Often credited as the greatest comedian of all time, Peter Sellers was born to a well-off English acting family in 1925. His mother and father worked in an acting company run by his grandmother. As a child, Sellers was spoiled, as his parents' first child had died at birth. He enlisted in the Royal Air Force and served during World War II. After the war he met Spike Milligan, Harry Secombe and Michael Bentine, who would become his future workmates.
After the war, he set up a review in London, which was a combination of music (he played the drums) and impressions. Then, all of a sudden, he burst into prominence as the voices of numerous favorites on the BBC radio program "The Goon Show" (1951-1960), and then making his debut in films in Penny Points to Paradise (1951) and Down Among the Z Men (1952), before making it big as one of the criminals in The Ladykillers (1955). These small but showy roles continued throughout the 1950s, but he got his first big break playing the dogmatic union man, Fred Kite, in I'm All Right Jack (1959). The film's success led to starring vehicles into the 1960s that showed off his extreme comic ability to its fullest. In 1962, Sellers was cast in the role of Clare Quilty in the Stanley Kubrick version of the film Lolita (1962) in which his performance as a mentally unbalanced TV writer with multiple personalities landed him another part in Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove (1964) in which he played three roles which showed off his comic talent in play-acting in three different accents; British, American, and German.
The year 1964 represented a peak in his career with four films in release, all of them well-received by critics and the public alike: "Dr. Strangelove," for which he was Oscar nominated, "The Pink Panther," in which he played his signature role of the bumbling French Inspector Jacques Clouseau for the first time, its almost accidental sequel, "A Shot in the Dark," and "The World of Henry Orient." Sellers was on top of the world, but on the evening of April 5, 1964, he suffered a nearly fatal heart attack after taking amyl nitrites (also called 'poppers'; an early type of Viagara-halogen combination) while engaged in a sexual act with his second wife Britt Eckland. He has been working on Billy Wilder's "Kiss Me, Stupid" (1964). In a move Wilder later regretted, he replaced Sellers with Ray Walston rather than hold up production. By October 1964, Sellers made a full recovery and was working again.
The mid-1960s were noted for the popularity of all things British, from the Beatles music (who were presented with their Grammy for Best New Artist by Sellers) to the James Bond films, and the world turned to Sellers for comedy. "What's New Pussycat" (1965) was another big hit, but a combination of his ego and insecurity was making Sellers difficult to work with. When the James Bond spoof, "Casino Royale" (1967) ran over budget and was unable to recoup its costs despite an otherwise healthy box-office take, Sellers received some of the blame. He turned down an offer from United Artists for the title role in "Inspector Clouseau" (1968), but was angry when the production went ahead with Alan Arkin in his place. His difficult reputation and increasingly erratic behavior, combined with several less successful films, took a toll on his standing. By 1970, he had fallen out of favor. He spent the early years of the new decade appearing in such lackluster B films as "Where Does It Hurt?" (1972) and turning up more frequently on television as a guest on "The Dean Martin Show" and a Glen Campbell TV special.
Inspector Clouseau came to his rescue when Sir Lew Grade expressed an interest in a TV series based on the character. Clouseau's creator, writer-director Blake Edwards, whose career had also seen better days, convinced Grade to bankroll a feature instead, and "Return of the Pink Panther" (1975) was a major hit in the summer of "Jaws" and restored both men to prominence. Sellers would play Clouseau in two more successful sequels, "The Pink Panther Strikes Again" (1976) and "The Revenge of the Pink Panther" (1978), and Sellers would use his newly rediscovered clout to realize his dream of playing Chauncey Gardiner in a film adaptation of Jerzy Kosinski's novel "Being There." Sellers had read the novel in 1972, but it took seven years for the film to reach the screen. "Being There" (1979) earned Sellers his second Oscar nomination, but he lost to Dustin Hoffman of "Kramer vs. Kramer" (1979).
Sellers struggled with depression and mental insecurities throughout his life. An enigmatic figure, he often claimed to have no identity outside the roles that he played. His behavior on and off the set and stage became more erratic and compulsive, and he continued to frequently clash with his directors and co-stars, especially in the mid-1970s when his physical and mental health, together with his continuing alcohol and drug problems, were at their worst. He never fully recovered from his 1964 heart attack because he refused to take traditional heart medication and instead consulted with 'psychic healers'. As a result, his heart condition continued to slowly deteriorate over the next 16 years. On March 20, 1977, Sellers barely survived another major heart attack and had a pacemaker surgically implanted to regulate his heartbeat which caused him further mental and physical discomfort. However, he refused to slow down his work schedule or consider heart surgery which might have expanded his life by several years.
