In a voice as unassuming as that of a Cambridge don, actor Peter Sellers recently told a radio interviewer that "to see me on the screen would be one of the dullest experiences you could wish."
His emphasis on the word "me" explains his genius for delightning millions of moviegoers: his capacity to submerge his own personality and his rather bland face in the zany quirks of the characters he created.
"I'd always thought I was a chap without a personality of my own," he told a correspondent here, "which is why I put on so many different voices and disguises when I'm playing a part. I'm a sort of plastic mock-up. The real Peter Sellers is somewhere at home doing the washing up."
Yet Mr. Sellers, who died here July 24, was one of the most popular, and certainly among the most talented, comic actors of his generation. His 50 movies included "I'm All Right Jack," "The Millionairess," and the five Pink Panther movies. He was nominated for best actor for his role in the recently released "Being There," and was working on his latest film, "The Fiendish Plot of Dr. Fu Manchu."
Born in Hampshire, England, of vaudeville parents, he began his career on the stage. After negligible success, his talent for mimicry won him a place on BBC radio: He telephoned producer Roy Speer and, impersonating the voices of two well-known actors, gave high praise to a young actor named Peter Sellers. The bizarre ruse led to an interview and an eventual spot on the whacky and widely popular "Goon Show," which began in 1951 and numbered Prince Charles and Princess Margaret as loyal fans.
Recalling those days, fellow Goon Michael Bentine described him as "a great giggler." "All of us used to sit around laughing, screaming with laughter at things that would mean absolutely nothing to anyone else," said Mr. Bentine, adding "That's how I like to think of him -- laughing."
Several centuries ago, Horace Walpole observed, "The world is a comedy to those that think, a tragedy to those who feel." The best of the Sellers films were made for thinkers, and they radiate a kind of iconoclastic intelligence that sees with great clarity the foibles of society. True to the tradition of satire, his films were notable for their attention to detail: small quirks of speech, incongruous props and sets, and strange juxtapositions of events.
Even the old jokes took on new life. "Does your dog bite?" the Sellers character asks an old innkeeper in one sequence. The man says no. Whereupon the dog bites him, and Sellers, leaping back and firing an outraged look at the innkeeper, receives the age-old reply, "That's not my dog." And because the circumstances are so ludicrous and the timing so superb, the audience dissolves every time.