Shots in the Dark: Blake Edwards’ Problematic Pink Panther Series (Part 1)

Blake Edwards (1922-2010) was a film director. Heck, probably even a “major” film director. He may not be a household name, but most people who know a little about movies know who he was. He won a Special Academy Award in 2004 “in recognition of his writing, directing and producing an extraordinary body of work for the screen.” That’s as may be. But if I were to ask someone familiar with that body of work to name a great — great — Blake Edwards movie, there may very well be a long pause as they struggle to think of one. 


They will likely come up with Breakfast At Tiffany’s. Sorry, no. That’s perhaps the most overrated “classic” film in cinema history. If you want to experience the effervescent magic that was Audrey Hepbrun, watch Sabrina. Or Roman Holiday. Or even Charade. All exponentially better films than the limp, vapid Tiffany’s — and all containing 100% less Mickey Rooney in yellowface as Hepburn’s buck-toothed “Japanese” landlord — a walking, talking ethnic slur that was vulgar even by early 1960s standards (which weren’t high.)

Some people old enough to remember it might dredge up Edwards’ box-office smash 10. But “sex comedies” have a hard time standing the test of time. Sex comedies rely on actions and reactions based around attitudes, mores, and societal standards, all of which change, sometimes rapidly. 10 is a total relic of the late 1970s — just as fossilized (and fun to watch) as your standard pile of dinosaur shit. (And be honest — it wasn’t even all that good at the time. People just lined up in their flares and Hush Puppies to see Bo Derek in beaded cornrows frolicking on the beach.)

Fewer people will come up with his true masterpiece — Days of Wine and Roses, not a comedy at all, which may be the secret to its success. Edwards was a restless, melancholy soul who fought a lifelong battle with depression, pill addiction, and deep-seated anger issues, and this harrowing look at alcoholism tapped into whatever brilliance Edwards contained as a filmmaker. And make no mistake, Edwards did display flashes of brilliance. He made some good movies in spite of his own tendencies (A Shot in the Dark is a good example.) But mostly, he was the poor man’s Billy Wilder. Top of the second tier, sure. Best of the bench players. But the inescapable whisper of “hack” hangs around his legacy like an anchor chain. Blake-Edwards-Peter-Sellers-The-Pink-Panther

But far ahead of all the Tiffanys and 10s and even Victor/Victorias in many people’s memories is The Pink Panther and its endless train of sequels…all helmed by Blake Edwards. If, like me, you’re a child of the 80s and not old enough to have seen the bulk of them in their original theatrical runs, you remember them as endlessly airing on weekend afternoon TV, and as cable movie channel staples. 

The series’ central figure — the hopelessly inept Inspector Jacques Clouseau of the Sûreté, as portrayed by British actor Peter Sellers — has become an iconic comedic character. Austin Powers, Derek Zoolander, and Ron Burgundy are all his spiritual children. The Pink Panther movies inspired a cartoon show, and enough nostalgic affection to support a hideous 2006 remake starring Steve Martin (who should really know better), and an even more hideous 2009 sequel to the remake.

Revisiting the original films today, how do they hold up? 

Not all that great.

And it comes down to the fact that Edwards’ idiosyncratic take on comedy is completely joyless.Edwards 3“Comedy is pain” has always been Blake Edwards’ motto. I just wish he wasn’t always so literal about it. Maybe that’s why his comedies are generally so painful to watch — he includes the audience a little too much in his characters’ suffering.

