You silly, twisted boy, you1.
Peter Sellers was one of the most talented actors and voice artists of the 20th Century. Appearing in the classic radio comedy series The Goon Show as well as 67 films, he is considered to be one of the most complicated stars of his time. He was a man who could be anyone, yet did not know who he was himself.
On 8 September, 1925, during a performance in Southsea, Peg Sellers began to have contractions but continued with her show. She then rushed to the flat they were renting above the chip shop, and their second son Richard Henry Sellers was born. He, too, would be known as 'Peter' – after his older brother who died just after birth.
While Peter was growing up, his father spent most of his time on tour, either leaving Peter at home with his mother for very long periods, or taking the boy along with him, but leaving him in the care of strangers while he performed on stage. For much of this period Bill and Peg were necessarily apart, leaving Peter without a male role model. After the death of his older brother, Peg doted on her surviving son, to an extent bordering on worship. Peter was never told off and was given anything he was asked for. The only thing he lacked was company of his own age. His only companions were his smothering mother and the BBC Radio.
After the collapse of vaudeville, his mother raised money by travelling to country towns and villages, claiming to be from a fictitious company called 'London Gold Refiners Company Ltd', buying gold to sell on at a profit in London. At this period Peter and his mother often moved house, usually around the north London area. He would spend the rest of his life regularly changing home.
Peter's few school years began when he was enrolled at Saint Aloysius Catholic School4 in London at the age of 11. As he had grown up without an education he was demoted to the year below, and again did not mix with children his own age. In 1939, at the age of 14, he left school. Shortly after his 15th birthday the flat that he and his mother shared suffered minor damage during a bombing raid and they promptly moved to Ilfracombe in Devon to escape the Blitz.
The Second World War
During the Second World War Sellers and his father joined ENSA, the Entertainments National Service Association, entertaining troops and factory workers to raise morale. Sellers joined a band with his father and George Formby's sister Ethel, Peter playing drums and ukulele. Following his 18th birthday in September 1943 he was called up, and so he enlisted in the RAF. His poor eyesight denied his ambition of becoming a pilot, and so he became 2223033 Airman Second Class, the lowest rank in the RAF. Finding servicing aircraft unfulfilling, he auditioned and joined the RAF's Gang Show, another entertainment organisation aimed at raising morale.
Sellers was sent to India and Burma in 1944-5, followed by France and Germany. It was during the war that he met first David Lodge and later Graham Stark and Bryan Forbes, who would be his closest friends for life.
Following his discharge in 1948, Sellers returned to a Britain in the middle of rationing, with each person allowed only 13 ounces of meat, two pints of milk, one and half ounces of cheese and one egg a week. Sellers advertised his services as a drummer and impressionist, however drumming had changed since before the war and his style was considered flamboyant and archaic, so reluctantly he abandoned a musical career to pursue comedy. In March 1948 he found a job as a comic at the Windmill Theatre, a strip club. The women, when naked, were forbidden by law from moving. Later that year he phoned the BBC, impersonating a star of a radio comedy series and managed to get on Show Time on 1 July. As he was very well received his début was quickly followed by other radio appearances.
1950s – Goon but not Forgotten
In 1951 Sellers joined Harry Secombe and Spike Milligan on radio in The Goon Show5, playing several characters over the next decade including Bluebottle, Major Bloodnok, Henry Crun, Hercules Grytpype-Thynne and Willium 'Mate' Cobblers6. During this time they made some minor films and on 15 September, 1951, he married his first wife, Anne Levy. She would be mother to his son Michael in 1954, and first daughter7 Sarah in 1957.
The 1950s - Early Film Career
Despite his fame as a radio comedian, Sellers was desperate to be an actor, inspired by Stan Laurel and Alec Guinness. In 1955 he had a minor role in his first real film The Ladykillers, starring Alec Guinness and Herbert Lom. Sellers was truly in awe of Guinness, asking for his advice at any opportunity. In 1956 he made three television series, written by Spike Milligan and directed by Richard 'Dick' Lester8: Idiot Weekly, Price 2d, A Show Called Fred and Son of Fred. They were followed by Yes, It's the Cathode-Ray Tube Show!, written by and co-starring Michael Bentine and David Nettheim in 1957. These series would later inspire Monty Python's Flying Circus.
