The original occasion for this article was a Peter Sellers retrospective at the Quad Cinema in Manhattan that was supposed to run from March 20 to March 26. For obvious reasons, that retrospective was canceled. This was frustrating, if strangely appropriate — Sellers himself was rudely “canceled” by one final heart attack, just as he was gearing up for a comeback.
That was forty years ago, the same year Sellers appeared on the cover of Time — appeared six times, to be exact. The artwork showed him sitting in a movie theater, flanked by five of his most famous movie characters — Strangelove, Clouseau, and so on. The headline read, “Who Is This Man?”
The question wasn’t supposed to be taken literally, of course. Trying to understand Peter Sellers by watching five of his films is like trying to understand Ronald Reagan by watching “Bedtime for Bonzo.” In any case, the Time cover had already posed an implicit answer to its own question: Peter Sellers was a very good actor, capable of “disappearing” into whatever role he took.
When I started writing about Peter Sellers, I fumbled for the obvious points about many faces and chameleon-like talent. The article was writing itself, but only because so many people had written it already. Hoping to find something better or at least different, I read about Sellers’s forgotten parts in major films and major parts in forgotten films. I read about his pranks on- and off-set. I read about his unending childishness and stupidity and meanness. I read about the time he dressed up as his mother.
I read so much that, when I returned to the five characters from the cover of Time, I found they’d changed. Suddenly they seemed too pat, too predictable, too deferential to the films built around them. Watching them was like watching a 1950s TV show with a laugh track and crappy music, and it was enough to make me suspect that Sellers’s onscreen roles were the least interesting he ever played.
In short, none of the following Peter Sellers roles were featured in the Quad’s retrospective. Most aren’t from movies at all. I’m not sure what they add up to: maybe a big folly; maybe the enduring body of work some fans say Sellers failed to leave behind; maybe nothing at all—but an interesting nothing, anyway.
In the forgotten adventure comedy “Our Girl Friday,” a beautiful woman lands on a deserted beach, takes off her clothes and hears a cockatoo’s shriek. Peter Sellers voiced the cockatoo.
Peter Sellers dubbed some of Humphrey Bogart’s dialogue for “Beat the Devil.” Years later, Bogart had no idea which scenes featured his own voice and which scenes didn’t.
As a teenager, Peter Sellers perfected an impression of his crush’s favorite movie star. She loved the impression but still wouldn’t go out with him. He continued to court her, unsuccessfully, for the next ten years.
Drag impressions of the illustrious Queen were to midcentury English comedy what impressions of Trump are to 2010s American comedy — easy laughs for the audience, boring for the comedian. In a performance at the Palladium in 1949, Peter Sellers wore a beard and combat boots and carried a crocodile under one arm. He said, “I’d like to be the first to admit that I do not know what Queen Victoria looked like when she was a lad.”
At some point in the early 50s, Peter Sellers joined the Masonic Brotherhood, confident that membership would be a shortcut to success. He immediately broke the code of silence by bragging to his friends about the secret handshakes.
When Peter Sellers’s first wife (three more would follow) told him she was pregnant with their first child, he celebrated by buying himself a £300 train set. On the night she gave birth, he went to see Judy Garland perform at the Palladium.
When Britt Ekland (wife number two) told Peter Sellers she was going into labor with their baby, he drove her to the nearest hospital, left her on the curb, and sped off to film a scene for “What’s New Pussycat?”
On April 6, 1964, Peter Sellers was pronounced clinically dead for two and a half minutes.
Much of Peter Sellers’s adult life was spent shouting at various wives and girlfriends. One shouting match lasted fifteen hours. During these episodes, he had the oddly precise habit of grabbing his wife’s hand, prying off her wedding ring, and either throwing it across the room or stamping on it. A jeweler remembered having to repair Britt Ekland’s ring a few times a month.
Peter Sellers is estimated to have owned more than 200 cars, most of which he sold at a loss within a few months of purchase and some of which he never drove. He whipped his son with a belt for defacing his prized Bentley Continental. His son was five years old.
In 1960, Peter Sellers woke up his son at 3 AM to ask him, “Do you think I should divorce your mummy?” His son was six years old.
When asked how to be funny, Peter Sellers would say, “Stand up straight and do nothing.”
