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Sellers, Peter

Category: Performer

 

Peter Sellers, CBE (born Peter Richard Henry Sellers; 8 September 1925 – 24 July 1980) was an English film actor, comedian, occasional director and singer described now as a genius.   His memorial service was held on 8th September 1980, his birthday, and he would have been 55 had he lived, so his life was but brief. 

He was both a superb character actor, but also a masterful comic actor, who is possibly best known for his portrayal of Chief Inspector Clouseau in The Pink Panther series of films.  He is partly on the site because he had a well documented near death experience – whose description can be found in the observations – once as recounted in Shirley MacLaine’s book Out of a Limb, and also as recounted in the authorised biography of Peter by Alexander Walker.

But Peter deserves an entry also because he believed the characters that he adopted for each role were past lives, and that he was merely resurrecting past reincarnations of his Personality.  In the observations we have not questioned his belief, but in this section we will discuss the alternatives.

 

Peter Sellers – Alexander Walker

…this book comes from the customary hard grind of biography which takes one to the vast number of people who knew Peter Sellers – or thought they did, as I myself thought I did, before the interviews convinced me that I did not really know Peter at all – or rather did not know all the ‘Peters’ he contained. 

I finished writing this account of his life with a feeling of incredulousness that so many contradictory and combative selves should have been crammed into it.

The illnesses of Peter Sellars

Peter suffered from two major illnesses almost the entire course of his life.  The first was manic depression, the second was heart disease –from which he eventually died. 

Peter Sellers was a borderline manic depressive, his mother Peg [Peggy] had given birth to a baby that had died before she had Peter and when Peter came along it appears the birth was as difficult as that which resulted in the death of the first baby.  Peter had an odd lop sided face and smile, which indicates some form of trauma during birth and this may have contributed to his mental problems – along with the obsessive over protective behaviour of his mother.

 

He had a totally disruptive and insecure childhood.  As a baby he was placed in the wings of the theatres his parents were performing at and spent large portions of his childhood in dinghy cold boarding houses all alone, watched over only by landladies he didn’t know, waiting for his parents to return.  He contracted pneumonia as a child but was saved by a black doctor who stayed overnight to minister to him.  His parents frequently drank at local pubs and he was given a lemonade and left outside by himself [children were not allowed in pubs], until closing time when they took him home.  Bleak, insecure, loveless and lonely best sums up his childhood.

Peter Sellers – Alexander Walker
Peter was the boy who carried a load on his soul from childhood – and woe betide anyone who added to it.  All the hostility he couldn’t bring himself to work off on Peg would be directed on the outsider.

The roller coaster rides of emotion

He was described as a perfectionist, and by those unable to see the problems and empathise with him, as ‘obnoxious’, or ‘difficult’.  He was capable of working himself into a towering rage which astonished those who witnessed it and terrified those who received the force of his displeasure.  He had conflicts with even his closest friends, but then so did Beethoven – this is genius. 

Sellers and his first wife Anne at a film premiere in 1960

His pits of depression were severe enough for him to contemplate suicide, although many of his suicide threats were calls for help.  When Peter told his mother that he wanted to marry Anne Hayes, becoming engaged in April 1950, she found every excuse for him to call it off or delay it.  She cited religion, career and made her disapproval clear.  Before Anne and he did eventually marry, Peg had driven him to such despair, that he threatened to throw himself under a train.  His mother rushed to the station and the cause of the problem managed eventually to reconcile herself with the solution.  Peter [25] married Anne [21] in September 1951.

During times of depression he took to wearing all black, often with gold medallions containing mystic inscriptions. 

Spike Milligan once told a BBC documentary maker attempting to capture Seller’s elusive personality that ‘you can’t film despair, so why bother?’

Pharmaceutical abuse

Peter went on crash diets and took alarming quantities of over the counter ‘medicines’- Night Nurse, Benylin, Lem-Sip, and Liquid Anbesol, none of which are in any way benign as they contain seriously addictive drugs. 

Not content with pharmaceuticals, Peter also sampled ‘mildly hallucinatory drugs’ [specified in the biography as marijuana].  They do not appear to have helped him, if anything the quality of his films and performances plummeted at the time he was said to be using them.

