Tuesday, May 24, 2011

"The Peter Sellers Story"

A reader has requested that I retell the Peter Sellers story, or, for them, tell it for the first time, since it’s hard for me to believe they’d want to me tell them a story that they’ve already read. Unless, perhaps, they’re my age, and they forgot that they read it.

Anyway, for that reader, as well as those who’ve come more recently to the blog,

“The Peter Sellers Story”

A reprise.

If you don’t know who Peter Sellers is, it doesn’t really matter, because the story stands on its own. But as background, Peter Sellers is – he’s dead, but his work remains present – a brilliant mimic (The Mouse That Roared, Dr. Strangelove), physical comedian (the Pink Panther movies) and shimmering cypher (Being There).

I first became aware of Sellers, listening to the classic BBC radio series from the 1950’s, The Goon Show, where Sellers brilliantly handled whatever voice, situation or character challenge cracked-genius Goon Show writer Spike Milligan directed his way. The Goon Show was comedy from another planet.

Peter Sellers is a comedy hero of mine. (Spike Milligan is another one.)


We’re on the last leg of our trip that included a visit to the incomparable Seychelles Islands, and a photographic safari in Kenya. We break up our return journey to California with a three-day layover in my favorite city in the world, London.

Through his connections, my American agent has arranged for a British agent to provide us with theater tickets for selected plays we had requested to see. The day after our arrival, we went to the British agent’s office, to pick up the tickets.

His name was Dennis Selinger.

I looked up Dennis Selinger on the Internet. It turns out he was one of Britain’s most powerful theatrical agents, numbering among his clients, Sean Connery, Roger Moore, Ben Kingsley,

And Peter Sellers.

I was kind of out of it when we visited his office. I still had residual Masai village dung on the bottom of my hiking boots. But despite my post-safari stupor, I remember Selinger telling us this story.

It turns out that Peter Sellers was a devoted adherent of astrology. The man would never make a move without first consulting his personal astrologer for their advice. When he got an a big movie offer, Sellers refused to sign the contract, until after hearing what his astrologer had to say about the propitiousness of the star alignment vis a vis the projected undertaking.

What Sellers was unaware of was that, as soon as he got off the phone with Sellers, the astrologer immediately called Sellers’ agent, Dennis Selinger. If Selinger recommended the project, the astrologer called Sellers back and told him – with the appropriate flourishes – that the job has his astrological seal of approval.

And that’s the name of that tune.

Peter Sellers was crazy. Which I already pretty much knew, because

I had had a personal encounter Peter Sellers a few years earlier. I was working on a variety special on which he was to guest, wherein Sellers threatened not to participate, unless entirely new material were written, tailored to his unique specifications –

“I play two things: A bumbling detective. And a person who breaks things.”

After surrendering to his demands, two new sketches were created – the one I wrote involved a snooty, Sotheby’s-type auctioneer who shattered everything he was auctioning off – and Sellers finally agreed to do the show.

Though not, I imagine, before calling his astrologer and reading him the material.


Mac said...

Thank you, it was me that asked for it.
How amazing to have worked with the guy, even though he was, as you say, crazy.
I worked with a guy who'd worked on a couple of Pink Panther movies. He told me that one day they were ready to shoot a scene, and Sellers went behind a building to wait for his cue.
On "action," Sellers didn't appear; in fact he didn't appear for the next four hours. When he eventually turned up, he said that while he was waiting for "action" he'd changed his mind and gone to buy some wholemeal bread in the local village.
He was nuts, but when the camera was running he was very, very funny.

M@ said...

You know, as soon as you described the sketch with the auctioneer, I laughed. The concept is perfect and with a guy like Sellers it seems like a recipe for some awesome comedy.

Can you tell us more about that? Did it work out well? Is there any chance I'd be able to find it on Youtube or something?