Nationality: British. Born: Peter Richard Henry Sellers in Southsea, Hampshire, 8 September 1925. Education: Attended St. Aloysius College, London. Family: Married 1) the actress Anne Howe, 1951 (divorced 1964), son: Michael, daughter: Sarah; 2) the actress Britt Ekland, 1964 (divorced 1969), daughter: Victoria; 3) Miranda Quarry, 1970 (divorced 1974); 4) the actress Lynne Frederick, 1977. Career: Appeared as child actor in revue at age five, Splash Me; worked as a drummer in a dance band after leaving school; 1943–46—served in the Royal Air Force; toured with the Gang Show in the Middle East, discharged as corporal; 1946–47—entertainment director of holiday camp; then vaudeville comedian: at Windmill Theatre, London, 1948, and on vaudeville circuit until 1956; 1951—film debut in Penny Points to Paradise; 1952–59—on radio shows Show Time, Ray's a Laugh, and The Goon Show, the last becoming a popular cult favorite; 1958—stage debut in Brouhaha in London; 1959—role in I'm All Right, Jack brought wide popularity; later films in the Pink Panther series made him an international star. Awards: Best British Actor, British Academy, for I'm All Right, Jack, 1959; Commander, Order of the British Empire, 1966. Died: In London, 24 July 1980.
Films as Actor:
Penny Points to Paradise (Young) (as the Major/Arnold Fringe); London Entertains (Faucey); Let's Go Crazy (Cullimore—short) (as Groucho/Guiseppe/Cedric/Izzy Gozzunk/Crystal Jollibottom)
Down among the Z Men (Rogers) (as Major Bloodnok)
Super Secret Service (Green)
Orders Are Orders (Paltenghi) (as Private Goffin)
John and Julie (Fairchild) (as P. C. Diamond); The Ladykillers (Mackendrick) (as Harry); The Case of the Mukkinese Battlehorn (Stirling—short) (as Inspector Quilt/Henry Crun/Sid Crimp/Sir Jervis Fruit); The Man Who Never Was (Neame) (voice of Winston Churchill)
The Smallest Show on Earth (Dearden) (as Percy Quill); Death of a Salesman (Arliss—short); Cold Comfort (Hill); Insomnia Is Good for You (as Hector Dimwiddle)
The Naked Truth (Your Past Is Showing) (Zampi) (as Sonny MacGregor); Up the Creek (Guest) (as Chief Petty Officer Doherty); Tom Thumb (Pal) (as Tony); Carlton-Browne of the F.O. (Man in a Cocked Hat) (Boulting) (as Amphibulous)
The Mouse That Roared (Arnold) (as Bascombe/Grand Duchess Gloriana/Count Mountjoy); I'm All Right, Jack (Boulting) (as Fred Kite)
Battle of the Sexes (Crichton) (as Mr. Martin); Two-Way Stretch (Day) (as "Dodger" Lane)
Never Let Go (Guillermin) (as Lionel Meadows); The Millionairess (Asquith) (as Dr. Ahmed el Kabir/Parerga); The Road to Hong Kong (short)
Only Two Can Play (Gilliat) (as John Lewis); Waltz of the Toreadors (Guillermin) (as General Leo Fitzjohn); Lolita (Kubrick) (as Clare Quilty)
The Dock Brief (Hill) (as Morgenhall); Heavens Above (Boulting) (as the Reverend John Aspinall); The Wrong Arm of the Law (Owen) (as Pearly Gates); The Pink Panther (Edwards) (as Inspector Clouseau)
Dr. Strangelove: Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (Kubrick) (title role/Captain Mandrake/President Muffley); The World of Henry Orient (Hill) (title role); A Shot in the Dark (Edwards) (as Inspector Clouseau)
What's New, Pussycat? (Clive Donner) (as Fritz Fassbender)
The Wrong Box (Forbes) (as Dr. Pratt); After the Fox (De Sica) (as Aldo Vanucci)
Casino Royale (Huston and others) (as Evelyn Tremble); The Bobo (Parrish) (as Juan Bautista); Woman Times Seven (De Sica) (as Jean)
The Party (Edwards) (as Hrundi Vakshi); I Love You, Alice B. Toklas (Averback) (as Harold Fine)
The Magic Christian (McGrath) (as Sir Guy Grand)
Hoffman (Rakoff) (title role); There's a Girl in My Soup (Boulting) (as Robert Danvers); A Day at the Beach (Hesera); Simon, Simon (Stark—short)
