Peter Sellers

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Richard Henry Sellers
Actor, Singer
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Peter Sellers, CBE (born Richard Henry Sellers; 8 September 1925 – 24 July 1980), was a British film actor, comedian and singer. He performed in the BBC Radio comedy series The Goon Show, featured on a number of hit comic songs and became known to a world-wide audience through his many film characterisations, among them Chief Inspector Clouseau in The Pink Panther series of films.

Born in Portsmouth, Sellers made his stage debut at the Kings Theatre, Southsea, when he was two weeks old. He began accompanying his parents in a variety act that toured the provincial theatres. He first worked as a drummer and toured around England as a member of the Entertainments National Service Association. He developed his mimicry and improvisational skills during a spell in Ralph Reader's wartime Gang Show entertainment troupe, which toured Britain and the Far East. After the war, Sellers made his radio debut in ShowTime, and eventually became a regular performer on various BBC radio shows. During the early 1950s, Sellers, along with Spike Milligan, Harry Secombe and Michael Bentine, took part in the successful radio series The Goon Show, which ended in 1960.

Sellers began his film career during the 1950s. Although the bulk of his work was comedic-based, often parodying characters of authority such as military officers or policemen, he also performed in other film genres and roles. Films demonstrating his artistic range include I'm All Right Jack (1959); Stanley Kubrick's Lolita (1962) and Dr. Strangelove (1964); What's New, Pussycat? (1965); Casino Royale (1967); The Party (1968); Being There (1979) and the five films of the Pink Panther series (1963–1978). Sellers's versatility enabled him to portray a wide range of comic characters using different accents and guises, and he would often assume multiple roles within the same film, frequently with contrasting temperaments and styles. Satire and black humour were major features of many of his films, and his performances had a strong influence on a number of later comedians. Sellers garnered much critical acclaim for his work; he was nominated three times for an Academy Award, twice for the Academy Award for Best Actor for his performances in Dr. Strangelove and Being There, and once for the Academy Award for Best Live Action Short Film for The Running Jumping & Standing Still Film (1960). He won the BAFTA Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role twice, for I'm All Right Jack and for the original Pink Panther film, The Pink Panther (1963) and was nominated as Best Actor three times. In 1980 he won the Golden Globe Award for Best Actor – Motion Picture Musical or Comedy for his role in Being There, and also earned three other Golden Globe nominations in the same category. Turner Classic Movies calls Sellers, "one of the most accomplished comic actors of the late 20th century."

In his personal life, Sellers struggled with depression and insecurities. An enigmatic figure, he often claimed to have no identity outside the roles that he played. His behaviour was often erratic and compulsive, and he frequently clashed with his directors and co-stars, especially in the mid-1970s when his physical and mental health, together with his alcohol and drug problems, were at their worst. Sellers was married four times, and had three children from his first two marriages. He died as a result of a heart attack in 1980, aged 54. English filmmakers the Boulting brothers described Sellers as "the greatest comic genius this country has produced since Charles Chaplin."

Death and subsequent family issues

On 21 July 1980 Sellers arrived in London from Geneva. He checked into the Dorchester Hotel, before visiting Golders Green Crematorium for the first time to see the location of his parents' ashes. He had plans to attend a reunion dinner with his Goon Show partners Spike Milligan and Harry Secombe, scheduled for the evening of 22 July. On the day of the dinner, Sellers took lunch in his hotel suite and shortly afterwards collapsed from a heart attack. He was taken to the Middlesex Hospital, London, and died just after midnight on 24 July 1980, aged 54.

Following Sellers's death, fellow actor Richard Attenborough said that Sellers "had the genius comparable to Chaplin", while the Boulting brothers considered Sellers as "a man of enormous gifts; and these gifts he gave to the world. For them, he is assured of a place in the history of art as entertainment." Burt Kwouk, who appeared as Cato in the Pink Panther films stated that "Peter was a well-loved actor in Britain ... the day he died, it seemed that the whole country came to a stop. Everywhere you went, the fact that Peter had died seemed like an umbrella over everything". Director Blake Edwards thought that "Peter was brilliant. He had an enormous facility for finding really unusual, unique facets of the character he was playing". Sellers's friend and Goon Show colleague Spike Milligan was too upset to speak to the press at the time of Sellers's death, while fellow Goon Harry Secombe said "I'm shattered. Peter was such a tremendous artist. He had so much talent, it just oozed out of him"; in dark humour, referring to the missed dinner the Goons had planned, he added, "Anything to avoid paying for dinner". Secombe later declared to journalists "Bluebottle is deaded now". Milligan later said that "it's hard to say this, but he died at the right time." The Daily Mail described Sellers as "the greatest comic talent of his generation as well as a womanising drug-taker who married four times in a fruitless search for happiness", a "flawed genius" who, once he latched on to a comic idea, "loved nothing more than to carry it to extremes."

A private funeral service was held at Golders Green Crematorium on 26 July, conducted by Sellers's old friend, Canon John Hester. Sellers's final joke was the playing of "In the Mood" by Glenn Miller, a tune he hated. His body was cremated and his ashes were interred at Golders Green Crematorium in London. After her death in 1994, the ashes of his widow Frederick were co-interred with his. A memorial service was held at St Martin-in-the-Fields on 8 September 1980—what would have been Sellers's 55th birthday. Close friend Lord Snowdon read the twenty-third Psalm, Harry Secombe sang "Bread of Heaven" and the eulogy was read by David Niven.

Although Sellers was reportedly in the process of excluding Frederick from his will a week before he died, she inherited almost his entire estate worth an estimated £4.5 million (£16,836,059 in 2014 pounds) while his children received £800 each (£2,993 in 2014 pounds). Spike Milligan appealed to her on behalf of Sellers's three children, but she refused to increase the amount. Sellers's only son, Michael, died of a heart attack at 52 during surgery on 24 July 2006, twenty-six years to the day after his father's death.

In 1982 Blake Edwards tried to continue with Romance of the Pink Panther and offered the role of Clouseau to Dudley Moore, who turned it down. Edwards subsequently released Trail of the Pink Panther, which was composed entirely of deleted scenes from his past three Panther films. Frederick sued, claiming the use of the clips was a breach of contract; the court awarded her $1 million, plus 3.15 per cent of the film's profits and 1.36 per cent of its gross revenue.


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