1. - Danny Green, The Ladykillers, 1955. The brooding, brutal, cruel, fickle, fleeting, ignorant, inconsiderate, intemperate, manipulative, paranoid, petulant, sad, suicidal (he said), touchy, unbalanced, uncertain, uncontrollable, uneducated, violent, vulnerable, wanton genius and psychotic that was Sellers was a huge radio star determined on a film career. That began bydubbing Bogart in Beat The Devil, Churchill in The Man Who Never Was,Joan Collins’ cockatoo in Our Girl Friday,seven characters in Fire Over Africa - seventeen in Malaga!BBC producer Roy Speer actually declared Sellers was lucky that radio existed: “He could never make a living as an actor... with a face like that.”His agent, Dennis Selinger, did not agree, sending him to audition for One Round, the punch-drunk member of Alec Guinness’ gang. Scots director Alexander Mackendrick gave Peter the smaller role of a teddy boy Harry(first earmarked for Richard Attenborough). Sellers didn’t objectas long as he could work with Guinness - his idol. Naturally, Peter also voiced Mrs Wilberforce’s parrot. (As a gift for the crew, Sellers made a a trailer-style record, playing all the characters.)
2. - Wolfe Morris, Ill Met By Moonlight, 1957. The diary note of top UK director Michael Powell for March 4 1967 was one word: Peterloo.Ten years before, when Sellers’ career was a heartbeat away from taking off, Powell rejected him as a possible partisan in this mild WWII piece. The adversarial Sellers got his revenge by agreeing to be Michael Frayn’s Russian Interpreter, yet refusing Powell as director - “It’s not your subject.”Powell still praised him to a loftierdegree than most, as the greatest actor of the electronic age, “a master of all the emotions, comedian, clown, tragedian, mimic... His only peer was Jean-Louis Barrault... Chaplinwas the greater clown but never learned to speak the words.” Despite all of that, Sellers never learned to work with Powell.
3. - Frankie Howerd, Further Up The Creek, 1958. Always against sequels until the Panther money and fame were too much to reject (although he grew to hate “the faggot cat”),Sellers backed out of a second version of his Royal Navy Bilko. Poor Sellers had little choice about his career. He had been impersonating fromthe cradle, where the baby born Richard Henry Sellars was quickly called Peter - name of his parents’, or more particularly, his overbearing mother Peg’s first son,stillborn two years earlier in 1923
4. - Peter Sallis, Samuel Pepys! TV, 1958. Despite Roy Speer’s opinion,Sellers became big - bigger! -on TV with the Fred shows, than with radio’s Goons. The Beeb had let himslip away to ITV - and wanted him back. In whatever he desired. How about drama? Michael Barry, head of drama, wrote himabout“a very special project over which considerable trouble is being taken... a serial dramatisation of Pepys’ Diary. It’s turning out well as an amusing and human story...Would you like to play Pepys?” He would not. The fact that it was scripted byLieutenant-Colonel A RRawlinson, might not have gone down well with a lowly ex-ACH(GD)2223033 RAF Aircraftsman. Then again, maybe Barry mistook a suggestedPeter Sallis for Peter Sellers...Still acting at 91, Sallis became the voice of Wallace (of ... and Gromit) in 1989.
5. - Terry-Thomas, Too Many Crooks, 1959. UK comedy producer Mario Zampi was doubling what he’d paid Peter for their 1957 Naked Truth hit. Sellers, however- or his clairvoyant “guide,” Maurice Woodruff (often paid by by film companiesto help steer Sellers towards their offers) -wasn’t having any.Zampi even signed on as a Woodruff client in order to persuade him to see a Z in the actor's immediate future! Sans PS, the comedy tanked.
6. - Richard Todd, Never Let Go, 1959.
Sellers’ bridge between his little UK films and going international with The Millionairess. Director John Guillermin wanted him as the hero, a classic worm that turns. Oh no, said Sellers, give me Meadows - the psychopathic gangster. An extraordinary and self-revelatory choice as biographer Roger Lewis insists that Sellers recognised himself in Meadows’ evil vindictiveness. If this was Sellers' Richard III, it is also (to borrow the original title), his Moment of Truth... certainly, the onset of his madness. Lewis suggested Meadows was Sellers’ interior, the way Being There was his exterior. This is the Sellers who beat up his wives and lovers.... Having cornered the market of WWII heroes, Todd could never have been so horribly convincing. [See also Footnote on the end of this page].
