Peter Sellers

Richard Henry Sellers, CBE, commonly known as Peter Sellers (8 September 192524 July 1980) was a British comedian and actor best known for his three roles in Dr. Strangelove, as Inspector Clouseau in The Pink Panther films, and as Clare Quilty in the original 1962 screen version of Lolita.

Sellers rose to fame on the BBC Home Service radio series The Goon Show. His ability to speak in different accents (e.g., French, Indian, American, British, German), along with his talent to portray a range of characters, contributed to his success as radio personality and screen actor and earned him national and international nominations and awards. Many of his characters and cultural stereotypes became ingrained in public perception of his work. Sellers's private life, however, was characterized by turmoil and crises, brought on by emotional problems and substance abuse. Sellers was married four times—his second wife was the Swedish actress Britt Ekland—with three children from two of his marriages.


Early life

Sellers was born in Southsea, England to a family of entertainers. His parents nicknamed him Peter at an early age, after his elder stillborn brother. He attended a Roman Catholic school, St. Aloysius College, although his father was Protestant and his mother was Jewish. He was a descendant of English prizefighter Daniel Mendoza, who was of Portuguese-Jewish descent. Sellers was also a cousin of Talksport radio presenter Mike Mendoza.

Accompanying his family on the variety show circuit, Sellers learned stagecraft which proved valuable later. He performed at five at the Windmill Theatre in the drama Splash Me!, which featured his mother. He was a versatile artist, excelling at dancing, drumming well enough to tour with jazz bands (his drumming is shown in a clip of The Steve Allen Show in 1964), and playing ukulele and banjo. In Parkinson, Sellers claimed his father had taught George Formby to play ukulele. Sellers played ukulele on the "New York Girls" track for Steeleye Span's 1975 album Commoner's Crown.

World War II

During World War II, Sellers was an airman in the Royal Air Force, rising to corporal, though he had been relegated to ground staff due to poor eyesight. His tour included India and Burma, although the duration of his stay in Asia is unknown, and he may have exaggerated its length. He also served in Germany and France after the war.

As a distraction from the life of a non-commissioned officer, Sellers joined the Entertainments National Service Association (ENSA), allowing him to hone his drumming and comedy. He occasionally impersonated his superiors, and his portrayal of RAF officer Lionel Mandrake in the film Dr. Strangelove may have been modelled on them. He bluffed his way into the Officers Club using mimicry and the occasional false moustache, although as he told Michael Parkinson in the 1972 interview, occasionally older officers would suspect him. The voice of Goon Show character Major Dennis Bloodnok came from this period.

The Goon Show

After his discharge and return to England in 1948, Sellers supported himself with stand-up routines in variety theatres whose impresarios needed to legitimise their business. Sellers telephoned BBC radio producer Roy Speer, pretending to be Kenneth Horne, a member of the radio show, Much Binding in the Marsh, to get Speer to speak to him. Sellers was eventually cast on The Goon Show with Spike Milligan, Harry Secombe and Michael Bentine. Sellers followed this with television work.


In the 1950s he also starred on two comedy records produced by George Martin before his fame with The Beatles: "The Best of Sellers" and "Songs for Swinging Sellers". Tracks on these such as "Party Political Broadcast" and "Bal-ham!! ..Gateway to the South", featured Seller's ability to use his flexible voice to enormous comedic effect. In the first he very accurately imitates an empty and very typical British political speech, delivered by an equally empty but upmarket British politician. And in the second a very funny take-off of an American travelogue typical of the sort of thing UK cinema audiences had to sit through in the 1940s and 50s. There are many other very funny tracks on these records including "Trumpet Volunteer" interview with a typical 1950s pop singer and "Auntie Rotter" a take-off of a popular small children's radio programme at the time, "Listen with Mother"

Film career

Sellers's film success arrived with British comedies, including The Ladykillers, I'm All Right Jack and The Mouse That Roared. He began receiving international attention for his portrayal of an Indian doctor in The Road to Hong Kong, the seventh and last in the "Road" series, starring Bing Crosby, Bob Hope, Dorothy Lamour.

