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Exploring Peter Sellers' defining performance in Stanley Kubrick film 'Dr Strangelove'

Described by English filmmakers the Boulting brothers as “the greatest comic genius this country has produced since Charles Chaplin”, Peter Sellers was one of the 20th century’s defining comic actors. Most famous for his ingenious portrayal of the bumbling Inspector Clouseau in the Pink Panther series, the actor was iconic for his frequent parodying of characters of authority, such as military officers or policemen. Whilst appearing in several classics across the course of the 1960s and ’70s, there was one role, in particular, that would define the actor’s legacy as a comedian and dramatic performer both at once. 

Having worked with the influential Stanley Kubrick earlier in his career as part of 1962s Lolita, where he would again depict multiple characters, it was the directors follow-up two years later in Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb that would truly be the making of Peter Sellers. 

Originally intending for the film to be a serious drama, Stanley Kubrick began to see the hilarity in Peter George’s thriller novel Red Alert, particularly in the inherent idea of ‘mutually assured destruction’. As the director stated: “My idea of doing it as a nightmare comedy came in the early weeks of working on the screenplay,” Kubrick explained. Elaborating on this comedy angle, he added: “I found that in trying to put meat on the bones and to imagine the scenes fully, one had to keep leaving out of it things which were either absurd or paradoxical, in order to keep it from being funny; and these things seemed to be close to the heart of the scenes in question”. 

Such led to the financing of the film from Columbia Pictures, as long as classic comedian Peter Sellers could play at least four major roles, a demand Kubrick reluctantly accepted, noting: “Such crass and grotesque stipulations are the sine qua non of the motion-picture business”. Sellers was eventually asked to play three roles, US President Merkin Muffley, Dr. Strangelove and Captain Lionel Mandrake of the RAF. 

Complex and refined, Seller’s three performances showcased the full extent of his comic genius, with each character requiring a different persona and demeanour. President Muffley was a bland intellectual, Mandrake was a calm, near disinterested Englishman, and Dr. Strangelove was a true eccentric, an insane wheelchair-bound maniac.

Each character involved painstaking, meticulous preparation, breaking down, voice, mannerisms and movements to make each individual unique. Discussing his creative process, Sellers noted: “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”. 

Continuing, Sellers discusses how he embodies his characters, adding: “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”. 

Playing characters who are entirely unaware of just how absurd they are, Sellers improvised a majority of his dialogue, with Kubrick incorporating his ad-libs into the screenplay, the two of them developing a famously healthy working relationship to create their 1964 masterpiece. When it comes to the proper utilisation of Sellers and his many characters, Stanley Kubrick fascinatingly provided some insight into why the actor was so crucial in the film. The reason for having him so prevalent throughout the wartime satire was so that “everywhere you turn there is some version of Peter Sellers holding the fate of the world in his hands”.

A truly terrifying thought.

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