Peter Sellers always claimed that underneath his colorful roles and funny voices, there was nobody—that he “did not exist” as a person. The truth, however, was so much darker. Both on set and behind bedroom doors, Sellers got into some of the most dramatic and violent feuds and flings that Hollywood had ever seen. There was a man there, and he was equal parts disturbing and tragic.
In 1925, Sellers was born into comedy. His parents, Bill and Agnes Sellers, performed in variety shows, and Peter made his stage “debut” at just two weeks old, when a family friend carried him on from backstage. But from the beginning, his childhood was no laughing matter. Case in point: Although his parents originally christened him “Richard Henry,” they switched it to “Peter”…after his stillborn older brother. Yes, that’s more than a little creepy—and it wouldn’t get better.
As a young boy, Peter showed inklings of the dysfunctional relationships that would eventually eat up his life. He and his mother had an extremely close bond, but it wasn’t necessarily a healthy one. While Agnes was domineering, Peter was cringing and shy, and their dynamic had a dark symbiosis to it. Despite this, his mother had no problem fobbing her young, only child off for weeks at a time while she and his father went touring.
Hmm, I wonder why every adult relationship Sellers ever had turned out to be a horror story.
By 1946, Sellers was 21 years old, had served in and survived WWII, and had decided to pursue a career in the theater. After some time spent scraping up revue shows and minor television parts, Sellers decided to make his mark in a very bold way. Even at this young age, he was clearly an excellent mimic, and he called up BBC producer Roy Speer and pretended to be star radio host Kenneth Horne to get the company’s attention.
Lucky for Sellers, it actually worked. Speers dubbed him a “cheeky young sod” and gave him an audition. It was a date with destiny.
Partly through his work with the BBC, Sellers met up-and-coming comics Harry Secombe and Spike Milligan, the two men who would help him start the legendary radio comedy The Goon Show—which one publication dubbed "probably the most influential comedy show of all time". Besides inspiring none other than the Monty Python performers, The Goon Show also launched Sellers and his friends into the beginnings of stardom. Unfortunately, this is also where the cracks came in.
Around this time, Sellers met the beautiful Australian actress Anne Howe. From there, things moved incredibly fast—some would say much too fast. He proposed just a year later, and by 1958, they were married and had two children together, Michael and Sarah. At this point, Sellers could have settled down into fatherhood and cruised into a happy life. Psst: He didn’t.
For one thing, Sellers wasn’t your average family man, and he could be downright cruel to his new wife. According to one story, the pair were in their apartment one afternoon, with Peter working in his study and Anne around the house, when there was a ring at the door. When Anne answered it, she found a telegram Sellers just sent from the other room ordering her to, "Bring me a cup of coffee. Peter". As we’ll see, though, this neglect was just the beginning.
Family life and radio fame wasn’t enough for Sellers, and in the 1950s he began to pursue a film career in earnest, starring in titles like The Ladykillers with one of his idols, Alec Guinness. Yet behind the scenes, things were already crumbling. Despite a steady stream of work, Sellers hadn’t quite cracked superstardom, and his personal shyness began to turn into crippling insecurity that he would never make it in Hollywood. Soon enough, this insecurity became something much more sinister than that.
Unable to confront the idea of failing as a film star, Sellers turned to mysticism to comfort himself. While this isn’t anything new in Hollywood, Sellers’ brand of spiritualism certainly was. He not only met with astrologer Maurice Woodruff, who would eventually control many of his career decisions, the comedian also came to believe that the old, obscure music performer Dan Leno was personally haunting him. Yeah, something wasn’t quite right, but no one knew it yet.
Eventually, Sellers worked hard enough to get noticed, and around 1960 director Anthony Asquith asked the comic if he wanted to star as Indian doctor Ahmed el Kabir in his romantic comedy The Millionairess. Initially, Sellers turned the part down, likely feeling that the work wasn’t substantial enough for his considerable talents (not, you know, because of the problematic portrayal). But then he made a discovery that completely changed his mind.
