Saturday, 20 June 2015

Comedy Spotlight - Peter Sellers

Peter Sellers was a British comedy actor known for his many roles in film and on radio. Although he was christened "Richard Henry Sellers", his parents opted to call him "Peter", which was to have been the name of their first child, however this child was stillborn.

Sellers began his career on stage as a drummer whilst touring with his parents, who were both members of a touring variety troupe. Over time, Sellers developed a talent for mimicry and comedic performance, this would serve him well for most of his career.

Sellers himself led a rather odd life, from an early age, he developed a very close relationship with his mother, to the point at which his long time friend, Spike Milligan, regarded as being somewhat worrying and un natural. Sellers also had a rather odd relationship with religion, with his father being an adherent to the Church of England, and his mother being a non practicing Jew. He didn't find out about his Jewish ancestry until he entered a Catholic school, and took it upon himself to follow the tradition of Jews taking the beliefs of their mother, although it was not clear as to why he found it important to do this, as Sellers himself was never a practicing Jew. Spike Milligan noted that Sellers seemed to have a deep resentment of this Jewish heritage, and was once moved to tears when Milligan presented him with a Jewish candelabrum as a christmas gift, an act which Sellers misunderstood as being an anti-semitic insult.

Sellers joined the RAF at the age of 18 in 1943, although no record exists of whether he joined willingly or was conscripted but it is known that his mother attempted to have him exempted from military service on "medical grounds", this request was denied.
Due to his chronic myopia, for which he wore glasses his entire life, he was excluded from pilot training, and instead found himself performing mainly administrative duties, which he found to be exceptionally boring, although the experience he got from dealing with senior RAF officers provided the inspiration for "Group Captain Mandrake" one of the characters he played in "Dr. Strangelove".

To escape the dullness of administration work, Sellers volunteered to join the "Gang Troupe", a unit of performers who provided entertainment to troops and personnel throughout the UK and India throughout the war. Although Sellers toured extensively with the Gang Troupe, he was known to have greatly exaggerated the time he spent touring and entertaining, as well as his importance to the company.

Sellers was posted back to England in 1946, and eventually demobbed in 1947, however his attempts to get back into theatre were somewhat lackluster, with him only being able to secure work sporadically. Sellers, being somewhat vain and egotistical (something which caused numerous problems throughout his entire career), took all the rejections he recieved personally, and allowed this resentment to build up over the years, frequently resulting in fits of unfocused rage being directed against anyone unlucky enough to be nearby.

Sellers eventually decided to try and kickstart his career by auditioning for several BBC radio productions, and enjoyed a decent amount of success, being cast in various radio and TV broadcasts, however, it wasn't until he telephoned BBC radio producer Roy Speer directly, whilst pretending to be Kenneth Horne, a major radio personality, to "recommend" himself. Speer saw through this deception, but decided to audition Sellers anyway, admiring his cheek. This led to him becoming a top bill star on BBC radio, and introduced him to many lifelong friends, such as Harry Secombe, Spike Milligan and Michael Bentine, with whom he went on to perform extensive work with in "The Goon Show".

Sellers met Australian actress Anne Howe in 1949, and they later married in 1951, after Sellers had begun to find fame in films, with his first big break being cast as "Harry" in the 1955 film, "The Ladykillers". Their marriage started off seemingly idyllic, but as time went on, Sellers' strange behaviours and fits of rage, largely directed against his wife and children, began to erode the relationship.

Sellers career as a comedy actor plodded along, as did his rather strange home life, for the remainder of the 1950s, however a big turning point in his life came in 1960, when he was cast opposite Sophia Loren in "The Millionairess". Sellers was initially not interested in the role, however when he found out he was to share extensive screentime with Loren, he changed his mind. This was due to him having an obvious attraction to her, and seemed to be under the impression that she was attracted to him, despite both of them being married and also the fact that Loren couldn't stand him. This culminated in Sellers returning home one night and declaring, in front of his wife and two children, that he didn't love them as much as he loved Sophia Loren, and that he intended to leave them for her.
The "relationship" with Loren never materialised, and soon after, Anne Sellers began an affair with their decorator, having gotten tired of Peters continual abuse, humiliation, drug and alcohol abuse, and, above all, his flagrant womanising. Sellers was known to regularly have sex with female extras and production staff, and made no secret of it, even speaking about his sexual exploits to his children, both of whom were still very young and had no understanding of what he was talking about.
Sellers son, Michael, stated that his father once woke him up in the middle of the night and asked for advice on whether he should divorce or not, and later directly asked both Michael and his sister Sarah, who were aged 7 and 4 respectively at the time, who they loved more. Sarah answered she loved both parents equally, while Michael answered he loved his mother more, this response received yet another violent outburst. The marriage ended in divorce in 1962, with Sellers remarking that he hated both his children and never wanted to hear from them or their mother ever again.

Despite his off-screen antics causing problems for both him, his family and his work, Sellers continued to get regular work, being a "bankable" star in films and still a hit on radio, however his runaway success playing the inept French detective Inspector Clouseau in 1963s "The Pink Panther" served only to fuel both his egomania and his paranoia, but did establish a long term working relationship between Sellers and director Blake Edwards. This came after Sellers decided to relocate to America after the death of his father in 1962, and his close friends noted an increase in Sellers erratic behaviour and soon he became increasingly difficult to work with, as he became more and more dependent on alcohol and drug abuse.
More film success followed, with Dr. Strangelove in 1963, and A Shot in the Dark in 1964, which was a sequel to The Pink Panther.
Soon after, Sellers met and married Swedish actress Britt Ekland, based on a misplaced recommendation by his astrologer friend John Morris. They had only known each other for 10 days when they married.

