I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book. - Groucho Marx

Peter Sellers: Character. Actor.

by Trevor Marshall
Oct. 20, 2011

Peter Sellers was a swinger with mood swings, charlatan comedian, automobile and personality collector, anda  drummer. He is best known for his brilliant comedic work as the anarchic bumbling Inspector Clouseau in The Pink Panther series, and his triple performance in Dr. Strangelove. A notoriously hard man to pin down, he liked to himself as someone with no personality of his own -- the ultimate actor, or possibly a sociopath. I’ve found he had much more in common with Andy Kaufman than Zelig. Early in his career during a stage show Sellers’ performance consisted of him sitting on the stage with a record player, playing a song, and leading the audience in applause, much like in Kaufman’s (in)famous Mighty Mouse skit on Saturday Night Live many years later. He’d counted among his friends the likes of Ravi Shankar, the Royal Family, The Beatles, and Roman Polanski. He’d made enemies with people like Billy Wilder (who after Sellers had left the set of Kiss Me, Stupid and had multiple heart attacks quipped, “You’d have to have a heart to have a heart attack”) and Orson Wells (they wouldn’t be on the same soundstage together on the first James Bond film and bloated comedic disaster Casino Royale, which is still worth viewing if you’re a Woody Allen or Burt Bacharach fan).

Sellers got his start with the ground breaking 1950s comedy radio program The Goon Show, which allowed him to display his talent for mimicking voices and dadaist comedy. The Goon Show’s freeflowing postmodern comedy was a most definite precursor to Monty Python. Sound effects were supplied by the always fabulous BBC Radiophonic workshop. After a few years Peter and The Goon Show writers were able to break into T.V., creating such shows as T he Idiot Weekly, Price 2d, A Show Called Fred, Son of Fred, and Yes, It’s the Cathode Ray Tube Show!. From this exposure he was able to get roles in more than a few British films, which paved the trail for his work in Hollywood, a city he claimed to have detested. Legend -- Sellers own, mind you -- has it that before he was a famous actor he had done voiceover work on more than a few Hollywood pictures, including John Huston’s Beat the Devil, even doing some of Humphrey Bogart’s dialogue, because apparently Bogie and suffered tooth damage from a car accident during filming.

His breakout role stateside was as Clare Quilty in Stanley Kubrick’s Lolita, after that Sellers’ fame quickly rose to international superstardom. As Sellers’ fame grew, so did his ego, automobile collection, and instances of his increasingly erratic and bizarre behavior. He would buy a Rolls Royce because he saw a random stranger driving one the same day, missed the birth of one of his children because of a Judy Garland concert, spent untold amounts of money on a psychic that was in cahoots with his agent, walked the streets of London and stuff 5£ bills in homeless men’s pockets as they slept on benches, became addicted to Amyl Nitrates and could not make love to his wife -- or mistresses (one was implied by Sellers to be Princess Margret) -- without it. During this time, he was also at the height of his powers, starring in The Pink Panther, in talks to play Leopold Bloom in a film version of Ulysses, and cast in another Kubrick film (the unforgettable Dr. Strangelove) and the Billy Wilder’s Kiss Me, Stupid. In Dr. Strangelove he was able to improvise his performances, though Kubrick’s perfectionism would sometimes result in fifty or more takes of a scene. Kubrick would comment that Sellers seemed to have lost much of the energy he’d had as a person during the filming of Lolita. On the set of Kiss Me, Stupid, things had been much worse. He would show up late, complain about the open set, and get in arguments with actors, their friends, and Billy Wilder’s wife. Eventually he quit showing up at all and soon after, had multiple heart attacks.

A definite turning point is his career, it seemed that afterwards Sellers was more interested in money from comedies than being a respected actor. He made some great films (A Shot in the Dark, the best of the Pink Panther movies), some with their merits (What’s New Pussycat, Woody Allen’s first fully produced screenplay), and some overblown 60’s comedies (The Party, Casino Royale). In his personal life, however, he never slowed down, partying with Roman Polanski, Terry Southern, Ringo Star and other stars and hangers on of 1960's London. He never stopped using and abusing drugs or finding new obsessions like yoga and diets consiting only of bananas. At this point Sellers and Terry Southern teamed up again (Southern scripted Strangelove) on an indulgent overbudget drug-addled film called The Magic Christian, which featured performances by Christopher Lee, Raquel Welch,and  Ringo Starr among many others. Monty Python’s John Cleese and Graham Chapman were among the five writers. The film was critically panned and is now pretty much forgotten (I’ve never seen it personally, so who knows, it could be good!).

Throughout most of the seventies Peter Sellers laid low and burnt through his money till he was nearly broke, occasionally making Pink Panther films. Towards the end of his life he had one of the great guest appearances on The Muppet Show, and stared in maybe his most personal role as Chance in Being There. On the Muppet show Sellers told Kermit the frog “I don’t exist.” Within a few years, he really didn’t anymore, and the world lost one of it’s finest and most idiosyncratic comedians.

Works used:

Mr. Strangelove by Ed Sikov

The Life and Death of Peter Sellers by Roger Lewis


Trevor Marshall