That Old Feeling: Who Was Peter Sellers?

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The sad clown. The character actor with no character of his own. The Jewish entertainer racked with guilt and self-loathing. The man with a genius for everything but making himself and those around him happy.

So much agita at the heart of so much accomplishment. Peter Sellers would be a showbiz clich, if he weren't really a prototype. In his first years of prominence, as a multi-voiced star of Spike Milligan's "The Goon Show" on BBC radio in the 50s, he had a broad, deep influence on the next decade's British comedy and music. As a budding movie actor, he made a strong impression in multiple roles; people called him the next Alec Guinness, and they didn't stop there. Sellers' chameleonic turns in Stanley Kubrick's "Lolita" and "Dr. Strangelove Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb" established him as an actor who could blend farce and nightmare, and his six-film tour as the solemn buffoon Inspector Clouseau provided him with every comic's dream: a franchise character. He also fulfilled the dream of many a sub-hunk: to marry a gorgeous blond Swedish movie actress.

None of this satisfied Sellers; he remained sad, suspicious, self-loathing. "I writhe when I see myself on the screen," he said in 1961. "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."He had a talent to abuse, threatening his wives with tantrums, crockery-crashing and brandished shotguns. He chose movie scripts profligately, appearing in lousy films just to earn money for his expensive enthusiasms. In 1979 he engineered a comeback with "Being There," a project he had nursed for seven years, and earned an Oscar nomination for Best Actor. But he didn't live long enough to parlayed his retrieved esteem into other ambitious works. He was dead in 1980, at 54.

Twenty-three years later, Peter Sellers us making another comeback. He is the subject of a large, careful biography, Ed Sikov's "Mr. Strangelove: The Life of Peter Sellers." And he is being feted in a two-week, 19-feature retrospective at Film Forum, New York's premier showcase for old movies.

I saw these particular old movies when I was a teenager. In the early 60s I worked in a suburban Philadelphia theater, the Yorktown, where, it seemed, half the movies at the Yorktown starred Peter Sellers. Nearly all his English comedies got to Philadelphia and other large U.S. cities. And there were plenty to go around. In 1962, if you count his cameo in the Hope-Crosby "Road to Hong Kong," six Sellers films were released.

My friend George Ott had a Pete LP, "The Best of Sellers," which featured the classic cuts "Balham — Gateway to the South" (a parody of travelogues) and "Wouldn't It Be Loverly," with Sellers as the Indian entrepreneur mounting an adaptation of "My Fair Lady" (among the numbers: "Get Me to the Taj Mahal on Time" and "I've Grown Accustomed to Your Dhoti"). George and I were kids steeped in the American comic idioms of Ernie Kovacs, Harvey Kurtzman, Jean Shepherd. Suddenly, as foreign films had opened us to a broader definition of movies, Sellers was instructing us in new, weird ways people could be funny.


How big was Sellers in his robust prime? Big enough to justify this statement: the Beatles would not have been what they became if it were not for Sellers and "The Goon Show." In the mid-50s, as a sideline to his radio broadcasts, he began making comedy records (usually written by Frank Muir and Dennis Norden). Some of the bits featured "Goon Show" characters; the boy Bluebottle performs a searing "Unchained Melody." Others parodied contemporary pop styles. Skiffle star Lonnie Donegan became Lenny Goonigan; pretty Teddy boy Adam Faith devolved into Twit Conway; Elvis-clone Tommy Iron (Tommy Steele) tried a rock version of Purcell's "Trumpet Voluntary." The bits were collected in "The Best of Sellers" and "Songs for Swinging Sellers"; as singles they often hit the top 20 on U.K. charts. "Goodness Gracious Me," a bouncy samba that Sellers performed as a duet with Sophia Loren, went to #4. The producer of all these oddities: George Martin.

When the lads from Liverpool were introduced to the man who would make their records, they didn't care about Martin's background in jazz, but they were impressed that he had worked with Sellers and Milligan. And when the Beatles came to make a movie, they chose as their producer Walter Shenson, who had produced Sellers' breakthrough hit "The Mouse That Roared," and director Richard Lester, who had directed Sellers and Milligan in the avant-gaga short "The Running Jumping & Standing Still Film." The result: "A Hard Day's Night" and "Help!", two films that stand with pride in the larky, anarchic tradition of "The Goon Show" and the Milligan-Sellers TV follow-up series, "A Show Called Fred." That program's title gets an allusive homage in a "Hard Day's Night" exchange between a reporter and George Harrison. "What do you call that haircut?" "Arthur."

The next year Sellers was chosen to present the Beatles with their two Grammy awards, and the group responded in Goonish gibberish-French. Sellers himself had a novelty hit with a rendition of "A Hard Day's Night" in the spot-on, spat-out manner of the "Winter of our discontent" oration from "Richard III" as memorably declaimed by Laurence Olivier. (Remember that name.) The flip side was "She Loves You," delivered by Sellers' Dr. Strangelove character. The producer: George Martin.


A cult success on a madcap radio show and a few comedy records — that could have been it for Sellers. Skitcom performers, especially those with skills at mimicry, typically disappear into their roles. When they leave the shows that made them famous, they have trouble radiating coherent personalities on the big screen. That was true for TV's great skitcom artists: Sid Caesar, Carol Burnett, Dan Aykroyd, Harvey Korman, Martin Short, Phil Hartman, Dana Carvey. Sellers faced an even bigger hurdle: he was moving from an aural medium to a visual one. His radio fans might not have known what he looked like, and when they saw him, they didn't swoon at the stout, squat fellow.

But Sellers managed to translate his vocal mutability into a visual variety, applying wigs and fake noses, playing old men and women and, in the process, creating a new kind of stardom. Audiences didn't go to see the same personality in film after film. They went to find a different Sellers each time. He was his own Waldo or (if you read last week's column) Nina. A few years later, on the set of "The Pink Panther," a stranger asked him, "Aren't you Peter Sellers?" And he replied, "Not today." That day, he was Inspector Clouseau.

In Seller's first flush of film fame, accolades came easy, comparisons were flattering. Of course he was compared to Guinness, the dominant comic film actor of Britain's postwar decade. Guinness had become a star playing eight roles in "Kind Hearts and Coronets"; Sellers played three in "The Mouse That Roared," the 1959 film that made his name in the U.S., where the political satire with a pacifist tinge was a much bigger hit than in Britain. The Sellers smash that year in the U.K. was "I'm All Right Jack," a bluff, bilious social satire, with Sellers as the Bolshie shop steward at a missile-making factory. At the next British Film Academy awards, Sellers was named Best British Actor for what was a supporting role; his competition included Richard Burton, Peter Finch and ... Laurence Olivier. Jonathan Miller, who took a skeptical view of Sellers' abiding infatuation with the trappings of stardom, nonetheless thought him "much more subversive and interesting and modern than Olivier."

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