The Day That Peter Sellers' Troubled Heart Stopped
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because coming home doesn’t always end happily.
By Robert Meakin
Safely installed in his favorite suite at The Dorchester hotel in London after flying in from Switzerland, Peter Sellers had finally returned home. The 54-year-old actor was enjoying a lunch of Dover sole in his luxurious room overlooking Hyde Park early on July 22, 1980, and looking forward to a reunion with two of his oldest friends.
Spike Milligan and Harry Secombe were supposed to join him in just a few hours. Having appeared as The Goons on radio in the 1950s, the trio had been hailed as “pioneers” of modern British comedy. But Sellers was the Goon who went global: an international film star and volatile genius, whose whirlwind personal life had filled newspaper column inches for the better part of two decades. There was plenty more to occupy Sellers’ mind that lunchtime. He’d recently inked a lucrative deal with United Artists to reprise his Pink Panther alter ego Inspector Clouseau for a sixth time, he was facing the prospect of a divorce from his fourth wife, and the ailing Sellers was bracing himself for heart surgery in Los Angeles.
Sellers had reached what could “only be described as a state of comic ecstasy,” according to director Stanley Kubrick.
These would be among the very last thoughts to play on his mind. As personal assistant Michael Jeffery laid out his employer’s clothes in preparation for the celebratory evening ahead, he suddenly heard a panicked cry from Sellers’ secretary, Sue Evans. The actor had fallen sideways off his chair, his face turning a terrifying blue. The Goons would not be reuniting after all.
The previous year had been a professional high point for the British comedy star. Thanks to recent appearances as Clouseau, he was once again bankable in the eyes of Hollywood, his reputation restored after a string of commercial flops. He ended the 1970s by fulfilling a long-held obsession: playing the childlike gardener Chance in a film adaptation of Jerzy Kosinski’s novella Being There. His masterful portrayal earned him an Oscar nomination, reminding audiences that there was considerably more to Sellers than the cartoonish Clouseau or his chaotic love life. “It had proved he wasn’t just a comic, but a highly skilled actor,” says Ed Sikov, author of the Sellers biography Mr. Strangelove.
Critical success proved short-lived, however, courtesy of his subsequent starring role in The Fiendish Plot of Dr. Fu Manchu, one of the worst-received films of his career. It would also be his last. Writer John Antrobus, hired to improve the existing script, offers a stark picture of Sellers’ deteriorating health: “I’d take [a script] to his dressing room. He would be lying on the couch with an oxygen mask, saying, ‘Read it out, John.’” Haunted by a series of near-fatal heart attacks back in 1964, Sellers was still able to see humor in his predicament. Hospitalized in Ireland in the spring of 1980, the star was asked by director Joe McGrath if there was anything he could do to help. Peter replied: “Go over to my briefcase. Inside you’ll find a pair of gold Gucci jump-leads. Put one end on your heart and one on mine, and give me a start, will you?”
Undoubtedly, the most contentious moments in Sellers’ final months had to do with his fourth wife, the actress Lynne Frederick, whom he married in 1977. Almost 30 years his junior, Frederick appeared to fulfill the role of caretaker to the increasingly frail star, but his friends and family have since claimed divorce was imminent, with Sellers determined to remove her from his will. The British media, in particular, have long obsessed over how Frederick promptly inherited his $7 million estate, while the actor’s three children were left with roughly $1,000 each. Roger Lewis, author of The Life and Death of Peter Sellers, bluntly noted how Frederick “played the grieving widow act to the hilt.” Later succumbing to alcohol and drug problems, Frederick — who married twice more — died in 1994, and her daughter Cassie, fathered by her third husband, inherited Sellers’ wealth.
Following his heart attack that Tuesday in 1980, Sellers was rushed to Middlesex Hospital. He never regained consciousness and died shortly after midnight on July 24. Amid the tributes to his considerable talent, others reflected on his well-documented personal demons. Ghoulishly devoted to the memory of his overbearing mother, Peg, Sellers had been unable to find true contentment since the early days of his first marriage to Anne, who he left shortly after tasting Hollywood stardom. An erratic father and husband, his immense performing abilities were often compromised by bitter feuds with directors and poor choices of roles.
Sellers once claimed his only true moments of happiness were spent performing in front of the camera. Director Stanley Kubrick, recalling his successful collaborations with the actor on Dr. Strangelove and Lolita in the 1960s, noted how Sellers had reached what could “only be described as a state of comic ecstasy.”
For all the trappings of success his talent would bring — fancy cars, lavish hotels and beautiful women — happiness off camera proved elusive. Always hopelessly nostalgic, Sellers’ heart finally gave out just as he was attempting to recapture an idealized version of his past with dear friends.
- Robert Meakin, Robert Meakin is a British-based newspaper columnist. Primarily focusing on politics, he also appears as a current affairs commentator on BBC television and radio.Contact Robert Meakin