Master impressionist Peter Sellers was born Richard Henry Sellers on September 8, 1925 in Southsea, Hampshire, England. His parents, Agnes (Peg) and Bill Sellers, called him Peter in memory of his stillborn older brother. Sellers’ parents were vaudeville entertainers, and at two days old, Sellers was carried onto the stage at King’s Theatre. He spent his childhood traveling the vaudeville circuit, where he gained a fondness for entertaining and a desire to succeed beyond the realm of vaudeville.
As a youth, Sellers attended Miss Whitney’s School of Dancing in Southsea and Madame Vacani’s Dancing Classes in London before enrolling in St Aloysius’ Boarding and Day School for Boys. In the early 1940s, Sellers played the drums with touring jazz bands and also learned to play the banjo and ukulele. Just after his 18th birthday, Sellers was drafted into the British Royal Air Force. He became an official RAF concert entertainer, and between 1943 and 1946, Sellers spent his free time performing comedy sketches and playing the drums for the other servicemen.
After returning home from the war, Sellers pursued a position with the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC). By 1948, he had taken part in a few moderately successful auditions, none of which had resulted in an invitation to join the BBC. Having grown impatient for stardom, Sellers chose to take matters into his own hands. The comic made a telephone call to Roy Speer, producer of the BBC radio program, Show Time. Sellers posed as a popular radio star and recommended himself to Speer. The producer, impressed with Sellers’ “acting,” gave him a spot on the air. Following his initial appearances on Show Time, Sellers became a sought-after radio personality.
On the long-running BBC radio show, Crazy People (later called The Goon Show), Sellers established himself as a master impressionist. The show’s zany collection of skits and Sellers’ outrageous characters, including Major Bloodnok, Bluebottle, and Henry Crun, have been recognized as the predecessors to Monty Python’s Flying Circus. The Goon Show provided Sellers with a showcase for his improvisational skills as well as an outlet for life’s frustrations.
By the time The Goon Show was canceled in January 1960, Sellers had earned the exposure necessary to begin a career in film. After appearing in several British pictures, Sellers achieved success in the U.S. with The Mouse That Roared (1959). In 1960, he received international attention for his role in the film The Millionairess, in which he co-starred with Sophia Loren.
The incredibly versatile Sellers could slip in and out of characters with surprising speed. His genius was displayed through his depiction of multiple characters in Mouse as well as in several other films throughout his career. Dr. Strangelove (1964), considered Sellers’ best film, earned him his first Oscar nomination in 1965. In 1963, Sellers introduced the world to his best-known character, Inspector Clouseau, The Pink Panther’s bumbling master of disguise. There were four sequels to this successful comedic film: A Shot in the Dark (1964), The Return of the Pink Panther (1974), The Pink Panther Strikes Again (1976), and Revenge of the Pink Panther (1978). 1982’s Trail of the Pink Panther is a posthumous collection of outtakes from the previous Panther films combined with new footage of other cast members.
Sellers garnered his second Oscar nomination for the critically acclaimed film, Being There (1979), in which he played the childlike Chance, a gardener mistaken for an economic guru. Sellers’ controlled performance was key to the success of this subtle comedy. The comedian’s film career ended just before his death in 1980, with The Fiendish Plot of Fu Manchu.
Though Sellers was a great success professionally, he did not fare as well in the personal realm. The son of an overprotective, controlling mother, Sellers often behaved like a child, throwing tantrums and demanding his wife’s’ undivided attention. Sellers married four times, to Anne Howe (Sept. 15, 1951), Britt Ekland (Feb. 19, 1964), Miranda Quarry (Aug. 24, 1970) and Lynne Frederick (Feb. 18, 1977). He also sired three children: Michael (April 2, 1954), Sarah (Oct. 16, 1957) and Victoria (Jan. 20, 1965). Sellers’ wives and children were forced to suffer the effects of living with an obsessive perfectionist whose attentions focused mainly on himself and his career.
After appearing in over 60 films as well as on numerous radio and television shows throughout his career, Sellers died of a heart attack on July 24, 1980. Displaying his unending sense of humor, the comic said good-bye with one last joke. At Sellers’ request, the song “In The Mood” was played at his funeral, a tune that he hated. According to biographer Roger Lewis, Sellers had told his son Michael that the song was “wonderfully inappropriate – hence, wonderfully appropriate – for solemn occasions.”