In Edwards’ films, acts of physical comedy play out in long takes and wide shots. “I see things like a proscenium,” he has said. His characters are always in motion, but moving clumsily. Awkwardly. There is no comedic grace. The characters shuffle around almost sadly, and the only sounds are thuds and rustlings, and the characters’ audible exhalations and grunts as they bump into each other, inanimate objects, and the ground. Edwards might say that’s a kind of purity. But it’s labored and comes off as rather amateurish. Yes, some of the audience may laugh. But a lot of them just shift uncomfortably in their seat and ask themselves Is this supposed to be funny? There’s a reason why for every box-office success, Edwards’ filmography has roughly three catastrophic…and I mean catastrophic…bombs. Who knew a comedy could practically bankrupt a studio? (See Darling Lili. Better yet, don’t.)71CzD4L6ugL._SY445_I decided to take some of my COVID-19 quarantine downtime last summer to re-watch the whole Pink Panther series. One of the things that makes quarantine bearable is that you can still count on essential workers to bring you ridiculous shit, such as the Pink Panther series Blu-Ray set. You might have to wait an extra couple of days. (It actually got here quicker than I expected, placed with care on my porch by a masked and gloved van driver. “Essential workers” should have been Time Magazine’s Person [People] of the Year.)

MV5BNzg5NTYzNDI4OF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwOTQxMTMyNA@@._V1_SY1000_CR0,0,666,1000_AL_The Pink Panther (1963/64)

Written by Blake Edwards & Martin Richlin

Produced by the Martin Jurow for the Mirisch Company 

Released through United Artists

First off, was The Pink Panther a 1963 film or 1964 film? IMDB and Wikipedia firmly list it as 1963, which it was — in a handful of European countries, where The Pink Panther made its bow in late December of that year. It had a single showing in Boston on New Year’s Eve. But its wide British release was in January of ‘64, and its wide U.S. release wasn’t until March. The AFI and several other film websites call it a 1964 film. 

The basic outline of the story is that a French police inspector, Jacques Clouseau, is hot on the trail of an international jewel thief known as the Phantom, the alter ego of English playboy Sir Charles Litton. Litton (sometimes rendered as “Lytton”) has his eye on a massive diamond called the Pink Panther, property of the deposed Princess Dala of Lugash. Clouseau is trying to stop the Phantom before he strikes again, not knowing that his own wife, Simone, is the Phantom’s accomplice…and mistress. When everyone comes together (along with Litton’s louche and irresponsible American nephew, George) during a skiing holiday, complications ensue. Hilarity, sadly, does not. 


David Niven

David Niven was deservedly top-billed in The Pink Panther, and his dashing character, Sir Charles Litton (“the notorious Phantom”), was envisioned by Edwards and the Mirisch Company to be the lead in a potential series of comedic heist films. A series indeed came about, but not as originally envisioned…and not with the Phantom as the main character.  

By 1963, the name “David Niven” was synonymous with class, wit, and charm, but at 53, he was getting visibly long in the tooth. Litton was supposed to be irresistible to women, but after a lifetime spent in smoky cocktail parties, Niven’s physical appearance was growing somewhat wizened. His deeply-lined face, snaggled nicotine teeth, and slight cast to his left eye make him more than a little…hobgoblin-ish. I guess his money might be irresistible. 

Apart from being something of a vehicle for Niven, the film was designed to be very much an ensemble piece, and it originally had a totally different cast. Peter Ustinov was to play the dogged-but-oblivious Inspector Clouseau (the original script indicated this was a mostly non-comedic straight role — presumably Ustinov’s portly and dignified bearing would give the character a more Hercule Poirot-style persona). Ava Gardner was to be the devious and deceptive Simone Clouseau, and Edwards hoped to get his recent collaborator Audrey Hepburn on board as Princess Dala.


Peter Sellers as Clouseau

Hepburn, already with an eye on semi-retirement, declined the part outright. Ava Gardner accepted, then left the project when the Mirisch Company would not meet her diva-like demands for an army-sized personal staff. Ustinov bailed for unknown reasons right before cameras rolled (and triggered a nasty lawsuit). Two European “model-actresses” (Claudia Cardinale and the mononym’d Capucine) were fitted into the female roles, and at the last possible minute, Edwards offered the role of Inspector Clouseau to Peter Sellers.

