Hard to believe that Peter Sellers died thirty years ago today.
Harder still to realize he was only fifty-four when he died.
Sellers crammed a few spectacular movie roles into a relatively short period of time; despite a thirty year career it’s easy to see the clumps of time where his initiative and the quality of the project intersected to make movie magic. Of course, his legacy also includes his tenure as a member of The Goon Show and even hit records ( some produced by George Martin!).
His early period includes some of my favorites – The Ladykillers (one of the great Alec Guinness comedies), The Mouse That Roared and I’m All Right Jack. But his work with two famed directors cemented his legacy.
Stanley Kubrick first cast Sellers in a supporting role (Clare Quilty) in his version of Lolita, an opportunity that gave Sellers the freedom to improvise and use disguises. This mutually trusting relationship would blossom in the anti-war classic Dr. Strangelove where Sellers juggled three separate roles. The black comedy consistently places high atop the lists of the greatest films ever made, and Sellers’ performances within became part of the social fabric.
Blake Edwards’ movie The Pink Panther first introduced the bumbling Inspector Clouseau, one of the most famous comic characters in movie history. Sellers repeated the role in four additional films: A Shot In The Dark, The Return of The Pink Panther, The Pink Panther Strikes Again and (posthumously) Revenge Of The Pink Panther.
The combination of clever wordplay, outrageous slapstick gags and dunce-like attitude enabled Sellers to put the movie on his back and run; the plots were secondary (and in some cases, contradictory across scripts). Nominated for a Golden Globe in three of the Pink Panther films, he never won.
I thought one of his best performances was also one of his most restrained – Chance The Gardener (a/k/a/ Chauncey Gardiner) in 1979’s Being There. Whether you look upon that movie as a religious allegory, a fairy tale or a brilliant social satire – I think it’s all three – Sellers’ performance is almost inverted, as he allows everyone and everything to react to him.
Crazy? Or crazy like a fox? Sellers won the Golden Globe for his performance but didn’t win the Academy Award; he was nominated for Best Actor but lost to Dustin Hoffman for Kramer vs. Kramer.
Sellers was often quoted saying he did not know who he really was, that he lived through his characters and his artistic expression. If true, that’s a sad story, but supportive of many comedians who claim they have very little self-esteem. And when you crawl into someone else’s skin as often as Sellers did – and into such odd skin, at that – who’s to say he was exaggerating?
My pint glass raised to you today, Peter Sellers.
Peter Sellers filmography at IMDB.com