‘Ghost of Peter Sellers’ haunting portrait of difficult comic genius

MOVIE REVIEW

“THE GHOST OF PETER SELLERS”

Not rated. At the Coolidge Corner Theatre and Brattle Theatre Virtual Screening Rooms.

Grade: B+

Comic chameleon Peter Sellers was the biggest movie star of his time. To the world, he was the bumbling Inspector Clouseau of the “Pink Panther” films and such offshoots as the Woody Allen-scripted “What’s New Pussycat” (1965), the James Bond spoof “Casino Royale” (1967) and Blake Edwards’ “The Party” (1968). He was nominated for three Academy Awards, including a supporting actor for Stanley Kubrick’s “Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb” (1964), in which he played multiple roles, and a best actor nomination for “Being There” (1979).

In 1972, Sellers was cast as Irish cook Dick Scratcher in the pirate spoof “Ghost in the Noonday Sun.” The film was based on a novel by Albert Sidney Fleischman, adapted by Evan Jones and Sellers’ old Goon Show collaborator and friend and co-star Spike Milligan. The Goon Show was Monty Python before Monty Python. The film’s director was Hungarian-born British filmmaker Peter Medak, who was coming off “The Ruling Class” (1968), a dark satire of the aristocracy starring Peter O’Toole.

  • “The Ghost of Peter Sellers” Peter Sellers filming in 1973

  • ‘The Ghost of Peter Sellers’ Peter Medak ‘chats’ with Spike Milligan

  • ‘The Ghost of Peter Sellers’ Peter Sellers

What could go wrong? Everything, according to “The Ghost of Peter Sellers,” a baffling and fascinating film history curio from now octogenarian Medak, who never got over the experience, although he would go on to direct such noteworthy films as “The Changeling” (1980), “The Krays” (1990) and “Romeo Is Bleeding” (1993). Sellers, who had had a series of heart attacks and was arguably living on borrowed time (he died in 1980), was notorious for unpredictable behavior and being difficult (he was also superstitious). He fired the film’s producers in the first week of filming in Cyprus, where a newly outfitted pirate ship had been sent and filming was supposed to take place on the Mediterranean.

Medak, who had never filmed at sea, where everything is in constant motion and you are at the mercy of the weather, fell badly behind schedule. Sellers, who had just broken up with Liza Minnelli, turned against his American co-star Anthony Franciosa and refused to appear on camera with him. Sellers would show up late to the set. Finally, he had the nerve to pretend to have a heart attack and disappeared. A few days later, a photograph of Sellers taking Princess Margaret to dinner at a posh London restaurant appeared in the newspapers.

Medak has assembled quite a collection of people for his odd documentary, including surviving producers, actor Robert Wagner, who co-starred with Sellers in “The Pink Panther” (1963), two of Sellers’ fellow former directors, Sellers’ daughter Victoria Sellers and Franciosa’s widow. For those who grew up watching the actor in such marvelous early efforts as “The Mouse That Roared” (1959) in multiple roles opposite Jean Seberg, “I’m Alright, Jack” (1959), “Waltz of the Toreadors” (1962) and “Lolita” (1962), Sellers was the ultimate actor as empty vessel. A mysterious, many-faced comic genius, he still haunts many of us.

(“The Ghost of Peter Sellers” contain profanity.)

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