Star of stage, screen and alimony
Was the epitaph suggested for himself by actor and comedian Peter Sellers. Sellers was a prodigious talent, touching on genius at times, although almost all of his best work had been completed by the mid 1960s.
Born Richard Henry Sellers in 1925. He began accompanying his parents in a variety act that toured the provincial theatres. He first worked as a drummer and toured around England as a member of the Entertainments National Service Association (ENSA). He developed his mimicry and improvisational skills during a spell in a wartime Gang Show entertainment troupe, which toured Britain and the Far East.
After the war, Sellers became a regular performer on various BBC radio shows. During the early 1950s, Sellers, along with Spike Milligan, Harry Secombe and Michael Bentine took part in the enormously successful radio series The Goon Show, which ended in 1960.
He made his film debut in the 1951 comedy Penny Points To Paradise featuring his Goon Show colleagues Harry Secombe and Spike Milligan. His breakout role was in The Ladykillers (1955) as the the slow-witted and punch drunk ex-boxer which lead to a string of notable performances in the mid-to-late 50s in films such as The Smallest Show On Earth, The Naked Truth, Up The Creek, Carlton-Browne Of The F.O. and The Mouse That Roared (where he played three distinct leading roles).
Then in 1959 he starred as union official Fred Kite in I’m All Right Jack which became the highest-grossing film at the British box office in 1960. In preparation for his role, Sellers watched footage of union officials. His superb performance earned him a BAFTA Best Actor award and stardom now beckoned.
Other notable films Sellers starred in the early 1960s were the comedy The Battle Of The Sexes; the crime thriller Never Let Go as a vicious criminal; the romantic comedy The Millionairess with Sophia Loren; the comedy The Wrong Arm Of The Law as an incompetent crime boss; the satirical comedy Heavens Above ! as a naive prison chaplain and the comedy Waltz Of The Toreadors as a retiring general.
Then in 1962 he accepted a supporting role in Stanley Kubrick’s polarising adaption of Lolita. Kubrick allowed Sellers to adopt a variety of disguises throughout the film which enabled Sellers to adapt a range of accents and personalities. It was another outstanding performance.
In 1963 he accepted another supporting role, in which Peter Ustinov was originally cast for, as the incompetent and bumbling Inspector Clouseau in the comedy classic The Pink Panther. Director and co-writer Blake Edwards seeing what Sellers was delivering expanded the role where he became, by accident, the leading player.
A sequel A Shot In The Dark was released in 1964 which focused entirely on the character of Inspector Clouseau.
But also in 1964 Sellers delivered one (or is it three) of the great film performances in cinema history in Stanley Kubrick’s nightmare black comedy masterpiece Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb which satirises the Cold War fears of a nuclear conflict between the Soviet Union and the United States.
Sellers was unforgettable and absolutely brilliant in three roles as the RAF Group Captain Mandrake, the ineffective US President Merkin Muffley and, of course, as the title character, the ex-Nazi Dr. Strangelove. He was to have played a fourth role as Major T. J. “King” Kong, the B-52 bomber’s commander and pilot but a sprained ankle precluded him from playing it. It was played hilariously by Slim Pickens.
It is alleged that Sellers improvised much of his dialogue, with Kubrick incorporating the ad-libs into the written screenplay so that the improvised lines became part of the canonical screenplay, a practice known as retroscripting.
Unfortunately after Dr. Strangelove, Sellers output in terms of quality rarely approached what he delivered from the mid-50s to the mid-60s. He appeared in mediocre after mediocre film which are almost all forgettable, except for a couple of minor exceptions, for example, The Party released in 1968, directed by Blake Edwards. It was like Sellers was paying a Faustian price for his earlier successes.
He even reprised his Inspector Clouseau character in three Pink Panther films in the 70s, and, although they were financially successful, they were generally uneven and not to the same quality as the two films from the 60s.
He did have one final success in 1979 as Chance the simple-minded gardener addicted to watching TV who is regarded as a wise sage by the rich and powerful in the black comedy Being There. Sellers had wanted to play the role for many years, and during filming, remained in character. It was a superb performance, but, alas, it was to be his final great role.
On 21 July 1980 Sellers arrived in London from Geneva. He checked into the Dorchester Hotel He had plans to attend a reunion dinner with his Goon Show partners Milligan and Secombe, scheduled for the evening of 22 July. On the day of the dinner, Sellers took lunch in his hotel suite and shortly afterwards collapsed from a heart attack. He was taken to the hospital, and died just after midnight on 24 July 1980, aged only 54.
As a comedian and actor Sellers, could at times touch the levels of a genius and because of his retained dignity, Sellers was a the master of playing men who had no idea how ridiculous they are.
However, it would appear as a person he was a very vain, unsympathetic and neurotic individual who treated his four wives and children appallingly. A very good TV biography The Life And Death Of Peter Sellers was made about him in 2004 starring an excellent Geoffrey Rush as Sellers. It’s well worth a look.
and the tease for next weeks post . . . Those who about to die salute you.
28 thoughts on “WolfmanOz at the Movies #66”
He was great in the Goons, along with Harry Secombe and Spike Milligan.
For my two penneth, his role in Strangelove was exceptional (in the first one or two Pink Panthers he was good). The control and cool-faced President Muffley contrasts the converted psychopathy of the ‘good’ Dr Strangelove. It was the dialogue later that was amusing, when President Muffley and General Buck Turdgison were casually sitting around, and reflecting on and contemplating the necessity of 10 women “required” for every 1 man in order to re-populate the earth.
