Peter Richard Henry Sellers (1925-1980) was a British comedy genius of theater, radio, television, and movies.
Peter Sellers was born in Southsea, Hampshire, in southern England, where by chance his parents were performing in a local vaudeville show, on September 8, 1925. His father was William Sellers, a pianist and musical director, and his mother was Agnes Marks, a character actress. Sellers was ethnically half-Jewish from his mother's side, but was not religious. He was educated in a Catholic school (St. Aloysius College, Highgate, London) and his funeral service in 1980 was Anglican.
Sellers loved his mother and the show business family around him, which included his eight uncles (stage producers) and his maternal grandmother (renowned for bringing swimmers in a glass tank to the music hall stage, among other things). Peter made his stage debut at the age of five in his grandmother's review, Splash Me! His early life was filled with music hall goings-on, backstage gossip, his parents' search for "digs" (provincial lodgings suitable for entertainers), and theatrical odd jobs for himself—"head sweeperouter" in the auditorium, for instance.
Peter, a weak student at St. Aloysius, decided to become a drummer, and he secured a job with a dance band. World War II found him, at the age of 18 in 1943, with the Royal Air Force (RAF). He joined ENSA (the forces entertainment company) and served in Burma, India, and the Middle East in camp comedy shows, later touring with the RAF "Gang Show." Sellers enjoyed his time with ENSA entertaining troops. In 1946 he was demobilized; he said it was "like coming out of the sunshine into the shade."
The two "demob" years (1946-1948) were, in fact, doldrums for Sellers. He went the exhausting round of visits to dispirited theatrical agent, he got the seasonal job of entertainment director of a holiday camp, and he played the ukelele in comic skits at clubs. Finally, with an audition at the famous Windmill Theatre in London in 1948, his career made a turn, albeit his act was scheduled between nude performances. He began to make a name for himself in variety shows, appearing at the London Palladium. Sellers telephoned a BBC producer, effectively mimicking two radio stars, Richard Murdoch and Kenneth Horne, as if they were recommending him for a job. The producer gave Sellers his first radio spot. Radio was a successful field for him, with his uncanny mimicry of voices.
In January 1952 Sellars, Spike Milligan, and Harry Secombe launched the Goon Show on BBC radio, an irreverent, impious show where the Goons jested in dozens of voices of imaginary characters—which Goon was which voice, no one cared. The Goon Show took the British nation by storm; it was a hit for nine years. Tapes of episodes of the Goon Show were still being sold worldwide almost 40 years later. On British television Spike Milligan and Peter Sellers later produced their satires: A Show Called Fred, Son of Fred and Yes, It's the Cathode Ray Tube Show.
The motion picture debut for Peter Sellers (after a number of small films, like Down Among the Z Men) was a small part in The Ladykillers (1956), starring Alec Guiness. More films came in 1957 to 1959 including Carlton-Browne of the F. O. starring Terry-Thomas (1959, titled in America Man in a Cocked Hat). This was the first movie Sellers made with the production and direction team of John and Ray Boulting. Sellers signed a five-year contract with the Boultings, but with two films in 1959, The Mouse That Roared and I'm All Right, Jack, he established his movie career. In the former he played the multiple parts of a prime minister, a duchess, and a constable in a mythical, debt-ridden European nation that decides to declare war on the United States, to be later rehabilitated (like Germany and Japan) by the Americans. In the latter film he played a self-important shop steward in a British postwar factory, pitting his cunning against management. Both movies were instant hits.
The World of Henry Orient (1964) was the first "American" movie that Sellers made and was the official U.S. entry in the Cannes Film Festival. He played a vain and lecherous pianist being chased by two teenagers. But his visit to Hollywood was cut short: he had divorced his first wife, Anne Howe, and married 19-year old Britt Ekland, a rising Swedish film star, in February 1964; and he had the first of his heart attacks in April at the age of 38.
In England the first of his Pink Panther films was opening to enthused crowds while he recuperated. As inspector Clouseau, Peter Sellers gained his biggest audience. He played the Inspector as an imperturbable Gallic blunderer, a detective who could detect without knowing what he had done. The sequel, A Shot in the Dark, was released in the same year. Subsequent Pink Panther films were Return of the Pink Panther (1975) and two movies which exceeded $100 million each in revenues, The Pink Panther Strikes Again (1976) and the Revenge of the Pink Panther (1978).
