Born on September 8, 1925 in Portsmouth, England, British comedian Peter Sellers was an incredibly versatile actor, playing Chief Inspector Clouseau in the Pink Panther films with as much ease as Clare Quilty in Lolita. Stanley Kubrick asked him to play three roles in Dr. Strangelove for which he was nominated for an Academy Award. He also released two comedy records, controversial for including material involving the royal family.
Considered a comic genius, Peter Sellers was literally born into show business. His parents were vaudeville performers, and he arrived while they were appearing in Southsea, England. Sellers studied dance as a child before attending St. Aloysius’ Boarding and Day School for Boys. As a teenager, he learned to play the drums and played with jazz bands.
At the age of 18, Sellers entered the Royal Air Force during World War II. There he began part of a group of entertainers who performed for the troops. Sellers played his drums and did dead-on impersonations of some of the officers. After the war, he struggled to launch his comic career for several years.
After several previous attempts, Sellers managed to land work with the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) by winning over radio producer Roy Speer during a phone conversation. His spot-on impersonations helped make him a beloved radio comedian. In 1951, Sellers joined fellow comics Spike Milligan, Harry Secombe and Michael Bentine for The Goon Show. The program proved to be hugely popular with listeners who tuned in to hear their absurd skits and bits.
The success of The Goon Show helped Sellers break into movies. After appearing Down Among the Z Men (1952) with his radio colleagues, Sellers landed a small part in the comedy The Ladykillers (1955) with Alec Guinness. His career really took off in 1959 with I’m All Right, Jack and The Mouse That Roared. In The Mouse That Roared, Sellers played three characters, including a duchess and X. This successful movie helped introduce Sellers to American movie-goers.
The Goon Show ended its run in 1960, but the program proved to be a strong influence on British comedy. It paved the way for such future comedy shows as Monty Python's Flying Circus.
Hit Films and Misses
Sellers hit his stride in the early 1960s with two of his most famous roles. Sellers also introduced audiences to the world’s most bumbling detective, Inspector Jacques Closeau, in Blake Edwards’s The Pink Panther (1963). The film proved to be a huge success, and it was quickly followed by the sequel A Shot in the Dark (1964). In Stanley Kubrick’s war satire Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964), he once again showed his ability to tackle multiple characters, including the title role.
In 1964, Sellers had his first heart attack. He was reportedly clinically dead for two and a half minutes before being revived. This incident marked the beginning of his heart troubles, and he later had a pacemaker installed to help manage his heartbeat. Making a full recovery, Sellers continued to work in movies. His films of the late 1960s and early 1970s had some decidedly mixed results.
It was his famed character Inspector Closeau who gave Sellers a boost at the box office with 1974’s The Return of the Pink Panther. This latest hit spawned three more Pink Panther movies. His best performance, however, was yet to come.
Sellers earned raves for his subtle, understated turn as the simple gardener Chance in Being There. His character spouts ideas and comments based on his years of television-watching, which are confused by others as words of wisdom. Sellers earned an Academy Award nomination for his performance in the film.
After making this remarkable movie, Sellers’s career seemed to be on an upswing. But he never lived to realize this new wave of potential. He died in London hospital on July 24, 1980, after suffering another heart attack. He was survived by his fourth wife Lynne Frederick, and three children from previous marriages. His son Michael and daughter Sarah came from his first marriage to Anne Howe and daughter Victoria came from his second marriage to actress Britt Ekland. He was also briefly married to Miranda Quarry from 1970 to 1974.
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