Mr. Strangelove: A Biography of Peter Sellersby Ed Sikov
Peter Sellers's explosive talent made him a beloved figure in world cinema and continues to attract new audiences. With his darkly comic performances in Dr. Strangelove and Lolita and his outrageously funny appearances as Inspector Clouseau in the Pink Panther films, he became one of the most popular movie stars of his time. Sellers himself identified most personally with the character he played in Being There--an utterly empty man on whom others projected what they wanted, or needed, to see. In this lively and exhaustively researched biography, Ed Sikov offers unique insight into Sellers's comedy style. Beginning with Sellers' lonely childhood with a mother who wouldn't let go of him, through his service in the Royal Air Force and his success on BBC Radio's The Goon Show, Sikov goes on to detail his relationships with co-stars such as Alec Guinness, Sophia Loren, and Shirley MacLaine; his work with such directors as Stanley Kubrick, Billy Wilder, and Blake Edwards; his four failed marriages; his ridiculously short engagement to Liza Minnelli; and all the other peculiarities of this eccentric man's unpredictable life. The most insightful biography ever written of this endlessly fascinating star, Mr. Strangelove is as comic and tragic as Peter Sellers was himself.
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Mr. StrangeloveA Biography of PETER SELLERS
By ED SIKOV
HYPERIONCopyright © 2002 Ed Sikov
All right reserved.
Chapter One"Who in the world am I? Ah, that's the great puzzle!"
In 1924, a low-end music hall performer called Peg Sellers gave birth to a baby boy. She named him Peter. Peg had long been dominated by her imposing impresario of a mother, Welcome Mendoza, and she was eager to focus her own fierce maternal drive on the tiny boy. But Peter Sellers died quickly and was buried and never mentioned again.
Welcome Mendoza was, truly, the outlandish name with which Peg Sellers's mother was born, though she changed it twice along the way: first to Marks when she got married, then to Ray when she elbowed her kids onto the music hall stage. Showmanship and aggression ran strong in this family. Welcome Mendoza Marks, who started calling herself Belle Ray when she became a vaudeville manager, was the granddaughter of the most renowned Jewish prizefighter of the eighteenth century.
Strange to say, there were many brawling Jews in that era: Aby Belasco, Barney "Star of the East" Aaron, Lazarus the Jew Boy, the curiously named Ikey Pig.... But the best of them, the strongest and scrappiest, was Daniel Mendoza, whose fabulous life in the ring was set up, however indirectly, by a gang of Jewish killers. In the spring of 1771, a flourishinggroup of circumcised thieves (led by a doctor, of all people) was busily breaking into Chelsea houses and successfully removing items of interest. The crime spree came to an abrupt end in June when, in the midst of a heist, they made the mistake of killing somebody's servant. The doctor and his gang were quickly apprehended, tried, convicted, and hanged, but the rest of London's Jewish population felt a more long-lasting effect. "I have seen many Jews hooted, hunted, cuffed, pulled by the beard, spit upon, and barbarously assaulted in the streets," a contemporary wrote. "Dogs could not be used in the streets in the manner many Jews were treated."
Daniel Mendoza was five years old at the time of the Chelsea murder, the consequence being that throughout his childhood and adolescence no Jewish boy in London was safe from Christian harassment. Daniel was naturally tough, even belligerent, and he learned to protect himself. When he got older he trained other boys to fight as well, and eventually, as Mendoza's contemporary noted, "it was no longer safe to insult a Jew unless he was an old man and alone." Thrashing others was not Daniel's first career choice, however. After his bar mitzvah he set himself on course to becoming a glassmaker, but his apprenticeship came to a quick end when he couldn't help but beat up the glazier's son. He moved on to assist a greengrocer but spent so much time physically avenging the grocer's wife against the insults of shoppers that he soon moved on again, this time to a tea shop, where he responded to a customer's complaint about the service by clobbering him-for forty-five minutes. The bruised patron, however, had sense. He responded not with legal action but with sound advice: He convinced Daniel to become a professional fighter.
