,” starring Cary Grant and Tony Curtis.

“It almost finished me,” Edwards says with a grimace. “Grant had control of the movie; he owned the negative. It was a terrible experience for me — except it was a great experience because it shot me right up into the A group.”

The problem: Grant was going through his LSD period, Edwards says, so “it was like talking to a crazy man.” The climax came when the company was filming on a real submarine at a base in Florida. Star and director, at opposite ends of the ship, shouted at each other. Edwards kept advancing toward Grant, and the whole crew expected a fistfight.

“As I was halfway to Cary, I was picked up by four or five stuntmen and carried to the side and hand over hand was dropped into a fishing boat,” he recalls. The stuntmen ended up taking him out to sea and getting him drunk.

The next day, Blake returned to the set with a fierce hangover and managed to complete the film without incident. “And Grant made more money on the film than any other,” he adds.

Sellers the schizophrenic
About Peter Sellers, Inspector Clouseau of the “Pink Panther” movies:

“He was schizophrenic, certifiable. He called me up at night after he had trouble with a scene. He said, ‘Blake, I know how to do that scene. I just spoke to God, and He told me how to do it.’ I said, ‘Okay, Peter, I’ll see you on the set.’

“The next morning Peter did his God interpretation. He came over to me and said, ’Well?’ ... I said, ‘Peter, will you do me a favor? The next time that God speaks to you, would you tell Her to stay out of show business.”’

Having been an actor himself, if only halfheartedly, Blake got along with most actors he directed — including Andrews, who he’s directed in seven films.

“I’m a terrible person to get along with,” he admits, “but I have some rather good qualities when it comes to human endeavor or relationships, like a marriage.”

Over the years Edwards gained the reputation of a battler with studio bosses, which was the genesis of his film “S.O.B.” He appears proud of the accusation. “The whole movie business is based on avarice and greed,” he maintains.

He gleefully relates his squabbles with Robert Evans, then production chief at Paramount, and James Aubrey, head of MGM.

He invited Evans to step outside and settle the quarrel with fists. Evans declined. He threatened to crawl across Aubrey’s desk and beat him up. Edwards smiles and mutters, “In those days I could do it.”