Where Does It Hurt? (Amateau); Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (Sterling) (as King of Hearts)
The Blockhouse (Rees) (as Bouquet); The Optimist (The Optimist of Nine Elms) (Simmons) (as Sam); Soft Beds and Hard Battles (Undercover Hero) (Boulting) (as Gen. Latour/Major Robinson/Schroeder/Adolf Hitler/Prince Kyoto/French President)
Ghost in the Noonday Sun (Medak); The Great McGonagall (McGrath) (as Queen Victoria); The Return of the Pink Panther (Edwards) (as Inspector Clouseau)
Murder by Death (Moore) (as Sidney Wang); The Pink Panther Strikes Again (Edwards) (as Inspector Clouseau)
Revenge of the Pink Panther (Edwards) (as Inspector Clouseau)
Being There (Ashby) (as Chance); The Prisoner of Zenda (Quine) (as Prince Rudolph/Syd Frewin)
The Fiendish Plot of Dr. Fu Manchu (Haggard) (title role/Nayland Smith)
Trail of the Pink Panther (Edwards) (as Inspector Clouseau)
Film as Producer:
The Running, Jumping, and Standing Still Film (Lester—short)
Film as Director:
Mister Topaze (+ title role)
By SELLERS: books—
Seller's Market, with Joe Hyams, London, 1966.
The Book of the Goons, with Spike Milligan, London, 1974.
On SELLERS: books—
Evans, Peter, Peter Sellers: The Mask Behind the Mask, 1968, rev. ed., 1981.
Sellers, Michael, with Sarah and Victoria Sellers, P.S. I Love You: Peter Sellers, 1951–80, London, 1981.
Sylvester, Derek, Peter Sellers: An Illustrated Biography, London, 1981.
Walker, Alexander, Peter Sellers: The Authorised Biography, London, 1981.
Stark, Graham, Remembering Peter Sellers, London, 1990.
Starr, Michael, Peter Sellers: A Film History, Jefferson, North Carolina, 1991.
Lewis, Roger, The Life and Death of Peter Sellers, London, 1994, 1999.
Rigelsford, Adrian, Peter Sellers: A Celebration, Virgin Publishing, 1997.
Sellers, Michael, Hard Act to Follow: Intimate Stories of Life with Superstar Parents, London, 1997.
On SELLERS: articles—
Current Biorgaphy 1960, New York, 1960.
McVay, D., "The Man Behind," in Films and Filming (London), May 1963.
McGillivray, D., "Peter Sellers," in Focus on Film (London), Spring 1974.
Thomson, D., "The Rest Is Sellers," in Film Comment (New York), September-October 1980.
The Annual Obituary 1980, New York, 1981.
Ansen, David, "Peter Sellers," in The Movie Star, edited by Elisabeth Weis, New York, 1981.
Sinoux, M., "Bye Bye Birdie—num-num," in Positif (Paris), February 1981.
Braun, Eric, "Authorized Sellers," in Films (London), August 1982.
Millar, M., "Goonery and Guinness," in Films and Filming (London), January 1983.
Peary, Gerald, "Peter Sellers," in American Film (New York), April 1990.
Gilchrist, E., "Growth in the Spring," in Sight & Sound (London), September 1991.
Gabbard, K., "The Circulation of Sadomasochistic Desire in the 'Lolita' Texts," in Journal of Film and Video, no. 2, 1994.
Lydon, P., "The Goons and a Bomb on Broadway," in Sight & Sound (London), February 1995.
* * *
English comedy pre-1945 was usually modest, rueful, cheerful, uncritical; back from the war Sellers's generation brought more anarchic attitudes, and Sellers found fame, with Spike Milligan, Harry Secombe, and, initially, Michael Bentine, in The Goon Show radio comedy. Like some missing link between Edward Lear and Monty Python, the Goons combined anarcho-daffy parodies of Englishness with the Dada-logic of crazy cartoons, yet being sound-only, were crazier still. Sellers was the voices of, inter alia, Bluebottle, Major Dennis Bloodnok, and Henry Crum, later developing a quieter, more populist, humor on records. Goonery boggles visual live action; the early, very cheap, shorts get odd licks of it, though Richard Lester's 1960 The Running, Jumping, and Standing Still Film (which Sellers produced) is a gem.