Until his great-great-grandson surpassed him in both fame and fortune, Daniel Mendoza was his family's brightest star. (The great-great-grandson acknowledged this fact in several of his films by hanging portraits of Mendoza in the background; a certain inept French detective, for instance, is an admirer of Daniel Mendoza.) The prizefighter left a curious series of personality bequests. Like his descendent, Mendoza liked to assume other identities if his own grew dull. Mendoza and his friends once decided to go out on the town in the guise of seamen and were promptly arrested, having been mistaken for group of sailors who had just jumped ship. Like his descendent, Mendoza didn't quit show business after facing a hostile audience. There's the story of Mendoza showing up at a Purim pageant and being hired on the spot to perform; the audience booed, the manager refused to pay, and Mendoza, never one to back down from a dispute, simply persisted in his demands until he got his fee. And he was inevitably the victim of trouble, never the cause. As described by a contemporary, he "always was the injured party. In his own estimation, never was there such a mild mannered man as he. The fights just seemed to seek him out." Can a sense of victimization be genetic?
Mendoza made and lost a vast amount of money in his life. His abiding concern for the box office led him to stage one of several grudge matches with his archrival, Richard Humphreys, on the riverbank, specifically to keep gatecrashers away. He never imagined that they would simply arrive by boat, a fact that bugged him for the rest of his life. The Prince of Wales introduced his friend Mendoza to his father; thus Daniel Mendoza rode the royal carriage to Windsor Castle and met George III. They strolled on the terrace together, the King of England and the street fighter from the East End. It was the first time the monarch had ever spoken to a Jew. After winning his first professional bout and earning the sum of five guineas, he went on in 1785 to whip a fighter called Martin the Butcher in a record twenty minutes and earned, thanks to the patronage and friendship of the Prince of Wales, more than £1,000-a fantastic sum at the time.
Mendoza tended to spend more than he earned, a common enough failing, and more than once he spent time in debtors' prison. As he aged, prizefighting had to be supplemented with catering. Process serving. Recruiting soldiers. Innkeeping. Inciting a mob. Baking. Mendoza died in 1836 at the age of seventy-three, leaving a wife, eleven children, and no money.
Daniel's son Isaac married a woman named Lesser, who bore Welcome. Welcome married Solomon Marks and bore Peg. Peg married Bill Sellers. In 1925 Peg and Bill had another baby to replace the dead one. They called him Peter, too.
* * *
Welcome Mendoza Marks was prolific and shrewd, not only as a businesswoman but as a mother. She birthed, fed, and raised a total of eight sons-George, Harry, Chick, Alfred, Lewis, Dick, Moss, and Bert-and two daughters, Cissie and Peg, whose real name was Agnes. When Solomon Marks died, Welcome was dynamic enough to corral her ten offspring at a house at Cassland Crescent, Hackney, and press upon them the idea of a family theater troupe and management company. She called it Ray Brothers, Ltd., having decided that Belle Ray was a more fitting name for a woman of the theater, though everybody around her called her "Ma."
Ma Ray was Mama Rose with skill, better luck, and more children. She never aimed at art. Commerce was her goal, and the more the better. From nothing, she came to manage forty other vaudeville companies in addition to her own, though Ray Brothers, Ltd., was always her chief concern. The company survived, even thrived, but the hard fact was, vaudeville was already on its way out. As clever as Ma was as a theater manager, a more prescient enterprise would have been the business of motion picture exhibition. And even within the slowly declining world of the English music hall, Ray Brothers were never top-notch. They don't seem to have ever played London-only provincial theaters, a heavy component of which were summer seaside resorts.
A German inventor sold Ma her big inspiration: a large but transportable water tank. In it, barely dad nymphs (her daughters) would frolic for the pleasure of an audience (mostly men) who hadn't come to see Shakespeare. Ma called her first revue "Splash Me!" It was prurient, and it sold well. The only problem, her grandson later claimed, was that the tank broke one evening and "eventually drowned the band.... Seriously drowned!" (Asked by the interviewer how someone could be "unseriously drowned," the grandson was vague: "Yes, anyway ...")