Financial problems

Peter was utterly useless with money having a manic’s desire to spend continuously on things he didn’t need and on which he very quickly lost interest.  He was saved from bankruptcy or ruin on a number of occasions by a succession of financial advisors who proved honest, but not always capable of handling him or his money.  At one stage his financial advisor told him that even after years of good films and high fees, he had virtually no money left.  Extravagant living and poor investments by his ‘advisors’ had left him almost broke.  He was saved from bankruptcy on this occasion, only by the Pink Panther.

Peter Sellers – Alexander Walker
…. Sellers entered Selinger's office one day, radiating the pleasure of a child opening his Christmas stocking, and heaped up all manner of camera equipment on the agent's desk. He had taken up photography, with Graham Stark as his mentor, and had been on a buying spree which made Selinger pale. 'How much is all this worth?' he demanded.
'About £1,500'.
'Pete, you can't afford it - you just can't at the moment.'
'I gave them a cheque,' said Sellers, as if that settled all debts’……………….

The first post-war car Sellers owned was a Rover 14. He traded it in after four weeks.  Over the next twenty years some ninety cars passed through his hands, including a 2.5-litre Jaguar, a 3.8-litre Jaguar, an Austin 20/25, which he sold to Milligan, two Rolls-Royces, a Bentley Continental, a Mercedes 300sl, a Ferrari GT2-2, an Aston Martin DB41, a Bristol 407, two Cadillacs, two Buicks, a Bristol Viotti and an xxE Jaguar. … A car showroom in north London eventually had a man working exclusively for Sellers, scouting for cars he wanted, offering him new models on try-out terms, and disposing of those with which his love affair had waned.

Women

Anne Sellers, who divorced the actor in 1963 with children
Sarah and Michael

Peter fantasised about women who had little idea he even liked them and created elaborate myths around them.  He was also amoral especially as regards his affairs with women.  This too is quite common for geniuses and the mentally different.  He did not deliberately hurt women, he was not a cunning womaniser, just someone who saw no wrong in having multiple partners on the go at the same time.  There is even some evidence he was pretty inept in the love making department – once when he had been invited to the bedroom of one of the ENSA girls, he went one night

“in pyjamas and dressing gown and armed to the teeth with Robert Donat accents,… I got into bed with her.  The only mistake I made was I didn’t take a stitch off in advance – it was a far from ideal state for impetuous love-making”.

Sellers and third wife model Miranda Quarry
at their wedding

His ability to mimic people came about as a direct consequence of his desire to impress his first obsession ‘Sky Blue’ [because of her eyes].  She liked Errol Flynn so he taught himself to mimic Errol Flynn.  She then told Peter she preferred Robert Donat, so Peter went through the whole learning process again, only to be spurned a second time.  Some time later he deliberately got Sky Blue drunk in order to make her pregnant in the belief that she would now have to marry him.  Sky Blue had the baby and it was sent for adoption.  Years later Sellers tried to trace his daughter.  ‘Somewhere in England’ he said ‘is a girl who doesn’t know she’s my daughter.  I hope her childhood was happier than mine.’

Peter was also unable to sustain relationships he had with women.  He seemed always to be searching for the impossible:

"I feel extremely vulnerable, and I need help a lot. A lot. I suppose I feel mainly I need the help of a woman. I'm continually searching for this woman. They mother you, they're great in bed, they're like a sister, they're there when you want to see them, they're not there when you don't. I don't know where they are. Maybe they're around somewhere. I'll find one, one of these days."

with Britt
  •  Anne - Peter married Anne Hayes, his first wife, in September 1951.  They had two children – Michael and Sarah.  Despite enormous tolerance and understanding on Anne’s part this marriage fell apart.  Anne fell for Seller’s architect and eventually became Mrs Ted Levy in October 1963.
  • Britt - Towards the end of filming, in early February 1964, Sellers met Britt Ekland, a Swedish actress who had arrived in London to film Guns at Batasi. On 19 February 1964, just ten days after their first meeting, the couple married.  Peter had one daughter with Britt – Victoria. The marriage to Britt Ekland was dissolved at the end of 1968.
  • Peggy – Peter’s mother died 30th January 1967 at the age of 72, she died as she lived.  In hospital the nurses badgered her to eat something, but at this stage all she wanted was an [alcoholic] drink.  The nurse who came in to try to get her to eat was told to ‘Piss off’.  After which, Peggy put her head down and died
  • Miranda Quarry – Peter married the twenty-three-year-old model Miranda Quarry on 24 August 1970.  Miranda’s two Pekingese dogs were her ‘bridesmaids.’  The marriage to Quarry was formally dissolved in September 1974.  But he showed great kindness and compassion despite the short length of their relationship
Victoria Sellers - Britt's daughter

Peter Sellers – Alexander Walker
He was in Rome in November 1971, when he heard that Miranda [his wife] had fallen ill with meningitis and was in a dangerous condition. 

