Born William Blake Crump on July 26, 1922, in Tulsa Oklahoma, Edwards was the son of a stage director and the grandson of prolific silent-film director J. Gordon Edwards. He began his career as an actor and a radio scriptwriter specializing in hard-boiled private detective scripts tinged with humor, a different take from the classic noir gumshoes such as Sam Spade and Phillip Marlowe. Edwards took his talents to the small screen in 1959, creating the TV series Peter Gunn about a private investigator who loved hip jazz and dressed to the nines. Though the series ran for over 100 episodes, Peter Gunn is perhaps best remembered for its theme music, composed by Henry Mancini, who was to become an invaluable contributor to Edwards' career in film.
In the mid 1950s Edward also moved towards film, directing a number of comedies before striking box office gold with the 1959 hit Operation Petticoat, starring Cary Grant and Tony Curtis. Two years later, Edwards turned Truman Capote's novella Breakfast at Tiffany's into a critical and commercial success, propelling Audrey Hepburn's Holly Golightly into the pop culture pantheon as well as Mancini's hit song "Moon River", which won an Oscar (the film received five Oscar nominations total, including Best Actress). The adult-for-its-time comedy, co-starring George Peppard, Patricia Neal and Mickey Rooney (whose jaw-dropping portrayal of a stereotypical Japanese landlord was the film's biggest misstep), erased much of Capote's sexual subtext in favor of a standard Hollywood romance between the two leads, but it nonetheless became one of the favored romantic comedies of all time. He followed up that film with the effective black-and-white thriller Experiment in Terror (1962) , his only turn in the thriller genre, and the alcoholism drama Days of Wine and Roses (also 1962), which featured Academy Award-nominated performances by Jack Lemmon and Lee Remick.
In 1963, beginning with The Pink Panther (1963) and in four subsequent Panther films over two decades, Edwards, in collaboration with Peter Sellers, gave audiences one of the most distinctive comedic characters ever conceived - Chief Inspector Jacques Clouseau. With an exaggerated French accent and an incredibly clumsy manner, Clouseau was a uniquely brilliant creation, a completely inept detective who always got his man. Only two films were made in the early 1960s, but the franchise was revived in the mid 1970s with three more films. Though Sellers died in 1980, Edwards made three additional Panther films into the early 1990's, though none came close to capturing the freewheeling and blissfully absurd spirit of the first two Panther comedies, which also included A Shot in the Dark (1964).
First married from 1953-1967 to actress Patricia Walker, with whom he had two children, Edwards met his second wife, Julie Andrews, in the late 1960s as both were coming off big movie hits, she with The Sound of Music and he with the Pink Panther films as well as The Great Race (1965) and The Party (1968). The two, who married in November 1969, attempted to join their creative forces for the World War I musical melodrama Darling Lili, which was an attempt to show Andrews in a more adult light as a Mata Hari-type spy who attempts to use her seductive wiles on American major Rock Hudson, only to fall in love him. One of the most notorious flops of its time, the production was marred by expensive location shooting, expansive yet nonsensical musical numbers, extensive rewrites and constant meddling from Paramount studio to make the film more commercially appealing; the budget skyrocketed as the film drew towards its 1970 release, and was roundly drubbed as a fiasco on all counts.
Darling Lili practically sunk Edwards' career, and the filmmaker suffered from severe depression and retreated to Switzerland to recover. While he made some films in the early 1970s, none were warmly received until The Return of the Pink Panther in 1975. After two more Panther films with Peter Sellers, Edwards was suddenly back on top in 1979 with the comedy 10, which featured Dudley Moore as a man besotted with a younger woman, a corn-rowed Bo Derek, who thanks to the film would become a superstar and cultural icon of the time, due mostly to scenes captured of her running on a Mexican beach in little more than a flesh-colored bikini. The film turned Edwards' career around, and he gleefully skewered the Hollywood that attempted to sink him after Darling Lili with the scathing satire S.O.B. (1981), in which Andrews played a thinly veiled version of herself and finally rid herself of her pristine image by baring her breasts.
Andrews received an Oscar nomination, as did Edwards for screenwriting, for the cross-dressing musical hit Victor/Victoria (1982), the story of a British female singer pretending to be a gay Polish female impersonator in pre-World War II France. The racy comedy, which dealt frankly with cross-dressing and homosexuality in an era when both evoked titters and general discomfort with mainstream audiences, also starred James Garner and Oscar nominees Robert Preston and Lesley Ann Warren. The film, featuring numerous musical numbers and Edwards' patented brand of slapstick, was a huge hit, and would inspire a Broadway musical adaptation in the mid-1990s, also directed by Edwards and starring Andrews; lightning, however, did not strike twice, and though commercially successful, it was less than warmly received by critics.
Throughout the 1980s and early 1990s, Edwards made more comedies, including Micki & Maude (1984), A Fine Mess (1986), Blind Date (1987), and Switch (1991); his most notable film post-Victor/Victoria was the autobiographical That's Life! (1986), starring Jack Lemmon as an Edwards-style protagonist suffering from depression, Julie Andrews as his wife, and one of Edwards' children, and one of Andrews' children as part of the main character's large family.
After the Broadway adaptation of Victor/Victoria, Edwards essentially retired from filmmaking; in 2004 he received an Honorary Oscar "In recognition of his writing, directing and producing an extraordinary body of work for the screen". The presentation of the award, by Jim Carrey, was notable for including a patented Edwards sight gag, in which the director, ensconced in a wheelchair, crashed through a wall in an attempt to accept the statuette.
Edwards is survived by Andrews and his four children.