In contrast, also released in 1964 was the satiric film Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, in which Sellers played three parts: the mad scientist, Dr. Strangelove; the U.S. President Muffley; and RAF Group-Captain Mandrake. The 1960's were a busy time for Sellers. During this time he also made What's New, Pussy Cat? He played Fritz Fassbender, a psychiatrist with psychotic problems; it was a pure farce.
During his life, Sellers was featured in 52 movies: some were mediocre and some were a financial failure. Being There (1979) was the finest film he ever made, and he knew it. The movie, based on the novel and script by Jerzy Kosinski, concerned a strange case of mistaken identity in which a passive, harmless, and not-so-simple-minded gardener ("Chance" or Chauncey Gardiner) hooked on television was believed by the people around him to be an economic genius and oracle. Sellers (as Chance) becomes an adviser to the U.S. President, and in line for the presidency himself. Wry, understated humor marked Seller's performance in this film, in contrast with the farcical Pink Panther movies and the zany Goon Show. Without eccentric accents, multiple characters (he plays only Chance), and buffoonery, Sellers masterfully portrayed a man made illustrious by what other people detected in him, whether it was true or not.
In The Fiendish Plot of Dr. Fu Manchu (1980) he was co-author and director of the movie and played Dr. Fu Manchu. He gave himself, as Dr. Fu Manchu, a significant line:
-"I suppose you think I'm too old for a young, ravishing creature like yourself?"-"How old are you?"-"One hundred and sixty eight."-"You know, I don't think age matters, really."
Peter Sellers was married four times: to Anne Howe (1951-1964), an English actress with whom he had two children, Michael and Sarah; to Britt Ekland (1964-1969), a Swedish actress with whom he had a daughter, Victoria; to Miranda Quarry (1970-1974), a stepdaughter of an English peer; and to Lynne Frederick, an actress whom he married in 1977 (She turned 26 the day after Sellers died). He fell in and out of love with unexpected impetus: he surprised even himself. Sellers himself said: I seem to marry young people. I never grew up, you see—I'm still the same idiot I was at 18 or 20." This frankness about himself was there in 1960 when he painted himself as being a man of a thousand voices: "As far as I am aware I have no personality of my own whatsoever." He was very superstitious about everything, especially about his acting: "I have the feeling that the film character enters my body as if I were a kind of medium. It's a little frightening." For all the hype of an interview with a film star, he may have been telling the truth.
Apparently by temperament and personality he was a fit subject, predisposed to heart problems; he was demanding in the theater (he hated "hamming" and amateurism). He was given to temper tantrums and was restless and quixotic by nature, and he could not stand pettyminded bureaucrats, officers, landladies, and people of that sort. He had disputes with his colleagues, for instance Blake Edwards, who had directed the Pink Panther films.
Sellers had a script for a revival, called The Romance of the Pink Panther, in his possession at the Dorchester Hotel on the day of his death. His weak heart, which gave him trouble in 1964, 1977, and again in 1979, finally caused his death in 1980.
Further Reading on Peter Richard Henry Sellers
Peter Sellers co-authored two books, Seller's Market (1966) with Joe Hyams, and The Book of the Goons (1974) with Spike Milligan. Other books on Sellers include Peter Evans, Peter Sellers: The Man Behind the Mask (1968, rev. ed. 1981); A. Walker, Peter Sellers: The Authorized Biography (1981); Michael Sellers with Sarah and Victoria Sellers, P.S.: I Love You, Peter Sellers, 1951-1980 (1981); and D. Sylvester, Peter Sellers: An Illustrated Biography (1981).
Additional Biography Sources
Evans, Peter, Peter Sellers, the mask behind the mask, New York, N.Y.: New American Library, 1980.
Lewis, Roger, The life and death of Peter Sellers, London: Century, 1994.
Sellers, Michael, P.S. I love you: an intimate portrait of Peter Sellers, New York: E.P. Dutton, 1982.
Walker, Alexander, Peter Sellers, the authorized biography, New York: Macmillan, 1981.