7. - Laurence Harvey, Expresso Bongo, 1959. Although (or because?) scenarist Wolf Mankowitz was a friend and one-time partner, Sellers didn’t like the script,. “He saw my point. It was a two-dimensional character and wasn’t real. I know these characters very well because I’ve lived a section of my life amongst them... I’ve been in the band business and know it all and this fellow wasn’t true, wasn’t right. They don’t act this way, they don’t talk this way.” (It had been good enough for Paul Scofield on-stage).There were, in fact, rather too many of Sellers’ er,flaws, in the role, so he took the easy route, “another romp” - as jailbird Dodger Lane’sTwo Way Stretch.
8. - Lionel Jeffries, Fanny, 1960. Among the candidates for Monsieur Brun in the Marseilles stage and screen classic by Marcel Pagnol. Jeffries, of course, was a regular Sellers partner. Until he started getting too many laughs.
9. - Julien Bertheau, Madame Sans-Gêne, France-Italy-Spain, 1961. Claiming to have been Sophia Loren’s lover during The Millionairess, 1960, Sellers announced a rash of films for them, including this role as Napoleon (not the most important male role, that was Robert Hossein as her lover). Her husband, producer Carlo Ponti, blocked Peter - or Sophia - from all of the projects. Sellers then haunted her Euro sets and homes like a lovelorn puppy - during The Fall of the Roman Empire, even bothering her most important work, Two Women. Sophia never complained and when running into UK journalists, like me, she always asked: “How’s Peter?”
10 - Red Buttons, Hatari! 1961. A rare Howard Hawks error… T he Silver Fox wanted a joker in his safari back-pack. McKern, Peter Sellers and Peter Ustinov were seen in London. McKern refused to work with such a rampantright-winger as John Wayne. Ustinov was busy. Sellers didn’t do politics and agreed to be Robbie.Then,Robbie became Pockets and American and, well,Buttons had recently won an Oscar. Not for being funny, that’s for sure. (Only hilarious on TV, Carney won his Oscar in 1975.Sellers never stood a chance (!) of winning hisfor BeingThere in 1980 - Hollywood collectively loathed his guts!
11 - Laurence Harvey, The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm, 1961. Co-director and (uncredited) producer George Pal said: Sellers and Guinness! MGMsaid: Anyone else. And then we’ll give you Cinerama, as well. (Wow!) This is the first recorded occasion of Hollywood turning Sellers down as trouble. Or, what novelist Kingsley Amis called “one of the most self-satisfied shits.” It only happened twice mor e- to the detriment of Hollywood - and, indeed, of Sellers. He got used to getting away witth... if not murder, then the premature deaths of at least three film-makers.
12 - Montgomery Clift, Freud, 1962. John Huston called him about playing Sigmund’s “descent into a region as black as hell, man’s unconscious, and how he let in the light” Sellers was ready to go. To hunt down his own torments? No, he put it another way: “It’s a lot of money -it’s a smashing part”! His London agent had to remind him he was about to start Waltz of the Toreadors. “Well, if I was with MCA…” “Look, Peter,” said Leslie Linder, “you know where they are.... There’s nothing we can do about it.” Once Huston wouldn’twait and went ahead (in sadist mode) with poor Clift, Sellers’ story changed. “Frankly, I can’t see myself as Freud.” (Only as his patient).
13 - Rex Harrison, Cleopatra, UK-US-Switzerland, 1962.
14 - Donald Pleasence, The Caretaker (US: The Guest), 1962. He understood the real star would remain Harold Pinter... The film of his sixth play and first major triumph, had a timid guy (Robert Shaw) giving a cantankerous old tramp the job of looking after an abandoned house... where he becomes the victim of Shaw’s cruel brother (Alan Bate)s until pushed back on the streets. (Actually, the brother, a taunting sadist, was closer to the volatile Sellers). Pleasence and Bates were in the original 1960 West End production. The US title seems influenced by the game in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf - “get the guest.
15 - Lionel Jeffries, The Wrong Arm of the Law, 1962. Sellers’ secretary, Hattie Stevenson, said it best: “He was professionally and personally jealous of anybody he was making a film with.” This was his second film with Jeffries, the UK character stalwart (and future director) - a kind of sequel to their Two Way Stretch. Again Sellers was a crook and Jeffries, Mr. Authority - prison warder before, now a cop. Given his choice of roles, Sellers obviously went for Pearly Gates, hiding his criminality behind a fashion house run by Gates as a Clouseau kin, Monsieur Jules. (He also dubbed Tutte Lemkow’s Siggy Schmoltz). Jeffries, however, won more laughs. “Lionel, I’ve made a mistake - it’s your film. I’ve picked the wrong part.” No, the obvious part(s). Jeffries was never forgiven. Sellers quit The Spy With The Cold Nose, 1965, because it would feature Jeffries (as per Sellers’ original orders). Sellers’ considerable fury did not stop him pinching one of Jeffries’ Stretch lines for What’s New Pussycat? (“Silence when you’re talking to me!”) and his exploded look was perfect forThe Revenge of the Pink Panther.
