Fifty-eight years after THE PINK PANTHER premiered in Italy on Dec. 18, 1963, it’s remembered mostly for its animated opening titles character, who people think was the jewel thief Peter Sellers hunted as Inspector Clouseau.
Actually, the thief was The Phantom/Sir Charles Lytton and was played by David Niven. The Pink Panther was the priceless diamond he’d stolen — so named because while staring into its center a flaw could be seen that resembled a leaping panther. Originally, Niven was to have been the film’s star. The smaller role of Clouseau was to have been played by Peter — not Sellers, but Ustinov. Ava Gardner was to have played his wife, Simone, who cheated on him with Lytton.
Gardner quit when the producers wouldn’t hire the personal staff she demanded. Her exit also sent Ustinov packing. Director Blake Edwards, who’d made 1962 hit THE DAYS OF WINE AND ROSES, wanted to replace Gardner with Janet Leigh. But she declined because PINK was filming in Italy and that would have kept her away from home too long. The role went to Capucine, who’d been in 1962’s WALK ON THE WILD SIDE, for which Edwards shot some uncredited additional scenes.
Edwards cast Sellers to play Clouseau. Sellers was best known for the 1962 drama LOLITA and for his many English comedies, including Richard Lester’s 1959 short THE RUNNING JUMPING & STANDING STILL FILM, which later inspired The Beatles to have Lester direct their 1964 movie debut A HARD DAY’S NIGHT.
When production began, Edwards shot many takes with his actors improvising. Sellers was great at improv and stole so many scenes that Edwards turned his supporting role into the starring role. Niven’s displeasure over that change was clear at a later Oscar ceremony when he asked that PINK’s famous theme by Henry Mancini not be his entrance music, explaining, “That was not really my film.”
It was, however, a film moviegoers loved. After opening in the U.S. on March 18, 1964, via United Artists, it did nearly $11 million, a sizable total then. It spawned nine sequels from 1963-93 plus two reboot sequels in 2006 & 2009. PINK’s animated Panther, designed by Hawley Pratt & Friz Freleng, wasn’t seen in the movie, itself, but was in the titles for all but two of the films. However, the Panther starred in his own theatrical cartoon series — starting with THE PINK PHINK, which won the short subject/cartoons, Oscar, in 1965 — and also had a Saturday morning TV series from 1969-80.