The Life and Death of Peter Sellers

The Life and Death of Peter Sellers is a 2004 British-American television film about the life of English comedian Peter Sellers, based on Roger Lewis's book of the same name.[1] It was directed by Stephen Hopkins and stars Geoffrey Rush as Sellers, Miriam Margolyes as his mother Peg Sellers, Emily Watson as his first wife Anne Howe, Charlize Theron as his second wife Britt Ekland, John Lithgow as Blake Edwards, Stephen Fry as Maurice Woodruff and Stanley Tucci as Stanley Kubrick.

The Life and Death of Peter Sellers
Film poster
Screenplay byChristopher Markus
Stephen McFeely
Directed byStephen Hopkins
StarringGeoffrey Rush
Charlize Theron
Emily Watson
John Lithgow
Miriam Margolyes
Peter Vaughan
Sonia Aquino
Stanley Tucci
Stephen Fry
Music byRichard Hartley
Country of originUnited Kingdom
United States
Original language(s)English
Producer(s)Simon Bosanquet
CinematographyPeter Levy
Editor(s)John Smith
Running time121 minutes
Original networkHBO Films
BBC Films
Company Pictures
HD Vision Studios
Labrador Films
De Mann Entertainment
Original release
  • May 21, 2004 (2004-05-21) (Cannes)
  • October 1, 2004 (2004-10-01) (United Kingdom)
  • December 5, 2004 (2004-12-05) (United States)

The film won the Golden Globe Award for Best Miniseries or Television Film and Rush won Best Actor – Miniseries or Television Film. It also won nine Primetime Emmy Awards, including Outstanding Lead Actor in a Miniseries or Movie for Rush.


The film shows Peter Sellers as a complex and tormented genius,[2] whose success as a film star concealed his difficult and relatively unhappy private life. This "troubled life" is the primary focus of this biopic, which personalizes "one of the greatest comic actors in the history of the British cinema,"[3] and shows the many masks he wore and characters he played as an actor.[4]

The film makes clear that much of his success and identity were dependent initially on his domineering and doting mother. Eventually this success, first in radio and eventually in film, led to his succumbing to destructive mood swings and insecurity, and contributed to the deterioration of his marriages. Discovering his gift for comedy, his ego began to undermine his personal relationships with friends and co-workers. His personality became more turbulent. His own personality often merged with that of his film characters, and his self-learned skill as a method actor was used to mask his real self.[5]


Many familiar faces have small roles in the film: Edward Tudor-Pole (former Tenpole Tudor lead singer and second presenter of The Crystal Maze) plays Spike Milligan and The League of Gentlemen's Steve Pemberton plays Harry Secombe. Mackenzie Crook of The Office also has a small role as a luxury automobile salesman and Richard Ayoade from The IT Crowd in a bit-part as a photographer. Ray Ellington was played by his son, Lance Ellington.


The role of Sellers was acted by Geoffrey Rush, "who approached the role with the enthusiasm of a hungry child in a candy store", notes a reviewer.[5] Rush impersonates most of the important characters that Sellers played in his film career. Director Blake Edwards is played by John Lithgow, and the film exposes some of the behind-the-scenes personality conflicts between Sellers and Edwards, which contributed to their unhappy and tumultuous working relationship, despite the success of their films. In the interview for the film, included on the DVD, Edwards credited Rush with portraying Sellers' characters with uncanny similarity to the real Peter Sellers, and in 2004 claimed that it was the best acting he had ever seen Rush perform.

Actor Geoffrey Rush stated in interviews that the film was itself structured to be reminiscent of a Peter Sellers film. However, it was darker than Sellers' actual films since it depicted Sellers' troubled experiences in his life (including his tantrums and mental instability). This included at various times Rush (as Sellers) dressing up to play other characters in his life (several were ultimately edited out, but are included within the special features on the DVD).[6] In these instances he broke the fourth wall to give a monologue to the audience.