He did not hesitate, but, risking a large tax bill by returning to London, he returned to her side.  The Treasury eventually made him a compassionate dispensation.

  • Lynne Frederick - His last wife Lynne was probably the only one with the strength of character to be able to give him the affection he craved, and the care he needed mentally and physically; she had the strong protective nature needed to handle his insecurity and fear.  She was pretty and sexy, yet old enough in spirit to be the mother figure.  They were married on 18th February 1977, she was just 21 when they met and was prepared, even at that age, to sacrifice her career to care for him.   He died three years later. [below Sellers-with Lynn Frederick]

Childish nature

Like all geniuses Peter had a childlike nature.  As Jesus said ‘Whosoever shall not receive the kingdom of God as a little child shall in no wise enter therein.’  Sellers once wrote to his wife that:

Only you know that basically I am really Bluebottle and nothing else.  All this acting is brown paper and string.

 

Bluebottle was a character from The Goon Show. The character was created and performed by Peter Sellers. Bluebottle was a child, a rather simple, insecure little boy who was always greeted with a deliberate round of encouraging applause from the audience. ("Enter Bluebottle wearing string and cardboard pyjamas. Waits for audience applause.") Sellers' Bluebottle was paired with Spike Milligan’s character, Eccles, also a child [Milligan was equally insecure and mentally disturbed, but talented enough to write the scripts of many comedy programmes not just the Goons].  Fellow spirits.

Peter Sellers – Alexander Walker
Fatherhood appeared to be one role he had difficulty getting into. It was to remain so till the end of his days, perhaps because he himself possessed so many of those irresponsible drives that often make for enjoyment in childhood but have to yield to adult responsibilities. Peter in many ways remained a child at heart and in behaviour - it was a large part of his charm where women were concerned.  ‘Sellers married out of need,' said Theo Cowan, his public relations counsellor and life-long friend despite their occasional ruptures, 'but the girls he married found such needs attractive, even charming. A lot of his reactions to beautiful women were adolescent in their spontaneity and total commitment.  He was emotionally twenty years younger than his chronological age, so he could identify with the feelings of young girls attracted to him better than a man who was as emotionally as mature as his years suggested he should be.  But what made him an enjoyable escort didn't provide any foundation for being a dutiful family man.

Friendships

Peter had few genuine friends and found other people in general utterly bewildering and maddening, but he was no egoist:

Lynne Frederick – Preface to his biography Alexander Walker
Peter was a terribly vulnerable person; people could get to him, hurt him, more woundingly than you could ever imagine.  Peter never learned to shield himself, despite his long years in the film business.  People might think he was the toughest nut around, but he wasn’t; he had no protective shell. One word could destroy him.  Even saying ‘hello’ the wrong way could put him off his stroke.  A well meaning friend once said to him, ‘Peter, how well you look – you’ve put on a bit of weight’.  For days afterwards, he didn’t touch his food.

His chauffeur, valet and constant bodyguard, Bert Mortimer proved a tower of strength in a number of times of crisis; he even acted as best man when Sellers married Miranda Quarry in August 1970 –Bert stayed with Peter for over 16 years, loyally trying to cushion him against himself.

Both Graham Stark [shown here] and David Lodge stayed his friends for life.

His friends generally were not in the film industry – he counted a Church of England vicar – Canon John Hester, Brother Cornelius [a Roman Catholic former teacher], Lord Snowden and Princess Margaret, and a number of very competent personal assistants such as Sue Evans and Hattie Stevenson.  It was Hattie who said that in reality, Peter was ‘absolutely hopeless’ with women.

Sue Evans started working for him in 1973 was his personal assistant and secretary, but in 1974, late at night, when she was with her husband at home, the doorbell rang and they found a terrified Peter on the doorstep begging to be let in.  He had just watched the Exorcist alone in his own home and had been so frightened by it that he couldn’t face a night alone.  Normally the faithful Bert would have been the one he turned to, but it was Bert’s night off.  He stayed with the couple for ten days until he had got over the film.

