That Old Feeling: Who Was Peter Sellers?

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The types ranged through the British class system; actors rarely shuttled between posh parts and prole roles. Gap-toothed Terry-Thomas (4 Sellerses) virtually patented the public-school bounder, while his frequent foil, Ian Carmichael (2), was the genial upper-class twit, his perpetual smile ending in fret lines at both edges. Richard Attenborough (4) embodied the council-flats boy on the unscrupulous rise; Lionel Jeffries (4) was the ex-Army copper, his pomposity verging on hysteria, who mistakenly thought it'd be a cinch to nab Attenborough or his Cockney or Midlands pals: ulcerous Bernard Cribbins (3), cocksure Sid James (3), scowling reprobate Bernard Miles (3) or Alfie Bass (2), too soft and apprehensive for the sordid trade he fell into. In this British cosmology, there was just a little room for foreigners: bearded, wild-eyed Norwegian dervish Tutte Lemkow (4), image of the freaky anarchist; and Marne Maitland (5) was that rare bird, an actual Indian — distinct from all the subcontinentals played by Sellers.

Comedy is, at least incidentally, racist. Its coin is exaggeration, and to exaggerate ethnic traits (which may not even exist) is to call attention to differences and take mean pleasure from them. It is overdog humor — in Britain's case, imperial condescension. In the 19th century Britain conquered the world; in the 20th they lost the Empire but preserved their former subjects in the aspic of caricature. This insular satire, this xenophobic comedy, said that foreigners, insofar as it recognized them, are funny, mockable for the sin of deviating from the white, English norm. For a white Englishman like Sellers to play Fu Manchu or Dr. Banerjee also guaranteed that no actual Chinese or Indian actor would get the job. So Sellers applied the heavy greasepaint in the British version of Al Jolson's blackface: brown-face.

Sellers, who may never have been questioned about the propriety of playing comic characters from distant climes, would surely have denied racist intent. It was second nature to him. In India during the War, he had donned turban and dark makeup and passed as an Indian Army officer. His first film job, on "The Black Rose" in 1950, had been to dub the voice of Mexican actor Alfonso Bedoya, who was playing a medieval Chinaman. Putting on a darker skin was just dressing up to him. It may even have spoken to the foreigner, the alien, within him, while making him an insider by poking fun at outsiders. Still, one has to wonder: What did Indians think of Sellers' Indian? Perhaps highly: in 1962 he was a guest speaker at Cambridge's University Indian Society.


Besides, the films Sellers appeared in were synoptically derisive. They sent their darts above, below and outside. In the Boulting Brothers' "Carlton-Browne of the F.O.," a satire of the British foreign service and of those foreigners who would exploit its stuffy inanity, a toff arrives in the nation of Gaillardia, newly partitioned like Korea or Vietnam, and asks, "Anything to shoot?" Terry-Thomas' bitter, blinkered reply. "Only the natives." Another Boulting burlesque, "I'm All Right Jack," is a sour political fable: Frank Capra's "Mr. Smith" without the happy ending. The world is corrupt, say the Boultings, and those who would fix it must be mad. Sellers' Fred Kite, a socialist with a Hitler mustache and about as much a sense of humor, talks of a classless society, but frets that blacks will take his comrades' jobs.

Britain in this period was a caste society, and comedy confronted it head-on, suspicious of both the old way and whatever scheme tried to replace it. "The Battle of the Sexes," based on James Thurber's "The Catbird Seat," argued that Sellers' Mr. Martin, a dear antique in a Scottish wool company, was perfectly justified in wanting to murder the take-charge American woman hired to bring modern method to the place. One of the few Sellers films of this period to look for equilibrium is "The Millionairess," based on a Shaw play about Epifania, the world's richest woman (Sophie Loren), and Dr. Kabir, India's least worldly doctor (Sellers). Like the munitions manufacturer in "Major Barbara," Epifania tempts Kabir with money to do good. Or will he be as stubborn as a plutocrat in order to prove he is superior to her?

Of his own politics, Sellers expressed little. But he did display some spine in a politically edgy moment. In January 1960, the British Film Institute announced a film lecture series; among the guest speakers were Sellers, the leftist film gadfly Ivor Montagu and Leni Riefenstahl, director of the Hitler documentary "Triumph of the Will" a quarter-century before. Montagu denounced Riefenstahl, the BFI revoked her invitation, and Sellers, the half-Jewish comic, issued this modest, brave statement in defense of Hitler's favorite director: "Miss Riefenstahl has presumably been invited to lecture because of her outstanding talents as a filmmaker. Alongside her contributions to the art of filmmaking, our efforts, if I may say so, Mr Montagu, appear very puny indeed." And Sellers' gesture appears both brave and gallant.