Sellers finally agreed to play the good doctor for one reason and one reason only: Because he found out that his co-star would be none other than Italian bombshell Sophia Loren. He wasn’t shy about his motives, either; he excitedly told the press, "I don't normally act with romantic, glamorous women...She's a lot different from Harry Secombe". Surprising almost no one, this was a recipe for utter disaster.
Although still very much married to Anne Howe and with two young children at home, Sellers had no problem striking up a very “close” relationship with Loren on set. How close? Well, that remains a mystery—while some of Sellers’s nearest and dearest believe they had a full-blown affair, others believe it was just a “strong friendship". Yet according to Sellers’s own confessions, it was anything but innocent…
Whether or not Sellers actually sealed the deal with Sophia, he made an incredibly mortifying revelation to his wife. One day after working on set with Loren in close quarters, Sellers confronted Anne and told her point-blank that he was in love with Loren and there was nothing she could do about it. At first, the conversation didn’t go far past the admission. Then Sellers upped the stakes again.
Without much in the way of role models when he was a child, Sellers was never a very good father or husband, and his obsession with Loren made him an even worse one. One evening during this time, he woke up his young son Michael in the middle of the night for the sole purpose of asking him a bone-chilling question: “Do you think I should divorce your mummy?” And he didn’t stop there.
By 1962, Sellers was full-on pestering his own children about his marital status. He asked both Michael and his sister Sarah "who we love more, our mother or him". Although Sarah demurred that she loved them both the same, Michael defiantly said, “No, I love my mum". Sellers’ response was brutal. He kicked both children out of his presence and declared he never wanted to see them again.
Wouldn’t you know it, Anne Howe and Sellers divorced later that year. Ironically, though, just as Sellers hit a low in his personal life, his career skyrocketed.
The very same year his marriage broke down, director Blake Edwards offered Sellers his star-making part as the bumbling Inspector Clouseau in The Pink Panther. Like so much in Sellers’s life, this too was a strange windfall. Edwards only approached him after actor Peter Ustinov backed out of the part, and more than that, Clouseau wasn’t even the main character and took a backseat to David Niven’s lead role in the film. But Sellers wanted to upstage everyone.
In many ways, Sellers created Inspector Clouseau as we know him. Although the script already had the bare bones of the role, Sellers invented everything else. Clouseau’s confidently foolish personality, his costume of a trench coat, and everything from his accent to his makeup and his thin mustache came from Sellers. The actor’s immense involvement in the character—particularly after The Pink Panther became a smash hit—earned Sellers comparisons to greats like Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton.
In short, Sellers’s life was back on a high note…so of course he had to go mess it up again.
While Sellers made audiences laugh all around the world on celluloid, the real man was an absolute nightmare on set. Even before The Pink Panther, rumors abounded of Sellers’s difficult behavior on location, from showing up late to bungling his lines, especially when he didn’t particularly like the part he was playing. At one point when reuniting with Blake Edwards to film A Shot in the Dark, the actor and director were at such odds that they would only communicate through notes.
As time wore on, Seller’s diva temperament turned downright alarming.
At the height of his fame, everybody knew that Sellers had a strange and violent aversion to two extremely innocuous things: the colors green and purple. He claimed green gave him “strange vibrations,” and not only refused to wear the hue, he also refused to act opposite of anyone who did. As for purple? Well, somehow, his reaction to that color was even more disturbing.
Allegedly, Sellers picked up his distaste for purple from his former director Vittorio De Sica, who once called it “the color of death". That was all it took for Sellers. His fear of the color was so strong that his publicists would have to desperately pre-screen his hotel rooms for any trace of the shade, lest they suffer a violent outburst. In short, Sellers was clearly mentally unwell—but his downward personal spiral was just getting started.
In 1964, Sellers got another brief lucky break. He starred in the instant classic Dr. Strangelove under famous auteur Stanley Kubrick, one of the only directors he never clashed with. More than that, the film showcased Sellers in no fewer than three parts—as President Merkin Muffley, Dr. Strangelove himself, and Group Captain Lionel Mandrake—that were chock full of comedic gold.
For a man like Sellers who lived for his characters, it was a dream come true. And then in walked his Helen of Troy.