As the film opens, gilded lettering spelling out “Once Upon A Time…” fills our field of vision in glorious, vibrant Technirama. Edwards can certainly set up a mise en scene, he clearly has a flair for sumptuous colors, and a good eye for widescreen framing (which can be challenging.) The rich photography in The Pink Panther as envisioned by Edwards and carried out by cinematographer Phillip Lathrop is beyond reproach. (What plays out in front of the camera is the issue.)

We begin with a prologue set twenty years in the story’s past in the fictional Middle Eastern country of “Lugash” — the king is presenting his daughter with a large diamond. It is pointed out that, like many massive diamonds, this one has a flaw. If one looks into the center of the jewel, there is a pinkish discoloration which is shaped like a leaping panther. 


At this point, the film reveals one of its other major assets — the jazzy opening theme by composer Henry Mancini. Dominated by the tenor saxophone of Plas Johnson, it is instantly recognizable to multiple generations, and is film music at its finest. The “Pink Panther” theme plays over the very amusing title animation, supervised by Warner Bros. legend Friz Freleng, featuring a mischievous embryonic version of the Pink Panther cartoon character (at this point still very cat-like, frequently sitting on all four paws, and suavely knocking ash off his long cigarette holder). It’s easy to see how this character got spun off into his own series of theatrical shorts beginning later in ‘64, then his own long-running animated TV series by 1969.

“A big, international, glossy piece of fluff,” is how Sellers biographer Ed Sikov describes The Pink Panther. It certainly is that. The film uses extensive (for a comedy of the time) location shooting in Rome and the snowy village of Cortina d’Ampezzo in the Italian Alps to really build up a luxurious atmosphere. The silky, gilt-edged hotel suites look like a good place to drop a fortune to spend the night, and the ski lodge with its exposed timbers, rustic stonework, and roaring fireplace looks postcard-perfect. The two female leads are stunningly glamorous in that sophisticated way so particular to the early ‘60s, all liquid eyeliner, nylon hose, and upswept hair.


Niven as the Phantom and Claudia Cardinale as Princess Dala

The Filmmaker magazine website describes Edwards as a “great formalist.” No argument here. He can compose a hell of a shot. He has built us a gorgeous frame…but the picture that he puts into it is second-rate and uninvolving.

Character motivations are muddled. The relationships between characters are frequently unclear, or change for no reason. Some major characters themselves, like George Litton, seemed tacked on and pointless. Yes, we expect a caper plot to be byzantine, and so it is here…but the pacing is absolutely brutal. Except for Sellers’ little flourishes as his physical ineptitude turns everyday objects around him into obstacles, this doesn’t seem like a comedy. It’s just watching people do stuff.

Once the plot is (finally) set up, the film’s already leisurely pace goes into a stretch that I can only describe as interminable. There are long passages of dialogue between Niven and his various paramours that I suppose are intended to be charming, but instead make you ask yourself what you’re watching and why. There’s one particular sequence between Niven and Claudia Cardinale which takes place over a tiger-skin rug that plays like its own (really, really, really boring) short film within the film. Niven is supposed to be world-weary and Cardinale is supposed to be vulnerable, but they’re just mouthing words at each other for what feels like an hour. In fact, all the film’s dialogue is mostly inane chatter. Every two dozen lines or so we get a nudge that moves the plot onward a little. 

Never once does a spoken line evoke a laugh (until the very end.) 

(To me, the funniest gag in the picture consists of only sound effects. Going to get his wife a sleeping pill from the bathroom, the camera stays fixed on Simone as Clouseau disappears off-screen. We clearly hear him spill what sounds like about a thousand pills all over the floor, and then ever-so-audibly crunch across them as he hurries back to bed.)


The film is divided into two unequal parts: the Bedroom Farce and the Crime Caper Comedy. The Bedroom Farce has a constant undercurrent of coitus interruptus that could have been very funny, but instead comes off as, well…unfulfilling. Clouseau can’t even be rightly said to have been cuckolded, because no one can muster the energy to do anything with anyone. Clouseau spends two seemingly endless nights trying to seduce his own wife, who spurns his marital advances in favor of…Charles? She doesn’t seem in any hurry to hop into his bed, either. George? Well, that whole subplot is a mess. 

