Peter Sellers, the British actor-comedian known to millions as the bumbling Inspector Clouseau from the Pink Panther movie series, died on this day in 1980. He was 54 years old.
Sellers, a talented mimic who could change voices at the drop of a hat and often played multiple roles in his films, succumbed to the heart disease that had plagued him since the mid-1960s, never regaining consciousness after suffering a cardiac arrest at his suite in the Dorchester Hotel.
He had been scheduled to attend a reunion dinner with his former colleagues Spike Milligan and Harry Secombe that evening. His fourth wife Lynne Frederick and his daughter Victoria, 15, were with him at the Middlesex Hospital when he passed away.
The actor was in London to work on the script of a sixth Pink Panther film. The series, in which he played the inept Clouseau (pictured below) had been a huge box office success, though Sellers was prouder of his performance in the 1979 film Being There, for which he had won a Golden Globe Award and been nominated for an Oscar.
Sellers had first come to the attention of British audiences in BBC radio shows after being demobbed from the Royal Air Force after the war, but it was in The Goon Show with Milligan and Secombe that he became a household name.
But even before that series ended in 1960, he had established himself as a versatile character actor in films such as The Ladykillers, The Mouse That Roared, and as union official Fred Kite in I’m All Right Jack – a role which won him a Bafta for Best British Actor.
He gained critical acclaim for his performance in two films directed by Stanley Kubrick – an adaptation of Nabokov’s Lolita, and playing three roles in the dark satire Dr Strangelove (or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb), which earned him his first Oscar nomination.
Despite his success, Sellers was a troubled individual who battled insecurity and depression throughout his life and ‘hid’ behind his on-screen roles. He once said of himself: "There used to be a ‘me’ behind the mask, but I had it surgically removed…I do not know who or what I am.”