Roger Lewis: "It was the melancholia of Sellers I was drawn to; all those shuffling little ghostly figures he used to play in Boulting brothers films, or Clouseau, with those soulful, mournful brown eyes. For all the success and the women, he is rather a lonely and melancholic figure. And that is what redeems him." Hollywood was immediately interested in adapting Lewis's biography. In the mid-1990s Madonna's company Maverick bought the rights, but the Sellers project did not get off the ground. Many different writers worked on the screenplay, among them Lee Hall; eventually the writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely came up with a script to tell the story. Director Stephen Hopkins ultimately distanced himself from Lewis's book, and said he was inspired by Sellers's 16mm home movies, which were featured in a 1995 BBC Arena documentary, "The Peter Sellers Story", directed by Peter Lydon.[7][8]


Although intended as a television production, the film was given a limited theatrical release in the United Kingdom and was also theatrically released in a number of other countries including Spain, Italy, Ireland, New Zealand and Australia.[9] The film achieved its highest theatrical success in Australia, earning close to US$1 million at the box office.[10]


The Belfast Telegraph notes how the film captured Sellers's "life of drugs, drink, fast cars and lots and lots of beautiful women".[11] Although the film was widely praised by critics, both Lord Snowdon and Britt Ekland were highly critical of the film and the enactment of Sellers;[12] Ekland believed that the film left the audiences with the wrong impression, saying "the film leaves you with the impression that Peter Sellers was essentially a likeable man when in reality he was a monster. He may have been a brilliant actor, but as a human being he had no saving graces at all".[13] Snowdon disagreed with Ekland's verdict, and with the film, and stated that Sellers "had a light touch, a sense of humour, I can't bear to see him portrayed as somebody who was apparently without either ... The man on the screen is charmless, humourless and boring - the one thing you could never say about Peter."[13]


The Life and Death of Peter Sellers was nominated for the Palme d'Or at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival.[14] The film won the Golden Globe Award for Best Miniseries or Television Film and Geoffrey Rush won for Best Actor – Miniseries or Television Film. Rush also won the Screen Actors Guild Award for Outstanding Performance by a Male Actor in a Miniseries or Television Movie and the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Miniseries or Movie.

57th Primetime Emmy Awards


  1. Lewis, Roger (1995). The Life and Death of Peter Sellers. London: Arrow Books. ISBN 0-09-974700-6. 1108 pages. Published in the U.S. via Applause Books A very comprehensive biography, with very comprehensive index.
  2. HBO The Life and Death of Peter Sellers, DVD description
  3. "The Life and Death of Peter Sellers". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved 7 December 2012.
  4. "IMDB synopsis of The Life and Death of Peter Sellers". IMDb. Retrieved 7 December 2012.
  5. "Draxblog Movie Reviews: The Life and Death of Peter Sellers (2004)". DensityChecker. 26 October 2005. Retrieved 7 December 2012.
  6. "Life and death of Peter Sellers (2004) (import): Geoffrey Rush, Emily Watson, Peter Vaughan, Stephen Fry, Charlize Theron, Stephen Hopkins: Film & TV". Retrieved 7 December 2012.
  7. Peter Lydon on IMDb
  8. Being Peter Sellers, The Independent, 28 April 2004
  11. "The Life and Death of Peter Sellers: The monster who made us laugh". Belfast Telegraph. 8 October 2004. Archived from the original on 7 November 2012. Retrieved 4 August 2012. (subscription required)
  12. Brook, Danae (19 September 2004). "Peter Sellers did call my wife 'Ma'am darling' but then he fantasised about a lot of things". The Mail on Sunday. London. p. 39.
  13. Weathers, Helen (29 May 2004). "Britt bites back". Daily Mail. London. p. 48.
  14. "Festival de Cannes: The Life and Death of Peter Sellers". Cannes Film Festival. Retrieved 30 November 2009.
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