On July 25, 1980, Sellers was scheduled to have a reunion dinner in London with his Goon Show partners, Spike Milligan and Harry Secombe. However, at around 12 noon on July 22, 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 July 24, 1980 at age 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 an angiography in Los Angeles on July 30 to see if if he was eligible for heart surgery.
His last movie, The Fiendish Plot of Dr. Fu Manchu (1980), completed just a few months before his death, proved to be another box office flop. Director Blake Edwards' attempt at reviving the Pink Panther series after Sellers' death resulted in two panned 1980s comedies, the first of which, Trail of the Pink Panther (1982), deals with Inspector Clouseau's disappearance and was made from material cut from previous Pink Panther films and includes interviews with the original casts playing their original characters.
|Lynne Frederick||(18 February 1977 - 24 July 1980) (his death)|
|Miranda Quarry||(24 August 1970 - 1974) (divorced)|
|Britt Ekland||(19 February 1964 - 18 December 1968) (divorced) 1 child|
|Anne Howe||(15 September 1951 - 1961) (divorced) 2 children|
Often played multiple characters
His ability to change his voice and appearance
Often infused his comic characters with an undercurrent of deep melancholy
Ranked #84 in Empire (UK) magazine's "The Top 100 Movie Stars of All Time" list. [October 1997]
Born at 6:00am-BST
Interred at Golders Green Crematorium, London, England, UK.
Duet with Sophia Loren, "Goodness Gracious Me," was released in 1960 and reached the top four. Also with Loren, "Bangers and Mash" peaked at 22 in the UK charts in 1961.
Sellers also enjoyed success in the UK music charts, with "Any Old Iron" reaching 17 in 1957 and a cover of the Beatles' "A Hard Day's Night" released in 1965 and reaching 14.
Claimed to have had a near-death experience during a heart attack in 1964, in which he saw Heaven and he met an angel who told him that it was not his time to die yet.
He was awarded the CBE (Commander of the Order of the British Empire) in 1966 for his services to drama.
First actor to be nominated for a single Academy award (best actor) for a film in which he potrayed three different characters in the same film: Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964).
Sellers was the first male to appear on the cover of Playboy Magazine, in April 1964
Was a vegetarian.
His third wife, Miranda Quarry, is now "The Countess of Stockton."
Turned down the role of George Webber in Blake Edwards' 10 (1979) (George Segal was cast instead but eventually replaced by Dudley Moore). Sellers made a cameo appearance but it wound up being cut out.
Recorded a comedic rendition of "Unchained Melody" which wasn't released until years afterwards.
He was voted the 41st Greatest Movie Star of all time by Premiere Magazine.
Died at 12:26am - BST after being in a coma for more than 30 hours after suffering a massive heart attack.
Mel Brooks considered him for - and he expressed interest in - the role of "Leo Bloom" in The Producers (1968), but nothing ever came of it, and the role eventually went to Gene Wilder. However, Sellers was instrumental in the success of the film. After its release, he happened, almost by accident, to see a private screening of it and was so impressed that the next day he took out two full-page newspaper ads at his own expense proclaiming that it was one of the greatest comedies he had ever seen. This exposure helped promote the film at a critical time when it appeared that it was destined to sink without a trace.
At the time of his death, he was due to undergo an angiography in preparation for potential heart surgery in Los Angeles on July 30.
One afternoon the doorbell rang in Sellers' London flat. As he was busy in his study, his wife Anne went to the door, where she was handed a telegram. The message: "Bring me a cup of coffee. Peter".
Late one night, following a disappointing day wrestling with a troublesome scene in one of the Pink Panther films, director Blake Edwards was roused by a call from Sellers. "I just talked to God!" he exclaimed, "and he told me how to do it!" The next day Edwards humored Sellers - and the result was an unmitigated disaster. "Peter," Edwards suggested, "next time you talk to God, tell him to stay out of show business!".
Died a few days after filming a "Barclays Bank" commercial, which was never aired.
His performance as Dr. Strangelove in Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964) is ranked #75 on Premiere Magazine's 100 Greatest Movie Characters of All Time.
His performance as Inspector Jacques Clouseau in the "Pink Panther" franchise is ranked #67 on Premiere Magazine's 100 Greatest Movie Characters of All Time.
His performance as Chance the Gardener in Being There (1979) is ranked #49 on Premiere Magazine's 100 Greatest Movie Characters of All Time.
At the time of his death, Sellers was set to play Inspector Clouseau again in "Romance of the Pink Panther". The script had been written by Sellers and Jim Moloney and the film was to be directed by Clive Donner. Pamela Stephenson was to have played the female lead. Also in the pipeline were the leads in Lovesick (1983) and Unfaithfully Yours (1984). Both these roles were taken over by Dudley Moore.
