The Many Faces of Peter Sellers Part 1

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There have been many hard nosed interviewers in the history of the journalism industry, from Jeremy Paxman to Robin Day. They made their names by cutting through the crap and getting to the point.There was no messing around with these guys. A person could walk in plugging a book and come out psycho-evaluated. But only one got Peter Sellers to reveal his inner workings, to explain his real feelings in one statement. That interviewer was Kermit the Frog.

When Sellers guest starred on an episode of The Muppet Show in 1977 he chose not to appear as himself (which is what celebrity guests had always done) but instead appeared in a variety of costumes and accents. When Kermit the Frog told Sellers he could relax and be “himself,” Sellers (wearing a Viking helmet, girdle and a 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.”

Richard Henry Sellers was born on the 8th September 1925. His parents nicknamed him “Peter” after his brother that died at birth. Now, I am sure psycholgists would have fun with this fact – even as a child he was playing the part of someone else, but nevertheless it’s true.

His parents were music hall performers, his mother a dancer (in a water dance act) and his father a pianist. His mother was Jewish and his father was a Protestant Yorkshireman. His maternal grandmother, Benvenida Welcome Mendoza, was of Portuguese-Jewish descent; her grandfather, Mordecai Mendoza, was a first cousin of “father of boxing science” English prizefighter Daniel Mendoza, a person that Sellers would identify with and mention quite a few times in his life. He also had a famous painting hanging of Mendoza hanging in his office.

From a young age, Sellers learned stagecraft performing with his family both dancing and drumming. He became an impressive Jazz drummer and would often play drums throughout his life whenever the oppertunity arose.

He also played ukulele (Sellers always claimed that his father taught George Formby) and banjo. His speciality however was voices and impersonations.

Sellers did not fit in at school. He was a lonely boy and definetly closer to his mother than to other boys, living a nomadic life (due to the frequent changes of address) and observing people around him rather than interacting with them. This enhanced his physical talent of vocal flexibility and mimicry.

During World War II, Sellers was an airman in the Royal Air Force. He was restricted to the ground due to his poor eyesight. He shared ground duties with a young Tony Hancock (mega star of 1950’s radio) and his tour included India and Burma. He also served in Germany and France after the war. He joined the famous Gang shows and travelled with them around the camps entertaining the troops.

He had a reputation for impersonating his superior officers (his portrayal of RAF officer Lionel Mandrake in the film Dr. Strangelove and Goon Show character Major Dennis Bloodnok were certainly examples of this). On one occassion (using mimicry, talcum powder and a false moustache) he bluffed his way into the Officers’ Mess and helped himself to drinks and chatted with other officers. This was very brave (and stupid), as impersonating an officer carries a punishment of a possible dishonourable discharge and even imprisonment.

He told Michael Parkinson in a 1972 interview that occasionally older officers would suspect him but he seemingly always got away with it (prompting friend and actor Graham Stark to nickname Sellers “Goldenballs” as he seemed to get away with everything).

After the war, he was unemployed so he decided to take advantage of his talent in mimicry and started appearing onstage as a comedian. His first jobs were as a stand-up comedian in strip shows and voicing parrots and other animals in films such as The Black Rose.

Fed up with his stalled career, Sellers called BBC radio producer Roy Speer and, imitating a famous radio personality of the day (Kenneth Horne), Sellers proclaimed himself to be one to watch and said that Speer should audition him immedietly, which he did. After the audition Sellers became a member of the cast of  Ray’s a Laugh, a highly popular radio show of the day

It was during this time that Sellers began to perform with some friends he met whilst performing at the Hackney Empire at a pub in London called The Grafton Arms. These friends were Spike Milligan, Harry Seacombe and Michael Bentine and they went by the name of The Goons.

It was only a matter of time before the BBC began to broadcast Goon Show performances, though initially they insisted that they change the name to “Crazy People”.