In 1964, high off his successes, the middle-aged Sellers met the painfully young Swedish actress Britt Ekland, who was just 21 years old and in the bloom of her beauty. Their love story was wrong right from the start. Far from loving her for her mind or talents, Sellers had caught sight of Ekland’s photo in a newspaper. After he realized they were staying in the same hotel, he “thought that I would like to meet what I saw". As always, things moved at a rapid pace from there.
Soon after arranging to meet Ekland, Sellers took her out on a date. Two days after that, he called the actress up and said, “I have told the press that we’re going to get married". Unfortunately, Sellers kept his word; that February, the couple married just 10 days after first meeting each other. But if Sellers hoped that the second time was going to be the charm, he couldn’t have been more wrong.
As quickly as Sellers got together with Ekland, it all turned sour. The exact thing that attracted Sellers to the actress—her obvious beauty—also made him incredibly jealous and certain that she would cheat on him with any or all of her equally attractive co-stars. Whenever this paranoia took him over, he would then react by trying to control Ekland. These antics started out relatively small, but soon grew to untenable proportions…
The first sign of Sellers’s need to control his new bride manifested in him choosing what she would wear, from top to toe. Starting just after their honeymoon, photographers snapped Ekland in a fur coat that Sellers had picked out. As she admitted, “He decided what I was going to wear. He just pre-decided everything without ever asking me". But the worst was yet to come.
While the new couple were still in the throes of passion, Ekland nabbed a part in 1964’s Guns at Batasi. Yet Sellers, unable to stand her being away from him on location, phoned her up one day and demanded she take a day off. When the production said no, Sellers had someone drive her to the airport anyway and fly her to California, where he was, to spend the weekend with him. That’s when it went from controlling to chilling.
When Ekland landed in California, she only had the clothes on her back—but of course, Sellers had taken care of that, too. He brought her back to a luxurious mansion, where he’d kitted up an entire walk-in closet full of items for his bride. As Ekland remembered, “He’d bought everything you could possibly need as a woman who didn’t have any clothes, from evening gowns to bikinis. The bikini was actually of mink…I was floored". And this was just phase one.
Almost as soon as Ekland’s plane got in, Sellers had one of his personal doctors look at her. Within seconds, the paid medic claimed the hale 21-year-old was too “sick” to return back to filming Guns at Batasi, and needed to spend an indefinite amount of time recovering…alongside Sellers, naturally. Feeling she had no choice in the matter, Ekland complied. The consequences were bitter.
Producers unceremoniously fired the starlet from the film, making her ever more dependent on Sellers. Not that the comedian was satisfied…
In truth, Sellers’s insecurities over Ekland’s youth and beauty only grew as the weeks went on, and they drove him to distraction in his own professional life. At the same time that Ekland’s firing fiasco happened, Sellers’s was filming Kiss Me, Stupid with director Billy Wilder and co-stars Dean Martin and Kim Novak. To say his set experience took a nosedive during this time is a huge understatement.
Sellers had a rough reputation when it came to directors, but his clashes with Wilder hit a new low. Obviously upset about his issues with Ekland, Sellers also started picking fights with Wilder on set over their differing artistic visions for the film. In short, the comedian’s personal and professional lives were ramping up in tension, and it was all about to reach a breaking point. A really bad one.
Since his wedding to his young, nubile bride, Sellers had become obsessed with reaching what he called “the ultimate” climax in the bedroom. One night, he went to infamous lengths to get what he wanted. In April 1965, just before he got frisky with Ekland, Sellers inhaled amyl nitrite “poppers” to boost his performance in the boudoir. Instead of helping, it caused a terrifying incident.
As a result of the intense stimulants, Sellers pushed his body to the brink and quickly went into cardiac arrest right in front of Ekland, and right in the middle of the act. In fact, over the next three breathless hours, the comic had a whopping eight heart attacks. Although he somehow managed to survive the ordeal, he certainly didn’t escape it unscathed.
