“There used to be a me, but I had it surgically removed.”
– Peter Sellers
I remember it distinctly. “Come over I have a movie you gotta see,” my friend said, “It’s really funny.” I went over to his house and went down to the family room where the TV was placed in a bookshelf framed by numerous novels and DVDs. “My dad suggested this to me,” my friend said before placing the DVD into the DVD player. The film was Shot in the Dark, the second in the Pink Panther series directed by Blake Edwards and starring Peter Sellers. My friend and I laughed so hard we thought we were going to be the first people to die of asphyxiation brought on by the funniest fucking movie we had seen in our lives. And, this movie changed my life. Hyperbole aside, Shot in the Dark stirred something in me and I began my research into the works of Peter Sellers. I took trips to the rental store (when they still existed) and bought back the films in which he starred. I watched Dr. Strangelove, What’s New Pussycat, The Party, and Being There. I was only twelve at the time and I had no context in which to understand the Cold War and could not properly process Dr. Strangelove, but Peter Sellers was terrific. I liked What’s New Pussycat, and The Party because they were wacky and more like Shot in the Dark, and of course Peter Sellers was very funny. I knew there was something good in Being There I just couldn’t articulate it yet, but Sellers was mesmerizing. I continued to watch the rest of the Pink Panther series with my friend–they were hilarious and so was Sellers. After all my viewing of his work I arrived at one conclusion, Peter Sellers was a genius.
The more research I did the more I discovered how much I had in common with Peter Sellers. We masked our awkwardness around people with outrageous jokes and accents in school that often went well with the students, but annoyed the teachers. I became consumed with Peter Sellers or rather with his many characters. Some days I walked into school as the bumbling Inspector Clouseau sporting his ridiculous French accent. No one knew what I was doing- except my closest friends. I learned to understand and love Dr. Strangelove, and Being There. I went from renting his movies to buying them. I read Ed Sikov’s biography, Dr. Strangelove: A biography of Peter Sellers. It was within the pages of this excellent biography that I learned who Peter Sellers was, and who he wasn’t. Let me explain.
He was born on September 8, 1925 and was immediately thrust on the stage by his over-bearing mother, Peg. Mother and son formed a close relationship, and by all accounts an abnormally close relationship. Even after her death; Sellers continued to talk to her beyond the grave. He was spoiled by love, supplied by his mother, and he craved that love from nearly everyone he met, especially from his wives (Anne Howe, Britt Ekland, Miranda Macmillian, and Lynne Fredrick) and children. Sellers had a chameleon-like way of changing his voice and body to impersonate his subject. It was more than an impersonation–he embodied the character and never let go. Peter Sellers co-created the radio program, The Goon Show, with some of his longtime friends who shared his sense of humor. The show influenced members of Monty Python’s Flying Circus. The Goons rose to fame in England with Sellers gaining most of it and went on to co-star in The Ladykillers under Alec Guinness and starred in three different roles in The Mouse that Roared. Seller’s films went across the pond and achieved success in America. Yet, it was a last minute casting conflict that propelled Sellers into superstardom.
With three days until principal photography began on The Pink Panther, Peter Ustinov dropped out of the role of Inspector Clouseau. Peter Sellers stepped in and made Clouseau his own. Clouseau is an idiot. He wears a Humphrey Bogart trench coat and believes himself to be the greatest detective since Sherlock Holmes. Nothing could be further from the truth, he does not see that his wife (Capucine) is a cohort of Charles Lytton (David Niven) the jewel thief; the very one that Clouseau is investigating for the entirety of the film. The Pink Panther and later installments brought Peter Sellers the fame he needed and deserved.
As his star rose, so did his ego. But it was more than his ego that became a problem for those around him; it was his state of mind. Sellers was a perpetual Peter Pan, but not illustrating the virtues of a whimsical child, but a spoiled brat. He required unconditional love from his wives, children and co-workers. If he felt that he was not getting it, Sellers went into an uncontrollable rage. He hit his wives and in one case threw a chair at his second wife, Britt Ekland. Not even his children were not safe from his temper tantrums. These outbursts trickled over into his professional life. Sellers and Blake Edwards argued on set often not speaking to each other. Famously, or infamously, Sellers left the production of Casino Royale after arguing with fellow co-star Orson Welles and one of the films directors (the movie had many). After the fights he often became depressed and bestowed gifts on the victims of his rage to win back their affection. When Sellers wasn’t having a fight, he sat quietly on set awaiting the moment until he could slip back into character. Peter Sellers was comfortable being anyone except Peter Sellers, and therein lies one of the paradoxes of Peter Sellers’s life.
