Peter Sellers Biography (1925 - 1980)
original name Richard Henry Sellers
* 1955 The Ladykillers
* 1958 The Smallest Show on Earth
* 1959 I'm All Right Jack
* 1961 Only Two Can Play
(born September 8, 1925, Southsea, England.—died July 24, 1980, London,England) versatile English comic actor whose astonishing range of characters earned him international stardom at a time when rigid typecasting was usual.
Sellers was a descendant of legendary Portuguese-Jewish prizefighter Daniel Mendoza and the son of British vaudeville performers. After winning a talent contest, he planned to become a professional drummer, and as such he was hired to perform in Ralph Reader's “gang shows”—concert units that toured British army bases during World War II. He developed his mimicry skills while serving in the Royal Air Force and ultimately abandoned the drums in favour of comedy, performing celebrity impressions during a six-week run at London's Windmill Theatre. In 1951 he teamed with Spike Milligan and Harry Secombe to create The Goon Show, a radio comedy sketch series. Emerging as the star of the series with his repertoire of eccentric characters, Sellers also dominated the Goons' film projects, including the short subject Let's Go Crazy (1951) and the feature-length Down Among the Z Men (1952).
On his own, he played a handful of supporting film roles before his breakthrough appearance as a doltish crook in The Ladykillers (1955). Following the advice of that film's star, Alec Guinness, Sellers strove to avoid playing the same character twice. He especially enjoyed disappearing into characters much older than himself (The Smallest Show on Earth, 1957; Battle of the Sexes, 1959) and playing multiple roles (The Mouse That Roared, 1959). He did some of his best work for the Boulting Brothers in the late 1950s and early '60s, notably his characterization of obstreperous union shop steward Fred Kite in I'm All Right Jack (1959); it was also during this period that he made his feature directorial debut with Mr. Topaze (1961). Many British observers of the period dismissed Sellers as a glorified radio mimic, while Americans lauded him as a genius. One such American was director Stanley Kubrick, who cast Sellers as the treacherous Clare Quilty in Lolita (1962) and in three superbly defined roles in the brilliant “doomsday comedy” Dr. Strangelove (1964).
The role that earned him superstar status was the magnificently inept Inspector Clouseau in The Pink Panther and A Shot in the Dark (both 1964), both directed by Blake Edwards. The success of these projects was marred by Sellers's near-fatal heart attack in 1964. Upon his recovery, the quality of his films became wildly erratic, his mercurial offscreen temperament reflected by the unevenness of his cinematic output. He would not truly hit his stride again until the mid-1970s, when he repeated the role of Inspector Clouseau in three profitable Pink Panther sequels.
In 1979 he delivered what many consider his finest performance, as the simpleminded gardener Chance in Being There. This Oscar-nominated triumph was followed by one of his worst films, The Fiendish Plot of Dr. Fu Manchu (1980). Suffering a series of heart attacks, he died at age 54; his final “performance” in Trail of the Pink Panther (released posthumously in 1982) was a hodgepodge of outtakes from earlier films.
Born Richard Henry Sellers
8 September 1925(1925-09-08)
Died July 24, 1980 (aged 54)
Years active 1948 - 1980
Spouse(s) Lynne Frederick (1977-1980)
Miranda Quarry (1970-1974)
Britt Ekland (1964-1968)
Anne Howe (1951-1961)
Sellers was married four times:
1. Actress Anne Howe (1951–1961). They had two children, Michael and Sarah.
2. Swedish actress Britt Ekland (1964–1968). They had a daughter, Victoria Sellers. The couple appeared in two films together: After the Fox (1966) and The Bobo (1967).
3. Australian model Miranda Quarry (now the Countess of Stockton) (1970–1974).
4. English actress Lynne Frederick (1977–1980), who later married Sir David Frost.
Again, Spike Milligan wrote this into his scripts, referring in one 1972 radio show to "The Peter Sellers Discarded Wives Memorial". At the time, Sellers was married to his third wife, Miranda Quarry.
In 1964, at age 38, Sellers suffered a series of heart attacks (13 in a few days), which permanently damaged his heart. Sellers' heart condition deteriorated when he deferred proper medical treatment, instead opting for "psychic healers." He also wore a pacemaker, which caused him considerable problems.
A reunion dinner was scheduled in London with his Goon Show partners, Spike Milligan and Harry Secombe, for late July 1980. But on 22 July Sellers collapsed from a massive heart attack in his Dorchester Hotel room and fell into a coma. He died in a London hospital just after midnight on 24 July 1980, aged 54. He was survived by his fourth wife, Lynne Frederick, and three children: Michael, Sarah and Victoria. At the time of his death he was scheduled to undergo heart surgery in Los Angeles within the month.
Sellers's fourth wife inherited the bulk of his estate, and his children received £800 each. Sellers's only son, Michael, died of a heart attack at 52 during surgery on 24 July 2006. It was 26 years to the day after his father died of the same condition. Michael was survived by his second wife, Alison, whom he married in 1986, and their two children.
In his will, Sellers requested that the Glenn Miller song "In the Mood" be played at his funeral. The request is considered his last touch of humour, as he hated the piece. This is verified in Michael Bentine's memoir The Door Marked Summer. His body was cremated and he was interred at Golders Green Crematorium in London.