16 - Margaret Rutherford, The Mouse on the Moon, 1962. Peter refused another sequel - even though he had insisted on it being directed by his Running, Jumping And Standing Still pal, Richard Lester. Producer Walter Shenson (who late made the Beatles’ films with Lester) needed two actors to replace Sellers as the Grand Duchess Gloriana...
17 - Ron Moody, The Mouse on the Moon, 1962. ...… and her Prime Minister Mountjoy. His third role of Tully Bascombe, from the original comedy, was not in the new script... although some writers claim it was played by Michael Crawford! (David Kossoff, alone, repeated a Mouse That Roared role).
18 - Sean Connery, From Russia With Love, 1963.
19 - George C Scott, Dr Strangelove or How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love The Bomb, 1963.
20 - Slim Pickens, Dr Strangelove or How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love The Bomb, 1963.
“What’s the role?” said Sellers. “All of them!” said Stanley Kubrick. And he meant it. “It’s like having three different great actors,” said the US director. He wanted five... “Stanley was convinced I could do no wrong. ‘What about Buck Schmuck Turgidson? You’ve gotta play Buck Schmuck!’ And I said: I physically can’t do it. I don’t like the role anyway, Stan.” (Scott played it). And so, for his first $1m salary, Sellers settled for four roles: the US President ("Well, how do you think I feel, Dimitri?"), the RAF officer (“Condition Red, sir? Jolly good idea, keeps the men on their toes.”) and the Wernher von Braun-Lionel Atwill mix of the titular mad nuclear scientist (“Mein Fuhrer, I can walk!”) and... “well,I’ll try the Kong thing, but I think that’s enough.”
|“King Kong” Sellers before he couldn’t get his leg over ... [Columbia Pictures /Hawk Films, 1963]
Official reason for not playing Major TJ ‘King’ Kong,the Texan commander ofthe USAF H-bomber running loose to blast Moscow was...an injured ankle. Twice over. The second happened in the bomb-bay and prevented him from continuing to scramble around inside it and riding the bomb like a buckin’ bronco to its Russian target. Kubrick loved the first scenes, Sellers was displeased with his accent. Stan felt Peter faked the accident - to avoid copying Alec Guinnness with multiple roles (again) - so Stan got himself a real rodeo rider. As for Sellers, Kubrick reckoned he got three roles for the price of six! The director had earlier made Lolita with Sellers. “The only actor I knew who could improvise... (he) fell into the spirit of a character and just took off. It was miraculous.” No,psychic, said Sellers. That’s how he could transfigure his roles. “I’m not a star because I have no personality of my own,” was his anthem. Plus: “I act as a medium, if you like, and let the character come out through me.”
Official reason for not playing Major TJ "King" Kong, the Texan commander of the USAF H-bomber running loose to blast Moscow was ... an injured ankle. Twice over. The second happened in the bomb-bay and prevented him from continuing to scramble around inside it and riding the bomb like a buckin’ bronco to its Russian target. Kubrick loved the first scenes, Sellers was displeased with his accent. Stan felt Peter faked the accident - to avoid copying Alec Guinnness with multiple roles (again) - and got himself a real rodeo rider. As for Sellers, Kubrick reckoned he got three roles for the price of six! The director had earlier made Lolita with Sellers. “The only actor I knew who could improvise ... (he) fell into the spirit of a character and just took off. It was miraculous.” No, psychic, said Sellers. That’s how he could transfigure his roles. “I’m not a star because I have no personality of my own,” was his anthem. Plus: “I act as a medium, if you like, and let the character come out through me.”
21 - Terry-Thomas, It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, 1963. “The only reason I’m in the film is because I’m cheaper than Peter Sellers,” said T-T. “And because of the chance to work with Spencer Tracy.”
22 - Peter Ustinov, Topkapi, 1963. They swopped movies... Sellers left the caper of exiled US director Jules Dassin, Ustinov quit Blake Edwards’ Pink Panther. Sellers had been alarmed to find Maximilian Schell in Topkapi and told Dassin: “The choice is yours, him or me.” Why? Because Peter suspected Max of having a 1962 affair with Sophia Loren during I Sequestrati di Altona... in fact, of him succeeding where Sellers had failed (though claiming the opposite) during The Millionairess, 1960. Sellers always imagined Sophia was in madly love with him as he was with her.(He is alleged to have slept with her double only!). If he was a repressed gay (and the question has been raised), Sophia was his Judy Garland (not Liza Minnelli).
