High Society: enigmatic icon Peter Sellers said cannabis “heightens the senses”

“Marijuana is all right and court sentences for using it are ridiculous,” the legendary actor and comedian once said

Sellers

Peter Sellers at home in 1973. Photo by Allan Warren (own work, CC BY-SA 3.0).

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Best known for his comedic role as the bumbling, yet dignified, Inspector Clouseau in the Pink Panther movie series, British actor Peter Sellers was, by all accounts, desperately lonely and unhappy in his own skin.  

A master of mimicry and impersonations, Sellers learned much from his idol (and eventual co-star and friend) Sir Alec Guinness and added his own subversive and surrealistic touches to smash through the usual rigid typecasting of his era. He could and did portray an incredible range of characters, sometimes several in the same film.    

His talent for becoming completely immersed in a role left typical method actors in the dust. He began by zooming in on how a character sounded: 

“I start with the voice. I find out how the character sounds. It’s through the way he speaks that I find out the rest about him…. After the voice comes the looks of the man. I do a lot of drawings of the character I play. Then I get together with the makeup man and we sort of transfer my drawings onto my face. After that I establish how the character walks. Very important, the walk. And then, suddenly, something strange happens. The person takes over. The man you play begins to exist.”

A troubled personal life

However, as his professional life soared, his personal life became increasingly troubled. His physical and mental health also declined as years went by. Four marriages, substance abuse, multiple heart attacks, a complicated relationship with his mother, and poor relations with his three children were all symptoms of Sellers’ struggles. He was also known to have a volcanic temper, and woe betide those who drew his ire on set or in his private life.  

Legendary director Blake Edwards said of Sellers that “he lived a great part of his life in hell. Most comic actors are not very happy people.”  Sellers himself once admitted “I’d like very much to be happy”.  

The Portsmouth-born chameleon was a second-generation entertainer having grown up on the road with his performing parents. He was an avid photographer and obsessed with technology. He ended up amassing a large personal archive of photographs and home movies which show another side of the man from his (many, many) public personas. One friend said this hobby was perfect for him because photography is: “the art of loneliness in pursuit of the lonely”.  

Sellers was also an excellent jazz drummer, spending time in his early show biz days in various combos. He was once even billed as “Britain’s answer to Gene Krupa”.  

His greatest performing talent, though, was becoming a character: first for live radio performances including the BBC’s The Goon Show, and later in all manner of film roles. One of his contemporaries said “he’s always appearing as different characters, [but] one never really knows Peter Sellers.”  

Sellers sought escape using alcohol and drugs

This difficulty in reconciling his private and public lives almost certainly contributed to Sellers’ search for escape and therapy using alcohol and drugs. In 1964, he suffered eight heart attacks in one evening. He had popped some amyl nitrate prior to having sex with his wife, Britt Ekland, in search of the ultimate orgasm. Such an incident speaks for itself but Sellers also once, cautiously, addressed his fondness for cannabis in public.  

”Someone asked me my attitude towards drugs. The question came right out of the blue, and it would have been hypocritical not to have answered.” Sellers was addressing his remarks to 400 youths at a charity meeting in London in 1969. 

”I have used marijuana with groups of friends and there’s no harm in it, so long as it doesn’t lead to other things,” he said. “I mean it’s better than drink. The idea of waking up in the morning with a hangover…. Some of the hard drugs are bad—LSD is a frightening thing. But marijuana is all right and court sentences for using it are ridiculous. It heightens the senses and one of the best ways of using it is when listening to music. You can hear music as you have never heard it before. Of course, I don’t go around turned on all the time, but I use it occasionally.”

“The Peter Sellers Tape”

Speaking of music, Sellers was famously friends with George Harrison and Ringo Starr, and thanks to Ringo, ended up with advance versions of songs from the White Album. Several minor differences exist between “The Peter Sellers Tape”, as a 12-song bootleg was later known, and the final mixes of what is considered one of the greatest albums of all time.  

Sellers had also worked with Beatles producer George Martin in his pre-Beatle days. This gave Martin instant credibility with the band when they were getting to know one another as Sellers was already a household name in Britain.  

