It took more than 100 different character designs to perfect The Pink Panther
The "sophisticated bum" used pantomime to break language barriers and create a multi-million-dollar empire.
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When animators Friz Freleng and David DePatie were tapped to create a cartoon character to stalk the title sequence of the 1963 Blake Edwards movie The Pink Panther, they did not have a lot of direction on who this character should be.
Henry Mancini had not even yet written his famous Pink Panther theme song.
Instead, all Mancini gave the cartoonists was a tempo, and from that beat, the Pink Panther was born. Freleng said the "sophisticated bum" didn't just pop out of his pencil, though. The design took a lot of time.
"Blake Edwards had a movie called The Pink Panther," DePatie told The News and Observer in 1969. "A diamond was featured in this film, and it has a flaw, like a pink mass. We finally worked out our character and we must have looked over more than 100 different 'Panthers' until we hit the one we felt would serve our purpose, which was to accentuate the main titles."
You read that right. Before we met the Pink Panther, animators drew more than 100 different versions. Take a moment and try as hard as you can to imagine even one detail changed on Pink. The character has become so iconic, we doubt you can picture him as anything but his distinct self.
"He's the Fred Astaire of cartoons," Freleng told The Los Angeles Times in 1989. "He doesn't dance, but he's very graceful."
When Freleng and DePatie were creating the character, they knew that Pink needed to stand out from the Tom and Jerry dynamic typically associated with cartoon cats, and they also didn’t want to recreate Bugs Bunny, nor did they want to reinvent the wheel.
"The Panther is egotistical, effeminate, effete, chic and very pink," DePatie said, explaining that he was created to appeal to adults who were ashamed to admit how much they like cartoons.
In the theater, adults could delight in the Pink Panther in the dark.
"He captured public imagination because here was a character fussing around with the credits of a movie, which are supposed to be a serious undertaking," Freleng said. "He was the first cartoon 'personality' involved in main title credits and was, therefore, different."
"It was difficult to give the Panther a personality since he does not speak," DePatie said. "But after many hours we did come up with the right choices and his success has been phenomenal."
Soon after the Pink Panther debuted in the title sequences, DePatie and Freleng were ordered to draw up 113 shorts, and from that came a TV special, multiple TV shows, and an entire franchise built around Pink.
By 1989, when Pink was celebrating his 25th birthday, he was banking $300 million annually on all the merchandise created out of his popular likeness — more than 2,000 products worldwide.
In the U.S., starting right away in the 1960s, kids could purchase a 15-inch plush Pink for $25, or they could beg their parents for the 4-foot model, which sold for $120.
One of the weirdest Pink products was perhaps this treat for kids in Italy. Ferrero made little hollow chocolate eggs with plastic pieces inside that fit together to make 2.5-inch Pink Panther figurines. There were 10 different designs, including a Pink Panther cowboy.
But unlike Trix cereal, the Pink products weren't just for kids. Remember, Pink was chic. There were also high fashion luxury items, including a $450 hot pink ski boot that featured Pink striking a pose on the heel.
Silent by necessity because the Pink Panther couldn't talk over the main titles, Pink still spoke loudly to a lot of people, and DePatie said it was all about his personality, which is the hallmark of a great cartoon when it can be captured by the effective visual design. Freleng thought Pink's appeal went even further than that, with some fans wishing they could be like Pink.
"He's somebody everybody would like to be like — in front of the screen all the time — to be strong, to be able to push themselves to the front," Freleng said.
When Pink was introduced, he came at a time when the animators said cartoons had become more violent for laughs, and the slinking Panther came in with a much cooler vibe that muted the violence and harkened back to early cartoons.
"We felt it was high time that we got back to tradition with the emphasis on comedy and adventure, which we all like in cartoons," DePatie said.
The Pink Panther also just looked cool. "He's up to date — and on the abstract side," Freleng explained.
Even today, people recognize the Pink Panther not just for his trademark color and sleek figure, but also for his iconic theme music. How many other cartoon characters pop right in your head after hearing someone whistle four notes? Mancini's song certainly helped make Pink so memorable.
For Freleng, he never expected Pink to become as big as he did. It's a testament to how much thought he and DePatie put into the character, tossing out template after template before introducing one of the coolest cats the world's ever known.
"I'm surprised that he's lasted this long," Freleng admitted.