23 - Tony Randall, 7 Faces of Dr. Lao, 1963. The second known time where Hollywood finally turned him down as unreliable. A great Sellers fan, US producer-director George Pal wanted him as the multi-faced Chinese hero and Sellers loved it. “I started to read your script and just couldn’t put it down.” He proved it by reading all the seven parts for Pal. “His interpretation of the characters was very exciting. What an Appolonious he had! Goosepimple stuff.” No one could resist the package, felt Pal. MGM could (again) despite trips to LA by Sellers’ agent and Peter, himself. “No dice,” said Pal. “MGM didn’t want him.” In magical William Tuttle make-up, Randall played six of the faces - the Abominable Snowman was taken by Pal's son, Peter. Minus the unique Sellers magic, Pal’s final film sank. Without trace. Well, Michael Jackson planned a re-hash in 1993.
24 - Ray Walston, Kiss Me, Stupid, 1964.
Directing legend Billy Wilder and co-writer IAL Diamond never got Marilyn Monroe - and Sellers died... eight times! “That is when Iz and I should have quit,” said Wilder. Sellers began his Hollywood debut (not the comedymeisters’ finest script, a re-tread of Mario Camerini's Bride For A Night, Italy, 1952) and insisted that his new young Swedish wife Britt Ekland (“that bloody Nazi” according to Peter’s redoubtable mother, Peg) quit her own British debut [see: MIA FARROW] to join him for Easter.
After using isobutyl nitrite to increase his orgasms, Sellers died between April 5-7, 1964. During treatment, his heart stopped for 90 seconds on April 7 until re-started by hand, then by a pacemaker. Due to a cardial infraction, Sellers' heart stopped a further seven times. He was pronounced well enough to return to London in June, when his comments about Hollywood resulted in a cable from Wilder and his co-stars Dean Martin, Kim Novak: “Talk about unprofessional rat finks.” Sellers replied with a full-page Variety ad: “I did not go to Hollywood to be ill. I went there to work and found, regrettably, that the creative side in me could not accept the conditions under which work had to be carried out...” Walston was the worst possible substitute. Wilder learned his lesson... During his next film, The Fortune Cookie, Walter Matthau also suffered a heart attack. Wilder waited five months for him to recover.
* Before he “died” - eight times! Peter Sellers on the set of Kiss Me Stupid with the Hollywood legend, writer-director Billy Wilder. Ray Walston replaced Sellers. Badly. [Photo: © United Artists, 1964]
25 - Peter Ustinov, John Goldfarb Please Come Home, 1964. UK director J Lee Thompson nearly lost Ustinov, too, having found and signed him in Monaco - when Mrs Ustinov heard Mrs Thompson telling Mrs Monaco (PrincessGrace) that Thompson would prefer Mr Sellers for the role of Mr… no, King Fawz!!
26 - Anton Rodgers, Rotten To The Core, 1965. Rotten, indeed, as Boulting Brothers’ comedies go... Hardly the reason Sellers refused. He had simply dropped the Boulting brothers, the way rounded against anyone who helped his rise. The twins made him an actor in I’m All Jack. “He didn’t want to do it. He couldn’t find the jokes. We had to convince him he was a fine actor. That he did not need jokes and belly-laughs.” He next nearly bankrupted them by his shenanigins with Liza Minnelli when he returned to them for Soft Beds, Hard Battles (first called The Saga Of The Six Black Virgins) in 1973. Roy Boulting called Sellers “the archetypal spoiled, only Jewish child - stuffed with food and sweets by his adoring mother. He didn’t give others a thought… He could have achieved so much more.”
27 - Laurence Harvey, The Spy With A Cold Nose, 1965. “We’ll produce it ourselves, ” said Sellers. “We’ll have Lionel Jeffries and myself as the vet and the doctor.” Top UK TV comedy writers, Ray Galton and Alan Simpson, were delighted. (They’d already had a finger in The Wrong Arm of the Law, 1962). Using his Casino Royale contract as an excuse, Sellers left them all high and dry. Considering what he went on to do to that 007 spoof and its poor producer Charles K Feldman, they were better off without him…
28 - Lionel Jeffries, The Spy With A Cold Nose, 1965. … Galton Simpson penned it for Sellers but… his perennial co-star took over as Stanley Farquhar, a luckless vet (nagging wife, horrible kids) until his idea of bugging Britain’s pedigree bulldog gift to the Russian leader. Next thing the poor Farquhar knows, there’s a naked Daliah Lavi (from Sellers’ Casino Royale) in his hotel bed. Dying in LA had sadly not lessened Peter’s vainglory and paranoia. He remained furious with Jeffries - who KO’d Laurence Harvey’s Doc in the first round, stealing the entire film. (Once again, Sellers had chosen the wrong role). Jeffries stayed verboten - for 13 years - until The Prisoner of Zenda when he was reportedly upset and concerned about the change he saw in Sellers: “a once great talent had lost all sense and control.”