Robert Wagner has spectacularly coiffed, shiny hair and a smarmy frat-boy vibe, and makes George a generally unpleasant character. (The type you can totally picture booting Natalie Wood off a yacht in the dead of night.) I can think of no logical reason why he’s in the film to begin with. George seems interested in Simone as a conquest, and Simone seems to offer reciprocity and takes it upon herself to “seduce” George (or not?) in order to…what, exactly? Distract him from the chaste, off-limits Princess? Make Charles jealous? (Charles acts as if he could give two shits about his mistress banging his nephew. That’s sophistication for you.) The George-Simone angle is unclear, and certainly nothing comes of it. 

MV5BMzIyNDEyNjE0OV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwNjUxMTMyNA@@._V1_SY1000_CR0,0,997,1000_AL_ (1)

Capucine as Simone Clouseau and Robert Wagner as George Litton

Like a lot of films of this era, this one stops about mid-point for a totally irrelevant musical sequence. Luckily, the song is one of Mancini’s catchier numbers, “Meglio Stasera (It Had Better Be Tonight)”, sung in Italian by the beautiful Fran Jeffries, and it takes up only a couple of minutes.

Performance-wise, Niven has played this type of part a hundred times already, and is coasting a bit. Cardinale and Capucine are serviceable, but these model-actresses are more model than actress (Hepburn and Gardner would undoubtedly have given things more spark). The Italian Cardinale had her voice dubbed by another actress more familiar with English.

So it’s no wonder Peter Sellers is the stand-out of the cast, even if the understated Clouseau of the first film is nowhere near the outsized, destructive comedic dervish of the later films. In The Pink Panther, Clouseau is just an accident-prone, none-too-bright police inspector, whose natural propensity for clumsiness is fueled by his increasing sexual frustration. At one point, he can’t even untie the belt on his bathrobe. It would all be a little sad if Sellers didn’t imbue Clouseau with such a swaggering sense of self-importance and misplaced authority. And Clouseau’s French accent is simply a French accent — not the mangled, over-the-top exaggeration it would grow into as Edwards and Sellers deliberately built Clouseau into a caricature of his original form to coax bigger laughs from less-discerning audiences.

Thanks to this film (and two others), Sellers became a 1964 global phenom. Prior to this, Sellers was not a complete unknown in America — The Mouse That Roared with Sellers in the leading role had been a success in the U.S. at the end of the ‘50s — but he was hardly a household name.


The “real” Peter Sellers, out of character, early 1960s

In Britain, though, Sellers already was a household name, thanks to his role in the massively popular and hugely influential comedy radio series The Goon Show, (co-starring Harry Seacombe and the brilliant Spike Milligan, who was the primary writer for all the episodes), which had regular airings on BBC Radio all through the 1950s. The chameleon-like Sellers parlayed radio stardom into occasional television appearances, and a modest film career, mostly sticking to eccentric character roles in humble little black-and-white British comedies, which got some theatrical runs in bigger U.S. markets. It was in one of these, the 1959 labor union satire I’m All Right Jack, that Blake Edwards first noticed Peter Sellers, and mentally filed his name away. British film critics certainly noticed, too. Sellers won the British equivalent of an Oscar (the BAFTA) for his role as Fred Kite, the bureaucratic, neurotic, and passionately socialist shop steward of a failing missile factory.

Three years after first seeing him, and after impressing Edwards yet again with his small-but-pivotal turn as the mysterious Quilty in Stanley Kubrick’s 1962 adaptation of Lolita, Sellers got the last-minute tap for Clouseau. The pair immediately began making the part more comic to take advantage of Sellers’ skill in that area. 


