On July 24, 1980, the comic actor Peter Sellers – who, like the chameleon with which he was often compared, could take on almost any imaginable persona in performance, but who, in his own life, admitted that he lacked a sense of who he actually was – died, at the age of 54.
Even those who found him unbearable in his personal life, including one ex-wife who called him a “monster” after he died, acknowledged that Sellers, best known for his performances in a series of “Pink Panther” films, for a trio of roles he played in “Dr. Strangelove” and for his crowning appearance in “Being There” shortly before his death, had a rare comic genius.
Early identity confusion?
Richard Henry Sellers was born on September 8, 1925. But almost from the beginning, he was called “Peter,” the name that his parents had given to an earlier child who died at birth.
His father, William Sellers, was a retiring pianist who met Peter’s mother, Agnes Doreen “Peg” Marks, when he played with her family’s vaudeville company. So connected was Peg to the stage that she went on with the show the night that Peter was born, even after she had entered labor, and was back before the footlights a week after his birth.
Growing up in London, although he was educated at a private Catholic school, Sellers was also well aware that his mother was Jewish. He grew up on stories of her great-grandfather Daniel Mendoza, the legendary 18th-century Sephardi-English pugilist. Later in life, he kept an engraving of Mendoza on his office wall, and also arranged for it appear in the background in several films.
By all accounts, along with his many other insecurities, Sellers was sensitive throughout his life to perceived anti-Semitic slights.
The most influential comedy of all time
Sellers grew up in vaudeville halls, and worked both behind the scenes and sometimes on-stage too, especially after he learned to play the drums. During World War II, he performed with a variety of different armed forces troupes, and became known for his uncanny skills of impersonation.
After piecemeal work with BBC radio in the years following the war, his big break came in May 1951, when the network first broadcast “The Goon Show,” featuring Sellers, Spike Milligan and Harry Secombe. The Guardian later referred to the show, which ran for nine years, as “probably the most influential comedy show of all time.”
That led to screen roles, mostly comic, such as Blake Edwards’ Pink Panther series but some of them dramatic, in such acclaimed pictures as “The Ladykillers” (1955) and two Kubrick films – “Lolita” (1962) and “Dr. Strangelove” (1964).
Eight heart attacks in three hours
Even as he became a highly praised comic star, Sellers’ on-set behavior and personal life became increasingly erratic, paranoid and abusive. His four marriages all ended disastrously, he was emotionally cruel to his children, and his use of drugs and alcohol took a toll on his work and his body.
While married to Swedish sex symbol Britt Ekland, for example, he took amyl nitrates one night, in order to have an enhanced orgasm, and instead suffered eight heart attacks over the course of three hours. He survived, but had to withdraw from the movie he was working on with Billy Wilder.
During a 1978 appearance on “The Muppets” TV show, Sellers was hosted by Kermit the Frog, who urged him to relax and “be yourself.” Sellers tellingly responded: “But that, you see, my dear Kermit, would be altogether impossible. I could never be myself ... there is no me. I had it surgically removed.”
In the end, it seems that Sellers truly lacked a sense of who he was at the core, as did those around him. Ironically, his last major role, and according to some, his finest performance, came in the role of Chance the Gardener, a simple-minded and emotionless figure upon whom the entire United States projects its hopes and ambitions, perceiving his every sentence (mainly about gardening) as a profound parable about national life.
Seven months after the premiere of “Being There,” for which Sellers was nominated for both the Oscar and the BAFTA award for best actor, he died of a heart attack in London.