During the filming of "Kiss me Stupid" in 1964, Sellers and actress Kim Novak butted heads over how things should be done, causing numerous problems on set. Sellers left the production as, on the evening of the 5th of April, he took copious amounts of amyl nitrate in preparation for sex with Ekland, which caused him to have 8 heart attacks over the course of three hours. Director Billy Wilder was quoted as saying he didn't care about Sellers heart attacks, as you had to have a heart in order to have them.

It took Sellers a fair while to recover from this, however he made appearances in several major successful films, including "Whats new, Pussycat?" and "After the Fox", in which he appeared with Ekland.
During the filming of this movie, Sellers tried to have director Vittorio de Sica fired for "disrespecting his wife", a move which was unsuccessful and led to problems on set. Sellers also caused problems by loudly and repeatedly humiliating and berating Ekland during filming (nobody disrespects my wife but me!)
Sellers career chugged along until 1967, when he was cast in the James Bond spoof "Casino Royale".
For some reason, Sellers was under the impression that he was being cast in the role of James Bond, and was to play the role straight, as he had constructed the false reality in his mind that he was now going to start playing "serious" roles in movies. Unfortunately for Sellers, this was not the case, and the film itself was intended to be a satirical comedy farce, lampooning the James Bond films.
On set, Sellers and Orson Welles openly hated each other, this stemmed from Sellers jealousy of Welles imagined friendship with Princess Margaret, as well as Sellers disgust at Welles being allowed to perform magic tricks on film, this, along with the director demanding that he ad-lib funny dialogue and do stupid things on film, angered Sellers as it destroyed his vision of the film being "straight". Sellers eventually left the production, it was never established whether he was fired or if he quit. The film itself was eventually reworked as most of it had been filmed, but as Sellers was no longer available to film missing scenes, a new storyline had to be woven together from both old and new footage, resulting in a bizarre farcical movie which made very little sense, but was still a hit nonetheless.
Later in the year, whilst filming "The Bobo", a poorly received comedy film in which Sellers starred alongside Ekland, Sellers mother suffered a heart attack and died, this affected Sellers greatly, as his scarily close relationship with his mother had always been there. It was at this point that Ekland said the abuse she received from Sellers began to get physical, and Sellers drug habits became more and more out of control.

Sellers career took a sharp downturn after this, with his marriage to Ekland ending in 1968 after she tired of his abusive attitude towards her, both at home and when working together, and a string of unsuccessful films, including a further three Pink Panther sequels. Sellers relationship with Blake Edwards deteriorated as well, with Edwards describing Sellers mental state as akin to that of an inmate in a lunatic asylum. Sellers himself had long become resentful of the fact that, in his words, "people didn't like Peter Sellers, they only liked the characters he played", and he soon began to describe himself as being little more than an empty, personality free "shell" into which various persona's flowed and channelled themselves.

Sellers married actress Lynne Frederick in 1977, and almost immediately their relationship was an abusive one, with Sellers being known to repeatedly physically abuse her. in 1977, Sellers suffered another heart attack, and was fitted with a pacemaker, as the years of drug and alcohol abuse finally caught up with him whilst on a flight from Paris to London.
Sellers filmed "Return of the Pink Panther" in the same year, and the film was a success, reigniting Sellers career as a film star, although by this time, Sellers was sick of playing Clouseau, and the head of United Artists wasn't sad to see him go either, as by now, Sellers mental problems were becoming a very serious issue, compounded by the fact that Sellers refused to seek any professional help.
1979 saw Sellers film "Being There", a film project he had wanted to do since the late 60's, mainly as he identified with the original books main character, the personality free gardener "Chance", struck a chord with Sellers, as "Chance" simply ends up being whatever other people want him to be, similar to how Sellers saw himself to be.
The film was a critical success, and led to Sellers appearing in various other productions, however the film caused a rift between Sellers and his 15 year old daughter Victoria, who, when asked what she thought of the film, said simply "dad, you looked like a fat old man". Sellers took an immense dislike to this description of his own "masterpiece" and after a violent confrontation, disowned both her and his other daughter Sarah.

Sellers final film, "The Fiendish Plot of Dr. Fu Manchu", released in 1980, was critically panned as being an "inept attempt at comedy".
Sellers had numerous projects in the pipeline following this disaster, however his health worsened, and his marriage to Frederick ended in divorce. he did make an attempt to reconcile with his son, however on the 22nd of July 1980, shortly after taking lunch in his room at the Dorchester hotel, Sellers collapsed from a massive heart attack. Although he was hospitalised, he eventually died shortly after midnight on the 24th of July.

I first encountered Peter Sellers whilst watching one of the "Pink Panther" movies during my childhood, and although the inept behaviour of Inspector Closeau was funny at the time, when I saw Sellers in other roles, I realised that although Sellers was a brilliant comedy performer, his abilities were somewhat limited.
His life is interesting to me, as his "funny" personality on screen sharply contrasts with the dark off screen personality,  to which, by all accounts, meant he was a complete and utter bastard to everyone around him and was quite rightly despised by just about everyone who knew him.
He represents the physical fusion of the concepts of both the "unhappy clown" and of the stereotypical "diva", who is allowed to carry on doing as they please with no one willing to tell him "no".
He is quite rightly regarded as a comedy genius, as his ability to"nail" characters and get laughs is unparalleled, although this ability came at the price of his sanity, as he frequently was unable to "get out of character" once the need for it had ended, almost as if he enjoyed being someone other than "Peter Sellers".

No comments:

Post a Comment