Peter also counted Evelyn de Rothschild amongst his close friends, along with his old buddies from the Goons – Harry Secombe, Michael Bentine, and Spike Milligan.  After his mother died, he also became fond of and to rely on his Aunty Ve and Aunty Do. 

Multiple personalities, past lives or possession?

 

Many people remarked that when Peter played any part he ‘became’ that person.  He lived, acted and slept that personality.  Peter did not have Multiple Personality disorder, as in this a Personality takes over completely from the main Personality and forms separate memories inaccessible to the main Personality. 

Peter’s different Personalities lived in parallel to his, but he was at a loss to explain this complete identification with each role, until he came across the idea of past lives and reincarnation.

But although he came to think that past life recall was an option, he also at one time considered the possibility that he was possessed.  In other words he had summoned a spirit entity with a Personality matching the description of the role he had to play to appear, and it dutifully took him over so that he became that personality.

It was the Boultings who first noticed this somewhat disconcerting feature of Peter’s characters - the character grew in the actual shooting, the transformation stuck to Sellers even when he was off the set and eventually at any time he wasn't Peter Sellers any more. 

 

Sellers himself at this time said that at this time he had a weird feeling of being taken over by the part - of being 'possessed'. It was as if by realizing the latent powers of performance, he had released something - or someone - that was just waiting to be summoned to creative and sometimes combative life.

When the film character was possessing Sellers, his wife Anne was never quite sure who might be returning home that night.  Sometimes it was a stranger, whose trance like state she was powerless to break and not a little scared to behold.

Thus past life may be the less likely of the options, whereas ‘possession’ might offer a stronger rationale. 

There may be a third option.  The Higher spirit when faced with trauma is capable of manufacturing new personalities to suit the environment.  The case of Sybil is possible the most well documented of such cases.  But in Peter we may have an example of the ability of the Higher spirit to manufacture Personalities on request – in a sense by prayer.  Peter’s manic depressive state, and the high tension he was in as he tried to develop a part, would have left him extremely open to this form of spiritual experience.  It is a most intriguing form of inspiration and is the preserve normally of truly gifted actors.  Writers appear to be able to create characters that also have a life of their own - Charles Dickens - another manic depressive was able to do this - the characters told his stories, not him.

By 1959, Sellers was saying that ‘there’s no such person as Peter Sellers – I only exist as the various characters I create.  They are more than me’.

On faith and belief

Peter’s mother came from a non practising Jewish family, his father Bill Sellers, an accomplished organist and ukelele player, was a Protestant.  He was not allowed to school until he was seven – a fee paying Protestant school near Regent’s Park. Peter was then sent to St Aloysius Roman Catholic school staffed by a teaching Order, the Brothers of Our Lady of Mercy.  The school was tolerant of other faiths and boys who were not Roman Catholic did not have to go to chapel.  But Peter did, even being complimented by Brother Cornelius on his ability to recite the Catechism word perfect.

Brother Cornelius became a comforting presence for Peter as a child and he sought priestly authority where parental authority did not exist.  In later life he also sought help from the Brothers at other times of crisis.  When he and Anne split up he turned up at the school asking to speak to the priest in charge looking for help and comfort.  Later the Reverend John Hester, later vicar of Brighton and counsellor to many theatrical people through the Actors’ Church Union became a helper and friend.  He discussed past lives and death and destiny.  At one stage Peter even considered converting to Christianity.

Peter also had a lifelong interest in mediums, astrologers and clairvoyants and regularly visited and asked for advice from them. 

 
 

Peter Sellers – Alexander Walker
One friend of Sellers's was a boy called Terry Roberts. His mother, Estelle Roberts, was a medium. She was said to break off conversations with people and address the empty air near her with 'What are you saying?' Peg had dabbled in spiritualism, in the chatty backstreet circle of friends and acquaintances who met in the parlour to establish contact with the dear departed …. But Estelle Roberts had a far more serious approach: she had a philosophy. She believed … that nobody ever died, but that they simply assumed spirit form and lived lives that were parallel to the mortal folks' ….It wasn't till well after the war that Sellers started consulting mediums with any regularity and seriousness - and then it was to Estelle Roberts that he turned, first of all suspending his doubts and then swiftly, and increasingly, pinning his faith to the benevolent guidance of the spirit world.

