Sellers, Peter (1925-1980)

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Sellers, Peter (1925-1980)

Born in London to parents who were professional performers in the music halls, Peter Sellers became one of Britain's foremost comic actors of radio, film, and television in the 1950s and 1960s. Famous for his impeccable comic timing, his improvisation skills, and his ability to switch from one character to another, Sellers appeared in films as diverse as The Ladykillers (1958), Lolita (1962), and Dr. Strangelove (1964). But it was the Pink Panther series that both confirmed his versatility as an actor and raised him to an international superstar. Since his death in 1980, four biographies of Sellers have been published, and the actor has gained notoriety for his unpredictable behavior and the excesses of his life as a movie star.

Sellers spent the last couple of years of World War II in the Royal Air Force, where he infuriated high-ranking senior officers by impersonating their voices. After the war he tried to build a career as a drummer, but after an audition at the Windmill theatre in London, he became a comedian. In the late 1940s, Sellers established himself as a comedian and impressionist on BBC radio, working first on Showtime, a program that encouraged new talent. Later, he became a regular BBC "voice man," impersonating well-known personalities on a show called Ray's a Laugh. In 1951, when he began working with Michael Bentine, Spike Milligan, and Harry Secombe on a radio show called Crazy People, later to become known as The Goon Show, Sellers's comic talent began to blossom. The anarchic, surrealistic humor of "The Goons" marked a significant break with the comedy that had gone before, and paved the way for the comic style of Monty Python's Flying Circus and the "alternative" comedy of the 1980s and 1990s. It was from working with "The Goons" that Sellers was able to move into films, having his first major success with the British-made The Ladykillers (1958), in which he worked alongside Alec Guinness and Margaret Rutherford. It was inevitable that he would eventually move to Hollywood, where he made the Pink Panther series of films for which he is, arguably, best known.

Five original Pink Panther movies were made, featuring Sellers as Inspector Clouseau, the endearingly clumsy and incompetent French detective. The first film, The Pink Panther, appeared in 1963, followed by A Shot in the Dark (1964), The Return of the Pink Panther (1975), The Pink Panther Strikes Again (1976), and Revenge of the Pink Panther in 1978. All the films focus on Clouseau's earnest efforts to solve bizarre, trivial, even non-existent mysteries with a maximum of fuss and melodramatic intrigue. The humor, as with much of Sellers's work, is based on language and voices. Clouseau's comic accent, his inability to understand or pronounce English words, and his attempts to cover up his mistakes with elaborate explanations, satirize our often misplaced respect for authorities of all kinds. A sixth Pink Panther film, The Trail of the Pink Panther, appeared in 1982, after Sellers's death. This final, ill-advised outing for Sellers's bumbling detective contains no original material involving him, being constructed from outtakes from the five earlier films. Sellers made over fifty feature films in his relatively short career in Hollywood and in Britain.

After a major heart attack in 1964, his performances, though occasionally brilliant, were no longer as consistent as they had been, and the films to which he contributed in the late 1960s and the 1970s are variable in their quality and their success at the box office. Roger Lewis's 1994 biography of Sellers, The Life and Death of Peter Sellers, points to his chaotic private life and dramatic mood swings as part of the reason for the inconsistency of his later work. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, Sellers's behavior became increasingly unpredictable; he was a drug abuser, became self-destructively obsessed with people, and could be generous and dangerously violent by turns. He married four times, to Ann Hayes, Britt Ekland, Miranda Quarry, and Lynne Frederick, respectively, and was known to be sexually promiscuous. While he was a comic actor of extraordinary abilities, Sellers was also a vain, self-centered man, who enjoyed, and was ultimately let down by, his fame.

Lewis's biography draws loose connections between Sellers's on-screen persona and the private man, suggesting that the megalomania that made his performances so exacting spilled over into his private life. Peter Evans, an earlier, more reserved, biographer, confirms this when he suggests that such was his immersion in whatever role he was playing, Sellers had practically no personality of his own. However difficult or unpleasant he could be as a man, most of those who worked with him agree that as an actor, Sellers has left us a legacy of comic performance and innovation that is among the most rewarding of his generation.

—Chris Routledge

Further Reading:

Evans, Peter. Peter Sellers: The Mask behind the Mask. London, Severn House, 1981.

Lewis, Roger. The Life and Death of Peter Sellers. London, Century, 1994.

Rigelsford, Adrian. Peter Sellers: A Celebration. London, Virgin, 1997.

Walker, Alexander. Peter Sellers: The Authorized Biography. London, Wiedenfeld and Nicholson, 1981.