Producer: Paul Iacovou Director: Peter Medak Cast: Peter Medak, Simon van der Borgh, Norma Farnes, Deke Heyward, Susan Wood, John Heyman, John Goldstone, David Korda, Ruth Myers, Piers Haggard, Joe McGrath, Joe Dunne, Costas Evagorou, Murray Melvin, Clive Revill, Costas Demetriou, Tony Greenburch, Robert Wagner, Victoria Sellers, Sanford Lieberson, Maggie Abbott, Rita Franciosa, Antony Rufus Isaacs, Danton Rissner, Denis Fraser, Michael Stevenson, Rita Thiel, Kostas Dimitriou, Robin Dalton, Tony Christodoulou, Lorenzo Berni, Rene Borisewitz, Tony Greenberg and Susan Wood Distributor: 1091 Media
Imagine a car crash that leaves a survivor still nursing his wounds many decades later and given the opportunity to vent his spleen against the driver he blames for the accident, enrolling as many witnesses as he can find to support his point of view about what happened. Then transfer that scenario to cinematic terms, and you’ll have some idea of “The Ghost of Peter Sellers,” Peter Medak’s long-simmering diatribe against the star whose sabotaging of the film the then-young director was making with him was a catastrophe that he believes wrecked his promising career.
To set the stage: by 1973 Peter Sellers was recognized as a comic genius—his achievements on radio’s “Goon Show” and in films with the Boultings, Stanley Kubrick and Blake Edwards in the fifties and sixties had proven his inspired talent. But it was also recognized that he was a psychologically fragile man, and one difficult to work with. (In an archival clip here Sellers disputes the latter charge, arguing that he made trouble only in response to mediocrity.)
Moreover, his career was in a terrible slump. The starring vehicles he’d made since 1964’s “A Shot in the Dark”—his second outing as Inspector Clouseau—had mostly been critically panned box-office disappointments, and by the early seventies he’d been reduced to making pictures that were barely released and hardly seen.
His health was also precarious ever since he’d suffered a near-fatal heart attack while filming Billy Wilder’s “Kiss Me, Stupid” in early 1964—a film from which he’d had to withdraw.(It turned out to be a bomb anyway.)
Still he was considered bankable to some extent, and agreed to make “The Ghost in the Noonday Sun,” a comedy based on a well-received 1965 children’s book by Sid Fleischman in which he’d play a dissolute pirate searching for his dead captain’s buried treasure—an early version of Jack Sparrow, you might say. He actually chose Medak, a Hungarian refugee just off the major success of his third film “The Ruling Class,” to direct, and although Medak was concerned about the state of the script (which he became convinced Sellers had never even read), blinded by the chance to work with the celebrated star, he agreed.
The result was a disaster. The shoot, much of it aboard a refurbished boat roiling around the Aegean off the coast of Cyprus, was in itself well-nigh technically impossible, but what made the filming truly horrible, in the recollection of Medak and the collaborators he assembles to add their comments and nods of agreement, was Sellers. The actor arrived in deep depression from the collapse of his affair with Liza Minnelli, and almost immediately began to try to have members of the crew, even the producers, fired. He quickly turned on Medak, and would eventually try to have him cashiered too. He feuded with his co-star Anthony Franciosa and ultimately refused to appear in the same frame with him, forcing Medak to shoot some sequences—like a duel between the two men—in almost surreal fashion.
Sellers was, moreover, habitually late, and then some: on one occasion he faked a heart attack to fly back to England for dinner with Princess Margaret. And in time he demanded that his old colleague from the Goons, Spike Milligan, be brought in to rewrite the script and co-star. The result was even greater chaos, in the course of which a rift developed between the two comic stars when Milligan sided—to some extent, at least—with Medak. In an attempt to reach an accommodation with Sellers, Medak agreed to direct him and Milligan in a commercial for Benson & Hedges cigarettes—an episode that he relates, with some hilarious footage, ruefully.
The studio that had backed the film declined to release it when a cut was presented to them, arguing that it was it was unfinished because some scenes hadn’t been filmed, and it sat on the shelf for a decade, finally being issued on VHS to reviews that were, to put it mildly, negative. (The extensive clips included here prove that the opprobrium was well deserved.) Sellers, of course, had gone on to revitalize his career when he reteamed with Blake Edwards for “The Return of the Pink Panther” in 1975, and with his penultimate film, “Being There,” he achieved enormous critical success once more.
As for Medak, he has obviously harbored resentment over the experience for nearly half a century. Although he has amassed a substantial filmography (including a good many television programs), he says he was traumatized by the experience, which only further damaged his psychological well-being (as a Jewish child in Hungary, he’d had to pose as a Christian during World War II, and shortly before the shoot his wife had committed suicide). He couldn’t quit the project, because he needed the money he was earning, and moreover felt a responsibility to finish the film precisely because he’d been hired to deliver one. And he knew that whatever happened, he’d be blamed.
So he endured what he calls a sixty-seven-day nightmare, which ended with a wrap party to which, he recalls, nobody came but a couple of drunken crew members from another movie. He claims that the effect on him was profound: he left several projects, he says, simply because he was afraid he wouldn’t be able to deal with the pressure. For him, making “The Ghost of Peter Sellers”—the man who has haunted him all these years—was obviously therapeutic. He’s especially moved by his interview with John Heyman, the producer who threatened to replace him in 1973 and now urges him to move on as the rest of them have: those words from a man he hadn’t seen since the original shoot seem to liberate him.
The documentary—nicely shot by Christopher Sharman and, though it tends to ramble, smoothly edited by Joby Gee and David Hands—has also been honestly made. We occasionally see Medak setting up the shots to present himself, and the colleagues from both the original film and this one (as well as others who suffered Sellers’ mistreatment on different projects), in the best light, italicizing that the result is his personal perspective.
And as traumatic as his experience with the actor might have been, Medak still appreciates having been able to work with him, saying that despite wanting to Sellers him at times, he still loves him and considers him to have been a genius. He describes almost wistfully his last meeting with the other Peter, who by then was insisting that he and Medak had stood together against an army of enemies during the Aegean disaster and even suggested that they should buy their film back and recut it. The expression of his feelings on learning that the actor died in 1980 has a double edge to do it, of both sadness and anger.
“The Ghost of Peter Sellers” is many things: an account of a classic cinematic disaster, a combination of apologia, excoriation and confessional, a remembrance of an incredible talent that was, unhappily, joined to a boundless ego and a fragile psyche. Especially for film buffs, it will certainly be fascinating, but also strangely moving in what it reveals about both Sellers and Medak.