29 - John Phillip Law, The Russians Are Coming! The Russians Are Coming! 1966. Hollywood's top Canadian director Norman Jewison planned Sellers and Ustinov as two Russian sailors invading New England. No way! Not after Ustinov had the cheek to win an Oscar for the role Sellers refused in Topkapi. Besides,he wasn’t about to compete with Ustinov, another actor with… what did Sellers’ biographer Roger Lewis call it… “a cormorant-capacity for voices.”
30 - Warren Mitchell, Till Death Us Do Part, TV,1965-1975. The BBC had badly treated his TV aspirations while golden-goosing him on radio - until after he proved them wrong by going to ITV with the Fred shows. Now, a decade later, the Beeb figured he’d fancy a quiet little series, in the aftermath of his LA deaths. But he’d forgotten and forgiven nothing and - helas - refused Johnny Speight’s brilliant script about class, bigotry and the generation gap. It made a UK star out of another journeyman of voices actor as the most controversial sitcom character ever created for the tube. Alf Garnett, by name, split the UK in two. A loud-mouthed racist, sexist, coward, he was not far from I’m All Right Jack’s Fred Kite. (Carroll O’Connor had a matching triumph in the (watered down) US version, All In The Family, 1968-1979.
31 - David Niven, Casino Royale, 1966.
32 - Tommy Cooper, The Plank, 1967. Peter always had a soft spot for comic (and writer) Eric Sykes. The sole TV sitcom Sellers ever guested in was Sykes. “He was very keen on my film,” recalled Eric, “until called away to Hollywood.” Cooper, another much-loved UK comic, took over the Larger Workman opposite Sykes’ Smaller Workman, delivering a plank to a building site in the comic-packed film of wordless dialogue! Laurel and Hardy live again!
33 - Milo O'Shea, Ulysses, 1967. “He could play Leopold Bloom so much better than I could,” said Alec Guinness. The theatrical knight was planning an earlier version of James Joyce’s 540,000 words of streaming consciousness - but only if “the poor, rich, exceptionally brilliant” Sellers joined him. Peter O’Toole and Diane Cilento were booked as Dedalus and Molly in a script by Wolf Mankowitz, Sellers’ bete noir since he making him an international star by setting up The Millionairess. Sellers jettisoned all who helped his rise: Michael Bentine, Spike Milligan, of The Goon Show, the Boulting brothers, directors Blake Edwards, Richard Lester, Joe McGrath. Not to mention all his wives - particularly, Anne, the first, who’d had the temerity to have had training and employment as a stage actor.
34 - Patrick Cargill, The Countess From Hong Kong, 1967. Sellers & Chaplin - the mind boggles! Plus Marlon Brando & Sophia Loren - and runneth over! That was the plan, or so Peter said, months before Brando was signed. Except it was never for the Brando role, but his snooty valet, Hudson, who weds Countess Sophia, to appease US Immigration. Although Hudson was written for Noel Coward, Chaplin now decided his script was too top-heavy with stars. The biggest was Brando and he called Chaplin: the nasty, sadistic asshole from Hell. “And I’m being kind.”
35 - Alan Arkin, Inspector Clouseau, 1967.
“How could you do this without me?” Because you wouldn’t do it!!! A furious Sellers insisted producer Walter Mirisch sack Arkin and make the movie… with the real Clouseau. “I reminded him, as gently as I could, that I had, on numerous occasions, asked him to play the role.” Just as he’d asked Blake Edwards to direct it. They both refused; they weren’t speaking to each other. (“Peter was a collector of grievances,” said Edwards. “But he seemed to bear more of a grudge concerning the Arkin thing... But Peter had refused it.”) Despite all evidence to the contrary,Sellers never believed the Mirisch casting would become reality. And simply protested too late. Shooting was about to begin and “what he was asking was not possible.” Arkin commented: “Acting is not a horse race. Whoever plays a part has to be judged on the part, not on who did it before. When they showed me the script, I fell down laughing.” Audiences did not. Not even that news consoled Sellers. Well, not after reading Chicago critic Roger Ebert. He felt Arkin floundered a little with Sellers’ French accent “but in his movements and timing, he’s Sellers’ equal.” Oh yeah?
36 - Ron Moody, Oliver!, 1968. Moody never dreamt he’d be offered the film “because of the backstage hostilities during the original stage show. Once I was officially given the role, I was allowed the freedom to direct myself.” He had previously taken over Prime Minister Mountjoy, one of Sellers’ three roles in The Mouse That Roared, in the 1962 sequel, The Mouse on the Moon.(“His characters were much more full of life than he was,” said his son, Michael, “much more interesting than he was.”