The many faces of Peter Sellers, 1955-64

Despite his ability to play a variety of roles, Sellers was not at this time a physical comedian. He cut his professional teeth on the radio, so his true talents were in inventing characters through their voices, and his uncanny knack for replicating dozens of regional and foreign accents. But he was a quick learner, and with Edwards’ guidance, became more comfortable using his body to get laughs, and became even more enthusiastic about transforming his appearance to more fully inhabit a character. Normally pudgy-cheeked and bespectacled, Sellers went on a crash diet and a reckless pill binge through the shooting (allegedly so he wouldn’t feel embarrassed next to the chiseled features of Robert Wagner). Brilliant as he was at the aforementioned eccentric character work, Sellers had an understandable desire to be a handsome leading man. 


Edwards also discovered, as Kubrick already had, that Sellers was a skilled improviser, and had the ability to elevate some of Edwards’ more pedestrian material by throwing in some ad-libbed movements or remarks. Both directors often set up extra cameras and let them roll as Sellers concocted new bits of business on the fly.

The Bedroom Farce portion of The Pink Panther culminates in one of those everyone’s-hiding-in-the-hotel-bedroom sequences that usually play out with a little spice, a little verve, and even suspense (will they get caught?) Here it’s yet more desultory shuffling around. We know Clouseau will never discover the interlopers. 

The Crime Caper Comedy only kicks in in the last half-hour or so, when Clouseau deduces the Phantom’s identity because Litton makes a sloppy mistake hardly worthy of a “master jewel thief.”


The actual jewel heist itself is staged at a costume ball, with some halfway decent silent-movie schtick, climaxing in a repetitive car chase that takes place across a single traffic plaza outside of Rome, where something about the honking car horns is actually funnier than any dialogue we have run across so far.

But I have to admit, Clouseau’s final line as he’s driven off in the back of a police car is pretty damn good, and ends the movie on a solid chuckle.

The film was a robust box office success.

What audiences didn’t know was that a superior sequel was already finished — in the can and ready to go.

MV5BNDE5Njk1NDQ5MF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwNjAyMTMyNA@@._V1_SY1000_CR0,0,666,1000_AL_A Shot In The Dark (1964)

Screenplay by Blake Edwards & William Peter Blatty

Based on the plays L’Idiote by Marcel Achard and A Shot in the Dark by Harry Kurnitz

Produced by Blake Edwards for the Mirisch Corporation

Released through United Artists

The Pink Panther almost certainly would have been the film to launch Peter Sellers into international stardom had it not been beaten to the punch by a movie that was filmed after it. 

Stanley Kubrick couldn’t wait to get his hooks into Peter Sellers’ talents again. The cameras were still whirring on The Pink Panther when Kubrick snatched him up as soon as his scenes were wrapped, and gave Sellers three leading roles in his legendary nuclear holocaust black comedy Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. With Sellers giving a tour-de-force performance as 1) the soft-spoken American president, 2) a stiff-upper-lip RAF officer, and 3) the sinister ex-Nazi scientist of the title, the film and Peter Sellers blew away audiences and critics alike when it was released on January 29, 1964 — seven weeks ahead of The Pink Panther in U.S. theaters. (Why Panther languished on the U.A. shelf for over a year after its production I have never been able to find out.

Once Strangelove wrapped, Sellers agreed to star in an adaptation of a 1960 comedic stage mystery by Marcel Achard that had been originally performed in France under the title L’Idiote. It was re-worked for American audiences by Harry Kurnitz as A Shot in the Dark and had a successful 1961-62 Broadway run starring William Shatner, Julie Harris, and Walter Matthau. The Mirisch Corporation bought the rights as a vehicle for Sophia Loren, and after some consideration, offered the male lead to Sellers. Walter Matthau would reprise his Tony Award-winning supporting part. Anatole Litvak was hired to direct. Litvak was a journeyman director of 1930s and 40s thrillers, and could be generously described as “past his prime.” After butting heads with Sellers, he diplomatically withdrew from the project for “health reasons.” 