As it happens, having eight heart attacks in three hours is extremely bad for your health, and Sellers was forced to drop out of Billy Wilder’s Kiss Me, Stupid to focus on his recovery. In response, Wilder had zero sympathy for his difficult former lead; when the auteur heard the reason why Sellers called it quits, he sniped, "You have to have a heart before you can have an attack".
Sellers eventually returned to work, and in 1967 he was starring in Casino Royale, a James Bond parody featuring a slew of Hollywood heavyweights like Orson Welles and Ursula Andress. In the film, Sellers played the straight man Evelyn Tremble, a baccarat master set to face off against Welles’s villain Le Chiffre. Yet with so many things Sellers, the comedian had to start some unforgettable drama.
With multiple writers and an ensemble cast, the set of Casino Royale was a notoriously messy affair, and Sellers didn’t make it any better. Reportedly, he was annoyed that the film had turned into a comedy, and wanted to be in a serious Bond film instead. According to biographer Roger Lewis, Sellers kept re-writing the script to try to make his character more heroic and less parodic. Only, there was a far bigger threat on set.
In the midst of his desire to be a serious Bond actor, Sellers couldn’t help but compare himself to his co-star Orson Welles. After all, Welles had already written, directed, and acted in some of the most famous and lauded films in history, Citizen Kane among them. Welles intimidated Sellers immediately—and even worse, Sellers had good reason for this reaction. According to insiders, Welles scorned Sellers, calling him “that amateur". And their feud was just ramping up.
With tensions simmering, the straw that broke the camel’s back between Sellers and Welles was a doozy. One day, Sellers’s old friend Princess Margaret came to visit the set…only to deal him a painful snub. Rather than greeting Sellers the instant she saw him, the royal went up to his rival Welles first, exclaiming, “Orson, it’s been so long!” The damage was now complete, and soon both actors refused to be in the same shot together. Still, trust Peter Sellers to leave one brutal parting gift.
Sellers aimed most of his dissatisfaction about Casino Royale toward Joseph McGrath, one of the film’s six directors. It was McGrath who first heard of Sellers’s intention never to be in the same frame as Welles—and when he said that simply wasn’t possible, Sellers exploded. The actor physically attacked McGrath before stalking off and refusing to work with him anymore.
Sellers eventually left the film, leaving writers scrambling to partially replace him and work around his existing footage. The loser in all of this, however, was Britt Ekland, since Sellers now had time to focus on destroying their marriage even more…
Just after he stormed off Casino Royale, the government honored Sellers by making him a Commander of the British Empire….only his investiture ceremony was a complete farce. The night before, Sellers and Ekland got into a rip-roaring fight and she visibly scratched his face. To cover it up, Sellers had to hire a makeup artist before he walked into Buckingham Palace.
God knows why, but after this Ekland and Sellers still agreed to star in a film together, the upcoming comedy The Bobo. Yeah, about that…
If Casino Royale was chaotic to film, The Bobo was an utter monstrosity. Ekland and Sellers—surprise!—fought constantly while on set, but nothing compared to Sellers’s outburst one afternoon. He went to director Robert Parrish and commanded him to fire his wife, saying, “I'm not coming back after lunch if that [w]itch is on the set". Things were so bad that even Ekland admitted that the union was now “an atrocious sham". It’s no wonder, then, that the pair of them went down in flames.
While The Bobo was still filming, Sellers’ mother had a heart attack and went into the hospital. Sellers, however, was too wrapped up in his own personal drama to visit her, and she passed just days later. Her lonely end devastated the comedian, and he never quite got over his mistake at not saying goodbye. His wife Ekland, however, had no more emotions left to give—so instead, she settled on vengeance.
Abandoning any hope of cordial relations, Ekland served Sellers with divorce papers almost immediately after his mother’s passing. Sure, it was kicking Sellers when he was down…but even his friends had to agree it was the right thing to do. Sellers’s old The Goon Show pal Spike Milligan even sent Ekland a congratulatory telegram when he heard the news. Ouch.
But if people thought Sellers had finally hit rock bottom, they soon found out how wrong they were.
The next years of Sellers’ life showcased a series of bad career decisions—he had a string of flops—and even worse romantic choices. In 1970, with his mid-life crisis still going strong, the 47-year-old Sellers tied the knot with 23-year-old model Miranda Quarry, despite admitting he didn’t think he should remarry. As his next mistake would prove, he was very right.