Peter Sellers once threatened to kill his children’s nanny and chased her around the house with a kitchen knife. When she locked herself in her room, he stabbed through the door. She jumped out the window and sprained her ankle.
One of the few parts with which Peter Sellers admitted having trouble was that of a Cockney character — not because the accent was especially hard to mimic but because he didn’t have to mimic anything. “I’m supposed to use my own accent,” he told a friend, “and I haven’t got one.”
When describing Peter Sellers, friends and colleagues tended to take on a paradoxical air. Spike Milligan: “He was the most complex simpleton in the world.” Stanley Kubrick: “There is no such person.” Sellers welcomed these kinds of observations and made more than a few of them himself. In an episode of “The Muppet Show,” taped three years before he died, he told Kermit, “There is no me. I do not exist … There used to be me, but I had it surgically removed.” Kermit: “Can we change the subject?”
The life of Peter Sellers has inspired documentaries, plays, tell-all memoirs, monographs, and two full-length biographies. Like Woody Allen’s Zelig, he is a symbol for everything. A typical passage from “Mr. Strangelove,” Ed Sikov’s 2003 biography: “… what Peter was actually confessing was his sense of self — one that was depleted on the one hand and mutantly reduplicating on the other, a multiple emptiness he was trying to fill by turning it into a point of conversation.” Sellers’s life (and not just his work) seems almost scientifically designed to inspire smart-sounding, blurb-able sophistry (“there is no such person,” etc.). Taken in the aggregate, this sort of thing makes him seem at once more enigmatic and more coherent than he really was.
The only Jewish student enrolled in Saint Aloysius College, Peter Sellers read and reread the Bible like a doctoral candidate cramming for his orals. A teacher mocked his classmates: “The Jewish boy knows his catechism better than the rest of you!”
Postmodern-ish observations aside, the major achievement of Sikov’s biography is to make Peter Sellers seem equivalent to the sum of his influences — his parents, his film roles, his awards, his wives, his friends and ex-friends, his lovers, etc. — in other words, to make him boring.
In “The Life and Death of Peter Sellers,” the other major Sellers biography published in the 2000s, Roger Lewis concludes that his subject was evil. It’s not clear which is more inaccurate: that Sellers was evil, or that he was dull. By arguing the former, in any event, Lewis can’t help but give Sellers’s behavior a gravitas it lacks. In truth, his whining, his greed, his negligence, his unfaithfulness, his obliviousness, and his abusiveness don’t strike me as demonic so much as uncomfortably familiar — petty, everyday cruelties magnified by money and fame.
When Peter Sellers was a child, he pushed his aunt into a lit fireplace. His mother laughed off the whole thing: “It’s the kind of mischief any boy would get into at his age.”
Try as they might, both Lewis and Sikov fall into a standard biographical trap: they depict their subject’s creativity as a direct result of his private life, to the point where one must be judged through the lens of the other, and approving or disapproving of one means approving or disapproving of the other. This trap is essentially formal: the length and apparent thoroughness of the two Sellers biographies creates the illusion that Lewis and Sikov have mastered their subject, squeezed all of him between the covers. With no other direction to flow, their evaluations of Sellers’s work bleed into their evaluations of his life, and vice versa. Another way of putting this is that the books’ formal constraints make nuanced evaluations hard. Lewis’s hatred for Sellers’s behavior makes us feel guilty for enjoying Sellers’s films, while Sikov’s obvious affection for Sellers’s onscreen personae softens his disapproval for Sellers’s private life. Sikov makes a Pagliacci of Sellers: a flawed genius who had nothing left for his friends and family because he’d already gone all-in on the performances.
It seems possible for a biographer to argue with equal passion that a) Peter Sellers was an SOB who humiliated, hit, cheated, bullied, and otherwise hurt a great many people, and b) Peter Sellers was an extraordinarily funny person who brought joy and amusement to a great many other (and some of the same) people. It’s also possible to counterbalance 500 pounds of gold with 500 pounds of cotton balls, so that both weights float in the air, untroubled by human error. Until someone pulls off this trick, however, biographers should experiment with forms that match the mutability of their subjects. The form should be loose, nonteleological, essayistic, improvisational, proudly incomplete. It should give a sense for the subject’s life and the subject’s work without wrapping itself too tightly around them — i.e., without making a claim to definitiveness. It should be equally receptive to the subject’s evil and the subject’s banality, without letting itself be steered by either one.