His films (and films in general) soon shrugged off the mordant social tone. He was never an activist actor; he took the roles offered to him, applying the techniques he had used since before "The Goon Show": finding a voice for the character and building a physical presence around it. John Lewis, his character in the Kingsley Amis sex comedy "Only Two Can Play," evolved from his observing a Welshman named John Pike. A neighbor of Sellers', an old Army man, inspired the voice and bearing of the General in "The Waltz of the Toreadors." For Clare Quilty, Kubrick gave Sellers tapes of the jazz impresario Norman Granz reading passages from the script; Sellers perfectly mimicked the slurring confidentiality of Granz' New Yawk accent.

He was now was in an epic transition: from the cerebral to the physical, from British cult object to international star, from an actor who was all voice (radio) to one who was mostly mime (the "Pink Panther" comedies of Blake Edwards). The big stepping stones from one shore to the other were the two Kubrick films. His turns as Clare Quilty in "Lolitas" and as the R.A.F. officer, the U.S. President and the German rocket scientist in "Strangelove" shows Sellers' comic art growing bolder, wilder, perhaps grosser. From then on, he would be at the center of virtually all his films, seeking to find a consistent, appealing personality that the world movie audience might recognize as a commodity called "Peter Sellers."


"They say all comedians are sad," Sellers wrote a friend in a 1963 letter. "I wonder if that's true? Still, I'm not really a comedian. I don't know what I am."

A character actor may also be a faithful husband; both are steady, if unspectacular jobs. But a movie star must wear the musk of Romeo. On "The Millionairess," his first starring role with an international sex symbol, Sellers became besotted with Loren. He smothered the married actress with his adoration, proclaimed I-love-you's over his home phone while his kids sat nearby, and, says his son Michael, "he hauled me from my bed at 3 a.m. ?Do you think I should divorce your mummy?'" Michael was just turning six.

"I fell in love with Sophia," Sellers recalled, "and when I took a look at myself in the mirror I felt sick." Inside the miserable fat comic, there was a miserable thin one screaming to get out. All it took to shed those 30 ugly pounds was a heart attack. This was in 1964, by which time Sellers was a star with a prima-donna reputation. He was beginning work on Billy Wilder's "Kiss Me, Stupid" and quarreling with the director at every opportunity. He left the film and, a few weeks later, was stricken. On hearing of the seizure, Wilder supposedly said, "Heart attack? You have to have a heart before you can have an attack."

Well, he was slim now, and had acquired, as if through plastic surgery of the will, a tight smile that meant to beguile. He burnished his prima-donna rep by tangling even with friends: on "Casino Royale" he got into a fight with his buddy, director Joe McGrath, the two men (in Terry Southern's phrase) "aiming blows at each other like school girls trying to hit wasps." Sellers had also divorced Anne, his spouse of ten years, and acquired a trophy wife: Britt Ekland, his co-star on the Neil Simon comedy "After the Fox."

Ekland was generically gorgeous, though what the blond Swede was doing playing an Italian in "Fox" and a Spaniard in "The Bobo" is anyone's guess. The marriage soon went sour. On the set of "The Bobo" (which, by the way, is much easier to take than its dismal reputation indicates), Sellers called Ekland "a cunt" in front of the cast and crew. The Italian artisans were furious, contemptuous. When he gave the film's camera operator a Rolex knockoff as a gift, the man spat on the watch and threw it down at Sellers' feet. He and Britt divorced in December 1968. Two days later he took her to a London dinner party, and afterward they went to Peter's place where he threatened her with a 1,200 shotgun. She coaxed him out of his mood and he dissolved into tears. Later he caustically described Ekland as "a professional girlfriend and an amateur actress."

The man who had hoped to segue from comedy to more nuanced roles stayed a comic actor, returning to the Clouseau role he hated and the director he couldn't abide. The actor who had spoken of promoting himself to director helmed only one film, the 1961 "Mr. Topaze" / "I Like Money." The child whose doting mother was the most important person in his life never grew up. He loved collecting toys — a mechanical elephant, an electric organ and dozens of fancy cars — and would invite friends to his home with the conspiratorial enthusiasm of a kid: "Come over and play." The egocentric star was racked with self-doubt: he would stop his limo to give 5 to a derelict, then chastise himself for thinking, "This'll make God like me."

To be a star means coming out from under the cover of the character, the work, the celebrated anonymity of the featured player. Sellers stepped into the spotlight, looked behind him and saw he cast no shadow. He thought he wasn't there. Which is why it's poignant that his last role, played with a numbing delicacy, is the emotionally lobotomized Chance the gardener of "Being There." And why there's poetry in what he once, jokingly, pronounced as his credo: "What is to be will be even if it never happens."

Reading "Mr. Strangelove," I'm sorry that Peter Sellers was the victim and the agent of so much misery. But that doesn't dilute, not by a drop, the pleasure I got and get from his films — from the daring and precision of his work, the subtle underplaying and the geysering of bizarre brilliance. Someone had to be made happy by the exertions of this sad clown. I guess I'm the one.

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