After Pink Panther, Sellers collaborated with Stanley Kubrick on their second film together (the first being Lolita). Peter Sellers plays three characters in Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. He portrays the duty bound Group Capt. Lionel Mandrake, the stern President Merkin Muffley, and the former Nazi scientist now advisor to the President; Dr. Strangelove. This is the performance(s) where Sellers transcends comedic acting and enters the rarified group of men and women who display an abnormal amount of talent unreachable by most people. The word “genius” is often overused in our society, but in the case of Peter Sellers it is completely applicable. He performs all three parts in Strangelove to perfection. His performances are all consuming that the film ceases to star Peter Sellers, but three completely unique and fully formed individuals that just happen to have similar bone structure.
The same year, 1964, Strangelove, Pink Panther and its sequel Shot in the Dark made Sellers a star and his films were a favorite of critics and audiences alike (all celebrate their 50th anniversary this year). On April 8th Peter Sellers international movie star suffered a heart attack, and another one, and another-in fact he suffered eight attacks in two days. He survived all of them. Soon, he was back at work starring alongside Peter O’ Toole in Woody Allen’s first film What’s New Pussycat (Allen wrote the screenplay, but did not direct). Sellers also had his hands immortalized in cement at the Grauman’s Chinese Theatre. Sellers was a workhorse, continuing to make film after film, even if it was to his detriment. The late sixties and the early seventies saw Peter’s star fall as he made a string of films that were panned by critics and ignored by audiences. During this period he made one of his best, but least known films, The Blockhouse. The storyline goes: A group of forced laborers working on trenches in Normandy are trapped by an allied bombing run in an underground warehouse. It is a psychological drama showcasing a subdued and humanizing performance by Sellers. Unfortunately, The Blockhouse was never given a release. Sellers needed to jumpstart his career-Blake Edwards to the rescue.
The pair teamed up to film the third installment of the Pink Panther series, The Return of the Pink Panther. In this Pink Panther, Clouseau attempts to find the robber of the recently burgled Pink Panther diamond and suspects only one man-Charles Lytton (played by Christopher Plummer). Clouseau uses many disguises such as an electrician, an international playboy, etc, all of which fail to disguise his identity. Audiences went to see the film in droves. Peter Sellers was back.
Sellers’s most famous creation was a man who could not stop being himself-even if he tried. All his attempts to change into other characters fail, because of his inability to cease being the bumbling Inspector Clouseau. For Peter Sellers, a man who could turn into anybody he so chose, his most popular creation could never be anybody but himself. Another paradox in the Sellers story.
Sellers went on to make two more Pink Panther films. In 1979, Sellers made a film that had been a passion project for him since he first read Jerzy Kosinski’s novel. Being There turned out to be Peter Sellers’s finest performance of his life. Sellers related to the main character of Chance the Gardiner. Chance was a simple minded blank slate, a person with no discernable personality.
The film follows Chance as he is forced to leave the protection of his employer’s house, and his garden to fend for himself in the real world. Luckily for Chance he is hit by a car belonging to Eve Rand, the wife of a dying business tycoon. As he heals his wounded leg, Chance befriends Eve’s husband, Benjamin. Chance speaks only of the garden and imitates what he sees on television. His remarks are misunderstood to be prophetic. When asked by the President of the United States to comment on the state of the economy Chance answers, “In a garden, growth has its season. There are spring and summer, but there are also fall and winter. And then spring and summer again. As long as the roots are not severed, all is well and all will be well.” The President is elated to hear such a refreshing thought on the economy and quotes Chance during a speech. Soon Chance becomes the heir to Benjamin’s fortune and a possible Presidential candidate.
Sellers immersed himself in the role to the point of refusing numerous dinner invitations from his co-star Shirley Mclaine. Seller’s sad eyes gives Chance a knowing quality, like an old man’s eyes that display a lot of experience over a long period of time. Chance cannot articulate that experience, but it is there. Chance is pure of heart and walks on water, literally, at the end of the film.
For Being There Sellers was nominated for a second academy award, the first being for Dr. Strangelove. He lost both times. Being There turned out to be the last picture to be released during his lifetime. Peter Sellers died soon after suffering a massive heart attack on July 24, 1980.
Peter Sellers was not taught by Stanislavski or Strasberg. His method acting was entirely unique to his own personality. He became the characters that he was portraying-in body and spirit. There are no half measures in Seller’s performances. Even in the worst of his films, Sellers talent shines bright. In this writer’s opinion Seller’s is the finest actor who appeared on the silver screen. The question remains, “was Seller’s acting?” When watching his work, you get a sense that he was not acting. As I learned more and more about Sellers, the person, and his psychological need to be other people, I found it harder to call what he did simply acting. Once he slipped into character he stopped being Peter Sellers but transformed into Clouseau, Mandrake, Muffley, Strangelove, Chance, and the many characters be brought to life on radio, television, and screen. In a world that craves labels I would label him a comic, an actor, and first foremost a genius.