It was on this day, July 24, 1980, the legendary comic actor Peter Sellers passed away at the age of just 54.
Often credited as the greatest comedian of all time, Peter Sellers was born to a well-off English acting family in 1925. His mother and father worked in an acting company run by his grandmother. Born in Portsmouth, Sellers made his stage debut at the Kings Theatre, Southsea, during his infant years and later appeared at the Windmill Theatre. He began accompanying his parents in a variety act which toured the provincial theaters.
He developed his innate mimicry and improvisational skills during a spell in Ralph Reader’s wartime Gang Shows, in tours of Britain, India, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and Burma. After the war Sellers made his radio debut in ShowTime eventually becoming a regular radio performer, appearing in Starlight Hour, The Gang Show, Henry Hall’s Guest Night and It’s Fine To Be Young.
In the 1950s, Sellers began to appear in films and scored some considerable success with his roles. His appeared in over fifty films and he displayed a versatile ability to perform in different film genres. Perhaps the most famous of these were I’m All Right Jack, Dr. Strangelove, Lolita, Being There and the Pink Panther series.
While his death was terribly sad because Sellers was so young, it was particularly poignant because his career had just hit a major upswing.
Determined to get away from his restricting Inspector Clouseau persona and do something completely different: Being There, a pet project of his since he read Jerzy Kosinski’s novel in the early 1970s, finally got made by Sellers (directed by Harold and Maude’s Hal Ashby) in 1979. It was released to ecstatic reviews. Sellers won a Best Actor nomination at the Academy Awards as Chance the Gardener, an idiot savant who stumbles into political power, with his subtle, nuanced performance wowing critics.
Ignoring his deteriorating physical heart condition since he had 13 heart attacks over the course of a few days in 1964, he had a pacemaker put in 1977 after another heart attack, but refused open heart surgery that might have made greatly lengthened his life expectancy.
The day before a reunion with his colleagues on the classic BBC radio program The Goon Show, Sellers died after suffering a final massive heart attack.
At his funeral, mourners were reminded of Sellers’ unstinting sense of humor: he had requested that Glenn Miller’s “In the Mood” – a song he detested – be played during the service.
1914 – Frank Silvera (actor: Valdez is Coming, Toys in the Attic, The High Chaparral; died June 11, 1970)
1936 – Ruth Buzzi (comedienne, actress: Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In, The Entertainers, The Steve Allen Comedy Hour, That Girl, Sesame Street, Finders Keepers, Freaky Friday)
1942 – Chris Sarandon (actor: The Princess Bride, Child’s Play, Deadly Temptress, The Nightmare before Christmas, The Guiding Light)
1947 – Robert Hays (actor: Airplane!, Airplane 2, Take This Job & Shove It, Starman, FM, Angie)
1951 – Lynda Carter (actress: Wonder Woman, Partners in Crime, Hawkeye; Miss World-USA)
1965 – Kadeem Hardison (actor: A Different World, Vampire in Brooklyn, Renaissance Man, White Men Can’t Jump, I’m Gonna Git You Sucka, Beat Street)
1968 – Laura Leighton (Miller) (actress: Melrose Place)
1969 – Jennifer Lopez (actress: In Living Color, Selena, Hotel Malibu, Money Train, Anaconda, Angel Eyes)
1982 – Anna Paquin (actress: X-Men, The Piano, Jane Eyre, Amistad, Almost Famous, Finding Forrester, Buffalo Soldiers)