37 - Gene Wilder, The Producers, 1968. Sellers regretted turning down Mel Brooks and took out a full-page ad in the Hollywood Reporter praising the film as “one of the greatest comedies” he had ever seen. “I laughed so helplessly, I had to crawl to the loo on my hands and knees.”
38 - Alan Bates, The Fixer, 1968.
When MGM finally wanted him, the director refused... John Frankenheimer told me that the idea was simply filmland politics at work. “My agents at the time [future studio chiefs] Freddie Fields and David Begeleman, also represented Sellers, and said: ‘Would you consider him for the role of Jacob?’ I said: ‘Out... of... the... question!’ They said: ‘Well, would you do us favour and go over to Italy and at least meet with him, otherwise we’re in a horribly humiliating position since we’ve said that you will....' "I went over for a weekend and it was... if you have an hour I'll tell you about that incredible weekend. Incredible! "Let me just say that during it… He shot his own Ferrari. With a bow and arrow!”
39 - Richard Burton, Anne of a Thousand Days, 1969. Before Hal Wallis won the rights to Maxwell Anderson’s1948 Broadway play, the BBC toyed in 1957 with a TVersion when trying to woo Sellers into... well, anything. Comedy, drama, one-man series… Jean Simmons was invited to be Anne. Sellers objected to a three week rehearsal period and Aunty never guessed how painfully close to home she was when envisaging Sellers as Henry VIII.
40 - Rod Steiger, Waterloo, 1970. Peter was once tipped for Napoleon - opposite Sean Connery’s Wellington! Sellers had tried to be Boney in a UK project with singer Shirley Bassey as Josephine and opposite Sophia Loren as Madame Sans-Gêne, 1961. Sellers believed he and Loren became ardent lovers during The Millionairess, just as he fantasied about sleeping with every groupie who loved his drumming in his band days…
41 - Christopher Plummer, Waterloo, Italy-Soviet Union, 1969. Richard Burton had been chosen to play Napoleon or the first Duke of Wellington. And what if Sellers had played them both… as was supposedly suggested to Sellers when offered Bonaparte.
42 - Gene Wilder, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, 1970.
The third time Hollywood rejected him as untrustworthy, unprofessional... “He wanted very much Willy Wonka,” said the author Roald Dahl, “and I wanted him to have it”- despite Sellers having had an affair, abusive as per usual, with Dahl’s actress daughter, Tessa. “The Hollywood director [Mel Stuart] would not accept him because, in the director’s words: He had become unreliable and might not necessarily turn up on time.” Or at all! No one ever dared fire his borderline schizoid ass (the way they sacked poor Marilyn), except BBC radio producer Peter Eton during a Goon Show recording for deliberately fooling around and messing up everything for his fellow goons. “He thought I wouldn’t dare... Later, he came back and apologised.” (See how it works, Hollywood!) And that was as far back as November 1965 (nothing to do with life as an “internationalised” star) when another Beeb suit declared: “Sellers is rather a law unto himself these days.” LA’s choice, Joel Grey, was “not physically imposing enough.” Ron Moody would have frightened the horses - and the kids. UK comic Frankie Howerd was into two film farces. Jon Pertwee was wed to Doctor Who. Carry On stars Sidney James and Kenneth Williams were as keen as (a way too old) Fred Astaire. One by one, all six Monty Pythons (John Cleese, Graham Chapman, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Terry Jones, Michael Palin) were judged not international enough (and Howerd, Milligan and Pertwee were?! ) Cleese, Idle and Palin were offered the 2005 re-hash; by which time Chapman had died and Gilliam turned director. Oh and Michael Crawford, a future Broadway superstar, would have been 100% perfect.
43 - Colin Blakely, The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, 1970. Billy Wilder’s inspired idea of Peters O’Toole and Sellers as Holmes and Watson fell apart when O’Toole dithered about the unfinished script and, anyway, Sellers wanted to be Holme. (Robert Stephens played him). And Wilder never wanted to see Sellers again after the 1963 Kiss Me, Stupid debacle. As then, Wilder once again seemed to be deliberately sabotaging his own movie with his all very British but zero-charisma casting. Result: another debacle.
44 - Dom De Luise, The Twelve Chairs, 1970. Mel Brooks tried again... but Peter didn’t laugh helplessly this time. Mel explained the facts of life to De Luise. “With Sellers, I can get $2m. With you, I get eight cents. But if he won’t do it, you will.” And yet the star, himself, said: “If you ask me to play myself, I won’t know what to do. I don’t know who or what I am. There used to be a me behind the mask, but I had it surgically removed.”