In 1973, with his third marriage predictably failing, Sellers fell into a chaotic affair with Liza Minnelli after watching her perform. The pair were so mad about each other, they got engaged within three days of striking up a romance…despite the fact that not only was Sellers taken, Minnelli was already engaged to Desi Arnaz Jr. Then, within a month, their flame burned out as fast as it had ignited, though Sellers still got divorced anyway.
It was at this point that friends really began to worry about Sellers—and he gave them plenty of reason.
Around this time, confidants started to suggest that Sellers was in the middle of a nervous breakdown. One talk show appearance gave an even darker suggestion. When TV host Michael Parkinson invited Sellers on his show, the comedian felt insecure about going on without any character to hide behind and insisted, “I can’t just walk on as myself".
Accordingly, he dressed up as a Gestapo officer before sitting down to the interview. Soon, this tendency grew disturbingly pronounced.
In 1978, Sellers made a guest appearance on The Muppet Show, but again declined to appear as “himself". Instead, he made several costume changes and tried on a variety of accents. Then, when Kermit assured the comedian he could just be himself, Sellers replied, “I could never be myself...You see, there is no me. I do not exist...There used to be a me, but I had it surgically removed". Um, creepy.
In the mid-1970s, Sellers tried to revive his slipping career. He starred in several more Pink Panther movies and earned accolades, renewed relevancy, and a buttload of money in the process. But behind the scenes, the situation was more alarming than ever. His on-set tantrums were only growing, and his Pink Panther director Blake Edwards confessed that, "If you went to an asylum and you described the first inmate you saw, that's what Peter had become. He was certifiable". One particular episode made this all too clear.
While on the set of one of the Pink Panther films, Sellers found it difficult to slip back into character, and had a particular issue with how to play a certain scene. When Sellers and Edwards called it quits for the day, Sellers’s mind still couldn’t stop whirring. He later called up Edwards in the middle of the night and proclaimed, “I just talked to God! And he told me how to do the scene". Well, that didn’t go down very well.
The next day on set, Sellers showed up and tried out the fruits of his divine inspiration…only to find out they were rotten. His new approach was so bad, Edwards reportedly quipped, “The next time you talk to God, tell him to stay out of show business!” For all the director’s joking, however, it was becoming painfully obvious that Sellers needed a break. In one happier version of history, he took one. In this version…he had one last, ruinous romance.
As Sellers got older, his women stayed the same age. In 1977, he married the 23-year-old actress Lynne Frederick in a ceremony practically no one wanted to happen. In short order, they had fallen into the same old cycle of passion, control, and outbursts. The only difference? Frederick’s biddable personality was even less equipped to deal with Sellers than any of his other wives; one friend compared it to a boxing match between “a heavyweight and a featherweight".
In 1979, Sellers got one last chance at a “serious” career when he starred in the extremely well-received black comedy Being There as the simple-minded gardener Chance. Sellers poured his heart and soul into the role, going method and staying well away from co-stars and journalists while filming. It paid off, and the part earned him an Academy Award nomination. Yet as always, Sellers had to go and destroy his own happiness.
Soon after Being There came out and charmed critics, Sellers asked his 15-year-old daughter Victoria her own opinion of the film. She answered that she loved it, and added likely jokingly that, “You looked like a little fat old man". At this, something in Sellers snapped. Recalling his tantrums with his other children Michael and Sarah, he threw his drink on Victoria and demanded she “get the next plane home". Then he doubled right down.
When Sellers’ eldest daughter Sarah got wind of this fight, she told her father she disapproved of his actions. In retaliation, Sellers sent her one of the cruelest telegrams known to man. It read: "After what happened this morning with Victoria, I shall be happy if I never hear from you again. I won't tell you what I think of you. It must be obvious. Goodbye, Your Father". In a sad twist, this would be one of the last things he ever communicated to his daughter.