Neither Peg nor Cissie Marks was a beauty, but they were young and in good enough shape, and they could always be supplemented by any interchangeable showgirl willing to appear nearly naked and drench herself for pay on a music hall stage. Historically, aquacades have not ranked high in the aesthetic hierarchy of live performance, but even in its own category "Splash Me!" challenged good taste, particularly when Ma directed the girls to eat bananas underwater. With "Splash Me!," audiences throughout southern England knew precisely what they had come to see. So did local officials. But Ma got around whatever Watch Committee happened to have jurisdiction by tinting the water lighter or darker depending on the degree of likely censorship in that particular venue. Always cagey, she took a preemptively patriotic posture during World War I by dyeing the tank water red or white or blue and daring the prudes to criticize such a public-spirited celebration.
Water was not Ma Ray's only medium. For many years she got her daughter Peg to stand onstage in a flesh-toned leotard. This seems to have been the essential point of the act, though its artistic justification took the form of Peg's brother Bert projecting slides on her body that miraculously dressed her as any number of famous ladies-Queen Victoria, Elizabeth I, the Statue of Liberty. Peg appeared in other forms as well. One in particular, a chestnut skit starring Peg as a libidinous charwoman, served well as the warm-up for the water tank.
They were theater people, the Marks/Rays, and Ma was not overly concerned with her children's sex lives, though she's said to have set a strict moral tone during work hours. Peg attempted marriage with a fellow named Ayers, but it didn't work, and soon she was single again and back with Ma. In 1921, with Peg a divorcee pushing twenty-five, Ma felt the need to go husband hunting on her daughter's behalf. An added incentive for the matriarch was that her car, an enormous showy red thing, needed a driver. And so she found Bill Sellers.
* * *
They were playing Portsmouth. Her new production (either "More Splashes" or "Have a Dip!," there's some dispute) had just opened at the King's Theatre. It was the Roaring Twenties in England, which is to say that the tank water was clear and the censors weren't troubled. Peg and Ma were seated in a café listening to the piano player's rendition of "I'm Forever Blowing Bubbles," and Ma liked what she heard. She asked the man if he could drive a car and promptly hired him.
Bill Sellers-actually "Seller" at the time-was a Yorkshireman (Bingley, to be precise), a fact that couldn't have worried Ma Ray, and he was a Protestant, which might have bothered her but didn't. Bill did not possess a powerful personality. And it may have evaporated further after he married Peg. The writer and comedian Spike Milligan, who met him in the 1940s, once described him: "Bill, I think, is kept in the clothes cupboard. I see his cigarette smoke filtering through the keyhole. Poor Bill-the original man who never was; he looked a pasty white and reminded me of those people at Belsen."
* * *
Peg and Bill married in London at the Bloomsbury Registry Office in 1923. The marriage certificate lists the bride as "Agnes Doreen Ayers, formerly Marks"; the groom's name is down as "Seller." The ceremony was brief and the reception nonexistent, since Ma spirited Peg off immediately afterward to perform the charlady routine while Bill rushed off in another direction to play the piano for another act. They moved-Peg and Bill and Ma-into a rooming house in Highgate, North London.
Peg's first pregnancy began soon thereafter. She kept performing. They were on tour in Dublin when the baby was born and died. According to Bert Marks's wife, Vera, "We were told that we were never, never to refer to that child. It was as if he had never existed." But by remaining entirely unspoken, of course, baby Peter's death came to dominate the family's emotional life for years to come.
Peg's second pregnancy began at the end of 1924, and once again it did not stand in the way of her performing schedule. Neither did labor. She was onstage in the middle of a routine in Southsea on the evening of September 8, 1925, when contractions began, and, trouper that she was, since she had no understudy she went right on with the show. After the curtain fell Bill hauled her into the big red heap of a Ford, got her back to their lodgings, and summoned an obstetrician. And so Richard Henry Seller, the second boy they called Peter, was born. One week later Peg was back onstage.