At the time of his death, he left the bulk of his estate - cash, cars, houses and art amounting to £4.5 million - to fourth wife Lynne Frederick. He left his son Michael and his daughter Sarah from his first marriage to actress Anne Howe only £800 each. "It was a calculated and considered act. Even his lawyers blushed when they told me," Michael said. Sellers had married Frederick, who was known primarily as David Frost's girlfriend (and subsequently his wife after Sellers' death), in 1977. Reportedly Sellers was in the process of excluding her from his will in the time immediately preceding his death by heart attack in 1980. A drug addict and an alcoholic herself, Frederick died at age 39 and all income from Sellers' estate, including royalties from movie profit-sharing deals, was inherited by her daughter with third husband Barry Unger.
Together with Nicolas Cage (Adaptation. (2002)) and Lee Marvin (Cat Ballou (1965)), and José Ferrer (Moulin Rouge (1952) Sellers is the only actor with an Oscar nomination for playing multiple characters in a film (in (Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964), he plays three characters, Group Captain (G/C) Lionel Mandrake, President Merkin Muffley and Dr. Strangelove). Marvin is the only one who actually won one for a double role.
Became friends with the group The Beatles, and visited them at Abbey Road Studios. Was given a tape of rough mixes from the "White Album", which was auctioned (and bootlegged) after his death.
He was one of the favorite actors of Elvis Presley who always had Sellers' Pink Panther films with him on the airplane while he was on tour.
Prince Charles had been a fan of Sellers since "The Goon Show". In 1975, after he had seen The Return of the Pink Panther (1975) in Montreal, Charles wrote to Sellers that he'd laughed so hard he had wet the dress of the woman in the next seat.
Was an amateur photographer and camera nut for most of his life.
Served in the Royal Air Force during World War II.
His father was Protestant and his mother was Jewish. He attended St. Aloysius College, a Roman Catholic School.
He was fitted with a pacemaker in 1977 for his failing heart.
Claimed in a 1980 interview with Rolling Stone that he had fathered a son by a girlfriend while serving in the Royal Air Force during World War II, and abandoned them.
"Past lives leaking through and confusing him in this life." (Shirley Maclaine on Sellers in "Playboy interview).
In addition to dubbing Alfonso Bedoya in "The Black Rose", Sellers also dubs the Chinese actor Ley On. In addition to providing the voice of an off-screen Winston Churchill in "The Man Who Never Was", he also provides at least two other briefly-heard voices in that film. An oft-repeated rumor suggest that he also dubbed a few lines for Humphrey Bogart in "Beat The Devil", but this is harder to confirm.
Peter Sellers was best known for his portrayal of the accident prone Inspector Clouseau from the Pink Panther movies. A movie called Romance of the Pink Panther had been planned, but Mr. Sellers died before it could be made.
He is the primary influence on Sacha Baron Cohen.
An English Heritage blue plaque can be found at his place of birth on the corner of Southsea Terrace and Castle Road in Southsea. What was the family home is above a Chinese restaurant.
Married Britt Ekland after 10 days.
If you ask me to play myself, I will not know what to do. I do not know who or what I am.
There used to be a me behind the mask, but I had it surgically removed.
To see me as a person on screen would be one of the dullest experiences you could ever wish to experience.
I'm a classic example of all humorists - only funny when I'm working.
Women are more difficult to handle than men. It's their minds.
I writhe when I see myself on the screen. I'm such a dreadfully clumsy hulking image. I say to myself, "Why doesn't he get off? Why doesn't he get off?" I mean, I look like such an idiot. Some fat awkward thing dredged up from some third-rate drama company. I must stop thinking about it, otherwise I shan't be able to go on working.
I'm a very ambitious person. I don't believe by any means that I've even begun to do what's inside me. I have a burning sort of fire inside me to do certain things which I know I'm going to do. I'm going to defeat all these berks that are around me and I'm going to do it. I mean, I have a name of being very difficult, I'm not difficult at all, I just cannot take mediocrity, I just cannot take it on any level.
You only know what happiness is once you're married. But then it's too late.
[on Goldie Hawn] In the fullest possible meaning of the word, she is so nice.
[on Sophia Loren] I was never in love with any woman as deeply as I was with Sophia.
When I look at myself I see a person who strangely lacks what I consider the ingredients for a personality. (Nova Magazine, April 1969)
[on developing a role for the screen] I walk around, trying different accents, feeling my way to the character. I stare at my own image in the mirror every morning, waiting for the other fellow - the man I'm going to play - to emerge and stare back at me. I am waiting for the stranger to come into my life. When it happens, I have this flush of happiness.
Most actors want to play 'Othello', but all I've really wanted to play is Chance the Gardener. I feel what the character, the story is all about is not merely the triumph of a simple man, an illiterate. It's God's message again that the meek shall inherit the earth.
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