WolfmanOz at the Movies #66

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.