Having risen to fame as a gaggle of lunatic voices, Sellers hesitated before plunging into film, as if uncertain what the rest of him could add; indeed, throughout certain roles, and periodically in all of them, his voice seems to float over a face which, however deadly its mimicry, also seems blank. His immense diversity of characters—mad-keen officer-class types, the "shabby genteel," polite misfits, demented liberals—all share a gleaming-eyed obstinacy with a Nelsonian blindness to some obvious and enormous truth.
His movie career developed slowly, through character acting, especially lower-class character parts: a Cockney crook in The Ladykillers, a Scottish clerk in Battle of the Sexes, an "Old Mate" cinema projectionist in Smallest Show on Earth, the caricature-suave criminal kingpin in The Wrong Arm of the Law, a misanthropic television star in The Naked Truth, and above all Fred Kite, the earnest Communist shop-steward, in I'm All Right, Jack, the performance that earned Sellers a British Academy Award and brought him international attention. A cold energy, a deadly accurate detail, an association of deference with pathos, and an absence of team spirit set Sellers's lower-class characters nearer the "angry young men" of the time and the subsequent "satire boom" than the general 1950s ethos.
Wistful pathos keynoted his first star part in an international film, as the idealistic Indian doctor pursued by Sophia Loren's Shavian Superwoman in The Millionairess. But two stronger, atypical dramatic roles, as a ravingly irate crook in the gangster film Never Let Go, and as the worldly colonel in Waltz of the Toreadors, from Anouilh's play, strengthened the, perhaps unfair, critical opinion that, unlike Alec Guinness, he was more an impersonator of types than an actor. In three films about middle-class innocents finally learning the prevalent cynicism—Mister Topaze (self-directed), Only Two Can Play (from Kingsley Amis), and The Dock Brief (from John Mortimer)—his talent seemed stalled for lack of heart, or at least, modulations between his "home keys": icy rage and stiff bewilderment.
His gifts revived under a group of American directors. Pulling a Guinness, he played several roles in Jack Arnold's The Mouse That Roared (including a fruitily Edwardian Margaret Rutherford-type duchess). Sellers then repeated the feat in Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove (a liberal President being desperately reasonable during nuclear apocalypse, his ex-Nazi scientific adviser, and a decent but dumb RAF colonel who almost saves the world from the brink of destruction; Sellers was set to play a fourth role in the film, as the Texas bombardier who rides a nuke to oblivion, but suffered an accident after several scenes were shot and was replaced by Slim Pickens). He had warmed up for this job with several identity-jugglings in Kubrick's earlier Lolita, as an enigmatic intellectual playacting a succession of characters to hound James Mason's nymphet-obsessed Humbert Humbert.
Hollywood snared Sellers for Blake Edwards's lighthearted Pink Panther films, a fusion of slapstick and "comedy of manners," about the (mis)adventures of Inspector Clouseau, an accident-prone detective braving social humiliations which would have finished a less insensitive and dimwitted man. The role was a supporting one in the first Panther film, but Sellers's tomfoolery stole the picture out from under David Niven and its other big-name stars, and Sellers's character was made the lead in the immediate follow-up, A Shot in the Dark, and all the remaining (and gradually deteriorating) Panther comedies from then on.
