One of Hollywood's longest-running hyphenates - writer-producer-director - Blake Edwards has had an extraordinarily rich and extraordinarily uneven career. His best pictures are conceived and realized with a subtlety, elegance, and precision matched by few American film artists of his generation; his worst are godawful, what-could-he-have-been-thinking-of atrocities. The Pink Panther series was arguably the classiest in motion picture history, until he took it over a cliff - several times. Before becoming a major filmmaker, he created a landmark television series, and in his 70s Edwards took his first fling at being a Broadway producer.

His grandfather was the silent-era director J. Gordon Edwards (The Queen of Sheba, 1922). Strikingly handsome, if rather stiff, as a young actor, Blake debuted in 1942's Ten Gentlemen from West Point and stayed in uniform - onscreen - for the duration of WWII. He began writing for Dick Powell's radio private-eye series Richard Diamond in 1946, and turned writer-producer on two low-budget Westerns, Panhandle (1948) and Stampede (1949), while also acting in them; they marked his last times in front of the camera. In the early Fifties he signed on at Columbia as a writer of lightweight comedy-romances, many of them directed by Richard Quine. Their best collaborations were Operation Mad Ball (1957, an early teaming with Jack Lemmon) and The Notorious Landlady (1962). But by that time Edwards had turned director himself, starting in 1955 and scoring an early success, at Universal-International, with the solid Tony Curtis vehicle Mister Cory (1957).

Around this same time Edwards was also becoming a power in television, starting in 1958 with the hit private-eye series Peter Gunn. Wittily written, and drolly acted in a deadpan style by Craig Stevens et al., Peter Gunn was a breakthrough for TV and in terms of Edwards's own emerging personal style. The camerawork was artful, in emulation of what people would later learn to call film noir, and the whole thing was energized - and sanctified as "cool" - by the jazz scoring of Henry Mancini. Mancini would become an indispensable collaborator for many a year. Meanwhile, the very adult romance between Stevens's detective and Lola Albright's mournful chanteuse anticipated the complex sexual dynamics of Edwards films to come.

He created another, less successful TV series, Mr. Lucky (1959), based on the offbeat 1943 Cary Grant film about a suave gambler. Grant was an important role model for Edwards, and the two teamed - along with frequent Edwards star Tony Curtis - for a hit, WWII-set comedy, Operation Petticoat (1959). In 1961 Edwards made one of his most enduringly popular films, Breakfast at Tiffany's, with Audrey Hepburn at her most enchanting and Oscar-winning score and theme song ("Moon River") by Mancini. He was now on a roll that continued through Days of Wine and Roses (1962), a powerful look at an alcoholic couple (Oscar-nominated Jack Lemmon and Lee Remick) long before anyone used the term "co-dependency"; Experiment in Terror (1962), a chilling psychological suspenser featuring Mr. Lucky discovery Ross Martin (cannily unbilled until the end) as a malevolent master of disguises; and then his most lucrative franchise, the Inspector Clouseau-Pink Panther series.

That there was a series at all came as a surprise. In The Pink Panther (1964), Peter Sellers isn't even top-billed (and wasn't Edwards's first choice for the role), and the film itself is emphatically the director's, not the actor's; the action is distributed among half a dozen important characters, and the whole thing is magisterially orchestrated - visually, Edwards's most assured work to date. But Sellers's encyclopedically clueless, hence unflappable Clouseau was what everyone raved about, and Edwards swiftly prepared and released a Sellers-centric sequel, A Shot in the Dark, that same year. Less fluid and luxe than the original film, but perhaps four times funnier, Shot guaranteed that, sooner or later, Inspector Clouseau would return.

Edwards preferred later. He had other ambitions - for one, to make an epic period comedy, The Great Race (1965), that would circle the globe and conclude with the biggest and most garish pie fight in film history. But epic isn't necessarily funny, and though full of exquisitely timed bits - the best of them involving the inspired pairing of Jack Lemmon and Peter Falk - and a daft Prisoner of Zenda takeoff (with Ross Martin splendid in the Rupert of Hentzau part), the overlong movie was not the hit Edwards hoped for. Indeed, the {"too much" syndrome would plague Edwards through What Did You Do in the War, Daddy? (1966), a sour WWII parody; The Party (1968), almost a Jerry Lewis concept for Peter Sellers as a Clouseau-like Hindu actor in Hollywood; and Darling Lili (1970), a multimillion-dollar mélange of comedy, romance, sweeping WWI aerial action, spy story, and music. That film, a showcase for Edwards's new love, Julie Andrews, is at least as underrated as Michael Cimino's Heaven's Gate would be a decade later, but it bombed on a comparable scale and resulted in Edwards's bitter self-exile to Europe for half a decade.

This account ignores one mid-Sixties film, but then everyone at the time (except a few critics of the auteurist persuasion) ignored it, too. Gunn (1967), a feature-film reprise for Craig Stevens's TV private eye, is one of the director's masterpieces, a dazzling film-noir-in-effulgent-Technicolor that foregrounded Edwards's fascination with gender roles and the quicksilver illusionism of both filmmaking and roleplaying. Darling Lili also played with ambiguities of roles and gender - and it is pertinent to recall that during the Irish-based production rumors were floated of a ménage-à-trois involving the director, Andrews, and co-star Rock Hudson. (Hudson's quip upon hearing, according to Edwards: "How did they find out?") The point is not to confirm such gossip, but to note the consistency with which Edwards would continue to push the envelope, from here on out, in exploring polymorphous possibilities.