The film Trail of the Pink Panther, made by Blake Edwards using unused footage of Sellers from The Pink Panther Strikes Again, is dedicated to Sellers's memory. The title reads "To Peter... The one and only Inspector Clouseau."
In a 2005 poll to find The Comedian's Comedian, Sellers was voted 14 in the list of the top 20 greatest comedians by fellow comedians and comedy insiders.
Sellers was born in Southsea, Portsmouth, England to a family of entertainers. His parents nicknamed him Peter at an early age, after his elder stillborn brother. He attended a Roman Catholic school, St. Aloysius College, although his father was Protestant and his mother was Jewish. He was a descendant of English prizefighter Daniel Mendoza, who was of Portuguese-Jewish descent. Sellers is also a cousin of Talksport radio presenter Mike Mendoza.
Accompanying his family on the variety show circuit,Sellers learned stagecraft which proved valuable later. He performed at five at the Windmill Theatre in the drama Splash Me!, which featured his mother. He was a versatile artist, excelling at dancing, drumming well enough to tour with jazz bands (his drumming is shown in a clip of the Steve Allen show in 1964), and playing ukulele and banjo. In Parkinson, Sellers claimed his father had taught George Formby to play ukulele. Sellers played ukulele on the "New York Girls" track for Steeleye Span's 1975 album Commoner's Crown.
World War II
During World War II, Sellers was an airman in the Royal Air Force, rising to corporal, though he had been relegated to ground staff due to poor eyesight. His tour included India and Burma, although the duration of his stay in Asia is unknown, and he may have exaggerated its length. He also served in Germany and France after the war.
As a distraction from the life of a non-commissioned officer, Sellers joined the Entertainments National Service Association (ENSA), allowing him to hone his drumming and comedy. He occasionally impersonated his superiors, and his portrayal of RAF officer Lionel Mandrake in the film Dr. Strangelove may have been modelled on them. He bluffed his way into the Officers Club using mimicry and the occasional false moustache, although as he told Michael Parkinson in the 1972 interview, occasionally older officers would suspect him. The voice of Goon Show character Major Dennis Bloodnok came from this period.
The Goon Show
After his discharge and return to England in 1948, Sellers supported himself with stand-up routines in variety theatres whose impresarios needed to legitimise their business. Sellers telephoned BBC radio producer Roy Speer, pretending to be Kenneth Horne, a member of the radio show, Much Binding in the Marsh,to get Speer to speak to him. Sellers was eventually cast on The Goon Show with Spike Milligan, Harry Secombe and Michael Bentine. Sellers followed this with television work.
Sellers's film success arrived with British comedies, including The Ladykillers, I'm All Right Jack and The Mouse That Roared. He began receiving international attention for his portrayal of an Indian doctor in The Road to Hong Kong, the seventh and last in the "Road" series, starring Bing Crosby, Bob Hope, Dorothy Lamour.
Playing as Sonny MacGregor an impersonator of sorts in the Sonny MacGregor Show in The Naked Truth (1957)
Sellers found further international acclaim with the The Millionairess with Sophia Loren. The film inspired the George Martin radio and television production Goodness Gracious Me, as well as two novelty songs Goodness Gracious Me and Bangers and Mash, both featuring Sellers and Loren. He starred in Stanley Kubrick's Lolita as Clare Quilty, opposite James Mason as Humbert Humbert. In portraying Quilty, Sellers proved a scene stealer.
Peter Sellers in Dr. Strangelove (1964)
A breakthrough came with Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb in which he portrayed three characters: U.S. President Merkin Muffley, Dr. Strangelove and Group Captain Lionel Mandrake of the RAF. Muffley and Strangelove appeared in the same room throughout the film. Sellers was also cast in the role of Major T. J. 'King' Kong. Initially, Sellers struggled with the character's Southern accent, but a crewmember made a recording of a Texan accent, which Sellers apparently mastered after repeated listenings . However, during a scene in a plane designed for the set, Sellers fell 15 feet and broke his leg, preventing additional cockpit scenes and forcing Kubrick to replace Sellers with Slim Pickens.
Peter Sellers as Inspector Clouseau in the Pink Panther movies
Sellers is most famous for his performance as the bumbling Inspector Clouseau in the Pink Panther movies, a role that Peter Ustinov had declined. This character gave Sellers a worldwide audience, beginning with The Pink Panther and its sequel, A Shot in the Dark, in which he featured more prominently. He returned to the character for three more sequels from 1975 to 1978. The Trail of the Pink Panther, containing unused footage of Sellers, was released in 1982, after his death. His widow, Lynne Frederick, successfully sued the film's producers for unauthorized use. Sellers had prepared to star as Chief Inspector Clouseau in another Pink Panther film; he died before the start of this project, Romance of the Pink Panther.
Sellers was a versatile actor, switching from broad comedy, as in The Party, to more intense performances as in Lolita.
