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Peter Sellers

I was composing a piece in my study on the history of the casting couch in Hollywood and the bullying autocrat when my wife Gail stuck her head around the door to say that unless I created space in the planner section for her recording of Strictly she would delete several of the 20 or so episodes of Discovering various film stars on SKY Arts which I had recorded but not viewed. So I laid down my pen and mouse and decided to watch some of them.

The one on Peter Sellers was particularly good. The three film critics, Derek Malcolm who was the film critic of the Evening Standard for years, Neil Norman and Ian Nathan are excellent on the personality of the stars. Deeply flawed they may have been but they possessed that indefinable alchemy that created screen presence. In the case of Peter Sellers – and you do not get more flawed than he – they were in agreement that here was a comic genius comparable to Chaplin. He could do everything: mime, deliver lines with impeccable timing, do slapstick and totally inhabit the role.

His golden age was probably 1958-1962 when he starred in  I’m All Right Jack and Dr Strangelove. 

In The Mouse That Roared he displayed his talent for playing multiple roles but in that film the persona of Peter Sellers was evident in all three.

In Doctor Strangelove he played a mad German professor, a more malleable US President and a very British soldier, all of whom were quite different. Peter Sellers became almost impossible to direct but at this stage he cooperated with the legendary Stanley Kubrick, hardly the most tolerant of directors, and yet the pair of them got on fine. They had made Lolita previously.

In 1963 Blake Edwards produced The Pink Panther. 

The film was a vehicle for David Niven as the dashing jewel thief but it was Peter Sellers as the bumbling Inspector Clouseau who stole the show.

The speedy descent from imperious authority to a joke figure lay at the heart of this depiction.

In one famous scene Sellers is drumming his figures on a globe which is spinning and it sends him flying just as he is showing off what a brilliant detective he is.

Sellers, as Neil Norman explains, was not the sort of actor that relied on his talent alone. He worked hard to interpret a role by first mastering the accent, then the walk, then the clothes until he had integrated himself fully into the role.

As his fame increased to the point that in the sixties he could command a $1 million for a leading role, he became increasingly difficult to work with and his personal life more troubled. None of his four marriages worked: after Anne Hayes, these were to three women much younger than him and his physical and mental health declined. He was always big box office but until he played the gardener in Being There, one of his last roles, never rediscovered his supreme talent on screen. He died of a heart attack aged 54.

In terms of making me laugh there will be no one funnier for me than Jacques Tati. Yet Sellers was the more versatile comic and made many more films. There is no point in saying he was a brilliant comedian but a deeply troubled man as in his case the two went together.

He learned his craft under Alec Guinness in The Lady Killers. Guinness brilliantly played a multiplicity of roles in Kind Hearts and Coronets.

His upbringing was troubled too, it was said that his mother had been a prostitute.

And like Sellers he took refuge in other roles.

To put it simply, if Sellers had possessed the sort of stable personality to remain married to Ann Hayes and not have a fling with Sophia Loren, if he could be the responsible and loving dad to Michael and Sarah, he would not have escaped into these brilliant roles.

About Neil Rosen

Neil went to the City of London School and Manchester University graduating with a 1st in economics. After a brief stint in accountancy, Neil emigrated to a kibbutz In Israel. His articles on the burgeoning Israeli film industry earned comparisons to Truffaut and Godard in Cahiers du Cinema. Now one of the world's leading film critics and moderators at film Festivals Neil has written definitively in his book Kosher Nostra on Jewish post war actors. Neil lives with his family in North London. More Posts