Peter Sellers, a showbiz baby, was carried onstage two weeks into his life by the vaudevillian Dickie Henderson, who encouraged the audience to join him in singing "For He's a Jolly Good Fellow." Little Pete instantly burst into tears and the audience erupted into laughter and applause. From Pete's perspective, this emotional scenario was played out more or less consistently until his death in 1980.
* * *
"Fun Showers." "Mermaids." "Ripples." Hampshire. Kent. Suffolk. Trunks, rooming houses, Ma, and the inevitable water tank.... Baby Pete was schlepped around with Ray Brothers, Ltd., and never had a home. He was pressed into theatrical service at the age of two and a half when Peg secured the little blond boy into a cute white-tie-and-tails outfit complete with a top hat, thrust a cane into his tiny hands, and forced him onstage to sing the sappy "My Old Dutch." The boy detested the bit and made his criticism physical by stomping on the hat.
Matriculation at Miss Whitney's Dancing Academy in Southsea was equally short-lived (discipline problems). But when the child cared to perform his own routines on his own schedule and terms, he was a natural. And he liked it. His Aunt Vera, whom he called Auntie Ve, used to accompany him to the waterfront at Southsea so he could play at conducting an orchestra for amused passersby. She also took him to see Peter Pan in London, where, inspired by the onstage Peter's ability to fly, one daring little boy in the balcony attempted to hurl himself off the ledge. Auntie Ve restrained him.
Peg and Bill saw their son as their best ticket to theatrical easy street, a role the son resented. As Auntie Ve once recalled, "They all thought, 'This is where we sit back and Peter will make us a fortune.'" Defiant at an early age, though, young Pete refused to cooperate. Hired for £5 to pose for an advertisement, he shunned all the photographer's directions and then flatly refused to take on any more modeling assignments.
"He was a little monster." This was Auntie Ve on the subject of her nephew. "He had far too many people worshipping him. A good smacking would have done him the world of good." Her husband, Uncle Bert, agreed: "If Peg had to go out of the room for a minute, he would set up a yell you could hear in the Portsmouth dockyards on payday."
Discipline played no role in Peter Sellers's upbringing. Once, after he pushed one of his aunties into the fireplace-with a fire in it-Peg's response was simply to say that "it's the kind of mischief any boy would get into at his age." After all, she was his mother.
* * *
Still, it was a peculiar kind of worship, since Peg alternately doted on and abandoned the boy according to her own needs. She gave him whatever he wanted when she was there, but then she went off on tour and left him in the care of one of the aunts. Peg and Bill did bring Pete along with them sometimes, but their care of him was still sporadic, not to mention risk-prone. In the midst of a fierce Yorkshire winter, with Peg and Bill appearing in something called The Sideshow and the child being carted back and forth between a chilly rooming house and the spartan dressing rooms of the Keighley Hippodrome, Pete developed bronchial pneumonia.
The stink of stale fish in strange hotels was the price Peter Sellers paid for staying with his parents when they were working. It was a sad childhood, and he hated it. "I really didn't like that period of my life as a kid," he once declared. "I didn't like the touring. I didn't like the smell of grease paint. It used to hit you when you went into any stage door. Grease paint and baritones with beer on their breath and makeup on their collar.... All these voices: 'Hello, how are you, little sonny boy? Are you all right little boy there? (Who is he?)' I used to spend my time sitting in dressing rooms."
Excerpted from Mr. Strangelove by ED SIKOV Copyright © 2002 by Ed Sikov
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Meet the Author
Ed Sikov is the author of On Sunset Boulevard: The Life and Times of Billy Wilder, Screwball, Laughing Hysterically, and Study Guide for American Cinema. He earned a doctorate in film studies at Columbia University and has taught film courses at Haverford and Colorado colleges. He lives in New York City.
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