Comedian and actor Peter Sellers, 1973. Photo by celebrity photographer Allan Warren.
Peter Sellers was a talented British comedian and actor best-known for his performances in Being There and the Pink Panther movies. He was best known to me, as a child, simply because I thought he was charming and funny. He always seemed so serious, and yet, he didn't take himself seriously. He could make a mistake, shake it off and keep right on going, and as a shy child who took everything seriously, he was a bit of a hero to me.
C is for Comedian Cat: The Pink Panther, Peter Sellers
Childhood and Early Career
On September 8, 1925, Richard Henry Sellers was born to a family of professional entertainers who lived in Southsea, Portsmouth. He was called Peter after an older brother who died in childhood. Seller's father, Bill Sellers, was a professional piano player, and his mother, Peg Mendoza, a singer/dancer. The family performed in British vaudeville and his grandmother was their manager. Sellers' great-grandfather was a famous Portuguese-Jewish pugilist, Daniel Mendoza. In his teen years, Seller's chose a career as a drummer and toured the British Army bases with a band during World War II. At 18, he was drafted into the Royal Air Force and entertained his fellow soldiers with celebrity impressions.
The Goon Show
Sellers started his professional career in 1951 when he teamed up with Spike Milligan and Harry Secombe for a radio sketch comedy show called The Goon Show, which is believed to be the precursor to television sketch comedies such as the now famous Monty Python's Flying Circus.
The blue plaque from the old Camden Theatre, now Koko, the site of the recording of The Last Goon Show of All. Photo by Schrodinger's cat is alive.
The show lasted until 1960. According to The Goon Show Site, the original cast of The Goon Show met at a London pub called Graftons, and the landlord of the pub was instrumental in selling the idea of The Goon Show to the BBC.. The character Sellers played most often on the show was a boyscout named Bluebottle.
Peter Seller's version of The Ladykillers will always be my favorite no matter how many times they remake it. According to Robert Osborne's "Feature Presentation" on Turner Classic Movies, The Ladykillers was Peter Sellers' "breakthrough movie." The Ladykillers is a comedy about a group of thieves pretending to be musicians. It was filmed in 1955 and remade in 2004 by Joel and Ethan Coen. The 1955 version of The Ladykillers also starred Alec Guinness and Herbert Lom. In 2006, Premiere Magazine voted the 1955 version of The Ladykillers as one of the "50 Great Comedies of All Time."
The Mouse That Roared
In 1959, Sellers starred in The Mouse That Roared, playing three different roles including that of a woman, the Grand Duchess Gloriana XII, a task that allowed him to use the impressionist talents he had perfected during his early years as a performer.
Peter Sellers, 1966, Public Domain.
Sellers works with Stanley Kubrick on Lolita
In 1962, Sellers worked with director Stanley Kubrick on Lolita, playing the role of Clare Quilty, a playwright, pedophile, and reflection of the darker side of the film's leading character, Professor Humbert Humbert. Oddly enough, in spite of his obvious ability to successfully portray any character, many biographers claim that Sellers was intimidated by the strange and quirky Quilty and had to be coaxed into accepting the role by Kubrick, who had great faith in Sellers' acting talent. Sellers also used multiple disguises in this film, similar to the way he played multiple roles in other films.
The Pink Panther and A Shot in the Dark
Eight years and many great movie appearances occurred between Sellers' breakthrough performance in The Ladykillers and the 1963 film that he is best known for: Inspector Jacques Clouseau. The Pink Panther was directed by Blake Edwards and the cast included David Niven, and Robert Wagner. Sellers character, Inspector Jacques Clouseau, is a bumbling, yet remarkably successful detective.
Shortly after the release of The Pink Pather, Sellers was cast in another mystery, A Shot in the Dark. A Shot in the Dark was released in 1964, and according to Robert Osborne's "Feature Presentation" on TCM, the release of this film was "an unusual case on all counts." As Osborne explains, the film did not start out as a Pink Panther film, but as a Broadway play. As filming progressed, Sellers became unhappy with the project, so Blake Edwards, who worked with Sellers on The Pink Panther, was hired to replace the director. Edwards suggested William Peter Blatty assist on a revision of the script and the finished product became the second in the Pink Panther Series. Herbert Lom made his first appearance in this film as Chief Inspector Charles Dreyfuss, Clouseau's superior who is nearly driven insane by the bumbling detective.
Dr. Strangelove and The World of Henry Orient
The year 1964 was a stressful one for Sellers. In addition to A Shot in the Dark, he also starred in the critically acclaimed Dr. Strangelove, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb with George C. Scott. Sellers once again worked with director Stanley Kubrick, who again had to convince Sellers that he was the only person who could play the three distinctly different characters Kubrick hired him to portray. Sellers was nominated for an Oscar for his roles in Dr. Strangelove.
Peter Sellers as Dr. Strangelove. Public Domain.
Being There and a Second Oscar Nomination
In 1979, Peter Sellers gave what is believed to be his greatest performance playing Chance, a gardener addicted to television, in the film Being There, based on the novel by Jerzy Kosinski. It was Sellers who convinced Kosinski that the book should be made into a film. He spent many hours preparing for the role using a tape recorder to make sure his voice matched that of his interpretation of the character, Chance. His performance as Chance brought Sellers a second Academy Award nomination as well as a Golden Globe Award.
The Troubled Life of a Talented Man
The personal life of Peter Sellers was no doubt problematic. He used both recreational drugs and alcohol in excess, which, in addition to his shockingly-hectic filming schedule, may have contributed to his numerous heart attacks. He shunned interviews, particularly during his hectic filming schedules so he could remain in character. He was married four times. In 1951 he married Anne Howe. They had two children, Michael and Sarah, and were married for ten years. In 1964 he married Swedish actress Britt Ekland. They also had one child together, Victoria Sellers. They divorced in 1968. He then married Australian fashion model Miranda Quarry. They divorced in 1974. He married Lynne Frederick in 1977 and they remained married until he died.
Death and Legacy
After his numerous heart attacks in 1964, Sellers' heart continued to weaken. On July 22, 1980, only days before a scheduled reunion with his former partners from The Goon Show, Sellers again suffered from a massive heart attack. He was in a coma for three days and died on July 24, 1980 at the age of 54. His body was cremated and his ashes interred at Golders Green Crematorium in London. During his career, Sellers appeared in 66 films, often starring in numerous films during the same year. He also made record albums of his comedy routines. He was nominated for two Academy Awards. In 2004, HBO presented a biography of Sellers titled The Life and Death of Peter Sellers.
- "Biography of Peter Sellers." Turner Classic Movies Online. Retrieved January 20, 2011.
- "History." The Goon Show Site. Retrieved January 30, 2011.
- Louvish, Simon. "Here, there and everywhere: Simon Louvish follows the up-and-down career of Peter Sellers in Ed Sikov's exhaustive biography, Mr. Strangelove." The Guardian. Retrieved January 20, 2011.
- Osborne, Robert. "Feature Presentation: A Shot in the Dark." Shown on Turner Classic Movies on January 20, 2011.