Film producers even submitted their ideas and scripts to Peter’s ‘spiritual advisors’.  Dennis Selinger complained that he ended up living his life via ‘omens and auguries’.  Peter had an intense dislike of Orson Welles, describing Welles as ‘a bad witch’.  Welles had a reputation as a very skilful conjurer and illusionist, talents which in the olden days were associated with ‘dark powers’.  To a superstitious person like Peter, who regularly frequented his clairvoyant and consulted his astrologer almost daily, the dark presence of Welles in the film studio, caused him constant unease – he feared Welles would “penetrate his psyche and he didn’t want to be hexed!”

 

Peter was posted to India, Ceylon and Burma as part of the Gang Show.  It gave him the opportunity to study both a whole new set of characters and a different culture.  ‘I was greatly attracted to the placidness of the Indians’ Sellers said of the time ‘I was a pessimist; Indians seemed bursting with optimism’.  In a much later interview he also said ‘I am attracted to them, whether it is to a certain … idiosyncrasy, or the warmth of their personality or character.. at the time I …was too young to realize I had a feeling for Indian philosophy; but in later life of course I have’…

Peter also became involved in yoga and took it seriously.  When in Rhodesia he even put his yoga to the test by chanting a mantra his swami had taught him at a bull elephant that had charged him.  It apparently worked and calmed the animal down.  Peter immersed himself in Eastern philosophy, and his whole home environment reflected this.  The carpets were earth coloured, the walls were saffron to match his swami’s robes.  He took to sitting cross legged and bare footed on the floor.  At the time he said ‘Yoga has given me a tranquillity I wouldn’t have thought possible’.

Peter started suffering from heart problems well before 1964, which was his first major diagnosed crisis.  On 5th April 1964, hoping to improve his sexual performance with his then wife Britt Ekland, he took isobutyl nitrite, not long afterwards he suffered chest pains and was taken to the Cedars of Lebanon hospital.  At 4.32 am on 7th April 1964, his heart stopped for one and a half minutes.  Seven more times it stopped – the NDE.  The repeated act of dying became for Sellers a pivotal point in his life.  He considered he had been ‘resurrected’ and he intensified his spiritual interests.  He was ill on the plane from Nice in 1977, which led to a pacemaker implantation; he also collapsed en route to Geneva from New York in 1979, as such he was being continually reminded of his own mortality.

Career

Peter’s early career was as a drummer , but as fashions changed, he turned to the theatre, which he hated and then to BBC radio where as a mimic he achieved considerable success appearing on Show Time, Workers’ Playtime, Variety Bandbox and Ray’s a Laugh.

Goons

Milligan, Sellers, Secombe

Harry Secombe already knew Spike Milligan.  Whilst serving in North Africa, Milligan’s howitzer had fallen over a cliff after being fired, directly below was Secombe in a wireless truck.  ‘I immediately began looking in my dictionary for the German phrases for surrender, if the enemy were throwing things that big at us there was no alternative’.  Suddenly the flap on his wireless truck opened and Milligan said ‘Anyone here seen a gun?

Sellers met Harry Secombe in 1949, and was introduced by him to Milligan and Michael Bentine who were doing a show called Soldiers in Skirts.  And thus the Goons were formed.  The Goons found they shared a certain telepathic affinity.  When Spike Milligan was asked what a Goon was he said

A Goon is someone with a one cell brain.  Anything that is not basically simple puzzles a Goon.  His language is inarticulate, he thinks in the Fourth Dimension’.

The Goon show initially went out on Sundays, with Milligan as the chief writer of scripts.  As Secombe said

It was a time for hysteria and brandy, for soaring upwards on the thermal currents of Milligan’s imagination, a time for wishing every day of the week to be Sunday.’

Those Sundays were also Peter’s happiest hours.  As Dennis Selinger said ‘He’d have been content to climb into a time capsule and be sealed up in the Goon era.’

Theatre

Peter’s brief foray into the theatre was something of a disaster.  Peter Hall said of him that:

‘What it proved was that he didn’t want to be a stage actor.. He was such a quick, instinctive performer that, unlike most actors, he didn’t want to master, standardise and refine his performance – he wanted to change it, give himself problems to solve’.