For years, friends had been trying to get Sellers to seek medical help, particularly for his physical ailments with his heart. However, despite several other heart attacks, Sellers always refused to admit anything was gravely wrong. At one point, he even collapsed on set in Dublin and then went to Cannes just two days later. In the summer of 1980, it caught up to him in the most tragic manner possible.
On July 22, Sellers had plans to meet with his The Goon Show buddies Spike Milligan and Harry Secombe for dinner in London; he had been away and a reunion was long overdue. He would never make it. That afternoon, Sellers sat down to lunch in his hotel and collapsed from yet another heart attack soon after. This time, he wasn’t so lucky: He passed in the hospital just a couple of days later at the age of 54.
Yet like all good comedians, Sellers had a few more surprises in store for both his friends and his enemies.
When Sellers’s Goon Show friends heard he was never going to reschedule those dinner plans, they were heartbroken. However, they also reacted with characteristic black humor. Harry Secombe joked that, after all, Sellers would do “anything to avoid paying for dinner". But at his own funeral, Sellers got Secombe back for the wisecrack.
Sellers simply couldn’t resist playing one final practical joke as mourners buried him on July 26, 1980. During the private service, Sellers had insisted that they play the song “In the Mood” by Glen Miller, specifically because he knew that all the Goons despised the schmaltzy tune—he wanted to prank them by forcing them to sit and listen to it in respectful silence. Still, not all of Sellers’s last testaments were so cheery…
Just before he died, Sellers was hiding an enormous secret. As he always did, he was growing tired of his marriage to Lynne Frederick, and there is some evidence that even in the weeks leading up to his passing, Sellers was trying to cut Frederick entirely out of his will. To his children’s dismay, he didn’t complete the paperwork, and Frederick got the vast majority of the estate anyway.
Before passing, Sellers was working on another Pink Panther film, Romance of the Pink Panther. Once he died, the studio was eager to capitalize on the tragedy and replace the legendary comic with his rough contemporary Dudley Moore. Wisely, Moore turned the opportunity down, and director Blake Edwards equally refused to recast the part, believing no one could replace Sellers.
Sellers was a man of many talents and many voices, but he had one skill few fans know about. He was an extremely talented drummer, and in his youth, Sellers toured England as a drummer with the Entertainments National Service Association. His friend Spike Milligan noted that Sellers was so good on drums, he might have been a jazz drummer if comedy didn’t work out.
Sellers obviously suffered from mental health issues throughout his life, but as his demons got worse, he remained staunchly opposed to seeking any professional help. Besides causing him a world of trouble, it also makes his ailments difficult to diagnose—but his ex-wife Britt Ekland had one idea. Ekland believed that Sellers suffered from bipolar personality disorder.
My mom never told me how her best friend died. Years later, I was using her phone when I made an utterly chilling discovery.
Madame de Pompadour was the alluring chief mistress of King Louis XV, but few people know her dark history—or the chilling secret shared by her and Louis.
I tried to get my ex-wife served with divorce papers. I knew that she was going to take it badly, but I had no idea about the insane lengths she would go to just to get revenge and mess with my life.
Catherine of Aragon is now infamous as King Henry VIII’s rejected queen—but few people know her even darker history.
Want to tell us to write facts on a topic? We’re always looking for your input! Please reach out to us to let us know what you’re interested in reading. Your suggestions can be as general or specific as you like, from “Life” to “Compact Cars and Trucks” to “A Subspecies of Capybara Called Hydrochoerus Isthmius.” We’ll get our writers on it because we want to create articles on the topics you’re interested in. Please submit feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks for your time!
Do you question the accuracy of a fact you just read? At Factinate, we’re dedicated to getting things right. Our credibility is the turbo-charged engine of our success. We want our readers to trust us. Our editors are instructed to fact check thoroughly, including finding at least three references for each fact. However, despite our best efforts, we sometimes miss the mark. When we do, we depend on our loyal, helpful readers to point out how we can do better. Please let us know if a fact we’ve published is inaccurate (or even if you just suspect it’s inaccurate) by reaching out to us at email@example.com. Thanks for your help!
The Factinate team
If you like humaverse you may also consider subscribing to these newsletters: