Peter Sellers: a life lived in the fast lane

Peter Sellers: a life lived in the fast lane

A famously troubled soul, the comic actor Peter Sellers found solace in his love of fast cars

John Naughton

Peter Sellers was always a man in a hurry. When the actor and comedian suffered his final, fatal heart attack in July 1980, he was 54, but in that time he had become a star first of radio and then film, enjoying international acclaim for both serious and comic roles. His charisma, quick wit and faultless mimicry had seen him become fabulously wealthy, endlessly newsworthy and friends with British and Hollywood royalty, while his self-declared quest for the perfect woman had resulted in him marrying four times, most notably to future Bond girl Britt Ekland.

Fast cars played a central role in his life, both as a source of male bonding with fellow speed enthusiasts like Lord Snowdon and as a means to impress his female acquaintances. Sellers’ left-hand drive Ferrari 275 GTB/4 was his daily drive when living in Geneva during the mid-1960s.

Sellers with Britt Ekland <em>Photo: Getty Images</em>
Sellers with Britt Ekland Photo: Getty Images

The speed he sought behind the wheel was mirrored in his restless spirit, which drove him on to the next project, woman, car, gadget, house at a mounting and frightening tempo. Indeed, what has fuelled his legend, and continues to see him cited as an influence by many of today’s most successful comic actors, is that Sellers was as unstable mentally as he was flawed physically. He liked to say that he owed his success to the fact that he had no personality.

In truth, he did have a personality, just not a very pleasant one. Sellers could be monstrously egotistical at times, horribly selfish and was no one’s idea of the ideal father

However, alongside these flaws came a sublime talent, an ability to inhabit characters as diverse and compelling as Chief Inspector Clouseau in the Pink Panther films and the Oscar-nominated Chase in Being There, everything from the multiple roles in Dr Strangelove to the sinister Clare Quilty in Lolita.

Sellers in his Ferrari 275 GTB/4 <em>Photo: Getty Images</em>
Sellers in his Ferrari 275 GTB/4 Photo: Getty Images

In 1960, indicative of the decade that lay ahead, Sellers’ life suddenly changed to Technicolor. He was cast in The Millionairess opposite a young Sophia Loren and, despite being married to Anne Howe and having two young children, he was instantly, embarrassingly infatuated with the celebrated Italian actor. Although there is scant evidence to suggest Sellers’ feelings were reciprocated, the infatuation led to the breakdown of his marriage.

Following his first heart attack in 1964, the pace of his work increased, but the quality declined and he became reliant on the psychic Maurice Woodruff for all career decisions. He developed a hatred of the colours green and purple and his ability to distinguish between fantasy and reality diminished dramatically.

Expensive gadgets and beautiful cars (perhaps a reaction to wartime privations) were a constant in his life. Bentleys and Rolls-Royces were a particular weakness. A Silver Cloud I, previously owned by Cary Grant, was a famous early purchase. When he came to sell it, he advertised it in The Times under the heading, “Titled Car Wishes To Dispose Of Owner”. In his time, he owned three Ferraris – a 500 Superfast, that 275 GTB and a 250 GTE.

His funeral service famously concluded with Glenn Miller’s In The Mood and humour surrounded even some of the barbed notices he received in death. Best of these was his former producer and director, Ray Boulting: ‘As a man he was abject, probably his own worst enemy – although there was plenty of competition.’ It’s hard not to believe Sellers would have smiled.