- Category : Actor
- Type : MS
- Profile : 4/1 - Opportunistic / Investigator
- Definition : Split - Small (43)
- Incarnation Cross : JX Confusion
Peter Sellers, CBE (8 September 1925 – 24 July 1980) was an English comedian and actor best known for his Inspector Clouseau roles in Pink Panther films. Sellers first rose to fame on the BBC Home Service radio series The Goon Show.
Sellers was born Richard Henry Sellers in Southsea, Portsmouth, England to a family of entertainers. His parents nicknamed him "Peter" at an early age, after his elder stillborn brother. He attended a Roman Catholic school, St. Aloysius College, although he was Jewish (from his mother's side). He was a descendant of Portuguese-Jewish prizefighter Daniel Mendoza.
Accompanying his family on the variety show circuit, Sellers learned this popular but difficult stagecraft, which proved especially valuable in his later career. He performed at age five at the Windmill Theatre in a drama called Splash Me!, which also featured his mother. He was a versatile artist, excelling in dancing, drumming well enough to tour with several jazz bands (his drumming is showcased in a clip of the Steve Allen show in 1964), and playing the ukulele and banjo. In an episode of Parkinson, Sellers claimed that his father had taught George Formby to play the ukulele. Sellers played ukulele-banjo on the "New York Girls" track for Steeleye Span's 1975 album, Commoner's Crown.
World War II
During World War II, Sellers was an airman in the Royal Air Force, rising to corporal by the war's end, though he had been relegated to ground staff duties due to poor eyesight. His tour of duty included India and Burma, although the exact duration of his stay in Asia is unknown, and he may have exaggerated its length. He also served in Germany and France after the war.
As a distraction from the monotonous life of a non-commissioned RAF officer, Sellers joined the Entertainments National Service Association (ENSA), allowing him to hone his drumming and comedic skills. During leisure periods, he performed occasional impersonations of his superiors, and his portrayal of RAF officer Lionel Mandrake in the film Dr. Strangelove may have been modelled on these impersonations. He also would bluff his way into the Officers Club using his talent for mimicry and the occasional false mustache, although as he told Michael Parkinson in the famous 1972 interview, occasionally the older officers would suspect him. The voice of Goon Show character Major Denis Bloodnok also came from this period in his life.
The Goon Show
After his military discharge and return to war-ravaged England in 1948, Sellers supported himself with stand-up routines in sordid variety theatres whose impresarios needed to legitimise their business. By dint of talent and ambition, Sellers telephoned BBC radio producer Roy Speer pretending to be Kenneth Horne, a castmember of the radio show, Much Binding in the Marsh, in order to get Speer to speak to him. Sellers was eventually cast as a Goon on the hit radio programme The Goon Show with fellow comedians Spike Milligan, Harry Secombe and Michael Bentine. Sellers followed this with television work.
Sellers' film success arrived with a series of British comedies, including The Ladykillers (1955), I'm All Right Jack (1959) and The Mouse That Roared (1959). He began receiving international attention for his portrayal of an Indian doctor in The Road to Hong Kong (1962), the seventh and last in the "Road" series, starring Bing Crosby, Bob Hope, Dorothy Lamour.
Sellers found further international acclaim with the The Millionairess with costar Sophia Loren (1960). The film inspired the George Martin radio and television production Goodness Gracious Me, as well as two popular novelty song recordings Goodness Gracious Me and a follow-up Bangers and Mash, both featuring Sellers and Loren. He starred in Stanley Kubrick's Lolita (1962) as Clare Quilty, opposite James Mason as Humbert Humbert. In portraying Quilty, Sellers proved to be a scene stealer, a trait he was to repeat in other films.
