John Cawley interviews David DePatie about the creation and evolution of the Pink Panther.
David DePaties animation career was concentrated on commercial work until he received a fortuitous call from director Blake Edwards.
The Pink Panther is clearly a phenomenon in the world of animation. He sprung to life as an animated title sequence for Blake Edwards The Pink Panther in 1964. While other animation studios had decided theatrical cartoons were extinct, the Panthers theatrical short debut ended up winning an Academy Award. After a healthy theatrical life, the Panther moved into TV with expected grace and ease becoming a staple of series and specials. In true superstar fashion, piles of merchandise and sponsor endorsements followed.
Now at 40, he is back in his full theatrical glory thanks to an amazing DVD set (The Pink Panther Collection, MGM Home Ent.). Along with five feature films, which offer some great animated main title sequences, there is a special disc containing four Pink Panther theatrical shorts as well as a mini-documentary on the creation of the Pink Panther animated character.
AWN recently spoke with one of the Panthers fathers, David DePatie. Having had an interest in advertising and animation, DePatie started work at Warner Bros. as a film editor on features. When Warners opened up a TV commercial division, he joined it.
Since a number of the commercials were animated, DePatie began working with the animation department. Soon, DePatie was asked to handle animation as well as commercials. I said of course, as I knew most of the animation talent already from having done commercials with them. As luck would have it, though, one year later Im called to New York to meet the studios board of directors. They told me that the studio was getting out of the animation business and gave me a year to wrap up any productions currently in the pipeline. It seems the studio felt it had more than enough shorts.
DePatie decided it might be time to go into business for himself. I knew the commercial end, and the writing end. What I wanted was an animation director. DePatie had worked with all the Warner directors at that time, Jones, McKimson, etc., but his first choice was Friz Freleng. Friz Freleng was a genius in his own right. He had a sense of timing that nobody I ever worked with could come near.
In the beginning, DePatie-Freleng existed on mostly TV commercials. They worked on Charlie Tuna, Post Cereals, Exxon (the tiger) and Gilette razors (Sharpy). It all changed when DePatie got a call from Edwards.
I knew Blake Edwards from my days at Warner Bros., remembered DePatie. One day he calls me up and asks for a me to drop by his place. I go over and he hands me a script, The Pink Panther, and said I feel I have to have an animated character of a pink panther. Could you design one?
I put our whole crew on it and we came up with over 100 designs. I took them over to Blakes home and spread them all out around the floor. Blake walked around the drawings for a while and suddenly pointed to one. This is the one I want. Edwards had chosen a drawing by Hawley Pratt of a pink panther sitting with a cigarette holder in his hand. Edwards began using the illustration on letterhead and cards and such.
We thought, that was that, and went back to our commercials, DePatie continued. Several months later, I get another call from Edwards. This time, he tells me that he wants an animated main title of the character playing around with all the names in the credit. He wanted it fully animated. We went right to work.
That main title sequence reportedly stole the show, despite the fact that the original film is a classic, hilarious bedroom farce. The superstar cast included David Niven, Robert Wagner, and Peter Sellers in his debut as Inspector Clouseau. However, no amount of sly innuendo, funny dialogue and outrageous slapstick could detract from the laugh-out-loud main title sequence. DePatie stated at one of the first screenings the audience was laughing so much, the projectionist stopped the film after the titles so the crowd could settle and watch the film!
All of the Panthers shenanigans were done to Henry Mancinis, now classic, title theme. His title music to the Pink Panther is one of the most recognizable themes in film history. Mancini even appeared in one Panther short, Pink, Plunk, Plink.
DePatie recalled, I thought that maybe theres life after the titles. I pitched the idea of doing some shorts with the character. United Artists, the releasing company, fully agreed and wanted 156 shorts over a four to five year period!
I talked it over with Friz and told him, You know, all those years at Warners, all we ever did was collect a salary. Since this was our company, I wanted a better deal. DePatie went back and said they would do the shorts, but that DePatie-Freleng wanted part of the copyright. To their surprise, [David] Mirisch and Edwards agreed!
When the new studio began staffing up, they had the good fortune of doing so just as other studios were downsizing. If you took a photo of the Warner Bros. studio in its final days, and a photo of our studio in the beginning, it would almost look like the same photo, stated DePatie.
The challenge over the years was to keep Panther sleek and feline.
The team included Pratt, whose original design of the Panther had been chosen by Edwards. Pratt, a top layout artist during the classic days of Warners co-directed a number of shorts with Freleng and Chuck Jones and later directed numerous Panther shorts.
Another key member was writer John Dunn. A former Disney story man, Dunn joined Warner Bros. in the early 1960s. Dunn was the best writer to put pen to paper in animation, recalled DePatie, and I had worked with some of the greats at Warners. He was the master Panther writer. Key to the Panther shorts was keeping them sophisticated, not silly. DePatie and crew wanted the shorts clearly aimed at adults, not children.
Another deserving mention is Art Leonardi, a talented animator from the Panthers theatrical era. In an early interview, Leonardi commented The problem with [the Panther] is to keep him loose and not let him get dumpy to keep him so that hes a catlike character. Leonardi contributed some scripts and even directed one of the Panthers main title sequences.