Then you’ll like this.
Toowoomba’s most famous son, Geoffrey Rush, did a star turn as Sellers in an HBO biopic. Well worth tracking down.
For me its the monologue on “sapping and impurifying’ that wins the show in Strangelove.
A great actor, and as you say, apparently a shit of a bloke.
Had 1/2 a dozen minor heart attacks before his big one and his father had the same problem.
So possibly a very acute awareness he was here for a good time not a long time.
Two lines from two different films found their way into our family lexicon…
Does your derg bite?
Birdie Num Nums.
They took on a life of their own, which might be the greatest testament to Sellers’ talent. 😀
I saw I’m All Right Jack when it first came out and it remained my favourite until Being There.
Peter Sellers – Cigarettes & Whiskey
I only saw The Party once on tv one day, but it was wonderful satire of Hollywood soiree culture, and quite mesmerizing.
Pink Panther and Shot In The Dark were side splitting. Are you not entertained? Yes we were entertained!
The sad thing is none of those movies could possibly made in the humourless present day.
I always remember in one of the Pink Panther films where he was demoted to a Gendarme and he is questioning the Musical Performer (Blind Beggar) with the monkey outside the Bank while in the background, a bank robbery was going on. So he says, “Are you blind or something?” in a french accent.
The man was a Master Mimic and could do many, many voices and impersonations. Michael Caine for instance –
“Not many people know that yer’ know”………………LOL
When I was young my parents took me to see The Party at the drive-in at Caringbah, I laughed so much I induced an asthma attack. I’ve watched it twice since then and still laugh my head off.
The thing is that for years after first watching The Party I was convinced that Peter Sellers really was of Indian descent !
The monologue on “sapping and impurifying” was by General Jack D. Ripper played by Sterling Hayden.
There must have been something genetic re the heart problems. Sellers son Michael also died of a heart attack aged 52 which occurred on the 26th anniversary of his father’s death.
Hahahahaaha! Love that movie. First saw it as a kid at the Murray Barracks Sergeants Mess in Port Moresby when my dad was posted there in the early ’70s.
Also saw There’s a Girl in My Soup starring Sellers and Goldie Hawn while we were there. Haven’t seen it since, but have fond memories of it probably because Goldie flashed a bit of flesh.
Being in England on holiday “Kind hearts and coronets” come to mind.
To me, one of his most outstanding “roles” was that of the indomitable but hapless Bluebottle. As a younger person I could reel off great swathes of his dialogue and with not too bad an impersonation of his voice.
“You rotten swine, you’ve deaded me!” aka “You rotting twine, you’ve deaded me”.
“ I looked the kilts straight in the sporringe and I went straaaiiiiin! Fall down, naughty kilt, I said in my mind. Straaaiiiiin, strain! Dotted lines out of eyes towards kilt showing direction of power. Doot doot doot doot doot doot doot doot doot doot doot doot. Little kilt, you cannot stand up against my superior North Finchley will power. Extra heavy strain; straiiiin! Dotted lines change to daggers showing increase of power; [really straining:] burch burch burch burch burch. Straaaiiiiin! And then rip! Whoosh! Thud!
My trousers fell down ”
Correct, John Bluthal in The Return of the Pink Panther (1975).
Grew up on Goon shows and The Mouse That Roared.
Sellers was a unique talent whether on the screen or just in audio.
But he was a terror in person to all around him.
Don’t forget The Bobo (1967 film) which at the end had the immortal line from Britt Ekland.
“If you’ve seen one blue singing matador, you’ve seen them all.”
Thanks for that excerpt Bruce.
“Harm could come to a young lad that way”
Peter Sellers and Goldie Hawn in Cactus Flower:
“My god, but you’re lovely”.
(Won’t get you far these days.)
On a recent voyage, as a dare, we managed to get one of the science party to say birdie num num to the old man whilst he was on watch. Loved that scene from the movie, along with the toilet roll unravelling and the drunk waiter.
His personal life was a mess. His last wife, Lynne Frederick, was pilloried as a gold digger who got all his money. She was shunned by just about everyone and died a sad and lonely death.
Perhaps she was a gold digger, but in her day she was probably the perfect example of the English Rose. A stunningly beautiful woman.
Must’ve been hard for them to get through that scene.
They’d be cackling with laughter!
“Precious bodily fluids.”
In the clip I posted in reply to TPL001 you can see Peter Bull (at 3.02) as the Russian Ambassador trying not to laugh at Sellers antics as Strangelove.
I’ve read Kubrick had to stuff a handkerchief into his mouth to stop him from laughing aloud during some of Sellers scenes.
Shot in the Dark – top 10 comedies of all time.
Cluseau was brilliant, the Kato karate fights were hysterical.
The Party and The Mouse that Roared were clever.
Being There – dunno now, pretentious waffle.
Real – I’d never heard of her and just looked up some pictures. Sacré bleu!
Beg to differ on The Party
The Party or Birdie Num Nums has had 6 mentions so far.
The first half of this movie was rib splitting funny, even funnier now that it’s racist.
Maybe this is how Stan Grant got his idea!!!
You know, Cato, your freezer ambush ploy. I really congratulate you. It was very, very good.
He was also a great musician. His interview with parking on was riveting. Including how he met Milligan’s while in the army
Goodness gracious me!