Who is this man?


Picture Show 1961 tries to find out who is the real Peter Sellers

Clues: He was presented with a film award by the Duke of Edinburgh in 1960. He’s made records, appeared on TV and radio … he’s the biggest name in British Films.

BUT does he really exist…?

Some time ago we had an afternoon photo session with Peter Sellers when he wasn’t quite the star he is today. We shot him in a string of guises and we thought “What a brilliant character actor he’ll make.” Well, he turned out to be just that, although, to our knowledge he’s never appeared, as we shot him that afternoon, in the film role of a rock ’n’ roll singer. Perhaps, for some people, the character would be too close for comfort!

From Picture Show annual 1961

Peter Sellers ceased to exist shortly after making a phone call in 1948. At that time he was an unknown, hard-up ex-R.A.F. man who was trying to land a job in show business. On an impulse he rang a variety producer at the B.B.C. and in the assumed accents of Kenneth Horne (the “Much Binding” man, not the author) told the producer, in words something like this, “I’ve just seen a frightfully brilliant chap… you must pop along to see him… name of Sellers.” The producer fell for the deception and, strangely enough, was not a bit annoyed when Sellers admitted the hoax just before ringing off. Peter Sellers was given his chance in a broadcast and from that minute he became the man who never was; he lost his own voice… and he started to lose his own features.

Now, twelve years later, Peter Sellers is firmly established as a number of people — of both sexes and varying nationalities — gathered in one body. Even when he was presented with the British Film Academy’s Award as Best British Actor of 1960 by the Duke of Edinburgh, Sellers could not find his own voice to express his appreciation; when he opened his mouth to speak out came the nasal tones of a teenage boy: “I would like to say on behalf of my mum and dad that I am very pleased to return to the villas triumphant with the prize.” Let’s go back over the career of this composite and bewildering character. 1960 was easily his best year in films, delighting both public and critics in offerings like The Mouse That Roared, Battle of the Sexes, I’m All Right Jack, and Two-Way Stretch.

In the first-named film — also a great success in America — he took three roles: a glorious peach melba of a Duchess, a suave, charmingly continental Prime Minister and a rather shy, inarticulate young man. For this last character Sellers assumed no make-up, hardly altered his voice. It’s the nearest he’s got to playing himself on the screen… and the character was generally thought to be the most uninteresting he’s ever portrayed! A colourless, faceless man with no spark at all. Sellers as Sellers was a bit of a flop.

Being “faceless” is something he shares with that other great actor Alec Guinness. Sellers admits he doesn’t know who he really is, underneath. Guinness is in the same quandary; he, too, doesn’t know his true identity.

But perhaps it’s too harsh to say Sellers doesn’t exist at all. To his pretty ex-actress wife, Anne, he is alive… and his children occasionally see him at weekends. Anne knows him as a husband who rarely loses his temper at home, as a worrier, a perfectionist, a man always in a hurry, a man who wonders why the tulip bulbs he planted yesterday haven’t come up today. But Sellers the actor is liable to do battle with B.B.C., I.T.V., film companies, and Uncle Tom Cobley and all if their views don’t agree with his.

Peter Sellers still remembers the American producer who said that he (Sellers) couldn’t speak Cockney, and that he (the American) would teach him. For the creator of the glorious “Mate” character, this was too much. He walked out of the show.

Another of his pet hates: the long-run part. It would — and did — bore him stiff to go on stage night after night portraying the same character. In his West End venture Brouhaha there was a terrible brouhaha when Sellers decided to quit the show after seven months. He had had enough.

He tried to make the part different each night; on one occasion when the audience was a bit dull he loped around the stage like Groucho Marx; another time he got slightly tipsy, told the audience he was sloshed, and did they want him to appear? They said yes and he played magnificently.

Over the past few years Sellers has concentrated almost exclusively on his film career. When he started appearing in films his aim was: “to become so successful that I can name the parts I want… and play them the way I want.”

Probably it was The Naked Truth, in which he played six roles, which was the turning point in his film career. The public accepted “Goon” Sellers as an actor after this. He was in demand. The same film company that made The Naked Truth tried to rush him into another multi-role epic. Sellers said no, probably remembering Alec Guinness’s advice always to do something different.

Sellers, having “arrived,” was going to dictate the pace and plot the route he was to take from now on.

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At thirty-five he need never work again, could probably retire to that dream island he was so fond of a few years back when he was making only £17,000 a year. With probably double that amount now flowing into the Sellers account he finds that the dream island is rapidly fading; he can’t slow down, finds it hard to relax. The treadmill’s turning faster.

He lives in a ten-bedroomed mansion in Hertfordshire and has a garage for two cars — his and hers. He has changed his car so often — he had owned 60 at the last count, ranging from bubble cars to Bentleys, some he kept only a few hours — that he has got around to changing hers. Sellers also loves electric trains, gadgets and photography.

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He worries about everything: his looks —
he reckons Spike Milligan is much more handsome — his career, his popularity. Two bad films on the trot he reckons could mean the great British public forgetting him.

It would appear that the next step in the Sellers career is to become internationally known. Already has a toe-hold in America but he’ll find the going tough. International stars are personalities… easily recognised as themselves in whatever role they appear… like the Cary Grants, the Gary Coopers. But who — if Sellers sticks to his formula of always being someone else — will recognise Sellers? Again, international stars are usually romantic; Sellers has fought shy of romance on the screen. True, he did kiss Jean Seberg in The Mouse That Roared… but appearing in love scenes with pretty girls terrifies him.

I predict that 1961 is going to be very important to Peter Sellers. Very important indeed.

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