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Stellar Peter Sellers

February 2, 2011

by John Farr

Peter Sellers was one of the 20th Century’s most gifted comedic actors. This week, he appears in the Reel 13 Classic, The Pink Panther. John Farr’s got three other stellar Sellers pictures you should check out for the first time or watch again.


Dr. Strangelove or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)

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WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

In this satirical doomsday thriller, a U.S. bomber piloted by Major Kong (Slim Pickens) receives a signal to release its nuclear payload on Russia. When the unfortunate Captain Mandrake (Peter Sellers) seeks out Gen. Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden) to learn why he ordered the drop, and why he’s placed his Air Force base on lockdown, it’s quickly evident the general has lost his marbles. Meanwhile, President Muffley (Sellers again) meets with senior advisers, including a hawkish general (Scott) and the oddly sinister nuclear scientist Dr. Strangelove (Sellers), to review their limited options to save the planet.

WHY I LOVE IT:

The most inspired piece of Cold War satire ever and one of the screen’s supreme black comedies, Kubrick’s 1964 “Strangelove” confronted jittery audiences in the aftermath of the Cuban Missile Crisis, and not long after the advent of the H bomb. With Kubrick’s twisted genius as director and screenwriter in full bloom, and peerless performances by Peter Sellers (in three roles), Scott, and the unhinged Hayden, the film is unbearably funny and extremely disturbing all at once. The blackest of pitch black comedies, this “Dr.” really hasn’t aged one bit.


The Party (1968)

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WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

A fat-cat Hollywood producer decides to throw a splashy dinner party (“Anyone who’s anyone will be there!”), and as bad luck would have it, Indian-born actor Hrundi Bakshi (Peter Sellers) mistakenly makes it onto the guest list. Though Bakshi knows few of his fellow guests, they will certainly get to know him before the night is over.

WHY I LOVE IT:

Sellers inhabits another accident-prone character in his continuing partnership with Blake Edwards. Bakshi is a gentle person, but his innocent curiosity about his surroundings (or is it bewilderment?) manages to wreak havoc most everywhere he goes. Though detractors claim the comic momentum flags by picture’s end, Sellers’s brilliant characterization and some sublime set-pieces make this worthy viewing. In particular, the dinner sequence is one of the funniest sequences on film. French actress Claudine Longet is adorable as the party’s prettiest guest, who befriends Bakshi. A sixties bash!


Being There (1979)

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WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

Sellers’s second-to-last film proved to himself and the world that when called upon, he could be a superb serious actor. Ingenious tale written by Jerzy Kozinski tells of Chance, a child-like gardener in Washington, D.C., whose only education has come through television. Through a twist of fate, after his old employer dies, Chance (re-dubbed Chauncey Gardner) ends up in the home of powerful wheeler-dealer Benjamin Rand (Melvyn Douglas) and his lonely younger wife Eve (Shirley MacLaine). Rand sees the stuff of genius in Chauncey’s simple pronouncements, and soon the humble gardener has the ear of some even more powerful people.

WHY I LOVE IT:

Top “70′s director Hal Ashby’s adaptation of Jerzy Kozinski’s original black comedy is a triumph, due to Sellers’s bravura lead performance and terrific turns from supporting players Douglas (who netted an Oscar), MacLaine, and the gravelly Jack Warden as the President. Smart, funny and thought-provoking, the film’s enduring poignancy comes from the fact that Sellers had only one year to live when he made the film. If you love Peter Sellers, you’ll love “Being There”.


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  • Roc Rizzo

    My favorite Sellers’ performance is the three that he played in Dr. Strangelove.
    It proved what a versatile actor he was.

  • Ron Nicoletta

    Being There is my favorite Peter Sellars Role. He broke ground for the future roles of Rain Man/Dustin Hoffman and Forest Gump/Tom Hanks…He is one of a kind with a very unique and genius level of acting/comedy

  • laustcawz

    Personally, I’ve NEVER understood the appeal of “Being There”. I think it’s, by far, Sellers’ worst film. I’d say his incredible talent had begun to fall off fast at that point & he died soon after. He’d also said that this role was the closest any of his characters had ever come to being like he is in real life, so I’m very thankful that his other characters were not. I also find this film a clumsy, dull-witted attempt at satire.

    There can be no doubt that Clouseau (my top favorite of his characters & a favorite of many other people) will always stand as his signature role. However, 2 of my other favorites among his characterizations are not especially well-known or remembered:

    “The Mouse That Roared” (1959)–

    Sort of a warm-up multiple-role political satire showcase for Sellers, who would prove even more impressive in “Dr. Strangelove…” (one of director Kubrick’s best, in my opinion), “…Mouse…” follows the “smallest country in the world”, which plans to wage war on the U.S. in order to lose!!!

    “Murder By Death” (1976)

    Neil Simon’s hilarious whodunit parody features an all-star cast, teaming Sellers with “…Panther” co-star David Niven, as well as Alec Guinness (his last movie before “Star Wars”), Peter Falk, Elsa Lanchester, James Coco, Maggie Smith & Truman Capote. If you haven’t seen it, you’re really missing out.

  • Ben Seibert

    Some of my favorite Peter Sellers films are not well known, made in England before his “Panther” fame: “The Smallest Show on Earth”, “I’m All Right Jack” (as a union shop steward) and “Heaven’s Above!” in which the only place his good-hearted Anglican priest character can fit in is as the Bishop of Outer Space. These are not his best movies, but are well-made and show Sellers off at a much younger age (though in “Smallest Show” he’s playing the oldest character he ever played until Fu Manchu!). While I disagree with laustcawz regarding “Being There” (it is most certainly not clumsy or dull-witted) I know we all have different tastes and opinions. Sellers had shown definitively, 10 years before “Being There,” that he had chops as a “superb serious star” as John Farr says–in his role as Benjamin Hoffman in “Hoffman.” No critique of Sellers’ roles is complete without viewing “Hoffman.”

  • John Farr

    Odd the some folks don’t appreciate “Being There”, but hey that’s the fascination of the movies.
    Love Sellers’ early stuff, particularly “Jack”.
    And just saw him with Alec Guinness in “The Ladykillers”, his first featured film role.

  • laustcawz

    Finally saw “Hoffman” & think it’s terrific. I’m a bit irritated that I had to put this in my Blockbuster by mail queue just to see it. I don’t understand why more of Sellers’ earlier films haven’t circulated more around TV, cable, video, theater revivals & so forth. I certainly consider “Hoffman” among his best.

    For Sellers roles such ss this, I think the words “dramatic” & “understated” are more accurate than “serious”. Many comedic actors have been underrated or mildly dismissed when doing more slapstick or screwball comedy & aren’t taken “seriously” without more dramatic or non-comedic roles. I think this is sometimes unfair (depending on the role & actor). Luckily, though, Sellers seemed to be versatile enough early enough to avoid this, managing drama, satire & slapstick in different films. Even Clouseau (as slapstick as he was) was a nicely underplayed characterization, for the most part. A lot of today’s stars could learn from this. Maybe it’s up to Steve Carell to take comedy in a better direction.

  • Jack

    Dr. Strangelove and The Pink Panther original are musts. Other than those two, I don’t get Sellars. He does not hold up outside of those iconic titles.