Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Peter Sellers – Hollywood Legends – February 2012

Peter Sellers is best known as a brilliant comedic actor, The Pink Panther series with director Blake Edwards probably his most famous work. He also had notable roles in films directed by Hal Ashby and Stanley Kubrick. Sellers starred in just over eighty films, creating some of the funniest and most memorable characters. He was an absolute chameleon with the ability to completely transform himself. While he does not often get the recognition outside the world of comedy (not to mention that a large portion of his career was spent making terrible films), Sellers is one of the most iconic and best actors of all-time.

Early Career:

Sellers got his start while serving as an airman in the Royal Air Force, having enlisted during World War II. He joined the Entertainments National Service Association (ENSA), which allowed him to hone his comedy and drumming skills. ENSA’s main focus was to boost morale of soldiers and factory workers. Sellers also occasionally impersonated superior officers, using mimicry and a false moustache, even bluffing his way into the Officer’s Mess. Once out of the RAF in 1948, Sellers made a living doing stand-up routines, but he wanted more. To get BBC radio producer Roy Speer on the phone, he called up and pretended to be Kenneth Horne, a radio star at the time. Speer was impressed and Sellers was given an audition resulting in his first radio job: Ray’s a Laugh with comedian Ted Ray. However, Sellers’s next radio project would make him a star of radio in Britain – The Goon Show, which he did with Spike Milligan, Harry Secombe and Michael Bentine. He also made a short film with Milligan in 1960 called The Running Jumping & Standing Still Film. It was nominated for an Oscar. In the late 1950s, Sellers released two comedy records produced by George Martin, but wanted more. He began to audition for TV and films. In 1955, having featured in a few films and TV series, Sellers got his first break with a supporting role in the comedy The Ladykillers, which stars Alec Guinness. It was nominated for Best British Film at the 1956 BAFTA Awards.

Recognition and the Ability to Play Any Role:

In 1957, Sellers took a supporting role in The Smallest Show on Earth playing an elderly theatre projectionist, while he himself was only thirty-two. With the success of The Ladykillers, Sellers’s ability to play just about any character and his notoriety from The Goon Show, he got the lead in the 1959 war comedy The Mouse That Roared – a film in which Sellers plays three different principal roles: the elderly queen, the ambitious prime minister and the clumsy man selected to lead an invasion of the United States. When the film was released in the States, he received a lot of positive publicity for playing three parts. Next, Sellers starred with Ian Carmichael, Terry-Thomas and Richard Attenborough in I’m All Right Jack, directed by John Boulting. The very funny comedy won two BAFTA awards: Best British Screenplay and Best British Actor for Sellers. Now, he had some recognition for being not only a very funny comedian, but also a great actor. He continued to star in British comedies into the early 1960s, but again he wanted more – to go to Hollywood. His first major role came in 1962.

Working with Stanley Kubrick:

In 1962 Sellers’s first chance to work in Hollywood for a major director came when Stanley Kubrick approached him to take a supporting role in his new film Lolita, which starred James Mason, Sue Lyon and Shelley Winters. Kubrick had been a fan of Sellers’s earlier films and radio work and was intrigued by his range (here is an interview in which Sellers demonstrated the different accents within the U.K.). However, Sellers was nervous to take the role of Quilty at first. Kubrick eventually persuaded him. Sellers was highly encouraged to improvise throughout filming. Kubrick even shot his scenes with multiple camera set ups at the same time to allow Seller total freedom. Sellers remembers the experience as one of the most rewarding of his career, and he is particularly brilliant in the film. He worked again with Kubrick in 1964 on his next film Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. Sellers was cast as the lead, playing four characters: U.S. President Merkin Muffley, German physicist Dr. Strangelove, Group Captain Lionel Mandrake of the RAF, and Major T.J. ‘King’ Kong. He initially had trouble getting the Texas accent just right, and had a heavy workload on the film was making it difficult for him to only focus on that character. Kubrick asked screenwriter Terry Southern (raised in Texas) to provide a tape to Sellers with the lines spoken in the correct accent. Sellers finally got the accent and began filming the role, but he injured his leg and could no longer fit in the cockpit set, and thus the part was recast with Slim Pickens. Kubrick again gave Sellers total freedom to improvise, creating one of Sellers’s greatest performances leading to his first Oscar nomination for Best Actor (I particularly like his scenes as Mandrake playing against Sterling Hayden’s Brigadier General Jack Ripper).