Also in 1957 Sellers performed in The Naked Truth, his first co-starring role. He would first star in his own right in The Mouse That Roared, a 1959 film in which he played three roles: Tully Bascombe, Prime Minister Mountjoy and Grand Duchess Gloriana XII9. Sellers' chief hobby was collecting gadgets, especially cameras, and making his own films. In 1959 he bought a new camera and asked his friends Spike Milligan, Graham Stark and Dick Lester to come round while he tried it out. The result was The Running, Jumping & Standing Still Film, an 11-minute short film, Oscar-nominated in the Short Subject (Live Action) category, which led to Dick Lester being asked by the Beatles to direct A Hard Day's Night.
I'm All Right Jack was Sellers' first straight, non-comedic acting role. Playing shop-steward Fred Kite, Sellers won the Best Actor BAFTA for his sensational performance in what was the most successful film in Britain in 1959.
1960s – The Rise and Fall
In 1960 Sellers appeared as leading man in The Millionairess. At first he was uninterested in playing George Bernard Shaw's selfless Doctor Kabir10, but when he found out his co-star would be Sophia Loren he eagerly agreed. This was a role for which he would be paid $50,000 and Sophia $200,000. During the filming Sellers fell in love with Sophia11, which led to the break-up of his marriage when Anne left him. This film had two promotional singles by Sellers and Loren; the first was 'Goodness Gracious Me', a Number Four hit that inspired the comedy series Goodness Gracious Me12. The second was the less successful 'Bangers and Mash', which was about an Englishman (married to an Italian woman) who wants to eat sausages but instead is always given spaghetti, which peaked at Number 22.
In April 1960 Sellers went on a trip to America to promote his films. He quickly developed a profound hatred for Hollywood which remained for the rest of his life. On his arrival he overheard a film company representative inform his hotel receptionist that the property has arrived, a term of address which angered and humiliated him. In the news was the story that one of Sellers' childhood heroes, Charlie Chaplin, was to be denied a star on Hollywood's Walk of Fame for political reasons, a slight Sellers considered a personal insult13. Sellers left America soon after.
Following The Millionairess, Sellers was determined to be a leading man. He decided he should be able to change his appearance as easily as he could change his voice, and slimmed down drastically. His next film role was Mr Topaze, which co-starred Herbert Lom. Sellers also directed it, but it flopped. This showed that for all his talent, Sellers did not know how to direct other people and he would later disassociate himself from this film.
This failure was short-lived. In 1962 he appeared in one of the year's most successful British films, Only Two Can Play, cast by his friend Bryan Forbes who had written the screenplay. Also in 1962 he worked for the first time with legendary director Stanley Kubrick, who would later direct 2001: A Space Odyssey. Sellers had 14 days free in which to appear as the minor character of Clare Quilty in Lolita. Despite this, he expanded his minor role and was nominated for a Golden Globe. Kubrick became the director he enjoyed working with the most.
Despite his career's success, Sellers' separation from his wife Anne and the death of his father from a heart attack in 1961 badly affected him. His chauffeur and friend Bert Mortimer moved into his penthouse for fear that Sellers would commit suicide. The only thing which seemed to keep Sellers going was an obsession he had about marrying his friend Bryan Forbes' wife, the actress Nanette Newman, with whom he had starred in 1962's The Wrong Arm of the Law. During this dark period he returned to the safety of doing familiar and reassuring Goon voices for puppet television series The Telegoons.
1964 – Doctor Pantherlove, or: How I Learned to Shoot in the Dark and Love the Pink Clouseau
The year 1964 was perhaps the pinnacle of Sellers' career. He appeared in The Pink Panther as a last-minute replacement for Sir Peter Ustinov. This was a minor role, billed fifth after Sir Charles Lytton, Simone Clouseau, George Lytton and Princess Dala, however, with director Blake Edwards' support he transformed the role he had been given into the starring lead, without changing the screenplay, through his physical presence and talent. This was to be the first of five times he would play Inspector Jacques Clouseau, his most famous character.
