Considered by many to be one of the greatest comedic actors of all time, the enigmatic personality, Peter Sellers, created a body of work that spanned three decades and within that time (also) created some of the most memorable performances in the history of film. Most notably Inspector Clouseau and Dr. Strangelove.
He was so committed to the characters he played that he once famously said that he had no identity outside of them. His physicality and his versatility with accents and guises allowed him to portray a wide range of characters. He sometimes even assumed multiple roles, each with their own distinct temperaments and styles, in a single film. Aside from his ability to disappear into his roles, it was his insane knack for improvisation that solidified him as the force of nature he will always be remembered for. This manic approach to performance would put him at odds with many filmmakers with the exception of Blake Edwards and Stanley Kubrick who not only embraced Sellers but utilized him in a way that would eventually break ground in the way improvisation was used in the filmmaking process.
A son of two performers, his first appearance on stage was when he was two weeks old at the famous Kings Theatre, Southsea. As a young man he developed his mimicry and improvisational skills with Ralph Reader’s wartime Gang Show. After the war he eventually became a regular performer on various BBC radio shows. His big break came in the early 1950’s when he, along with Spike Milligan, Harry Secombe, and Michael Bentine took part in the very successful radio series, The Goon Show. This break lead to several regular appearances on television and key small roles in films like The Ladykillers and Orders and Orders.
Like many comedians before and after him, Sellers was known to struggle deeply with depression and insecurities. This resulted in a career that was very up and down. Many of the films Sellers was in also had a bite of satire and dark humor which some would say pointed to his cynical nature. This reputation along with his notorious off screen antics resulted in many of his films not going over well with audiences and critics alike. Whatever his true nature was, no one can deny his uncanny ability to leave a lasting impression and make viewers laugh emphatically with the performances he created. Here is a list of some of those memorable performances that are worth checking out.
10. Murder By Death (1976)
Neil Simon’s parody of Agatha Christie murder mysteries featured many memorable performances including the likes of Alec “Obi-Wan” Guinness and Peter “Colombo” Faulk. Truman Capote even made a rare film appearance playing Lionel Twain, the wealthy host of an evening of “dinner and murder” at his estate. It was Sellers’ audacious performance though as the Chinese inspector Sidney Wang that truly set the film over the top. Because of it’s blatant disregard for racial sensitivity it’s a role that would be very difficult to get away with these days but it still doesn’t change the fact that it’s a very memorable and hilarious performance. It’s a character that he would later channel in his final film appearance in The Fiendish Plot of Dr. Fu Manchu.
Behind the scenes: Sellers reportedly played a number of practical jokes on cast and crew during filming. He supposedly called director Neil Simon and imitated co-star Alec Guinness demanding a re-write of a key scene in the middle of the night.
9. A Shot in the Dark (1964)
The first sequel to The Pink Panther set the stage for many of the hallmarks of the Inspector Clouseau series. For instance, in the original film, Sellers had not given him quite the exaggerated and idiosyncratic French accent that would become his trademark for the rest of the series, in this one, however, it was in full force. It was also the first appearance of his boss and nemesis, Commissioner Dreyfus (Herbert Lom), and his sparring partner and servant, Cato (Burt Kwouk). With several hilarious set pieces, including a memorable scene in a nudist colony, this film would go on to become a comedic classic and made it to the list of AFI’s 100 Years…100 Laughs at #48.
Behind the scenes: The film is based on a stage play and obviously did not originally include Inspector Clouseau. Sellers was attached to the film prior to filming The Pink Panther and decided he no longer liked the script. He begged Blake Edwards to climb on board to direct. Because of the short amount of time they had to re-write the film, Edwards and co-writer William Peter Blatty decided to change the lead character into Inspector Clouseau and film it with lots of improvisation by Sellers like they did with their previous collaboration. This resulted in an eventual falling out between Sellers and Edwards that ended up taking a few years for them to reconcile.
8. The Mouse that Roared (1959)
Based on a famous satirical British novel, this was the first “non Goon Show” film where Sellers played multiple roles. In a tiny European duchy that is going broke, the crafty prime minister County Mountjoy (Sellers) decides he wants to declare war on the United States. Grand Duchess Gloriana (also Sellers) is hesitant at first but Mountjoy explains that his plan is to intentionally lose the war so that the US will then send foreign aid to replenish their treasury. Unfortunately, the duchy’s general, Tully Bascome (Sellers again) cultivates a plan that is successful and they win the war. Even though Sellers had been proving himself with smaller roles in films and a fairly successful television and radio career, this is the film that really showcased his versatility and also caught the eye of Kubrick who would cast him in Lolita and of course lay the foundation for him playing multiple roles in Dr. Strangelove.
Behind the scenes: The film is based on a popular book but the filmmakers took several liberties to showcase Sellers’ comedic versatility. Most notably turning Duchess Gloriana, who was an attractive young royal in the book and making her a parody of the elderly Queen Victoria.
7. The Return of the Pink Panther (1975)
After a series of box office and critical failures both Peter Sellers and Blake Edwards careers were in decline. Edwards pitched around a new Pink Panther idea but failed to find backers. It wasn’t until a financier approached Edwards about getting his wife Julie Andrews to star in a TV series that he was able to get funding. Sellers finally stepped into his own as Clouseau in this one and the film was a box office success and not only revitalized the franchise but the careers of both Edwards and Sellers along with it. If you watch it, keep your eyes peeled for actress Catherine Schell breaking character and laughing at a couple of Sellers antics in the film. Sellers was nominated for his second Golden Globe for Best Actor in a Comedy and won The Evening News British Film Award with his reprisal.
Behind the scenes: The original proposal was to do a 26 part miniseries but it eventually became this film and it’s sequel The Pink Panther Strikes Again. Sellers was nominated for a Golden Globe for that film as well.
6. The Party (1968)
After a brief falling out, Edwards and Sellers returned together for what was at the time deemed a radically experimental film. It was created exclusively to serve Sellers’ improvisational talents. It’s a fish out of water comedy in which Sellers plays a bungling Indian actor who shows up at a lavish Hollywood dinner party and gets himself in plenty of uncomfortable situations because of his ignorance of “western culture”. In spite of its underlying racial tones, the film was actually a favorite of former Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. It’s tone, style, and Sellers performance helped turn it into an influential cult hit.
Behind the scenes: Even though the film is around 100 minutes long, the script itself was only a 56 page outline meaning that a majority of the film was improvised on set. The producers on the film utilized a makeshift video playback device so that the actors and crew could review what they had just filmed.