A New Inspector Calls

The Evening Standard (London, England), February 23, 2006 | Go to article overview

A New Inspector Calls


Byline: ED COLLEY

Steve Martin has dared to take on the role of the bumbling Clouseau - and, he says, without stealing anything from Peter Sellers's original WHY on earth did he risk it, I ask Steve Martin.

"Well I turned the role down in my head about three times and officially about twice," he replies drily. He's talking about the wisdom of accepting his latest role: that of the bungling Inspector Clouseau, a part which Peter Sellers made his own in the Sixties. "We've had a lot of people attack the fact that I was taking on the role," he continues, "no one had the confidence we could do it."

Released next month, The Pink Panther brings the inspector back to the screen and makes no bones about its origins. The familiar pink cartoon character appears in a lengthy credit sequence accompanied by Henry Mancini's incomparable theme tune. The film takes Clouseau - and us - back to his beginnings in a prequel of sorts. We meet the bumbling policeman as he is plucked from obscurity in southern France by Chief Inspector Dreyfus (Kevin Kline) to solve the murder of a French soccer coach and the theft of the priceless Pink Panther diamond.

Astonishingly, Martin's Clouseau really does succeed in erasing some of the memory of Peter Sellers. His inspector is less pompous, less stupid and more endearing. There's a dash of David Suchet's Poirot, as well as a sweet romantic subplot with Emily Mortimer.

This Inspector Clouseau is vulnerable.

And he wears a beret, not a brown hat.

It's a featherweight film which was expected to be a disaster. Who, after all, wants to see Clouseau played by anyone but Peter Sellers? But Martin makes it work and the farcical set pieces are undeniably amusing. Audiences have flocked to see the movie and it is one of the year's surprise hits in the US with a box office gross of more than $50 million and counting.

It's faintly disappointing that, in person, Steve Martin is not a particularly funny man. Indeed, he comes across as intensely serious about his craft. He's extremely self-possessed, verging on the smug. He gets up to some of the silliest slapstick seen on screens for some time in The Pink Panther, but Martin, now 60, feels no need to grandstand or perform in interviews. Dressed in a smart black suit and tie-less striped green shirt, the silver-haired comedian is not unpleasant when I meet him in Los Angeles, he's just not as, well, funny as I was expecting.

He had to think very seriously about taking on the role, he tells me; Blake Edwards, the director of all Sellers's Clouseau movies, was "not a fan" of the remake idea. But the director, Shawn Levy, who had worked with Martin on Cheaper by the Dozen, was determined to get him on board and, eventually, the actor crumbled: "I started discussing the idea with Shawn and I had a few ideas for the script and slowly we got our confidence up."

To make it a work, it was vital that Martin made Clouseau his own. "I didn't want to steal anything from Peter," he says. "I think the only thing I did that he did was karate chop once, half-heartedly, but I was careful about it and I felt after a while that it was coming from me and not channeling Peter."

Martin co-wrote the screenplay, or, he corrects, rewrote the existing screenplay, creating many of the showpieces and throwaway moments in the new film himself - not to mention his own uniquely stylised French accent.

There is one side-splitting scene in which he is trying to learn how to say "I would like to buy a hamburger" with a language coach to prepare for a trip to New York. Martin goes headto-head with Sellers on the absurd accent and comes up with a different, equally funny interpretation.

"I wrote that line about 25 times in the script," he explains, without cracking a smile. "I knew that when you read it, there was nothing amusing about it. I just hoped it was funny when I did it. …

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