Peter ad libbed so much during one play that the rest of the cast were left speechless.  In December 1958 he was given his marching orders by theatre management and he never returned.

Peter Hall
He was a creature of the modern media.  Theatre was all wrong for him.  He always said he wanted to do something else in the theatre, but I never believed he really did.  If he had, however, I’d have gone to see it – though I’d have gone on the first night.

Films

In total, Peter made about 54 major films.  Of these his early films The Ladykillers [1956], The Smallest Show on Earth [1957] and The Mouse that Roared [1959], have stood the test of time well.  I’m all Right Jack [1959] directed by John Boulting was a milestone for him as a character actor playing a serious role, as opposed to a comic role.  For his role as Fred Kite he won a British Academy Film Award for Best British Actor.

 

The Boultings proved to be directors able to handle Peter’s ‘difficult’ personality and his insecurity and get the best from him.  He came over the years to trust their judgement on a great many issues.  Films such as Heavens Above [1963] , Soft Beds and Hard Battles [1974]and the successful There’s a Girl in My Soup co-starring Goldie Hawn were all successful critically and at the box office.

The Boultings also managed to carefully steer an infatuation he developed with Liza Minelli, whilst he was filming Soft Beds and Hard Battles, to a successful conclusion.  Peter told John Boulting that in Liza he had at last found the sort of woman who would come and take care of him.  Unfortunately Sellers was 47 and married to Miranda Quarry at the time and Liza at 27 was engaged to Dezi Arnez.  The filming was being disrupted by the fact Peter and Liza were going to Tramps every night [at Peter’s instigation].  The Boultings reorganised the schedule for filming, and the two of them – Liza and Peter – were thus allowed to burn themselves out in about 10 days.  After two weeks they had split up, the affair was over and filming could resume.

Two Way Stretch [1960] found him playing with his lifelong friend actor David Lodge, as well as Wilfrid Hyde White and Bernard Cribbens.  Graham Stark was also another lifelong friend of Peter’s and we find him appearing along with Peter in an 11 minute film made by director Richard Lester which has become something of a cult film – The Running, Jumping and Standing Still Film [1960].  The film was nominated for an Academy Award for Short Subject (Live Action).

 

In The Millionairess [1960], he played opposite Sophia Loren.  Besotted by her beauty, he wove a fantasy around her insinuating on some occasions that the affair had been physical and only her marriage to Carlo Ponti stopped her from marrying him.  None of it was true, it appears to have been all in his mind, Sophia Loren later turned down point blank other offers of working with him.

In Lolita, [1962] Peter revelled in the opportunity to work with the director Stanley Kubrick.   He would go on to work with Kubrick on Dr Strangelove [1964] in which he played three roles – Group Captain Lionel Mandrake [an RAF Officer], President Merkin Muffley [the American President] and Dr Strangelove himself.  The enormous differences in the characters highlighted how adept he was at immersing himself in the character and becoming that person.  For Lolita he was nominated for a Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actor.  For Dr Strangelove he was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actor and also nominated for a British Academy Film Award for Best British Actor.

Peter Sellars both starred in and directed Mr Topaze [1961], it was not a great success, a comment was made that he was treating the directorship like another character he had to play.

 

Although the relationship between Blake Edwards as the director and Peter was at times explosive, Edwards was able to handle Sellers swings of mood from manic elation to absolute despondency and gloom.  The Pink Panther [1964] was the first in the series of films Peter was to make with Edwards in the role of Chief Inspector Clouseau, in 1964 they made A Shot in the Dark, followed by the Return of the Pink Panther [1975], the Pink Panther Strikes again [1976] and the Revenge of the Pink Panther [1978].  Blake Edwards also directed Sellers in The Party [1968].  Peter was nominated a number of times for a Golden Globe Award for Best Actor – Musical or Comedy in these films.

The Magic Christian [1970] directed by Joe McGrath also starred Ringo Starr, Yul Brunner and Spike Milligan.  Joe McGrath also directed The Great McGonagall [1975] with Spike Milligan.

Peter starred with Shirley MacLaine in Woman Times Seven [1967] and convinced himself that she too was besotted by him.  Shirley managed to handle Peter tactfully, kindly, and with great understanding,  despite his fantasising, and stayed friends with him over the years.  They were later to star together in Being There.