The Mirisch Corp. then offered the director’s chair to Blake Edwards. After consulting with Sellers, Edwards had a lightbulb moment. The lead character was already a French investigator (in this case, “examining magistrate” Paul Sevigne), so it was not a huge leap to turn the character into…Inspector Jacques Clouseau. 

Edwards and co-writer William Peter Blatty (future writer of The Exorcist) took five weeks and re-wrote the script. They kept the title and basic plot, bumped up the comedy and toned down the mystery. While the re-writes were occurring, Loren left the project, replaced by Elke Sommer. Matthau discovered his award-winning stage role had been cut to almost nothing in the film version and also left, replaced by George Sanders. 


Elke Sommer as Maria Gambrelli

Filming started on A Shot in the Dark in November of 1963, exactly one year after its predecessor, which was still unreleased.

The prologue shows off Edwards’ technical prowess — his camera fluidly glides around the courtyard, balconies, and staircases of a country estate in the middle of the night in a sequence that would make Hitchcock proud, following various members of the household in their pajamas and dressing gowns as they slip in and out of each others’ rooms for illicit assignations. It is clearly supposed to be set in France, as the background music is a Gallic accordion and a French-accented singer (Fran Jeffries again) crooning the Mancini-penned “Shadows of Paris.” 

We linger on what seems to be a pair of servants (the maid and chauffeur as it turns out), there is a shadowy altercation, gunshots ring out…

Compared to the complex machinations of The Pink Panther, the plot of A Shot in the Dark is pure simplicity: A murder occurs at a French chateau. The investigating officer falls in love (or at least lust) with the beautiful main suspect, the maid Maria Gambrelli, and tries his hardest to convince everyone she didn’t do it, when the overwhelming evidence says she did. As the investigation unfolds, more people die, and with each murder, Maria seems more obviously culpable. 


Henry Mancini contributes another great instrumental theme song and we get another round of animated opening credits. No Pink Panther this time, obviously, but we’re introduced to a new character who would be spun off into his own series of theatrical shorts (1965-69), “The Inspector” (unnamed in the cartoons but clearly based on Clouseau, and voiced by Pat Harrington.) The Shot in the Dark main theme is now known as “The Inspector Theme.”


The stunning colors, costumes, and Alpine locations of Pink Panther are toned down to the more muted hues of a murder mystery on a country estate, and the drab offices of police headquarters, but in every other respect, A Shot in the Dark is a better film by far. Not only is the dialogue as written actually funny, but Sellers’ deadpan delivery hits it out of the park. Clouseau is note-perfect here. The accent has grown slightly more bizarre (“bump” comes out “be-ump”), and the character is a little zanier and more fun to watch than the frustrated husband of the first film, but not yet the brain-dead cartoon he would become in the later sequels.

As for the physical comedy, I wouldn’t exactly call it deft (subtlety seems quite beyond Edwards in this department), but it’s a little less cringey.


Herbert Lom as Chief Inspector Dreyfus

A Shot in the Dark introduces two key characters to the series. Herbert Lom is Clouseau’s boss, Chief Inspector Dreyfus, whose hatred of Clouseau drives him literally insane. When we first meet Dreyfus, he is the capable commandant, nattily dressed and purring into the phone in Lom’s trademark velvety tones. As Clouseau-related disasters pile up, he develops a tremor in his hands and an increasingly manic tic in his eye. By the end of the film, he’s a howling madman. Then there’s Burt Kwouk as Cato, the bachelor Clouseau’s loyal valet (Mrs. Clouseau is long-gone), who has been instructed to viciously attack his employer when he least expects it to better keep him alert and aware. Cato is a little too good at this aspect of his job. 


Burt Kwouk as Cato, just doing what’s been asked of him

There’s also the great Graham Stark (a veteran of old-school British comedy films) as Clouseau’s long-suffering assistant inspector, Hercule. Stark will appear in each of the subsequent Panther films, but as different characters.