A major artistic breakthrough for Sellers came with Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964) in which he portrayed three highly diverse characters: U.S. President Merkin Muffley, Dr. Strangelove and Group Captain Lionel Mandrake of the RAF. (The characters Muffley and Strangelove appeared in the same room throughout the film.) Sellers originally was also cast in the role of Major T. J. 'King' Kong. Initially, Sellers struggled with the character's Southern accent, but a crewmember made a recording of a Texan accent, which Sellers apparently mastered after repeated listenings and practice. However, during a scene filmed in a plane specially designed for the set, Sellers fell 15 feet and broke his leg, preventing him from doing additional cockpit scenes and forcing Kubrick to replace Sellers with Slim Pickens in the role of Major Kong.
Sellers is most famous for his performance as the bumbling Inspector Clouseau in the Pink Panther movies, a role that Peter Ustinov had declined. This character gave Sellers a worldwide audience, beginning with The Pink Panther (1963) and its sequel, A Shot in the Dark (1964), in which he was featured more prominently. He returned to the character for three more sequels from 1975 to 1978. The Trail of the Pink Panther was released after his death in 1982, containing previously unused footage of Sellers. His widow, Lynne Frederick, successfully sued the film's producers for having made unauthorized use of the footage. Sellers had prepared to star as Chief Inspector Clouseau in another Panther film; however, he died before the start of this project, Romance of the Pink Panther.
He was a remarkably versatile actor, switching easily from broad comedy, as in The Party (1968), to more intense performances as in Lolita.
Sellers faced a career downturn by the early 1970s and was dubbed "box office poison". But after the commercially successful return of his Clouseau role in new Pink Panther movies, he was able to produce and star in a film project, Being There (1979). Based on the Jerzy Kosinski novel he cherished, Being There earned Sellers his best critical reviews since the 1960s, a second Academy Award nomination and a Golden Globe award. Sellers never did win an Oscar, but won the BAFTA for I'm All Right Jack.
Sellers appeared on the Muppet Show television series in 1977. He chose not to appear as himself, instead appearing in a variety of costumes and accents throughout the show. When Kermit the Frog told Sellers that he could relax and be "himself", Sellers (while wearing a Viking helmet, girdle and one boxing glove--he thought he was dressed as Queen Victoria) replied, "There is no 'real me'. I no longer exist. I had it surgically removed."
Personal and professional struggles
Sellers' artistic genius did come with a cost, which was manifested in a troubled personal life. While he won accolades for his artistic contributions, his off-screen persona often clashed with fellow actors and directors, as illustrated by his strained relationship with friend and director Blake Edwards, with whom he worked on the Pink Panther series, among other films. His relationship with Edwards was tested by Sellers' eccentric behaviour, to a point where the two sometimes ceased speaking to each other during filming. Their personal and professional relationship was frequently disrupted by Sellers' difficult demeanour, highlighted in the semi-biographical HBO/BBC film The Life and Death of Peter Sellers.
Sellers' personality was often described as difficult and demanding by many others who interacted with him. His unreasonable behaviour caused physical and emotional hurt to many people in his life, most notably his first three wives. As portrayed in The Life and Death of Peter Sellers, he told his eight-year-old son that the boy's mother (Sellers' wife at the time) was having an affair. Sellers is known to have physically assaulted Britt Ekland, often prompted by fits of (unsubstantiated) jealousy.
His work with fellow actor Orson Welles on Casino Royale deteriorated as Sellers became jealous of Welles' casual relationship with Princess Margaret. The relationship between the two actors created enormous logistic problems during filming, as Sellers refused to share the set with Welles, who himself was no stranger to strident behaviour. Sellers could also be cruel and disrespectful, as demonstrated in his treatment of actress Jo Van Fleet on the set of I Love You, Alice B. Toklas (1968). On one occasion, Van Fleet had declined an invitation to his house, soon followed by a misunderstanding between the two actors during filming. This prompted Sellers to launch into a verbal tirade against Van Fleet in front of actors and crew on the set.
Nonetheless, Sellers could woo audiences and colleagues alike. He was once invited to appear on Michael Parkinson's eponymous chat show in the 1970s. However, as he was notoriously reticent about discussing his private life, Sellers needed some persuasion. Eventually he agreed under the condition that he could appear as a different character. When introduced onto the show, Sellers appeared dressed as member of the German Gestapo. After performing a few lines in keeping with his assumed character, he stepped out of the role and settled down for what is considered one of Parkinson's most memorable interviews.
