The greatest comic talent since Charlie Chaplin Peter Sellers was a master of physical comedy and had a staggering acting range. Swide chooses the top 5 scenes…
Unfortunately the serial womaniser and drug-taker left a trail of destruction in his personal life, was married four times, was self-obsessed, suffered from depression, paranoia, and hypochondria and was consumed by self-doubt and anguish. But the public loved him for his frenetic comedic character acting. Sellers often complained that he was unable to be ‘himself’ and that he found solace in portraying other people. The chaotic whirlwind of his performances were a projection of the chaos inside, turning him inside-out and leaving him tortured and vulnerable.
The first collaboration of Sellers and Stanley Kubrick was as degenerate playwright Clare Quinty in the film version of Vladimir Nobokov’s masterpiece. Sellers found it difficult to play the flamboyant deviant character, but Kubrick encouraged him to improvise and later claimed that Sellers reached a ‘kind of comic ecstasy’. He utterly stole the show, playing multiple characters and his comedic brilliance lifted an otherwise very risky and tragic plotline.
After The Fox
An Anglo-Italian production in which Sellers starred with second wife Brit Ekland. Sellers struggled to understand director Vittorio De Sica’s English, which led to tensions on set, while his marriage to Ekland was coming under increased strain. With Sellers’ behaviour becoming increasingly erratic he forced his wife to wear a black wig and became enraged that she wasn’t acting like (the object of his infatuation) Sophia Loren. Apparently during an on-set argument with his wife he through a chair at her. The film was poorly received but has since gained a cult following for its wit and in jokes.
Before there was Borat there was Sellers and his Hrundi V. Bakshi, and Indian actor who accidently gets invited to a party of Hollywood stars. Using the ‘fish out of water’ premise, Sellers pokes fun at society and celebrity culture using his incomparable slapstick comedy capabilities. Probably only Chaplin or Buster Keaton can rival him in physical comedy.
Uncharacteristically playing the straight role of Chance The Gardener, a simple gardener who is unwittingly pulled into the picture of world politics and economics Sellers won widespread acclaim for the stillness achieved in the character. He was more passionate about this, than any other role, perhaps because it was closest to the real Sellers that nobody could infiltrate. Sellers uses comedy and absurdity to highlight the insanity of modern social mechanisms. Comedy at it’s most powerful.
Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb
Teaming up again with Kubrick Sellers plays three characters in the politico-absurdist study of the Cold War. The idea was, according to Kubrick, to have Sellers playing outrageously different roles each with ‘the fate of the world in his hands’. Sellers played Group Captain Lionel Mandrake, President Merkin Muffley and his shady German adviser Dr. Strangelove, who in this seen works to try and disguise his Nazi sympathies. Cited as the greatest comedy of all time.
The Pink Panther
Originally a minor character in the Pink Panther, Sellers’ Inspector Jacques Clouseau was developed by the actor. In some ways it was the perfect role for him to display his chaotic comedic abilities, every single scene is a masterpiece worthy of the silent era. It was a success and spawned another ten films with Sellers playing Clouseau in five of them.
Just for something a little different. Sellers starred in 'The Millionairess' based on the book by George Bernard Shaw with Italian beauty Sophia Loren. The two became very close during filming, a situation that culminated in Sellers declaring his love for her in front of his wife. It is said he even went as far as waking his son up in bed to ask him 'do you think I should divorce your Mummy?'. Loren, although very affectionate to him rejected his advances and it was about this time his personal life started to unravel he would later look back on this period of obsession with regret. But for the chemistry they had, it's evident in this novelty album of songs they recored together, 'Goodness Gracious Me' reached number 5 in the UK charts and it's a quaint reminder of the innocence of those times, it was recorded in 1960.