The World According To Damien
in a World gone mad – one sane voice emerges…

Damien on… Peter Sellers – and Michael Caine

Peter Sellers was one of the greatest mimics, character actors and comedians who ever breathed. I once saw him being interviewed on location in France – and an old Frenchman wandered past, grumbling to himself – and Peter suddenly broke off what he was saying and did a PERFECT imitation of the old geezer.

How much of it was cod-French and actual French I do not remember – but I recall the intonation was FAULTLESS.

Of course, like all great actors, Sellers was a bundle of nerves, acute paranoia – and was a lousy chat-show guest.

However, Michael Parkinson did not know that until in 1974, Peter was booked as a guest on his show.

The man turned up – but as they were being made up, he suddenly turned to Parky and said, “I can’t go on.”

“What?” said the Yorkshireman.

“I can’t do this. I’m an actor. I NEVER go on as ME.”

“Look,” said Parky, “You’ve GOT to go on. The studio is ready – the audience is ready and I’M ready. We’ve advertised your appearance – and anyway, it’s too late to find a replacement.”

“But I do FILMS, not stage.”

“What about The Goons? You were on stage then.”

“Yeah, but I was with Harry and Spike. And I was playing CHARACTERS – loads of them. I can’t do ME.”

At this point, Parky went ballistic. He always had a Yorkshireman’s temper – the audience would see a flash of it when later, Sellers would refer to his Dad as a “right” Yorkshireman (and if you want to see Parky REALLY throwing a strop, click on http://www.metacafe.com/watch/5186653/bbc_internal_christmas_tape_79_uncensored_outtakes_etc/ – at about 8:10 in – but not now, I’m talking).

Anyhoo, Parky said, “Look – I don’t care WHO you come on as – just so long as you COME ON.”

So a production assistant took Peter to the BBC Wardrobe Department, while Parky went to start the show. Finally, someone gave him the nod that Sellers was ready and he introduced him, not knowing WHAT to expect.

What he got was Sellers – dressed in a leather greatcoat and a WW2 German “squarehead” helmet (which always got a laugh in post-war Britain). Parky himself fell about laughing – as much in relief that he now had a show, as at the apparition that had presented itself.

Peter goose-stepped around and improvised a character for a bit. Then, when he felt more at ease, threw the gear off and gave a GREAT interview.

You can find THAT at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IuaN3K4AMmk – but save the thought – I’m still talking!

After this show, Peter only ever gave one more long interview. In that one, he told his anecdote about Michael Caine.

It was the one where he said that he had seen Michael telling everyone at a party who would listen various fun-factoids from The Guinness Book Of Records – and had ended his stories with “Not a lot of people know that” – doing a perfect impression of Caine.

And for years, this became a catch-phrase that haunted Mike Caine – until it got supplanted, latterly, by “You were only supposed to blow the bloody DOORS off,” from “The Italian Job” (like “No, Mr Bond… I expect you to DIE,” from “Goldfinger” – it took TIME to catch on).

Mike even gave his name to a fun-factoid book CALLED “Not A Lot Of People Know That” – with his likeness on the cover – the proceeds of which were for CHARITY.

And it is an indication of the legendary generosity of Mr Caine that it was not until after Peter’s death that Mike let the TRUTH out.

He had never SAID the phrase. The whole story was BOGUS!

Sellers had wanted to do his impression of Caine, but had no anecdote to hang it on. So, not considering that it wasn’t exactly complementary to his fellow actor, Sellers just MADE ONE UP on the spot.

But knowing the truth would hurt Peter, Mike had let it lie. Only after Sellers had passed, did he come clean.

Unfortunately, I do not HAVE that interview on VT – but now that I have finished, you are more than welcome to check out the other two clips I have left links for, above. The Parky bit is instructive – and so is the Sellers interview.

It is interesting to note that Parky avoids asking Peter ANYTHING about his film roles – and again instructive when Sellers almost VIOLENTLY points out the probable reason why: the fact he only enjoyed those moments when he was in the zone – when he NAILED a characterisation.

He declares that afterwards, he loses interest – and hints that like many actors, hated watching himself, seeing only the shortfalls, real or imagined. Thus, one suspects he had told Parky NOT to quiz him about his characters – which must have given HIM no easy task.

However, the interview is still highly revealing. Despite his obvious charm, Sellers was doubtless a hundred miles of bad road if you married him. But his artistic talents were unparalleled.

YouTube now gives you 15 minutes, so I did a neat edit of ALL the non-musical (George Formby’s era was only three decades before this interview, thus was naustalgic then – but the interview took place four decades ago, thus you would have to be in your EIGHTIES now, to recall George) non-Nazi material (a bit non-PC these days).

So NOW go watch it!

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3 Responses to “Damien on… Peter Sellers – and Michael Caine”

  1. Thank you for this. I have an unhealthy relationship to Peter Sellers. I am not sure why I think it is unhealthy. As for the “relationship,” it earns the term because we have a history. It starts off with the Pink Panther movies and going… where? I suppose his “Lolita” role for Kubrick, Dr. Strangelove, eventually to the biographies – I think there are two I read – and finally to ephemera like this. We go back. Once someone makes you laugh you are strangely vulnerable to that person. Or maybe that is too general. Maybe it’s once someone has made you laugh while so obviously pretending to be who they are not, in real life. “Acting.” If you relate to that with enough energy you are somehow a little vulnerable in a way that transcends the innocence of laughter. “Wipe that smile off your face!” Laughter is so threatening. So wounding, if is you who are being laughed at. Perhaps that is part of the gratitude we feel towards someone like Sellers who puts us on the right side of the laughter. We’re on his team and he is in on ours.

    For whatever reason I just love Peter Sellers. I wish he had done more of his father. I could have listened to that stuff for hours.

    Thanks again.

  2. You may be interested to learn that the German character Peter Sellers came on as at the start of the Parkinson interview was not improvised, but was a take off of Kenneth Mars’ role in the Mel Brooks comedy The Producers. The lines are a quote from the film. Sellers was a strong advocate of this film (which was not appreciated at the time it came out), calling it, I believe, the funniest film he’d ever seen.

  3. I’d forgotten that! You’re right of course – and a classic film, which I am sadly old enough to remember when it first appeared. Incredible that it still carries on as the film of the musical of the original film (I THINK that’s right!) with Nathan Lane in the Zero Mostel role.


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