45 - Walter Matthau, Plaza Suite, 1970. On Broadway, George C Scott and Maureen Stapleton starred in all three Neil Simon mini-plays Paramount wanted six stars: Scott & Stapleton (repeating the first of their triples), Peter Sellers & Barbra Streisand, Walter Matthau & Lucille Ball. Then, Matthau insisted on playing the three guys - with Lee Grant, Barbara Harris, Stapleton. Simon didn’t like the cast, nor the picture. “Walter was wrong to play all three parts. That’s a trick Peter Sellers can do.” Yet, no one asked him… Five years on, Sellers made Simon’s whodunnit send-up, Murder By Death.
46 - Dana Eclar, Waiting For Godot, TV, 1971. Samuel Beckett was now on offer . Either Vladimir...
47 - Donald Moffat, Waiting For Godot, TV, 1971. … or Erstragon - or both, if you wanna, Pete. (That ruined it. He hated to be called Pete). Three years before, Sellers had been asked to be Estragon in a BBC radio production, with his Welsh mate, Kenneth Grififth, as Vlad.
48 - Mark Burns, A Day At The Beach, 1972. The overly handsome Burns simply wasn’t right for the lead, said scenarist (and almost helmer) Roman Polanski. Of course, he wasn’t. Peter Sellers was perfect and knew it. He was Bernie. And he wanted the emotional mess of a father (a mirror for Sellersand the way he treated his kids) but settled - as he was filming for free - for sharing a pair of ageing gays running a novelty shop with old pal Graham Stark. And the credit of...A Queen.
49 - Robert Helpmann, Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland, 1972. For his second trip into Lewis Carrolland, Sellers played The March Hare (Spike Millingan was Gryphon) after flirting with UK director William Sterling’s offer of taking… all together now… several parts. “But there wasn’t time.” Nor the money forthe SFX of him appearing simultaneously twice or thrice on-screen. Although unconfirmed to this day, I’d put even money on him having considered tackling The Mad Hatter…
50 - Michael Hordern, Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland, 1972. …the Mock Turtle...
51 - Ralph Richardson, Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland, 1972. … or the Caterpillar. But not the King of Hearts: he had already triumphed with him in the finest screen version - by auteur Jonathan Miller for BBC-tv, 1966.
52 - Zero Mostel, Rhinoceros, 1973. Two decades later, Sellers talked of working again with his 1955 Ladykillers director Alexander Mackendrick... who wanted a Laurel & Hardy take on the Ionesco piece. (With Peter Ustinov). Sellers’ handlers turned the idea down flat. “This is a fringe-theatre nutters’ piece,” snarled David Begelman. “You shouldn’t be in this sort of thing, you’re a big mainstream star actor.” Sellers believed him - this was before he hated being an A Lister. Or, so he said. Again. And again. Another great TV comic, Tony Hancock, had been first choice. Seven years later, the Hair stage director, Tom O’Horgan, made the film with Wilder and Zero Mostel - from Sellers’ favourite Mel Brooks’ film, The Producers.
53 - Lee Strasberg, The Godfather Part Two, 1974.
54 - Jack Nicholson, Tommy, 1975. Excessive UK director Ken Russell wanted Christopher Lee as The Specialist, but he was away, trying to harm 007 in Bangkok as The Man With The Golden Gun. Next? The UK’s best loved medic (from The Millionairess) was a rather obviousidea. Jack, however, was in London at the time. And did his singing and his filming in 18 hours.
55 - Bob Dishy, I Wonder Who’s Killing Her Now? (aka Kill My Wife Please),1975. Dishy was a last minute replacement in the Mickey Rose scenario when producer Dennis F Stevens found it impossible to insure Peter Sellers, due to his heart condition.The sheer importance of the role (and film)is underlined by the nonentity replacement.
56 - Derek Jacobi, I, Claudius, TV, 1976. Charlton Heston (!) could not fit in a six month shoot in his schedule. Ditto for Sellers (a more inspired choice than another BBComedy star, Ronnie Barker) for the stuttering Roman emperor-to-be, version Robert Graves, in one of the absolute jewels in the BBClassics crown
57 - Leonard Rossiter, Le Petomane, 1978. Even though the script was by Tony Hancock’s flawless writers (Ray Galton and Alan Simpson), Sellers’ agent warned him off playing Jospeh Pujol (1857-1945), the French flatulist appearing before “crowned deaths of Europe” - by making a whole new art form out of... farting. David Niven’s agent agreed with Peter's and Ron Moody fled - not good for his image. (What image?)
58 - Dudley More, 10, 1979.
59 - Ralph Richardson, Time Bandits, 1980. Michael Palin’s diary details the often bizarre casting notions of Hollywood-starry-eyed exec producer Dennis O’Brien for the Terry Gilliam-Palin script - including Sellers as The Supreme Being. “O’B still wreaking havoc with TG’s peace of mind. TG sounds tired and heavily pressured.” By December 1981, to everyone’s surprise, their film was #1 in America.
