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Peter Sellers: The Deft Actor Behind the Brilliant Mimic
Peter Sellers was the king of funny voices. He rarely used the same one twice, excepting the extravagant French accent he deployed as bumbling Inspector Clouseau in five Pink Panther movies. (Six if one counts the Pink Panther film made after his death which recycled leftover footage from earlier films featuring him.) The English-born comic star will be saluted this Sunday with back-to-back showings of five of his movies on BBC America.
Legendary thespian Laurence Olivier once said that, for him, finding the right nose was the initial step in constructing a character. For the British-born Sellers (1925-80), finding the perfect voice and accent was always the first building block in developing a role.
He attributed his predilection for getting a fix on a character’s vocal identity to his having worked extensively in radio — he was a star of the BBC’s groundbreaking The Goon Show comedy before becoming a movie actor. After settling on a voice, Sellers next zeroed in on the perfect hair for a character (he often wore wigs), costume and, especially, walk.
In preparing for a role, Sellers may have concentrated on the externals but, when playing it, he could disappear into the psyche of his characters. For him, the chance to portray and earn laughs as someone else offered an escape from troubling insecurities and health woes that likely contributed to his continuing problems with drugs and alcohol and his early death from heart failure.
When Time magazine ran a cover story on him in 1980, the headline, which ran alongside images of Sellers in five well-known roles and as himself, read, “Who is this Man? The Many Faces of Peter Sellers.”
Many who knew or worked with him have suggested, none too kindly, that one of Sellers’ most famous roles, that of Chauncey Gardner in Being There (1979), came close to capturing the real Sellers. Gardner was a blank-faced idiot savant who parroted lines he’d heard on TV and was hailed as a genius.
For younger movie fans familiar with Sellers only from watching him in Pink Panther films, it’s worth seeking out other movies to see that his talent went far beyond funny accents and broad comedy. He gives particularly noteworthy performances in Lolita (1962) as the conniving Claire Quilty; in Dr. Strangelove: or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964), a satire in which he plays the title role and two other parts; and The Ladykillers (1955), the classic British comedy starring Alec Guinness in which Sellers portrays a quirky criminal.
My personal favorite Sellers film is an obscure British comedy from 1957 called The Smallest Show on Earth (later retitled Big Time Operators). He plays the elderly projectionist — he was 31 when the movie was shot — at a tiny, close-to-crumbling movie theater in a provincial town. He, along with the theater’s other staff and a young couple who’ve inherited the place, try to save it from closing. (The film is available for instant streaming on Amazon.com or as a DVD from Netflix.)
What’s your favorite Sellers movie or role?
Sellers as Inspector Clouseau in The Pink Panther Strikes Again:
Sellers in Pink Panther outtakes:
Peter Sellers doing his Michael Caine impression:
Scene from Smallest Show on Earth:
Trailer for Dr. Strangelove:
Peter Sellers in Being There