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February 10, 2006 at 05:00 AM EST

Midtown Manhattan. May 2004. The set of the Pink Panther ”update,” starring Steve Martin as Inspector Clouseau. MGM, not yet purchased by Sony, expects to release the Martin-scripted comedy in summer ’05. Then fall ’05. Then back to summer. Then…you get the picture.

It’s an overcast day. Beyoncé Knowles is here, being primped for a scene in which the sexy pop star (playing a sexy pop star) saunters down the street. ”Action!” yells director Shawn Levy, and Knowles gives it her swivel-hipped all. She saunters. She’s sexy. Levy seems pleased. ”Everyone under 25 plows through Steve Martin to get a glimpse of Beyoncé,” says Levy, then 35. He shrugs. ”Steve is okay with that.”

The sky darkens. It’s raining. Martin, who arrived Clouseau-clad in high-water brown trousers and an orange shirt, dashes off to his trailer. After lunch, the cast and crew reassemble in the Waldorf-Astoria hotel lobby. Levy, a friendly mile-a-minute talker, sits at the monitor with his then-4-year-old daughter, Sophie. ”Steve keeps telling me he hasn’t had this much fun in years,” the director beams. (”It’s true. I loved having a mustache,” Martin will admit, nearly a year later.) Clouseau shuffles into the frame holding a ”flaming mojito” cocktail, which he dumps into a nearby plant. He does it once, twice, and on the third time, ouch! The blazing beverage’s glass breaks, cutting Martin’s hand. As the actor is bandaged up, Levy frets. Did he get enough in the first two takes to piece the scene together? Yes, he decides. ”We like order and efficiency,” he says.

Organization on a Pink Panther set? Mais oui, mon chéri! All the better to master those how you say? — magnifique pratfalls.

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