The Pink Panther was followed by Dr Strangelove, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb14, in which Peter Sellers played three characters; American President Merkin Muffley, Group Captain Lionel Mandrake and nuclear physicist Dr Strangelove. Sellers had also been contracted to play Major 'King' Kong, a role he was reluctant to perform, but a sprained ankle injury, possibly self-inflicted or even imaginary, prevented him, and so Slim Pickens was cast. Afterwards he returned to work with Blake Edwards for the second Clouseau film, A Shot in the Dark. This had originated as a French play, and evolved into a Pink Panther film almost by accident after inital production troubles. During the making of A Shot in the Dark, Sellers met and married Britt Ekland.
Shortly afterwards he was signed up to appear in Billy Wilder's Kiss Me, Stupid. During the making of the film he had frequent clashes with the director15. Sellers, more shy and nervous about filming than generally realised, liked a quiet set in which to work and have room to improvise dialogue. Wilder liked to invite his family and friends, and their family and friends, to watch him work and, having written the scripts with his writing partner IAL 'Iz' Diamond, would not allow anyone to deviate by as much as one word. A clash of personalities was inevitable, and the stress caused, combined with amyl nitrate, the sexual-performance enhancing drug he was regularly taking, and the body-building regime aimed at improving his physique, caused a series of heart attacks, the first on 8 April, 1964. Sellers was technically dead on more than one occasion, but the doctors were able to resuscitate him. Recovering from the ordeal, the doctors advised him to rest and avoid working for several months. Wilder fired Sellers from Kiss Me, Stupid, saying: Heart attack? You have to have a heart before you can have an attack.
Following his heart attacks, Sellers was considered an insurance risk and initially no film studio would hire him in a starring role. Unsurprisingly, when interviewed by his friend, journalist Alexander Walker, he was a little disappointed and said: As far as Hollywood is concerned, I've taken the round trip for good. They give you every creature comfort except the satisfaction of being able to get the best work out of yourself. This caused a tremendous anti-Sellers backlash in Hollywood, led by Billy Wilder who published an article calling him an 'unprofessional rat fink', and has been attributed as the reason why he did not win the Best Actor Oscar for his performance in Dr Strangelove.
Sellers returned to acting, appearing in the charity television special Carol for Another Christmas. His first film role after this was in 1965's What's New Pussycat?, Woody Allen's first film, playing Dr Fassbender. Shortly after, his second daughter Victoria, his only child with Britt, was born. Sellers and his wife next appeared in 1966's After the Fox, directed by Italian director Vittorio De Sica, famous for the award-winning Bicycle Thieves. It was De Sica who informed Sellers that purple was the colour of death, a superstition that would haunt him for the rest of his life (but play no part in his actual demise). During the filming, the marriage began to unravel, as Sellers became very critical of his wife's performance. In November 1965 he sang 'A Hard Day's Night' for ITV television show The Music of Lennon and McCartney with a Laurence Olivier impersonation. This single was released in December, becoming a Number 14 hit.
The Name's Sellers, Peter Sellers
The year 1967 was dominated by the most famous flop of Sellers' career, Casino Royale. The film rights to Ian Fleming's first James Bond novel had been bought by a different company than that which had acquired all subsequent Bond film rights, and had even made an American television film of Casino Royale in 1954, before Bond was famous. Although Sean Connery had made James Bond famous, the producer Charles Feldman cast Sellers to be James Bond in 1964. Initially this role was to be played straight, and Sellers' attempts to become fitter and stronger contributed to his heart condition. Columbia Pictures would finance the film, expected to cost $4million.
The film's initial scriptwriter, Ben Hecht, died in 1964, and so a succession of 11 writers16 contributed scenes and re-wrote, deleted or re-installed scenes. There were six directors in total17, hired by Feldman who believed filming with multiple directors would speed production, fired by Sellers, or quit. Sellers, who was originally keen on starring opposite Orson Welles playing Le Chiffre, became terrified of him. He refused to be in the same room as Welles, and in the film it is obvious that when they are supposed to be in the same scene their two sequences were filmed separately, sometimes on different sets. Both men refused to work at the same time as each other, frequently not turning up or disappearing to have holidays. Suddenly Sellers quit before he had finished filming all his scenes. After eight months and over $12million spent, the cobbled-together film was finally released in cinemas in April 1967. It flopped and, as the producer Feldman had died, Sellers was blamed for its failure.