It has been suggested that Sellers suffered from depression spurred by deep-seated anxieties of artistic and personal failure. Some of his behaviour may have been exacerbated by substance abuse, for Sellers was known to regularly smoke cannabis, drink large amounts of alcohol, and use other recreational drugs. It is now believed that his drug use (especially of amyl nitrites) contributed to a series of heart attacks he suffered in 1964 (see below). Sellers became aware that his frail psyche affected his career and personal life. However, rather than seeking professional counselling, he opted for periodic consultations with astrologer Maurice Woodruff, who seemed to have had considerable sway over his later career.
Relationships with other celebrities
Sellers had casual friendships with two of the Beatles, George Harrison and Ringo Starr. Harrison told occasional Sellers stories in interviews, and Starr appeared with him in the anarchic movie The Magic Christian (1970), whose theme song was Badfinger's "Come and Get It", written by Paul McCartney. Starr also gave Sellers a rough mix of songs from the Beatles' White Album; the tape was auctioned and bootlegged after his death. Sellers also recorded a cover version of A Hard Day's Night (1965), in the style of Laurence Olivier's interpretation of Richard III.
Sellers' other friendships included fellow actor and director Roman Polanski, who shared his passion for fast cars. Sellers was a close friend of Princess Margaret, and had a close relationship with Sophia Loren, for whom he seemed to have felt a strong but apparently unrequited romantic attraction. Sellers was the first man to appear on the cover of Playboy — he appeared on the April (1964) cover with Karen Lynn.
Obsession with automobiles
Sellers had a lifelong obsession with cars, which was briefly parodied in a fleeting cameo in the short film Simon Simon, directed by friend Graham Stark. His love for cars was also referenced in the The Goon Show episode "The Space Age", where Harry Secombe introduces Sellers by saying, "Good heavens, it's Peter Sellers, who has just broken his own record of keeping a car for more than a month." In the special episode "The Last Goon Show of All", announcer Andrew Timothy cued him with the words "Mr. Sellers will now sell a gross of his cars and take up a dramatic voice".
Sellers was married four times:
1. Actress Anne Howe (1951–1961). They had two children, Michael and Sarah.
2. Swedish actress Britt Ekland (1964–1968). They had a daughter, Victoria Sellers. The couple appeared in two films together: After the Fox (1966) and The Bobo (1967).
3. Australian model Miranda Quarry (now the Countess of Stockton) (1970–1974).
4. English actress Lynne Frederick (1977–1980), who later married Sir David Frost.
Again, Spike Milligan wrote this into his scripts, referring in one 1972 radio show to "The Peter Sellers Discarded Wives Memorial". At the time, Sellers was married to his third wife, Miranda Quarry.
In 1964 at age 38, Sellers had suffered a near-fatal heart attack, which permanently damaged his heart. Sellers' condition deteriorated when he deferred proper medical treatment, instead opting for "treatment" from psychic healers. He also wore a pacemaker, which caused him considerable problems.
A reunion dinner was scheduled in London with Goon Show partners Spike Milligan and Harry Secombe in the latter part of July 1980. But the reunion never took place: on 22 July Sellers collapsed from a massive heart attack in his Dorchester Hotel room. He died in a London hospital just after midnight on 24 July 1980, at age 54. He was survived by his fourth wife Lynne Frederick and three children: Michael, Sarah and Victoria. At the time of his death he was scheduled to undergo heart surgery in Los Angeles within the month..
Sellers' fourth wife inherited the bulk of his estate, and his children received £800 apiece. Sellers' only son, Michael, died of a heart attack at age 52 during surgery on 24 July 2006. It was 26 years to the day after his father died of the same condition. Michael was survived by second wife Alison, whom he married in 1986, and their two children.