60 - Robert Preston Victor Victoria, 1981. Two years before Sellers’ untimely 1980 death, he had made peace with his Pink Panther creator (and nemesis) director Blake Edwards, and agreed to play Toddy opposite Mrs Edwards - Julie Andrews as the titular woman singer, dressing as a man working as a female impesonator! (Sellers must have been miffed that the role had not been offered to him!).
61 - Dustin Hoffman, Tootsie,1982.
62 - Dudley Moore, Lovesick, 1983. As a shrink in love with a patient getting advice from Freud’s ghost. Marshall Brickman’s script was planned as the first pairing of Sellers and Alec Guinness for 30 years. However, the Golden Period of Sellers (1953-1963). was long gone. Thereafter, he swopped genuine depth (even in the silliest farces) for buffoonery, aping Cary Grant and just not bothering anymore... knowing he could get away with anything. Because he was a money machine. Or, had been. He had achieved his goal (although there were, sadly, less great films than great performances). Now he couldn’t cope, not with the work, but with himself. And his over-riding fear that he would be found out for not being an actor, but a lucky music-hall comic and vocal freak...
63 - Dudley Moore, Unfaithfully Yours, 1984. Peter was scoring big money in his last year - $3m for writing and starring in The Romance of the Pink Panther (minus Blake Edwards); $2m for this re-make of Preston Sturges’ 1948 comedy of an orchestra conductor planning his adulterous wife’s murder. Following Sellers’ death in July 1980, the role was ironically inherited by another UK star “internationalised” (Sellers’ expression) by Blake Edwards.
* This time, alas, Pete did die before making the re-make of the Preston Sturges comedy with Rex Harrison, circa 1948.
64 - Robert Downey Jr, Chaplin,1992. George Formby, yeah sure. Chaplin, never. He was askedby his old Dock Brief co-star, now director, and eminence grise of the British film industry, Richard Attenborough.
65 - John Goodman, The Borrowers, 1997. Just before his 1964 Hollywood heart attacks, Sellers had agreedto be the evil Ocious P Potter out to destroy the house where little people lived under the floorboards...
66 - Donald Sutherland, Ask The Dust, 2005. Took autuer Robert Towne forever to film John Fante’s novel. Fante gave him the rights in the 70s - “To Bob Towne, in the hope he will take it to far places.” Sellers was a friend of Towne’s and agreed to play Hellfrick. “That got lost when I got busy doing Chinatown and Shampoo and so on” and it became the second Towne-Sutherland collaboration. “Don’t know what to say about Donald, other than I so love him.”
NOT many collaborators said that about Sellers. “Self-destructive, egocentric, egomaniac” (Roy Boulting). “Cruel, hurtful, destructive, physical bully, especially to ladies” (Blake Edwards). “Selfish, malicious, disloyal, dishonest and stupid ”(Wolf Mankowitz). “Contumellous” (Peter Medak). “He seemed to have a skin missing, he was so hypersentive,” (Charlotte Mitchell). “Damaged” (David Tomlinson). “Psychiatrically cruel; his judgement was not that of a normal person.. An emotional cameleon. The most complex simpleton in the world” (Spike Milligan).
>>>> Memories are made of….
I only interviewed Peter Sellers twice…. And any Jekyll-Hyde stuff was was about the roles, not the man. On the first meet, in 1959, he was not only going all out dramatic but fiercely so as the repellent, woman-beating gangster Lionel Meadows in Never Let Go… (“A new Peter Sellers - tough and ruthless,” screamed the posters). Then, he was difficult to connect with. He remained Meadows, fiercely snapping his reoponses, shot out of him with machine-gun-like ferocity. “Yes.” “No.” “Why?” “Maybe.” “Never.” Short, snappy, grumpy.
Next time, was on Elstree’s MGM Studios’ set of Mr Topaze in 1960. I expected terseness agai, too preoccupied to talk ... He was, after all, as a debutant actor-director, making his first feature. Instead he was he was, like Topaze, a pussycat. All sweetness and light, affable, amusing. In a word: cool. “Tony, how can I help you? What would you like to know?” I watched as he directed himself. His Goons-cum-Clouseau antics (and noises) while trying to unlock an safe with a key on a very short chain affixed to his waistcoat, almost had me ruining the take by laughing out loud. Imagine my surprise when in the final cut, the scene had been curiously re-shot - no longer for laughs.
There was one more laugh after, sadly, the vanity project flopped. All prints but one were melted down, the residue being sent to Nigeria for recycling into combs. “You mean,” said fellow Goon Spike Milligan, “there are women in Africa combing their hair with Peter Sellers?”