Though much has been made that the Panther never talked, that is not true. In several shorts the Panther does talk. Freleng later recalled, We tried several voices with him, but nothing ever worked. Actually, since he was originally created for a main title and didnt speak, there wasnt any reason for him to ever speak.
The Panthers theatrical debut as a star, The Pink Phink, set the style that was to succeed for four decades. The short, directed by Freleng, was enormously successful and ended up taking home the Oscar for best animated short subject.
Winning the Oscar was monumental, but, stated DePatie, I think it meant more to Friz. At Warner Bros. he had directed shorts that had won Oscars, but Friz never got an Oscar. Studio policy was for the producer to receive them. Finally, Friz was able to get up and accept the honor himself. For Friz it was something very special.
For more than half a decade, DePatie-Freleng produced Pink Panther theatrical shorts. Not resting on their laurels, the studio also created a number of other theatrical characters including The Inspector, The Ant and The Aardvark and the Tijuana Toads.
In 1969, The Pink Panther Show debuted on NBC. Panther shorts remained on TV under various titles for most of the 1970s. The Panther moved to primetime TV via such specials as A Pink Christmas (1978), Pink Panther in Olym-Pinks (1980) And Pink at First Sight (1981).
1975 brought Inspector Clouseau back to the big screen in The Return of the Pink Panther. This time Richard Williams was handling the title. As always, the titles stood out. Vincent Canbys New York Times review of The Return of the Pink Panther stated the Panther, upstages all of the title credits and is, in effect, everything Clouseau is not -- urbane, witty, sly, quick-witted and graceful. Williams repeated his titles gig in 1976s The Pink Panther Strikes Again.
DePatie recalled the reason Williams got into the mix. We had storyboarded the titles when an animation strike occurred. The fastest way to get them done was to have Richard do them. If I had thought about it back then, I could have just sent the work to some overseas studio as many TV producers were doing. But, I think Richard did a great job on them.
1978 had DePatie-Freleng return to their creation for the titles to The Revenge of the Pink Panther. This would be Peter Sellers final appearance as the Inspector, due to his death in 1980. Oddly, it would also be DePatie-Frelengs last handling of the Panther, as the studio closed.
By 1980, DePatie and Freleng had come to the same point Warners had in the 1960s. We had over 250 shorts in our library, DePatie stated. And Friz was getting up there. It just seemed to make sense to get out from under the studio overhead. We knew if MGM ever needed us to do something, we could rent a facility. Which is what they did for 1982s Trail of the Pink Panther, 1983s Curse of the Pink Panther and 1993s Son of the Pink Panther.
1993 also saw a syndicated series debut featuring a talking Pink Panther. Thats a whole story in itself, stated DePatie. MGM wanted to do some more shorts. But the syndicator wouldnt take them unless the Panther talked. Of course, we liked the idea of keeping the character in pantomime. It became a small Tong war. But we eventually agreed and produced 72 half hours. I asked which Panther DePatie preferred? He chuckled, the pantomime Panther.
Since his debut in 1964, the Panther remained visible through classic theatrical shorts, main title sequences and TV appearances. His image appeared on hundreds of products including breakfast cereal, lemonade, clothing, mugs, plush toys, comic books and more. The Panther had become a key icon to the idea of sophistication and style.
Though Peter Sellers left the role of Inspector Clouseau, the animated Pink Panther continues to grace the series opening titles. The Panther in the titles has risen to be as major a star as any in front of, or behind, the camera. In fact, in all of film history, perhaps only the James Bond title sequences by Maurice Binder, are as heavily associated with a movie series.
DePatie revealed they are in talks with MGM about titles for the upcoming Pink Panther film with Steve Martin. Of course, for many of us, Peter will always be Clouseau. But MGM felt enough time has passed. Along with a new look for Clouseau, MGM is considering a new look for the Panther.
They would like to do the titles in what they call 3D, DePatie revealed. Of course, it really isnt 3D, where you use glasses. They mean CGI. The problem Blake and I have with this is that it makes the Panther look too round and kind of chubby. When Edwards and DePatie expressed concern, MGM stated they would do some further tests.
With the release of this great DVD set, viewers can be re-introduced to the original Panther at the height of his popularity and style. From his debut as a main title, to his first theatrical short to his continuing presence as a main title mainstay, the Panther continues to be the essence of cool.
When asked about the future of the shorts, DePatie indicated that there is talk of more releases on DVD. There is also discussion of putting the library back onto cable, perhaps in high definition. We were asked about that and saw the cost of converting all 250+ shorts would be enormous. But, DePatie stated, we know well have to do it eventually as all TV moves that way. It may be time to just bite the bullet.
DePatie is still amazed the Panther has survived. But he has a theory. The simple, clean design, and sophisticated demeanor is something that is always in style. As he says in the documentary, The key to the Pink Panther is simplicity and identification.
Simplicity, indeed. The Panther is simply a phenomenon.
John Cawley is a producer of animation (television and features) at Cartoon Network Studios in Burbank. John is also a writer ( Dexters Lab, Bugs Bunny, Disney Features), an author ( Encyclopedia of Cartoon Superstars, Cartoon Confidential), an editor ( Get Animated!), a publisher ( Faster! Cheaper!), a lecturer and a performer. The author would like to thank Jim Korkis, who contributed to this material via their book The Encyclopedia of Cartoon Superstars.