1960s & 1970s Nadir
Sellers' next film was The Bobo, co-starring Britt Ekland. During the filming, Sellers and Ekland divorced and Sellers' mother Peg died from a heart attack. The Bobo also flopped. Sellers was asked to star in Inspector Clouseau, but he declined. Instead, he chose to act in The Party, directed by Blake Edwards, which was only a modest success. His next few films would either fail or not even be released.
In 1969, when filming The Magic Christian18 with Ringo Starr, he proposed to Miranda Quarry, stepdaughter of Lord Mancroft. He married her in 1970 but almost immediately regretted it, considering Miranda too intelligent for him. Miranda and her friends had a privileged background and had been to the best schools. Sellers, having had practically no schooling, did not feel they had much in common and resented being asked by her friends and family to constantly entertain and amuse. After spending much of their time living in different countries, they divorced in 1974. This was perhaps inevitable after he announced an engagement to Liza Minelli in 1973, although they never married.
Between 1970 and 73, Sellers made three films that were not released in his lifetime. The first, regarded as his best from this period, The Blockhouse, is about a group of soldiers buried alive in a well-provisioned bunker during the Second World War. This was followed by the low budget A Day on the Beach, and the never finished Ghost in the Noonday Sun. The films that made it onto cinema screens left them promptly after with little impact or reward. No Hollywood company was willing to hire Sellers, and, other than shooting adverts, by early 1974 his film career appeared to be over.
The Return of the Film Career
In 1974 Lew Grade decided to make a television series about Inspector Clouseau, to star Peter Sellers. Director Blake Edwards, who himself had been going through a career low, persuaded him to make a film instead. The result, The Return of the Pink Panther, was the second most successful film of 1975 after Jaws and re-established Sellers as a film star. This was shortly before a second serious heart attack in 1976. Despite this, Sellers carried on working hard on detective spoof Murder by Death, and filmed another two Pink Panthers, but he had another heart attack between these two in 1977. The three 1970s Pink Panthers each made over $100million, making them the second most successful film series at that time (after the Bond films). Despite his continued heart problems, Sellers, once again successful and married for the fourth time (to English actress Lynne Frederick in 1977), was determined to make the film of his career. This was a role that he felt he had been destined for throughout the 1970s, Chance the Gardener.
In 1971 Jerry Kosinski published Being There, a book about Chance, an empty, emotionless gardener who is forced to leave his small, secluded garden and face the outside world. His simple, uncomplicated and often foolish view of the world is mistaken for great wisdom, and he eventually becomes elected as the President of the USA. Sellers felt that this role was perfect for him, and found personal meaning in the hero. Sellers was obsessed with making this film, with his secretary Sue Evans saying, You have to understand that Being There was a daily conversation.
After the success of the Pink Panther films, Sellers was finally in a position to be able to get Being There made, although shortly before filming started in 1979 he suffered yet another heart attack. This he covered up in order to prevent the cancellation of his project. Playing Chance with Stan Laurel-like dignity, Sellers was nominated for an Oscar for his performance despite the controversy of the film's ending, in which Chance walked on water. The American version of the film ended with outtakes over the closing credits, something which angered Sellers, who insisted, for the European release, that these outtakes be removed in order to preserve the film's impact. Sellers did not win the Oscar, losing to Dustin Hoffman in Kramer vs Kramer.
Shortly after, when arranging to attend a Goon reunion with Harry Secombe and Spike Milligan, as well as planning on finally undergoing heart surgery, Sellers died following a heart attack on 24 July, 1980. He was 54 years old.
Sellers' last intentional film role was The Fiendish Plot of Dr Fu Manchu, which was released posthumously. In 1982 a series of scenes starring Sellers deleted from The Pink Panther Strikes Again were edited and dubbed over to create the first 37 minutes of Trail of the Pink Panther. His widow Lynne Frederick promptly sued claiming that this film was an insult to her husband's memory and breached the 1958 Performers' Protection Act. She was awarded almost $1.5 million in damages. Frederick, an alcoholic, died in 1994 at the age of 39.