The film does hit a slow patch (including another damn song-and-dance number) before the big reveal of who-done-it, but overall, A Shot in the Dark is fine entertainment, a quality example of wonderfully dark comedy compared to the empty glitz of The Pink Panther.


Clouseau and Hercule (Graham Stark) work through the details of the case

While A Shot in the Dark was still in production, the cerebral and wickedly satirical Dr. Strangelove was unleashed on the movie-going public. People began using the words “genius” and “Sellers” in the same breath. A couple months later, The Pink Panther charmed the pants off mainstream audiences from Seattle to Miami, and around the world. Sellers was a superstar. His legion of fans did not have long to wait for more Clouseau — the minty-fresh A Shot in the Dark was rushed into theaters on June 23, 1964, just over three months after The Pink Panther. 

By then, the worldwide public was very aware that Peter Sellers was a sick man — at least physically. What they didn’t know is he was mentally sick as well. And getting sicker.

The warning signs were there during the Shot in the Dark shoot. Sellers had always been moody and had frequent fits of temper. He was by nature jealous, selfish, and egotistical — the same could be said of many talented popular entertainers (Sinatra, anyone?). But his erratic behavior got more extreme during the fall of 1963. He would frequently break down in tears for no reason. He would disappear from the set, sometimes for days at a time. His unreasonable acting-out caused him and Edwards (no stranger to his own bouts of self-destructiveness) to be at each other’s throats by the end of production.

As production on Dark wrapped, Sellers impulsively married 21-year-old Swedish bombshell Britt Ekland after knowing her for ten days. His first post-Dark project was supposed to be Kiss Me, Stupid, co-starring Dean Martin and written and directed by the venerated Billy Wilder. In its first few weeks of shooting in Los Angeles, Wilder was driven to fury by Sellers’ weird, narcissistic antics, and grew to loathe his very presence — to the point he was actually relieved on the increasing number of days Sellers didn’t show up at all. 


Then came April 6-7, 1964.

Sellers spent an exhausting Sunday, April 5 at Disneyland with his kids from his first marriage. Sometime after midnight, gearing up for a night of robust romance with his new bride in their rented Beverly Hills mansion, the diet pill-abusing, three-pack-a-day smoker Sellers took a large amount of amyl nitrate (“poppers”). He collapsed with shooting pains in his chest and arms. A doctor was summoned, diagnosed a “mild myocardial infarction,” gave Sellers a sedative, and instructed him to check into a hospital as soon as he could. Happy to avoid Wilder and the hostile Kiss Me set, Sellers checked himself into a private room Cedars of Lebanon hospital, and was resting comfortably through that Monday.

At 4:32 am on Tuesday, April 7, Sellers went into severe cardiac arrest, the first of eight heart attacks that would rip through him over the next several hours. The wire services wrote his obituary, dated April 7 and leaving a blank for the time of day. (Billy Wilder acidly remarked “To have a heart attack, you have to have a heart.” Kiss Me, Stupid was completed with Ray Walston in Sellers’ role.)

For someone who had essentially died and was zapped back to life eight times, Sellers made a quick recovery. A pacemaker was installed, and he left the hospital after a month-long stay. A Shot in the Dark was released to great success while he was recuperating at home.

Peter Sellers recouping from his heart attack 1965 © 1978 Chester Maydole

By the end of the year, he had his full energy back and was manically flailing around in a goofy wig as an insane psychiatrist in his next feature film, another bedroom farce titled What’s New, Pussycat? It co-starred Peter O’Toole (who would have made an excellent Phantom, by the way) and was written by Woody Allen (his first screenplay). Pussycat came out in the swinging summer of 1965, boosted by Tom Jones’ brassy theme song.

But in the fifteen years of borrowed time Sellers’ scarred and severely diseased heart would grant him, he was never really the same. 

To Be Continued…

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