Sellers found further international acclaim with the The Millionairess with Sophia Loren. The film inspired the George Martin radio and television production Goodness Gracious Me, as well as two novelty songs Goodness Gracious Me and Bangers and Mash, both featuring Sellers and Loren. He starred in Stanley Kubrick's Lolita as Clare Quilty, opposite James Mason as Humbert Humbert. In portraying Quilty, Sellers proved a scene stealer.

A breakthrough came with Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb in which he portrayed three characters: U.S. President Merkin Muffley, Dr. Strangelove and Group Captain Lionel Mandrake of the RAF. Muffley and Strangelove appeared in the same room throughout the film. Sellers was also cast in the role of Major T. J. 'King' Kong. Initially, Sellers struggled with the character's Texas accent, but screen writer Terry Southern made a recording of his own Texan accent, which Sellers apparently mastered after repeated listenings. However, during a scene in a plane designed for the set, Sellers fell 15 feet and broke his leg, preventing additional cockpit scenes and forcing Kubrick to replace Sellers with Slim Pickens.

Sellers is most famous for his performance as the bumbling Inspector Clouseau in the Pink Panther movies, a role that Peter Ustinov had declined. This character gave Sellers a worldwide audience, beginning with The Pink Panther and its sequel, A Shot in the Dark, in which he featured more prominently. He returned to the character for three more sequels from 1975 to 1978. The Trail of the Pink Panther, containing unused footage of Sellers, was released in 1982, after his death. His widow, Lynne Frederick, successfully sued the film's producers for unauthorized use. Sellers had prepared to star as Chief Inspector Clouseau in another Pink Panther film; he died before the start of this project, Romance of the Pink Panther.

Sellers was a versatile actor, switching from broad comedy, as in The Party, in which he portrayed a bumbling Indian actor Hrundi Bakshi (an almost Indian version of Inspector Clouseau), to more intense performances as in Lolita.

Sellers faced a downturn by the early 1970s and was dubbed "box office poison". But after the successful return of Clouseau role in new Pink Panther movies, he produced and starred in a film, Being There (1979). Based on the Jerzy Kosinski novel he cherished, Being There earned Sellers his best reviews since the 1960s, a second Academy Award nomination and a Golden Globe award. Sellers never won an Oscar but won the BAFTA for I'm All Right Jack.

Sellers appeared on The Muppet Show television series in 1977. He chose not to appear as himself, instead appearing in a variety of costumes and accents. When Kermit the Frog told Sellers he could relax and be "himself," Sellers (while wearing a Viking helmet, a girdle and one boxing glove, claiming to have attempted to dress as Queen Victoria), replied, "There is no me. I do not exist. There used to be a me, but I had it surgically removed."

Monty Casino

Barclays Bank approached Sellers to be on the team for advertisements. Barclays asked Sellers to play Harry Hodges, a Cockney wheeler-dealer ready to make a penny wherever possible. When it came to shooting, Sellers said Harry Hodges was no longer the plan and decided to go under the guise of Monty Casino. Casino’s character resembled Hodges and if not for the change of name and cultural background could have gone unnoticed. Now the new Jewish Monty Casino was ready to make or break the Barclays campaign. Sellers died approximately two weeks later and so did Monty Casino. Barclays felt that without Sellers, it should go back to the original plan and it hired Peter Cook to play Harry Hodges. Monty Casino had little airtime and was the last role Peter Sellers played.

Personal and professional struggles

Sellers had a troubled personal life. He often clashed with actors and directors, including a strained relationship with friend and director Blake Edwards, with whom he worked on the Pink Panther series and The Party. The two sometimes stopped speaking to each other during filming. Their personal and professional relationship was disrupted by Sellers's demeanour, highlighted in the semi-biographical HBO/BBC film The Life and Death of Peter Sellers.

Sellers's personality was described as difficult and demanding by others. His behaviour caused physical and emotional hurt to many, notably his first three wives. As portrayed in The Life and Death of Peter Sellers, he told his eight-year-old son that the boy's mother (Sellers's wife at the time) was having an affair. Sellers is known to have assaulted Britt Ekland, often prompted by unsubstantiated jealousy.

His work with Orson Welles on Casino Royale deteriorated as Sellers became jealous of Welles' casual relationship with Princess Margaret. The relationship between the two actors created logistic problems during filming, as Sellers refused to share the set with Welles, who himself was no stranger to strident behaviour. Sellers could be cruel and disrespectful, as demonstrated in his treatment of actress Jo Van Fleet on the set of I Love You, Alice B. Toklas. On one occasion, Van Fleet had declined an invitation to his house, soon followed by a misunderstanding between the two actors during filming. This prompted Sellers to a tirade against Van Fleet in front of actors and crew.