Certainly they're just under the surface, and occasionally on it, in The Wild Rovers (1971), a complex Western harking back to Edwards's first off-camera endeavors and co-starring William Holden and Ryan O'Neal as two saddlemates who lurch ruinously into outlawry. (Holden clearly loomed as a symbol of manly integrity to the director and would serve as his virtual spokesman in 1980's S.O.B.) The film, like Edwards's subsequent The Carey Treatment (1972), was mutilated by the James Aubrey administration at MGM and given perfunctory release. In 1974 Edwards and Andrews teamed for The Tamarind Seed, an espionage romance Hitchcockian in the lucidity and emotional maturity of its design and execution; but reviewers made jokes about "Mary Poppins Meets Doctor Zhivago" - the co-star was Omar Sharif - and the movie, another masterpiece, was overlooked. (A beautifully developed subplot involves the marriage of a closeted gay spy and a bitter, roving wife.)

By now Edwards needed a popular success; he was ready to bring back Clouseau. The Return of the Pink Panther (1975), The Pink Panther Strikes Again (1976), and Revenge of the Pink Panther (1978) were all proficiently done, and they positioned Edwards for another serious, personal film - and this time he did score a huge hit, with the public and a goodly share of the press. The occasion was '10' (1979), and if the primary reasons for its popularity were a comedic tour-de-force by Dudley Moore (a last-minute replacement for the defecting George Segal) and lots of nude Californians - especially the Amazonian Bo Derek - that doesn't diminish its standing as one of the great films of the Seventies. Moore, as a successful 42-year-old songwriter flailing in midlife crisis, is in a fiercely ambivalent relationship with songstress Julie Andrews, whose character is nicknamed Sam and enjoys wearing leather. Moore's lyricist partner (a gracious performance by Robert Webber) is a gay man with no apologies to make for his sexuality, but also scant consolation in a lifestyle in which everyone else seems to be getting younger and younger.

Now firmly back at the top of the A list, Edwards paid off a lot of old scores with S.O.B. (1980), a scabrous satire on Tinseltown itself. Richard Mulligan played a once-successful producer whose string of recent failures has brought him to the point of suicide (attempted in several exquisitely absurd and ineffectual ways). His wife, family-film icon Julie Andrews, may be able to save his life and career by agreeing to turn their latest, unreleasable G-rated musical into softcore porn. Not the least of S.O.B.'s Pirandellian moments is the star's baring of her lovely breasts on camera - a moment that seemed as traumatic and liberating for Andrews as for her character.

Hollywood did not reward S.O.B. with Oscar nominations, but it looked kindlier on Victor/Victoria (1982), a reworking of a little-known 1933 German film that brought Edwards his lone Academy recognition - a nomination for screenplay, not direction. The film deals with an aspiring classical singer (Andrews, also nominated) who, starving in 1930s Paris, enters into partnership with a transvestite cabaret artist (Robert Preston, also nominated as supporting actor) to pass herself off as a man who passes himself off as a woman. American gangster James Garner doesn't know which one he's in love with.

In the meantime, though, Peter Sellers had died (in 1980), and Edwards, in an admixture of affection and desperation, refused to let Inspector Clouseau die with him. He made two further sequels, Trail of the Pink Panther (1982) and Curse of the Pink Panther (1983), drawing on outtakes from earlier Sellers efforts and setting boring young co-stars to run down the truth about the "missing" Clouseau. Curse is right: the films were unfunny and grotesque, and they ushered in a bleak period from which the director has yet to recover: the glum remake of François Truffaut's The Man Who Loved Women (1983); the Depression-era comedy drama City Heat (1984 - directed by Richard Benjamin, with Edwards taking only a bitterly pseudonymous writing credit, "Sam O. Brown:: S.O.B.); Micki + Maude (1984), a lame bigamy comedy with Dudley Moore; A Fine Mess (1986) - too aptly named, and unworthy of the Oliver Hardy catchphrase; two dreadful films with Bruce Willis, Blind Date (1987) and Sunset (1988); Skin Deep (1989), a very unpleasant modern-romance commentary; and yet another Clouseau retread, Blake Edwards' Son of the Pink Panther (sic, 1993), with Italian comic Roberto Benigni as a Clouseau offspring. The grimness is only slightly relieved by That's Life! (1986), a little-disguised dip into autobiography shot in Edwards and Andrews's Malibu home and inspired by a medical scare Edwards had had recently; a warmed-over Peter Gunn (1989), a TV-movie starring Peter Strauss; and Switch (1991), in which a murdered Casanova is reincarnated to find redemption - as a woman. Ellen Barkin's ballsy performance and the occasional spot-on comic setup gave hope that Edwards hadn't entirely lost his touch.

Meanwhile, "Blackie" - as Andrews calls her oft-morose husband - has turned to a new medium. In 1995 he decided to mount his first Broadway show, a musical of Victor/Victoria with new, mostly inferior tunes to fill out the gaps in the late Henry Mancini's Oscar-winning score (the movie wasn't a wall-to-wall musical, but a comedy with music). He collected no raves, but no pans either, and the show is still running. So is Edwards's talent legacy, in the form of actress daughter Jennifer and screenwriter son Geoffrey. More importantly, of his nearly four decades' worth of feature filmmaking, he can claim a dozen first-rate pictures and at least that many graceful entertainments. Not to mention a synchronicity of style and theme that, at his peak, qualifies him as one of the masters of the American cinema.