Sellers faced a downturn by the early 1970s and was dubbed "box office poison. But after the successful return of Clouseau role in new Pink Panther movies, he produced and starred in a film, Being There (1979).Based on the Jerzy Kosinski novel he cherished, Being There earned Sellers his best reviews since the 1960s, a second Academy Award nomination and a Golden Globe award. Sellers never won an Oscar but won the BAFTA for I'm All Right Jack.
Sellers appeared on The Muppet Show television series in 1977. He chose not to appear as himself, instead appearing in a variety of costumes and accents. When Kermit the Frog told Sellers he could relax and be "himself", Sellers (while wearing a Viking helmet, a girdle and one boxing glove, claiming to have attempted to dress as Queen Victoria), replied, "There is no me. I do not exist. There used to be a me, but I had it surgically removed."
Barclays Bank approached Sellers to be on the team for advertisements. Barclays asked Sellers to play Harry Hodges, a Cockney wheeler-dealer ready to make a penny wherever possible. When it came to shooting, Sellers said Harry Hodges was no longer the plan and decided to go under the guise of Monty Casino. Casino’s character resembled Hodges and if not for the change of name and cultural background could have gone unnoticed. Now the new Jewish Monty Casino was ready to make or break the Barclays campaign. Sellers died approximately two weeks later and so did Monty Casino. Barclays felt that without Sellers, it should go back to the original plan and it hired Peter Cook to play Harry Hodges. Monty Casino had little airtime and was the last role Peter Sellers played.
Personal and professional struggles
Sellers had a troubled personal life. He often clashed with actors and directors, including a strained relationship with friend and director Blake Edwards, with whom he worked on the Pink Panther series among other films. The two sometimes stopped speaking to each other during filming. Their personal and professional relationship was disrupted by Sellers's demeanour, highlighted in the semi-biographical HBO/BBC film The Life and Death of Peter Sellers.
Sellers's personality was described as difficult and demanding by others. His behaviour caused physical and emotional hurt to many, notably his first three wives. As portrayed in The Life and Death of Peter Sellers, he told his eight-year-old son that the boy's mother (Sellers's wife at the time) was having an affair. Sellers is known to have assaulted Britt Ekland, often prompted by unsubstantiated jealousy.
His work with Orson Welles on Casino Royale deteriorated as Sellers became jealous of Welles's casual relationship with Princess Margaret. The relationship between the two actors created logistic problems during filming, as Sellers refused to share the set with Welles, who himself was no stranger to strident behaviour. Sellers could be cruel and disrespectful, as demonstrated in his treatment of actress Jo Van Fleet on the set of I Love You, Alice B. Toklas (1968). On one occasion, Van Fleet had declined an invitation to his house, soon followed by a misunderstanding between the two actors during filming. This prompted Sellers to a tirade against Van Fleet in front of actors and crew.
Sellers was reticent about discussing his private life. On the Muppet Show (season 2), in a "backstage" chat with Kermit, Sellers declined to step out of character, explaining he had "no real me". He was invited to appear on Michael Parkinson's eponymous chat show in 1974, but agreed under the condition that he could appear in character. Sellers appeared dressed as a member of the Gestapo, impersonating Kenneth Mars' in The Producers. After a few lines in keeping with his assumed character, he stepped out of the role and settled down for what is considered one of Parkinson's most memorable interviews.
It has been suggested that Sellers suffered depression spurred by deep-seated anxieties of artistic and personal failure. Some behaviour may have been exacerbated by substance abuse, for Sellers regularly smoked cannabis, drank large amounts of alcohol, and used other recreational drugs. It is now believed that his drug use, especially amyl nitrites, contributed to heart attacks in 1964 (see below). Sellers became aware that his frail psyche affected his career and life. However, rather than seeking professional counselling, he opted for periodic consultations with astrologer Maurice Woodruff, who seemed to have had considerable sway over his later career.
Relationships with other celebrities
Sellers had casual friendships with two Beatles, George Harrison and Ringo Starr. Harrison told occasional Sellers stories in interviews, and Starr appeared with him in the anarchic movie The Magic Christian (1970), whose theme song was Badfinger's "Come and Get It", written by Paul McCartney. Starr also gave Sellers a rough mix of songs from the Beatles' White Album; the tape was auctioned and bootlegged after his death. Sellers recorded a cover version of A Hard Day's Night (1965), in the style of Laurence Olivier's interpretation of Richard III.
First man on the cover of Playboy
Sellers's friendships included actor and director Roman Polanski, who shared his passion for fast cars. Sellers was a friend of Princess Margaret and had a close relationship with Sophia Loren, for whom he seemed to have felt strong but apparently unrequited romantic attraction. Sellers was the first man on the cover of Playboy — he appeared on the April 1964 cover with Karen Lynn.
Obsession with automobiles
Sellers had a lifelong obsession with cars, briefly parodied in a fleeting cameo in the short film Simon Simon, directed by friend Graham Stark. His love for cars was also referenced in the The Goon Show episode "The Space Age", where Harry Secombe introduces Sellers by saying, "Good heavens, it's Peter Sellers, who has just broken his own record of keeping a car for more than a month." In "The Last Goon Show of All", announcer Andrew Timothy cued him with "Mr. Sellers will now sell a gross of his cars and take up a dramatic voice".