Deployed to India to entertain British troops, Peter Sellers wore a turban and smeared makeup on his hands and cheeks.
For a 1965 variety program called “The Music of Lennon and McCartney,” Peter Sellers recited the lyrics of “A Hard Day’s Night” in the style of Laurence Olivier’s Richard III. Later he befriended Ringo, who composed “Octopus’s Garden” while they holidayed in the Mediterranean together. His quartet of dramatic readings of “She Loves You” — one as Dr. Strangelove, one as a Cockney, one as an Irishman, one as an upper-class twit—surfaced in the great cash-grab that followed his death (cf. “Trail of the Pink Panther”).
The advice about standing up straight and doing nothing came from Alec Guinness, Peter Sellers’s co-actor in “The Ladykillers” and one of the few performers he openly idolized. Grand Duchess Gloriana XII, Sellers’s drag role from “The Mouse That Roared,” is basically a riff on Guinness’s Lady Agatha D’Ascoyne from “Kind Hearts and Coronets”—an impression, that is, of someone else’s impression. The similarities between the two actors’ careers are striking and not entirely accidental. Both distinguished themselves in classic Ealing comedies from the 50s; both excelled at playing multiple roles; both were oddly anonymous in person, to the point where they could walk down the street without being pestered for autographs; both suffered career slumps in the mid-60s; both paid their bills by appearing in commercials and TV movies; both returned to superstardom toward the end of the 70s.
In “Casino Royale” — one of the strangest movies from one of the strangest eras in Hollywood history — Peter Sellers shared a handful of scenes with Orson Welles. Intimidated by his famous costar, then in the thick of a legendary, two-decade slump, Sellers acted rude and aloof. When Welles wouldn’t take the bait, Sellers began mocking him for his size. “For safety reasons,” he refused to share an elevator with Welles. In the end, the two egomaniacs declined to share a set, and their only joint scene was cobbled together with closeups and stunt doubles.
Sellers eventually walked off the set of Casino Royale, despite having been paid one million dollars and promiserd three percent of the grosses. All of his scenes were cobbled together with closeups and stunt doubles.
Peter Sellers could climb into a cab and do a perfect imitation of the cab driver by the time he climbed out. He hired a South African designer to furnish his flat. A few weeks later he told an interviewer, “I tend to speak in a South African accent all the time.”
Peter Sellers was born Richard Henry Sellers, but everybody called him by his stillborn elder brother’s name.
Philip Roth Protagonist
In a photograph Peter Sellers mailed to a girlfriend in the late 40s, he’s dressed as his mother. His mother took the picture.
When Peter Sellers’s mother met his fiancée Britt Ekland, a paragon of lean Aryan blondness, she called her “that bleedin’ Nazi.”
Before he was famous, Peter Sellers would check into hotels under the name “Earl of Beaconsfield,” the title created for Benjamin Disraeli — another social climber who overcame anti-Semitism by managing to be all things to all people. Some of the desk clerks mistook him for a real earl. One got suspicious, rummaged through Sellers’s luggage, and found nothing but cheap clothes and cigarettes. Then a friend informed him that the one and only Earl of Beaconsfield, Disraeli himself, had been dead for 70 years. The clerk called the police, who threw the giggling Earl out of the building.
During the blackout era, Peter Sellers would try to seduce women by talking like Robert Donat and dressing like Humphrey Bogart at the end of “Casablanca.”
In his will, Peter Sellers left £4.5 million to his wife, Lynne Frederick, and £750 to each of his three children. He would have cut out Frederick, too, had a final, fatal heart attack not stopped him.
Joe McGrath, one of the six co-directors of “Casino Royale,” has the distinction of being one of the few people to receive a written apology from Peter Sellers. Three months before he died, Sellers begged McGrath never to share the letter’s contents with the public. McGrath agreed.
In 1964, Peter Sellers inhaled amyl nitrates and had eight heart attacks in three hours. He’d been trying to achieve “the ultimate orgasm.”
Jolly Good Fellow
When Peter Sellers was two weeks old, a friend of his mother’s carried him onto the stage of the Kings Theater in Southsea, Portsmouth. As the audience sang “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow,” he began to cry.