Many people believe that the spirit of the experimentation that became previlant in the arts in post war Britain began with the Goon Show. Certainly The Beatles were massive Goons fans (George Martin even recorded Goons albums before the Beatles and almost certainly picked up his experimental techniques from working with them), as were all of Monty Python, Peter Cook(Whilst at boarding school, Peter Cook used to feign illness on Friday evenings just so he could listen to the Goons on the radio in the sick bay), Dudley Moore, and many others who pushed barriers throughout the latter part of the twentieth century. George Harrison often felt that there was a spirit that passed from the Beatles to Python, and there is no doubt that the same spirit began with the Goon Show. Fans of indie music should also note that the band “Ned’s Atomic Dustbin” is taken directly from a Goons show episode.

By todays standards The Goons sound rather tame and certainly silly but at the time, nothing had been heard like it. The series premiered in May 1951 and audience figures grew rapidly, from around 370,000 to nearly two million by the end of the 17th show. Many senior BBC staff were totally confused by the show’s surreal humour and it has been reported that senior programme executives erroneously referred to it as The “Go On” Show.

It is certainly hard to imagine a show like The Goons causing such a stir now, but it was like a revolution in the wireless. People had simply never heard a show in which a batter pudding would be hurled at someone or a steam driven piano would be played. The BBC commissioned a second series during which a number of changes occurred. Bentine left the show, citing a desire to pursue solo projects and it went from strength to strength.

Some attempts were made to get the Goons on screen (The Case Of The Mukkinese Battlehorn, Down among the Z men, Telegoons, A Show Called Fred) but these were never as sucessful – it seemed the fun was in the listening, building the images in your mind. The pictures would never be as sucessful.

Sellers however, began his first steps into becoming a film star. In 1955 he won a part as a teddy boy gangster in the classic film The Ladykillers. This gave Sellers an oppertunity to work with his hero Alec Guinness (who had not long since showed his versitility and played an entire family in the film Kind Hearts and Coronets). To learn his lines Sellers recorded the entire script impersonating each member of the cast to perfection. Classic film parts followed such as Prime Minister Amphibulos in Carlton-Browne of the F.O. and the multi perfomances in the classic film The Mouse that Roared (he played four parts).

A career defining performance followed in 1959 when Sellers played Fred Kite in the classic union satire, I’m Alright Jack. Sellers won a BAFTA for the role and it cannot be denied that it is a powerhouse performance.

In the same year, Sellers collaborated with Richard Lester (who also directed Milligan and Sellers in A show called Fred) to make The Running, Jumping and Standing Still film. It was filmed over two Sundays, at a cost of around £70 (including £5 for the rental of a field). It was bassically a home movie. Sellers, a keen camera enthusiast, brought the cameras from his extensive home collection of expensive equipment. It went on to be nominated for an Oscar, but didnt win sadly. It was a favourite of the Beatles’, which led to Lester being hired to direct A Hard Day’s Night (and Help!).

Sellers then went on to play Dr. Ahmed el Kabir in The Millionairess (where the classic and contentious song Goodness, Gracious me! originates) with Sophia Loren. Rumours still persist to this day that Sellers and Loren began a torrid affair during this time, though many suspect the rumours may have originated from Sellers himself. Next followed some comedy roles in films such as Two Way Stretch, Only Two Can Play and a cameo as an Indian doctor in The Road to Hong Kong (another entry in the highly sucessful Bing Crosby/Bob Hope comedies). A dramatic role followed as Clair Quilty in the critically acclaimed adaptation of Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, for which he received a Golden Globe nomination.

It was his for next part however, that he will always be remembered.

Blake Edwards was putting together a David Niven jewell heist film called The Pink Panther. Peter Ustinov was onboard to play the role of the French detective out to stop Niven’s jewell theif. However, for unknown reasons, Ustinov dropped out and Edwards brought in Sellers. By the time the film came out, Sellers had stolen the show from under David Niven and a Clouseau spin off sequel was already in the works.

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Sellers was now top of his game. Next stop Hollywood. Surely nothing could go wrong?

Originally posted 2013-02-05 22:25:47. Republished by Blog Post Promoter

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