Being There

 

The book Being there was published in 1971.  Not long after the book was released, the Polish born author Jerzy Kosinski was contacted by Peter Sellers. 

Seller’s request was simple, he wanted to turn the book into a film and he was to play Chauncey Gardiner.  Sellers for the first time believed that in Chance he had found the reason he was here, not only did he understand the book, but he also understood the purpose of the book – to play him would thus be the final enactment of his life.  His destiny would be complete.

The book is described by some as a ‘comic novel’.  It isn’t.  It has moments of humour that add to the overall pathos of the film, but Being There has nothing to do with comedy.  It is a book about The Fool – the Tarot card of The Fool.  The concept of Chance is the same as that of Jung’s Synchronicity.  A gardener is one who tends his Garden – a symbolic concept - a place where one can create one’s own Paradise.

 

When Peter walks on water at the end it is no accidental image he leaves us with.  He wishes us to see that stripped of all malice, stripped of all judgemental behaviour, stripped of all erroneous beliefs, stripped of all materialistic or ‘carnal’ desire, unaware of threats or at least not bothered by them, believing implicitly in the afterlife, in tune with Nature, incapable of hurting anyone and finding LOVE in his heart for his fellow beings, placid and at ease with himself, egoless and humble – he had become a saint, an angel who could walk on water – he had achieved perfection.

Peter was absolutely incensed when the film company ended the film with credits that included out-takes of his mistakes during the filming.  And as a perfectionist we should be able to see why – they destroyed the spell created , the key message of the film – the overall set of spiritual messages that were key to Peter achieving his destiny.  This was what he had put on the earth to do – to put this message across.

If anything the credits should simply have carried on rolling over the image of him walking over the water as if it is the most natural thing to do. 

The film was not released until 1979, it took 6 years before Sellers finally played the man he felt he was destined to play.  What finally won Kosinski over to assigning Sellers the right to the role was an incident that happened amidst the greenery of a friend’s garden through which the two men were strolling. In full view of Kosinski, he ‘became’ Chance the gardener. He appeared older, a heavier looking man who stooped with a stiffness in his limbs, picked up a hosepipe and watered a shrub.   Kosinski later said ‘His face was utterly serene.  It was as if I wasn’t within a hundred miles.  He had stepped into his own world.  He was my Chauncey Gardiner’.

Kosinski later paid him the highest tribute that a creator could to his interpreter: ‘Nobody thought that Chance was even a character, yet Peter knew that man.’ 

Peter Sellers – Alexander Walker
Peter later confessed that he had sometimes felt abstracted from the film in an unearthly way, as if he were standing by, looking at himself.  It reminded him of the time he had ‘died’ on the operating table and seen himself revived, pulled back again from the spiritual state to the physical being.  To the American journalist Michael Glazer, he confessed.  ‘The whole experience of Being There was so humbling, so powerful….. I’d often say ‘cut’ during a take and people would come running saying ‘is anything wrong?  Don’t you feel alright?’  And I’d say – and I know this is a bit Chance-like to say a thing like this – but I’d say ‘Oh no, no I’ve never seen anything quite like this film before’….. At the end of the day’s shooting it wasn’t Peter who returned to Lynne but Chance.

Peter Sellers did only one more film after Being There and it was only done because he was concerned about money and providing for his family.  It was not a great success.

For Being There , however, Peter won the National Board of Review Award for Best Actor, the New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Actor; a Golden Globe Award for Best Actor– Musical or Comedy; and the London Film Critics Circle Award for Best Actor.  He was also nominated  for a  British Academy Film Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role and for an Academy Award for Best Actor.

When Peter Sellers was taken ill on 22nd July 1980, he had come to London for a reunion with his old friends from the Goons.  He was with his then valet and assistant Michael Jeffery in the UK, as well as his secretary and personal assistant Sue Evans.  They ensured he was rushed to hospital and his wife Lynne immediately got on a plane for London.  He was in a coma all the time before he died, but appeared to wait until everyone was there before dying of heart failure.

Peter Sellers – Alexander Walker
Lynne Frederick, Sue Evans and Michael Jeffery stood in the room where Peter’s spirit had so lately left him.  All the unsightly apparatus had now been taken away and they had an unobscured view of him.  There was a look of complete peace and contentment on his face.

 

References

  • Alexander Walker - Peter Sellers
  • Shirley MacLaine – Out of a Limb

Observations

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