Working with Blake Edwards:

While Sellers’s work with Kubrick gave him two of his best performances and films, his collaborations with Blake Edwards would give him his most iconic and fruitful character – Inspector Jacques Clouseau. It all began with Edwards’s deciding to make a crime comedy starring David Niven as a charming cat burglar The Phantom in The Pink Panther, named for the famous diamond The Phantom is after. Sellers was cast as a bumbling yet bigheaded French inspector on The Phantom’s trail. Now, many think of this as Sellers’s film, but it was really Niven’s film when it was released – Peter Ustinov was even the producers’ first choice for Clouseau. Sellers was relatively unknown internationally at the time. However, Sellers completely stole the film. Thus, production for a sequel with Sellers at the center was hurried along and A Shot in the Dark came out only three months after The Pink Panther. While The Pink Panther is a fairly typical 1960s comedy (goofiness succeeding over content and quality to some degree), A Shot in the Dark is a brilliant comedy, and one of the best of the decade (if not ever). The films sent Sellers into probably the peak of his fame, along with his Kubrick films. However, Sellers took on many terrible projects for the next few years (even trying to play James Bond in Casino Royale, realizing that the filmmakers just wanted him to be goofy and quitting the film) and suffered a heart attack while filming Billy Wilder’s Kiss Me, Stupid. In 1968 Sellers reconnected with Edwards to make The Party, a slapstick comedy centered on an Indian actor who is mistakenly invited to a swanky Hollywood party. Sellers plays the role like he was one of the great slapstick comedians (Charles Chaplin, Jacques Tati or Buster Keaton), wandering around the party getting himself into trouble with physical gags. It is a riot. From there, Sellers took on another slew of bad projects and found himself struggling as a ‘fallen star’. So, he once again returned to Edwards and the Pink Panther series making a trilogy from 1975-1978. The Return of the Pink Panther and The Pink Panther Strikes Again are both amazingly brilliant slapstick comedies with Sellers at the top of his game. The Revenge of the Pink Panther is funny, too, but not nearly as good.

One Last Brilliant Peformance:

Outside of his collaborations with Edwards, Sellers did not really have very many good films between 1965 and 1978. But, Hoffman and Murder by Death are two of them (and he did a great job hosting The Muppets). Sellers had for years been trying to get Jerzy Kosinski’s novel Being There made into a film, but he kept running into problems – first, Kosinski did not want it to be made into a film and second, outside of the Pink Panther films he was no longer a bankable star. He finally convinced Kosinski to let a film version happen in 1979 (nearly nine years after the novel had come out) when Hal Ashby joined to direct, providing that Kosinski wrote the script. Now that the film was to be made, Sellers spent most of his time preparing the character of Chance, particularly his voice and walk (for Sellers, the voice was always the most important and led to everything else). During filming, Sellers remained in character throughout, even when he went home, avoiding other actors and crew members and not giving any interviews to the press. The film came out to great success. Sellers’s performance was called his crowning achievement, garnering him his second Best Actor Oscar nomination (and it is a travesty that he did not win – some speculate it is due to the outtakes being included during the credits “breaking the spell” of the film, while other think it is due to Sellers essentially being blacklisted by Hollywood). While Being There was not his last film (as he had a second major heart attack that took his life in 1980), The Fiendish Plot of Dr. Fu Manchu taking that honor, Sellers gives what is his finest and most personal performance of his career.

Peter Sellers’s Career Highlights:

1)      The Ladykillers (1955) – supporting (Blu-ray, DVD, Streaming)
2)      I’m All Right Jack (1959) – supporting (DVD)
3)      The Mouse That Roared (1959) – leading (DVD, Streaming)
4)      Lolita (1962) – supporting (Blu-ray, DVD, Streaming)
5)      The Pink Panther (1963) – supporting (Blu-ray, DVD, Streaming)
6)      Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)* – leading (Blu-ray, DVD)
7)      A Shot in the Dark (1964)* – leading (DVD, Streaming)
8)      The Party (1968) – leading (DVD)
9)      Hoffman (1971) – leading (DVD)
10)   The Return of the Pink Panther (1975)* – leading (DVD, Streaming)
11)   Murder by Death (1976) – supporting (DVD, Streaming)
12)   The Pink Panther Strikes Again (1976)* – leading (DVD)
13)   Being There (1979)* – leading (Blu-ray, DVD, Streaming)
*Editor’s picks

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