They called him the consummate character actor, the man who disappeared into his roles so completely that his own personality was invisible. Who was the real Peter Sellers?
In Carl Caulfield’s one-person play, “Being Sellers,” which is now receiving its New York premiere as part of the Brits Off-Broadway Festival, the English actor David Boyle plays the enigmatic entertainer at the end of his life — he died at 54 — as he struggles to free himself from the tyrannical grip of his mother, Peg, a Jewish music hall actress. When the play ran earlier this month in London, Time Out lauded Boyle as “inhabiting Sellers with conviction and ease.”
Sellers’ mother and eight uncles, who were descendants of the famous 18th-century Sephardic boxer Daniel Mendoza, were all vaudeville performers. They performed a water show called “Take a Dip” in which she appeared in flesh-colored tights as his Uncle Bill projected images of the Statue of Liberty, Joan of Arc and other famous characters onto her seemingly naked body. Peg forced her son to go on the stage, despite his dislike for the seedy theaters and the itinerant lifestyle.
Sellers escaped his mother by going into the army, where he started doing impressions of his military superiors. In 1951 he joined Spike Milligan and Harry Secombe to create a legendary radio show called “The Goon Show,” which helped to inspire Monty Python. Sellers went on to star in many films, including “The Mouse That Roared,” “Lolita,” “Dr. Strangelove,” “Being There,” and the Pink Panther series.
“Being Sellers” premiered in Australia in 1998, just three years after the publication of Roger Lewis’ 500-page biography, “The Life and Death of Peter Sellers.” In 2004, the book was turned into an HBO film starring Geoffrey Rush. In both, Sellers is depicted as a chameleon-like performer who lacked a strong sense of personal identity, leading Stanley Kubrick to say, famously, “There is no such person as Peter Sellers.”
Boyle, who is married to a Jewish woman, is convinced that Sellers “never really knew who he was.” Sellers’ mother was an “archetypal, domineering Jewish mother” who forced him to fill the shoes of another son who had died at birth. According to Boyle, Sellers was thus “playing his brother’s part, as well as that of his mother, who had never really succeeded on the stage. As a result, he was only really happy when doing impressions of, or playing, other people.”
As “Being Sellers” shows, the actor remained touchy throughout his life about his Jewish heritage, which he first discovered when he was sent to a Catholic boarding school and the teachers called him “the Jew.” While Sellers, who died in 1980, never attended synagogue or performed Jewish rituals, he did explore a number of spiritual traditions, including Buddhism. “Given time,” Boyle said, “he might have come back to his own faith, and found it right under his nose.”
“Being Sellers” runs at 59E59 Theaters (59 E. 59th St.) through Sunday, Dec. 12. Performances are Tuesday, Wednesday and Sunday at 7:30 p.m. and Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 8:30 p.m. Matinees are Saturday at 2:30 p.m. and Sunday at 3:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. For tickets, $25, call Ticket Central at (212) 279-4200 or visit www.59e59.org.