While never known as a cannabis advocate per se, Sellers’ role in the 1968 film I Love You, Alice B. Toklas!, was that of a strait-laced lawyer questioning all his assumptions and beginning a quest for enlightenment after accidentally ingesting a pot brownie.  

According to Barbra Streisand, Sellers once got her high. They spent the evening giggling over the idea of steak-flavoured ice cream. The legendary singer and actress later explained: “It was funny at the time. It’s not funny now since you’re not high.”  

“I need the help of a woman”

Sellers also attempted to seduce Britt Ekland with a joint back at his hotel room when they first met. It must have been a bomber because she passed right out and “woke the next morning in my own bed fully clothed… and I found a card and it said “hope you slept well, Inspector Clouseau”.

She and Sellers ended up marrying 10 days later. This continued his trend of being seen with beautiful and glamourous women. He had previously been linked to Sophia Loren while still married to his first wife.  

Family loomed large for Sellers, and he had a well documented love-hate relationship with his mother. The women in his life described a man always looking for motherly love and approval from them. Equally, his male friends believed that his mother’s domineering presence was an unhealthy influence. Sellers, revealingly, had the following to say about his need for women: 

“I feel extremely vulnerable, and I need help a lot. A lot. I suppose I feel mainly I need the help of a woman. I’m continually searching for this woman. They mother you, they’re great in bed, they’re like a sister, they’re there when you want to see them, they’re not there when you don’t. I don’t know where they are. Maybe they’re around somewhere. I’ll find one, one of these days.”

In turn, Sellers’ relationship with his own children was perfunctory at best and cruel at its worst. Although he ended up leaving the majority of his 4.5 million pound fortune to his fourth wife, Lynne Frederick, his son claimed that his relationship with his father was improving in his final years.  Indeed, it is also said that Sellers was in the process of excluding Frederick from his will the week before he died, but no changes were finalized.  

Rubbing shoulders with the greats

As an actor, Sellers worked with elite directors including Stanley Kubrick and Blake Edwards. And in his life and work, including more than 50 films, he rubbed shoulders and worked with an incredible list of actors, celebrities and even royalty: the Earl of Snowdon and Princess Margaret, Spike Milligan, Hebert Lom, Richard Attenborough, Alastair Sim, Bing Crosby and Bob Hope.  

That’s not all, how about: Joan Collins, James Mason, Shelley Winters, David Niven, Robert Wagner, George C. Scott, and Angela Lansbury?  

Or Elke Sommer, Woody Allen, Peter O’Toole, Michael Caine, Dudley Moore, Ursula Andress, Orson Welles, Shirley MacLaine, and Anita Ekberg?  

Don’t forget Alan Arkin, Liza Minelli, Raquel Welch, Roman Polanski, Christopher Lee, Yul Brynner, Maggie Smith, Goldie Hawn, Christopher Plummer, and Helen Mirren.  

Many consider one of his last roles, as a pre-Forrest Gump-like character, Chance, in 1979’s Being There, among his best. Sellers said of this role: “Most actors want to play ‘Othello’, but all I’ve really wanted to play is Chance the Gardener. I feel what the character, the story is all about is not merely the triumph of a simple man, an illiterate. It’s God’s message again that the meek shall inherit the earth.”

After a lifetime of achieving career success on his own terms and being beloved by millions, Sellers died in 1980 at age 54 of another heart attack.

Many entertainers who came after list him as an important influence including the Monty Python troupe, Rowan Atkinson, Sacha Baron Cohen, Mike Myers, Conan O’Brien, and Chris Rock.  

It is a great pity that someone who brought so much joy to so many was unable to find much for himself.

Key quotes

“When I’m with my children, great!  When I’m by myself, not so great.”  (Peter Sellers)

Sellers appeared on The Muppet Show in 1978 and when Kermit the Frog told him he could relax and be himself, Sellers replied: 

“But that, you see, my dear Kermit, would be altogether impossible. 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.”

Key films

The Ladykillers (1955), I’m All Right Jack (1959), The Millionairess (1960), Lolita (1962), The Pink Panther (1963), Dr. Strangelove (1964), A Shot in the Dark (1964), What’s New Pussycat (1965), Hoffman (1970), Murder By Death (1976), Being There (1979)

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