A remarkable post on Peter Sellers, “one of the greatest mimics, character actors and comedians who ever breathed.” A video of the interview is embedded above.
Peter Sellers was one of the greatest mimics, character actors and comedians who ever breathed. I once saw him being interviewed on location in France — and an old Frenchman wandered past, grumbling to himself — and Peter suddenly broke off what he was saying and did a PERFECT imitation of the old geezer. Whether it was in cod-French or actual French I do not recall — but I remember the intonation was PERFECT. But like all great actors, Sellers was a bundle of nerves, paranoia — and was a LOUSY CHAT-SHOW guest. However, Michael Parkinson did not know that until in 1974, Peter was booked as a guest on his show. The man turned up — but as they were being made up, he suddenly turned to Parky and said, “I can’t go on.” “What?” said the Yorkshireman. “I can’t do this. I’m an actor. I NEVER go on as ME.” “Look,” said Parky, “You’ve GOT to go on. The studio is ready — the audience is ready and I’M ready. We’ve advertised your appearance — and anyway, it’s too late to find a replacement.” “But I do FILMS, not stage.” “What about The Goons? You were on stage then.” “Yeah, but I was with Harry and Spike. And I was playing CHARACTERS – loads of them. I can’t DO ME.”
At this point, Parky went ballistic. He always had a Yorkshireman’s temper — the audience would see a flash of it when later, Sellers would refer to his Dad as a “right” Yorkshireman (and if you want to see Parky REALLY throwing a strop, click on.) Anyhoo, Parky said, “Look — I don’t care WHO you come on as — just so long as you COME ON.” So a production assistant took Peter to the BBC Wardrobe Department, while Parky went to start the show. Finally, someone gave him the nod that Sellers was ready and he introduced him, not knowing WHAT to expect. What he got was Sellers — dressed in a leather greatcoat and a WW2 German “squarehead” helmet (which always got a laugh in post-war Britain). Parky himself fell about laughing — as much in relief that he now had a show, as at the apparition that had presented itself. Peter goose-stepped around and improvised a character for a bit. Then, when he felt more at ease, threw the gear off and gave a GREAT interview.
After this show, Peter only ever gave one more long interview. In that one, he told his anecdote about Michael Caine. It was the one where he said that he had seen Michael telling everyone at a party who would listen various fun-factoids from The Guinness Book Of Records — and had ended his stories with “Not a lot of people know that” — doing a perfect impression of Caine. And for years, this became a catch-phrase that haunted Mike Caine — until it got supplanted, latterly, by “You were only supposed to blow the bloody DOORS off,” from “The Italian Job” (like “No, Mr Bond… I expect you to DIE,” from “Goldfinger” — it took TIME to catch on). Mike even gave his name to a fun-factoid book CALLED “Not A Lot Of People Know That” — with his likeness on the cover — the proceeds of which were for CHARITY. And it is an indication of the legendary generosity of Mr Caine that it was not until after Peter’s death that Mike let the TRUTH out. He had never SAID the phrase. The whole story was BOGUS! Sellers had wanted to do his impression of Caine, but had no anecdote to hang it on. So, not considering that it wasn’t exactly complementary to his fellow actor, Sellers just MADE ONE UP on the spot. But knowing the truth would hurt Peter, Mike had let it lie. Only after Sellers had passed, did he come clean. —The World According To Damien
Here’s that rare video clip: Peter Sellers does an impression of Michael Caine.
For more, see our archive under the tag, “Peter Sellers.”