Sellers was reticent about discussing his private life. On The Muppet Show (season 2), in a "backstage" chat with Kermit the Frog, Sellers declined to step out of character, explaining he had "no real me." He was invited to appear on Michael Parkinson's eponymous chat show in 1974, but agreed under the condition that he could appear in character. Sellers appeared dressed as a member of the Gestapo, impersonating the Kenneth Mars character in The Producers. After a few lines in keeping with his assumed character, he stepped out of the role and settled down for what is considered one of Parkinson's most memorable interviews.

It has been suggested that Sellers suffered depression spurred by deep-seated anxieties of artistic and personal failure. Some behaviour may have been exacerbated by substance abuse, for Sellers regularly smoked cannabis, drank large amounts of alcohol, and used other recreational drugs. It is now believed that his drug use, especially amyl nitrites, contributed to heart attacks in 1964 (see below). Sellers became aware that his frail psyche affected his career and life. However, rather than seeking professional counselling, he opted for periodic consultations with astrologer Maurice Woodruff, who seemed to have had considerable sway over his later career.

Relationships with other celebrities

Sellers had casual friendships with two Beatles, George Harrison and Ringo Starr. Harrison told occasional Sellers stories in interviews, and Starr appeared with him in the anarchic movie The Magic Christian, whose theme song was Badfinger's "Come and Get It", written by Paul McCartney. Starr also gave Sellers a rough mix of songs from the Beatles' White Album; the tape was auctioned and bootlegged after his death. Sellers recorded a cover version of A Hard Day's Night, in the style of Laurence Olivier's interpretation of Richard III.

Sellers's friendships included actor and director Roman Polanski, who shared his passion for fast cars. Sellers was a friend of Princess Margaret and had a close relationship with Sophia Loren, for whom he seemed to have felt strong but apparently unrequited romantic attraction. Sellers was the first man on the cover of Playboy — he appeared on the April 1964 cover with Karen Lynn.

Obsession with automobiles

Sellers had a lifelong obsession with cars, briefly parodied in a fleeting cameo in the short film Simon Simon, directed by friend Graham Stark. His love for cars was also referenced in the The Goon Show episode "The Space Age," where Harry Secombe introduces Sellers by saying, "Good heavens, it's Peter Sellers, who has just broken his own record of keeping a car for more than a month." In "The Last Goon Show of All", announcer Andrew Timothy cued him with "Mr. Sellers will now sell a gross of his cars and take up a dramatic voice."


Sellers was married four times:

  1. Actress Anne Howe (1951–1961). They had two children, Michael and Sarah.
  2. Swedish actress Britt Ekland (1964–1968). They had a daughter, Victoria Sellers. The couple appeared in two films together: After the Fox (1966) and The Bobo (1967).
  3. Australian model Miranda Quarry (now the Countess of Stockton) (1970–1974).
  4. English actress Lynne Frederick (1977–1980), who later married Sir David Frost.

Again, Spike Milligan wrote this into his scripts, referring in one 1972 radio show to "The Peter Sellers Discarded Wives Memorial". At the time, Sellers was married to his third wife, Miranda Quarry.


In 1964, at age 38, Sellers suffered a series of heart attacks (13 in a few days), which permanently damaged his heart. Sellers' heart condition deteriorated when he deferred proper medical treatment, instead opting for "psychic healers. He also had a pacemaker implanted in the late 1970s, which caused him considerable problems.

A reunion dinner was scheduled in London with his Goon Show partners, Spike Milligan and Harry Secombe, for late July 1980. But on 22 July Sellers collapsed from a massive heart attack in his Dorchester Hotel room and fell into a coma. He died in a London hospital just after midnight on 24 July, 1980, aged 54. He was survived by his fourth wife, Lynne Frederick, and three children: Michael, Sarah and Victoria. At the time of his death, he was scheduled to undergo heart surgery in Los Angeles within the month.

Sellers's fourth wife inherited the bulk of his estate, and his children received £800 each. Sellers's only son, Michael, died of a heart attack at 52 during surgery on 24 July, 2006 . It was 26 years to the day after his father died of the same condition. Michael was survived by his second wife, Alison, whom he married in 1986, and their two children.


In his will, Sellers requested that the Glenn Miller song \"In the Mood\" be played at his funeral. The request is considered his last touch of humour, as he hated the piece. This is verified in Michael Bentine's memoir The Door Marked Summer. His body was cremated and he was interred at Golders Green Crematorium in London.

The film Trail of the Pink Panther, made by Blake Edwards using unused footage of Sellers from The Pink Panther Strikes Again, is dedicated to Sellers's memory. The title reads \"To Peter... The one and only Inspector Clouseau.\"

In a 2005 poll to find The Comedian's Comedian, Sellers was voted 14 in the list of the top 20 greatest comedians by fellow comedians and comedy insiders.


Main Filmography
Orders Are Orders (1954) |The Ladykillers (1955) | John and Julie (1955) | The Smallest Show on Earth (1957)  | The Naked Truth (1957)  |tom thumb (1958) |Up the Creek (1958)  |The Mouse That Roared (1959) | Carlton-Browne of the F.O. (1959) | I'm All Right Jack (1959) |Battle of the Sexes (1959) | Never Let Go (1960) | The Millionairess (1960) | Two Way Stretch (1960) | Only Two Can Play (1962) | The Wrong Arm of the Law (1962) | Lolita (1962) | Trial and Error (1962) | The Pink Panther (1963)  | Heavens Above! (1963)  | Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)  | The World of Henry Orient (1964) | A Shot in the Dark (1964) | What's New, Pussycat? (1965) | The Wrong Box (1966) | After the Fox (1966) | Casino Royale (1967) | The Bobo (1967) | The Party (1968) | I Love You, Alice B. Toklas (1968) | The Magic Christian (1969) | There's a Girl in My Soup (1970) | Hoffman (1970) | Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1972) | The Optimists (1973) | The Blockhouse (1973) |The Return of the Pink Panther (1975) | Murder by Death (1976) | The Pink Panther Strikes Again (1976) | Revenge of the Pink Panther (1978) | The Prisoner of Zenda (1979) | Being There (1979) | The Fiendish Plot of Dr. Fu Manchu (1980) | Trail of the Pink Panther (1982) 

Comedy singles

Sellers released several comedy singles, many of them produced by George Martin and released on the Parlophone record label. These include the following hits:

  • \"Any Old Iron\" (1957) UK # 17
  • \"Goodness Gracious Me\" (1960) with Sophia Loren UK # 4
  • \"Bangers and Mash\" (1961), a follow-up also featuring Sophia Loren UK # 22
  • \"A Hard Day's Night\" (1965) UK # 14. This consisted of him speaking the lyrics using the stereotypical voice of an actor playing Shakespeare's Richard III. He also performed the song in costume on television. The recording was re-issued in 1993 and reached Number 52 in the UK Top 75 Singles chart.

He covered several other Beatles hits, including Help! and She Loves You. Sellers also recorded a parody version of \"Unchained Melody\", which long went unreleased.


Peter Sellers made several albums, mostly of comedy pieces using his talent for voices.

The piece \"Balham, Gateway to the South\" spoofed the kind of promotional film sometimes made by local governments eager to attract businesses to relocate to their towns, especially those seeking an escape from crowding and high rents in London proper. For this he performed all the voices, including the American narrator, and male and female characters in vignettes.

Another piece lampooned the \"critics' forum\" style of arts presentation where critics of different artistic genres discuss works they have all seen, heard or read before the programme. Sellers performed the voice of the plummy-voiced host, plus a Malcolm Muggeridge-like critic, and a slightly uncultured Scot, assisted by a comedy actress who weighed in as a strident blue-stocking academic, constantly correcting the others.


Further reading

  • The Life and Death of Peter Sellers, Applause Books, 1997, Roger Lewis
  • Mr Strangelove;A Biography of Peter Sellers, a book by Ed Sikov
  • P.S. I Love You by Michael Sellers 1981
  • A Hard Act to Follow Michael Sellers (with Gary Morecambe, 1996).
  • Sellers on Sellers Michael Sellers (2000, co-written with Gary Morecambe)

See also


External links

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