Sellers' life was dramatised in the film The Life and Death of Peter Sellers (2004), in which he was played by Oscar-winning actor Geoffrey Rush.
Who was Peter Sellers?
Sellers was more than a list of the films he appeared in, yet he presented a different side of himself to everyone around him. However, all agree that Sellers constantly required something new and exciting, whether a house, car, gadget, role or woman, hoping that it would somehow give his life satisfaction and meaning, something which he desperately craved.
Sellers was the son of a Jewish mother and a Protestant father, yet he had attended a Catholic school as a child. His close friends Harry Secombe and Reverend John Hester, active members of the Actors' Church Union, almost persuaded him to be baptised Anglican. He chose not to, feeling that it would betray his Jewish heritage, but insisted that Hester be his daughter Victoria's godfather and that she be baptised Anglican. In later life Sellers had a profound interest in Hare Krishna and Buddhism. Sellers, by all accounts, spent his entire life believing in pixie-like little men.
Sellers was tremendously superstitious throughout his life. His mother Peg, being in the theatre trade, regularly visited the gypsy fortune-tellers that were often found around. Sellers adopted the same attitude. The first prophecy reportedly told that he would become famous, have four wives, recover from a serious illness and die in bed at the age of 75, a belief he clung to when dying at the age of 54.
Throughout his career he relied heavily on his personal clairvoyant Maurice Woodruff, whose predictions seemed uncannily accurate. What Sellers did not know was that Woodruff was in collusion with his agent. Woodruff advised Sellers to sign up to film deals that his agent secretly informed him about. Thus Sellers' agent was able to control his star. Sellers felt that Woodruff had a real talent for predicting the future, and Woodruff kept an influential, wealthy client impressed that he had powers. It did occasionally go wrong. When Woodruff predicted that Sellers would have a successful, lasting relationship with someone with the initials 'BE', meaning director Blake Edwards, Sellers immediately married Britt Ekland, 11 days after meeting her.
His personal beliefs meant that instead of having proper treatment for his heart in 1976 following his second heart attack, Sellers went to see 'psychic surgeons', or con men, in the Philippines. Had he had a proper operation, it is likely he would have lived longer than his remaining four years.
In addition to his voice and acting work, Sellers continued to play the drums and ukulele throughout his career. He also released singles and had three hits in the top 20; 'Any Old Iron' (1957), 'Goodness Gracious Me' (1960), his most successful, reaching Number four, and 'A Hard Day's Night' (1966). When filming for The Party, Sellers was taught how to play the sitar by world-renowned sitar player Ravi Shankar, a close friend of George Harrison.
Sellers' formative years were spent in radio and television, formats that at the time were predominantly live entertainment. Consequently, when making films he tended to excel on the first take, do well on his second but after that his performance began to drop quite markedly, partly due to his need for the new rather than repeat himself. His career in the theatre was therefore short-lived. Sellers did comedy tours before and during the war, and toured briefly with Spike Milligan and Harry Secombe at the height of the Goon's success. Sellers gave up touring when, after an audience failed to be entertained by Spike, he and Secombe found Spike in his dressing room putting his head in a noose in a suicide attempt.
Sellers was renowned for feeling so little identity of his own that he would emotionally become the character he was playing, saying when interviewed, when I finish a picture I feel a horrible sudden loss of identity. He told reporter and friend Alexander Walker that he felt that it was an almost spiritual experience, and that he felt possessed by different characters. His first wife Anne has said that Sellers completely changed character depending on the role he was playing; when he was a villain he would become violent at home. Sellers' gift for impersonation has been said to have come from a desire to be more than he was. His son Michael, however, believed that Sellers promoted this aspect as a self-created myth for publicity purposes, and that there was no truth in it.
One of Sellers' earliest starring roles was in 1964's The World of Henry Orient, in which his character is told that superstars do not have to turn up for rehearsals, as whether or not they are there, they remain superstars. Sadly, from that moment on, often when he was cast in a film after a period of success, Sellers adapted the same 'I'm the star, I don't need to turn up on time' attitude. However, when his previous films had failed, he would work extremely hard, with a strong desire to be back on top. He was also an extremely shy actor who felt unable to cope on busy film sets or around Orson Welles.
Sellers never really understood the value of money. As a child, anything he wanted he had been given. In his early adult years he was issued his possessions in the RAF, followed by his rationed allocation when he was demobbed, and by the time rationing ended he was successful enough to be able to afford anything that he wanted. Sellers assumed he was able to afford what he wanted to buy, and he was right.
In 1962 when making Only Two Can Play, his contract was for a percentage of the film's profit. After shooting ended he sold his percentage for £17,500. The film was successful and his share would have netted him over £120,000. The producers offered to restore his original contract but Sellers never bothered to sign.
Sellers was a serial proposer from the age of 17, including to at least three women before his first wife, one of whom, when she turned him down, he deliberately impregnated in the hope that she would change her mind. The daughter was later given to an adoption agency and never met her father. Although he later tried to look for her, the adoption agency had not kept any records and so she was never traced. In 1963 he even proposed to a woman he never actually met, after receiving a picture of a blonde woman in the post.
As well as the women he proposed to he had many affairs and would rent lush apartments for the women he was pursuing. He would never invite them to stay with him as that would have been an invasion of his privacy. He did have many celebrity girlfriends, including Tessa Dahl, novelist Roald Dahl's daughter, Sinead Cusack and model Countess Christina 'Titi' Wachtmeister20.
Sellers could be very generous. When he learned that David Lodge's mother had cancer, he immediately cancelled his appointment with Princess Margaret and arranged for Britain's finest doctors to see her at once at his own expense, an action which prolonged her life by 18 months. When Mel Brooks could not get his film Springtime for Hitler, later renamed The Producers, released, Sellers began an advertising campaign to get the film out. When he sold Brookfield House to Ringo Starr during the making of The Magic Christian, John Lennon had offered over twice as much for it. Sellers sold the house to Starr because he had asked first. When A Day at the Beach, based on Roman Polanski's script, was being filmed in London, the gruesome Manson murders took place in Bel Air, at Polanski's home. Sellers immediately gave money towards a $25,000 reward to help catch the killers. He also regularly gave his friends expensive gadgets as gifts, often ones he had bought for himself but had tired of when the novelty wore off.
Sellers used to regularly give money anonymously to beggars, possibly as a result of his father telling him that when he grew up being a beggar would be his fate, and the most he could hope to be was a dustman.
Yet Sellers' generosity could switch off without warning in an instant. He would often insist on taking his friends out for very expensive meals at the finest restaurants, but if the wrong thing was said, he would walk out and leave his guest with the bill.
Relationship with Royals
The Royal Family, including the Queen, Prince Phillip, Prince Charles and the Queen Mother were all very fond of the Goons, and it was quite common for Prince Charles to phone Sellers up impersonating the other characters, especially Bluebottle. Sellers even accompanied the Queen to the theatre on her 39th birthday to see Spike Milligan in Oblomov. One of Sellers' closest friends for much of his life was Princess Margaret, as was her husband Lord Snowdon, who shared Sellers' hobby of photography.
Sellers did cause some offence when he boycotted the Royal World Charity Première of The Pink Panther Strikes Again in 1976. Sellers wished to invite his girlfriend, Lynne Frederick, but at royal functions all invites are arranged months in advance and cannot be changed. So Sellers boycotted the world première of his own film, to Prince Charles' annoyance, who himself was not allowed to invite his friend Mrs Camilla Parker Bowles to the première either.
Sellers owned over a hundred cars during his lifetime, changing them so often that Spike Milligan called them his 'metal underwear'. These ranged from Minis to Rolls Royces. Sellers even considered purchasing an ambulance, believing that this would be the quickest way to drive across London.
Like other celebrities, including Sir Paul McCartney and Frank Sinatra, Sellers became an honourary NYPD detective because of his role playing Inspector Clouseau. He never actually arrested anyone in America, but he did perform a citizen's arrest on a bad driver in Britain.
Sellers was awarded the CBE. According to his son Michael, disappointed he had not been given a title, he binned the medal, but kept the scroll signed by the Queen, had it framed and hung in the toilet. Although he won a Best Actor BAFTA, the award he most wanted was a Best Actor Oscar. Twice nominated for Best Actor and once for Best Short Film, Sellers never won the Oscar he craved.