This year it will be 40 years since British actor Peter Sellers passed away at the age of just 54, but his movies are still popular and his characters are very much loved also by the younger generation. In the classic tradition of successful comedy actors, Sellers was something of a troubled soul. He found solace in fast cars, and most famously in his love of a stunning Ferrari 275 GTB/4
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. It was while in bed with Ekland and under the influence of amyl nitrate that Sellers suffered his first heart attack in 1964, aged just 38. Thereafter, the clock started to tick more loudly still.
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. The highly collectible car is currently for sale at DK Engineering, based just outside of London (see box).
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.
In Sellers’ mind, he could make these characters live and breathe because of the vacuum in his soul. Perhaps. What’s not in doubt is that more than 30 years after his death, he continues to exert an influence on today’s biggest comedians from Steve Coogan to Sacha Baron Cohen and from Jim Carrey to Will Ferrell.
Indeed, Sellers might well be one of the most influential actors England has ever produced. Not that anyone would have predicted the path of international film star for the dowdily dressed, chubby mother’s boy struggling to break into showbusiness in the austerity of post-war Britain.
Sellers was already making a name for himself with the show Ray’s A Laugh (its punning title indicative of its place in the mainstream of postwar BBC comedy), but everything changed the moment he met his fellow Goons, Spike Milligan and Harry Secombe.
This meeting lacked the drama that accompanied Milligan and Secombe’s first encounter during World War II, when the former was responsible for allowing a large howitzer to jump off its placement and narrowly miss the latter. Nevertheless, with Sellers on board, the show sent shockwaves through British comedy. Everyone from Prince Charles to a young John Lennon loved its groundbreaking, anarchic mixture of silly voices, sound effects and stupid catchphrases.
Indeed, the primary reason The Beatles agreed to record with producer George Martin was that he had previously worked with Sellers and The Goons. For Sellers, the show proved a springboard into movies. These were predominantly British, black and white and produced by the Boulting brothers, but 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. His daughter Sarah is said to have asked him, “Do you still love us, Daddy?” “Of course I do, darling,” came the reply, “just not as much as I love Sophia Loren.” If his emotional life was a mess, his professional one was entering its most creative period. The early 1960s saw him excel twice with director Stanley Kubrick, first in Lolita then in three different roles in Dr Strangelove, which earned him an Oscar nomination for Best Actor, losing out ultimately to Rex Harrison in My Fair Lady.
It was also the period that launched his most enduring comic creation, Chief Inspector Jacques Clouseau, the incompetent French detective. With Henry Mancini’s effortlessly suave soundtrack, Blake Edwards’ assured direction and Sellers’ impeccable comic timing and characterisation, the Pink Panther series of films quickly became a huge international comedy success and defied genre convention by actually being funny.
If Sellers’ love for Loren was unrequited, he enjoyed better fortune with another European beauty when he began dating, and swiftly married, the Swedish ingénue, Britt Ekland. Not that the woman who always mattered most in his life – his mother, Peg – was impressed. With scant regard for geography, politics or indeed political correctness, she referred to Ekland simply as “the bloody Nazi”. Nobody was ever good enough for her only son, Richard Henry, the boy she had idolised since birth and who had replaced the stillborn Peter and carried that boy’s name forever.
Perhaps as a result of this inheritance, Sellers became increasingly eccentric as the years progressed. 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 manic 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. In a move that was perhaps culturally only three or four centuries out of date, Sellers once offered to swap one of these with the actor Ryan O’Neal in exchange for his then wife (an Ekland lookalike) Leigh Taylor-Young.
If his sexual politics belong in another millennium, what’s surprising is just how relevant he appears to today’s generation of actors and comedians. Given that Sellers invented the career template aspired to by almost every comedian, with his ability to move from comedy to straight roles, this is perhaps not that surprising. The late Robin Williams called him ‘the most influential actor’, while Will Ferrell has spoken of his ‘unique combination of being extremely subtle and over the top at the same time.’ Steve Coogan, who missed out on the title role in The Life and Death of Peter Sellers to Geoffrey Rush, shows his debt with diversionary discussions of Sellers’ genius along with Rob Brydon in the television series, The Trip.
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.