Peter Sellers [Richard Henry Sellers] (1925-1980) b. Southsea, England.
Versatile English comic actor whose astonishing range of characters earned him international stardom. Peter Sellers was the son of British vaudeville performers, and after winning a talent contest he was hired to perform in Ralph Reader’s RAF “gang shows”- concert units that toured British army bases during World War II.
In 1951 he teamed with Spike Milligan, Harry Secombe and Michael Bentine to create The Goon Show, a radio comedy sketch series. The Goons’ ventured into irreverent film projects, including the comedy shorts Let’s Go Crazy (1951) and The Case of the Mukkinese Battle-Horn (1956), also the feature-length Penny Points to Paradise (1951) and Down Among the Z Men (1952). His genuine screen breakthrough came with an early role as the Teddy Boy gang member in Ealing’s black comedy, The Ladykillers (1955), in which a mob of unsavoury gangsters come unstuck after their mastermind, Alex Guinness, lodges with a sweet old lady.
This was followed by a number of engaging comedy character roles, including that of the aged alcoholic projectionist Mr. Quill in Basil Dearden’s The Smallest Show on Earth (1957), a blackmailed jovial quiz show presenter in Mario Zampi’s frenetically slapstick The Naked Truth (1957), the crafty Irish bo’sun in Val Guest’s routine shipboard farce Up the Creek (1958), and a first multi-role appearance in The Mouse That Roared (1959); a gentle satire with Sellers playing three parts – the hero, the principality’s haughty grand duchess, and its double-dealing prime minister.
In 1959, Sellers teamed up with the Boulting Brothers for the first time in the colonial comedy Carlton-Browne of the FO (1959). Sellers played the prime minister of a long-forgotten dominion that Britain wants to retain after mineral deposits are uncovered. The high point of his 1950s output was his legendary portrayal of doom-laden shop steward Fred Kite in the Boultings sharp-eyed satire on modern trade unionism, I’m All Right, Jack (1959). Successful ‘little’ comedies continued to flow as Sellers appeared as timid clerk Mr. Martin in The Battle of the Sexes (1959) and wily jailbird Dodger Lane in Two Way Stretch (1960).
Sellers attempted a change of direction in John Guillerman’s Never Let Go (1960), in which he was unexpectedly cast as a vicious petty villain. Another step away from the earlier minor farces was Bryan Forbes’ intelligent adult comedy, Only Two Can Play (1962), an adaptation of Kingsley Amis’ That Uncertain Feeling. Sellers portrayed a randy Welsh librarian with a roving eye driven to seek escape from the tedium of married life by embarking on an affair with a sexy married socialite. It was also during this period that he made his feature directorial debut with Mr. Topaze (1961).
The first of Sellers’ collaborations with director Stanley Kubrick, Lolita (1962), was as the treacherous Clare Quilty in the slow-tempo adaptation of Nabokov’s contemporary shocker about a sex-nymph’s destruction of her weak-willed stepfather. He teamed up with Kubrick shortly after for the Cold-War nuclear satire Doctor Strangelove (1963), in which Sellers conjured up a three-role virtuoso performance as the weak-willed US President, his volatile Germanic nuclear adviser and a buffoonish RAF Group Captain. Sandwiched between the two Kubrick films were perhaps Sellers two final ‘little’ British comedies; the excellent crime farce The Wrong Arm of the Law (1963), and teaming up with the Boulting Brothers once more, the religious satire Heavens Above! (1963).
In 1963, Sellers undertook the role for which he is perhaps best remembered as the incompetent and accident prone trench-coated Sureté policeman, Inspector Clouseau, in Blake Edwards hit comedy The Pink Panther (1963). The ‘Pink Panther’ series would offer Sellers a welcome sanctuary when critics rounded on him after a string of Hollywood-made flops. Sellers’ near-fatal heart attack in 1964 resulted in the quality of his films becoming wildly erratic and the temperament actor fighting with his inner demons.
Attempts to internationalise Sellers and provide him with the big-budget films he craved resulted in a string of undistinguished Hollywood failures including After the Fox (1966), The Bobo (1967), Hoffman (1970), The Party (1968), The Magic Christian (1969) and Times Seven (1967). Some like The Party and Hoffman have since been critically revaluated and treated more kindly, but none are a platform for Sellers at his peak. He looked to rekindle successful past associations for a career boost and worked with varying degrees of success with the Boultings on There’s a Girl in My Soup (1970) and Soft Beds, Hard Battles (1973), and Blake Edwards on The Return of the Pink Panther (1975) and The Pink Panther Strikes Again (1976). In 1979 he delivered what many consider his finest performance, as the simpleminded gardener Chance in Being There (1979). In complete contrast, the last film completed before his death, from a heart attack in 1980, was The Fiendish Plot of Fu Manchu (1980), a hopelessly ill-judged affair.