Disagreements during the shooting of Sellers's first film actually made in Hollywood, Kiss Me, Stupid!, generated much publicity, first from a reported clash of egos between Sellers and his director, Billy Wilder, then from the near-fatal heart attack that prompted Sellers's replacement by Ray Walston. Trimmer and healthier, he returned in What's New, Pussycat?, scripted by Woody Allen, in which Sellers's swinging psychiatrist intriguingly mixed gaucheries à la Clouseau with a smidgeon of Strangelove. But many unsuccessful films ensued, in which he offered awkward variations on his swinging sixties specialities (parody, pathos, awkwardness, stiffly frozen fury). Nevertheless, the Clouseau sequels proved highly popular, and kept his name in the public eye long enough for him to achieve a fine swansong (and an Oscar nomination) as the simpleminded gardener taken for a guru in Hal Ashby's quiet, mournful, comedy, Being There. Sellers had pursued the role for years, bombarding the novel's author, Jerzy Kosinski, with marathon telegrams signed by its hero, Chauncey Gardiner. He imbued the film with a chilling superficiality of feeling, which a number of Sellers biographers suggest was a self-portrait. It is often said that in every clown is a Hamlet struggling to get out; Sellers was a chameleon struggling to contain a vacuum within, his biographers say. His characters' propensity to quietly fixed stares suggests not so much Stan Laurel, from whom Sellers learned them, but some furious frustration, some tantrumy dominance. If Goonish lunacy generally was exuberantly obsessive, and had soul, its essence was a manic triumph over some inner deadness.
Sellers was the type of actor-comedian whose basic character shades into a myriad of impersonations—like Peter Ustinov (for whom the role of Clouseau was first intended) or Danny Kaye (the original choice for the old Cockney busker of The Optimist of Nine Elms). He drew much inspiration from two more fully dramatic chameleons, Alec Guinness, renowned for stiff-upper-lip melancholy, and Laurence Olivier, especially in his cynically hollow roles (parodied by Sellers repeatedly, almost vengefully). On an abidingly popular comedy record, Sellers speaks Lennon and McCartney's A Hard Day's Night like Laurence Olivier doing Shakespeare; but the Sellers combines Henry V (noble resolution) and Richard III (dark treachery). So many incongruous identities, cultures, moralities, in one even vocal line, is Sellers's essence—and ars celare artis.
It is reputedly Sellers who endowed Fred Kite with soul, where the Boultings had envisaged only a schematically nasty "bolshie" militant. On Strangelove, Kubrick used three or more cameras to catch Sellers's unscripted, unpredictable, yet always in-character, improvisations. Clouseau is a classic comic figure, a silhouette as appropriate to mass affluence and its embarrassments as Tati's Hulot, but always exact and intimate, where Tati's films became remote and overblown. Sellers was surely an auteur, even if one can only dream about the Wilder film as it might have been, with Sellers and Monroe (as first envisaged), or Sellers in deeper Woody Allen films (Allen's Zelig, for example, another fable about "being there"). It is fittingly sardonic that Sellers's many happy collaborations with Edwards ended on a sour note, with litigation over Sellers's last "performance" as Clouseau, which was cobbled together, after his death, from the outtakes of earlier films, a life-size cutout, and other simulacra of an actor "being there."
—Raymond Durgnat, updated by John McCarty
SELLERS, PETER (Richard Henry ; 1925–1980), British actor. Born in Portsmouth, the son of a non-Jewish pianist and a Jewish mother, Agnes née Marks, Peter Sellers was educated at a Catholic school to the age of 14 and was originally a jazz drummer. Joining the raf in 1943, he discovered his talent for mimicry while entertaining the forces in India. After the war he worked in vaudeville and in 1952, with Spike Milligan and Harry Secombe, began The Goon Show, a radio comedy series that became a national favorite. Success took him into television and the London theater. After several small film roles, he appeared with Alec Guinness in The Ladykillers (1956). He first won wide notice in the U.S. with The Mouse That Roared (1959), in which he played several roles. Though most of his films were comedies, he won the British Film Academy Award for his serious portrayal of a union member in I'm All Right, Jack, a 1959 satire on trade unionism. His other films include Dr. Strangelove (1963), in which he played three roles; What's New, Pussycat? (1965); The Return of the Pink Panther (1975); Murder by Death (1976); The Pink Panther Strikes Again (1976); Revenge of the Pink Panther (1978); and Being There (1979). Sellers was one of the most famous and memorable British comic actors of his time.
P. Evans, Peter Sellers: The Mask Behind the Mask (1968). add. bibliography: odnb online; A. Walker, Peter Sellers (1981); M. Starr, Peter Sellers (1991); R. Lewis, The Life and Death of Peter Sellers (1994).
[Lee Healey /