Roger Ebert Home

Peter Sellers Dies at 54

Peter Sellers is dead at 54, a victim of the heart disease that first struck him in 1964 and continued to haunt him during his most productive years as an international star.

His death in London at 6:28 p.m. Chicago time Wednesday came after a massive heart attack. At his bedside were his fourth wife, Lynne Frederick; his second wife, Britt Ekland, and their daughter Victoria, who is 15. But Mr. Sellers never regained consciousness after the attack that struck him Tuesday in his suite at London's Dorchester Hotel.

"Mr. Sellers' death was entirely due to natural causes," a spokesman for Middlesex Hospital said. "His heart just faded away. His condition deteriorated very rapidly."

An emergency team of 10 specialists was at his bedside when he died, but they were helpless.

Mr. Sellers was in London to work on the screenplay of "Romance of the Pink Panther," which was to have been his sixth film in the role of the bumbling Inspector Clouseau, his most famous comic creation. He was still basking in the acclaim for his starring role in last year's "Being There," which won him an Academy Award nomination.

His latest film, "The Fiendish Plot of Dr. Fu Manchu," opens in Chicago on Aug. 8. In it, as in so many of his films, Mr. Sellers plays six different roles. That was one of his trademarks after such early successes as "The Mouse That Roared" (1959), in which he played the entire population of the mythical Duchy of Grand Fenwick, and "Dr. Strangelove" (1964), in which he played three roles.

His multiple roles were masks, Mr. Sellers liked to claim, describing himself as basically a character actor: "As far as I'm aware, I have no personality of my own whatsoever. I have no character to offer the public. When I look at myself I just see a person who strangely lacks what I consider to be the ingredients for a personality. If you asked me to play myself, I wouldn't know what to do." But as the characters he played in more than 50 major movies, Mr. Sellers became one of the busiest and most popular movie stars of the 1960s and '70s. His widest audiences came for the Inspector Clouseau pictures, which began with "The Pink Panther" in 1963 and continued through "Revenge of the Pink Panther" in 1978.

His best-known roles in more ambitious films were as in "I'm All Right, Jack" (1959), "Lolita" (1962), "Waltz of the Toreadors" (1964), "Dr. Strangelove" (1964), "The Party" (1968) and "Being There."

I remember him talking about the inspirations for some of his famous roles at a press conference at the Hawaiian premiere of "Revenge of the Pink Panther." Inspector Clouseau's famous accent, he recalled, wasn't there in the original "Pink Panther," but came later: "I developed it in 'A Shot in the Dark' [1964]. It came from this brilliant concierge in a hotel I used to stay at in Paris. He was a master of dealing with American tourists. He'd talk to them in a strange accent that wasn't French but sounded French to an English-speaker."

In Stanley Kubrick's "Dr. Strangelove," Mr. Sellers said, he created Strangelove's most famous characteristic - a mechanical hand with an automatic Nazi salute - during the process of filming.

"The right hand was not originally supposed to be a Nazi hand," he said. "Then Stanley Kubrick put the black glove on my hand and suddenly we got this inspiration that Strangelove was schizo, split right down the middle, his left half American, his right half Nazi. If you know what to look for when you see the movie, you could see some of the actors breaking up the first time my hand goes out of control . . ." If Mr. Sellers was correct in saying that he had no personality of his own to portray, then perhaps his performance in "Being There" was his most autobiographical. He played Chauncey, a strange, middle-aged man raised entirely in isolation, with television as his only source of information on how to behave. The character's utter simplicity and transparency led statesmen to imagine they had discovered great depths in him. It was a virtuoso performance, made all the more difficult because Mr. Sellers had to sustain a single note throughout the movie.

Peter Sellers was born Sept. 8, 1925, in Southsea, England, the son of British vaudeville performers, and was literally raised in the wings. He appeared with his parents as a child, won a talent contest at 13, joined the Royal Air Force at 17 and worked as an entertainer. In the 1950s he became famous as the star of England's radio "Goon Show," memories of which were recreated in Richard Lester's famous 1960 short subject, "The Running, Jumping and Standing Still Film."

He moved into British film comedies and was a star by the late 1950s. Mr. Sellers often described himself as a "hopeless romantic" who was constantly falling in love. He married for the first time in 1951, to Australian actress Anne Howe, and they had two children, Michael and Sarah Jane. But in 1960 that marriage broke up as Mr. Sellers fell in love with Sophia Loren while they were filming "The Millionairess" together. Loren turned down his proposal of marriage.

In 1964, shortly after the triumphs as Inspector Clouseau, he married Swedish actress Britt Ekland after an 11-day courtship. Shortly afterward, he suffered his first major heart attack. His marriage to Ekland lasted until 1969 and produced his daughter, Victoria.

In 1970, Mr. Sellers married Miranda Quarry, daughter of a British lord. They were divorced in 1974. He and Liza Minnelli announced they would be married, but the romance cooled and he married actress Lynne Frederick in 1977. Mr. Sellers had his second major heart attack, and was fitted with a pacemaker in 1977. In May of this year, he collapsed in Dublin while making a commercial, but recovered to visit the Cannes Film Festival, where he looked unwell.

Filmmaker Blake Edwards, who directed the Clouseau movies, said Wednesday, "One lived with the realization that Peter could go at any time. But he was a very courageous man who refused to let his heart problems interfere with his personal life."

Mr. Sellers gave evidence of that during the 1978 "Pink Panther" press conference. A reporter asked if he would mind answering a personal question.

"Of course not," Mr. Sellers said.

"I understand you've had some heart attacks . . ." the reporter began, before Mr. Sellers interrupted him with gallows humor: "Yes, but I plan to give them up. I'm down to two a day."

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

Latest blog posts

Latest reviews

The Beach Boys
Hit Man


comments powered by Disqus