Car restorer son of Peter Sellers
Monday 07 August 2006
Michael Peter Anthony Sellers, builder, car restorer and writer: born 2 April 1954; twice married (one son, one daughter); died Oxford 24 July 2006.
Michael Sellers had, as he put it himself, a hard act to follow, but he managed it with singular grace. He lived with his heritage as the only son of Peter Sellers without either repudiating or exploiting it. Talking openly - often painfully so - in interviews about growing up with the volatile actor, he refused to express either bitterness or anger: "I loved Dad, but it was always too difficult to know how much Dad loved in return," was one of his most quoted, and most poignant, comments.
The son of Peter Sellers's first, 10-year marriage to Anne Howe, a former actress whom Peter met while she was a student at Rada, Michael was born in 1954, when his father's career was well on the ascendant. The Goon Show - launched three years earlier - was a growing cult success, soon to be followed by eye-catching roles in films like I'm All Right Jack (1959) and peaking in the Sixties with Dr Strangelove (1964) and the Pink Panther movies which made Peter Sellers an international star.
Michael's childhood, as he described it, appeared enviably glamorous, a giddy round of swimming parties with Princess Margaret, holidays in Sardinia with the Aga Khan, weekends in Paris and dinners with Warren Beatty and Jack Nicholson. But the flip side was his father's terrible mood swings. In one story, Michael recalled how he helpfully touched up a scratch on his father's brand new Bentley - and, as a reward for the innocent gesture, was thrashed with a belt and had his toys confiscated. He was five at the time.
A couple of years later, his parents' marriage had deteriorated to the point when his father would wake Michael in the night to ask him if he should divorce, or demand that he choose which parent he liked best, then fly into a rage when the little boy answered, not unreasonably, "Mummy". A child psychiatrist concluded, "Michael is an insecure child" - something of an understatement.
After his parents separated in 1961, Sellers got on excellently with his father's second wife, Britt Ekland, and with Anne's new husband, Ted Levy, a South African architect whom she had met while he was working on Peter Sellers's flat and with whom she had a long and happy marriage. But father-son relations remained tempestuous until Michael got married himself at the age of 26.
Peter had cautioned against the union but, as his son remarked drily, "Well, would you have taken marital counsel from a man with his track record?" Still, when Michael's wife left him for another man after six weeks of marriage, Peter invited Michael to spend a few days at his chalet in Gstaad, when they became perhaps closer than they had ever been. Five months later, Peter Sellers was dead.
Although the two men had parted on good terms, it emerged that Peter Sellers had left the bulk of his £4m estate to his fourth wife, Lynne Frederick, while Michael and his two younger sisters, Sarah and Victoria, received only £800 each. "If I hadn't needed the money so much at the time I'd have framed the cheque and stuck it on my toilet wall," Michael remembered later, which suggests that he had certainly inherited one thing from his father: a sharp sense of humour.
Michael Sellers remarried and went on to have two children with his second wife, Alison, a teacher. He had resisted Peter's ambitions for him to follow him into showbusiness and to become a film director, working instead as a restorer of classic cars and as a builder. But he did express creative urges by playing in a rock band and by publishing several books about his father, P.S. I Love You (1982), A Hard Act to Follow (with Gary Morecambe, 1996) and Sellers on Sellers (2000).
I interviewed Michael Sellers when a film about his father, The Life and Death of Peter Sellers, came out two years ago. Everyone had confidently expected him to damn it. After all, the rambling 1994 biography by Roger Lewis on which it was based had portrayed the star as monstrous and egotistical. Michael had previously described the book as "800 pages of unintelligible rubbish . . . It was an exercise in showing Roger Lewis's intellectual buddies how verbose he is. It wasn't written for the public who went to see [my father]." This pithy opinion was, incidentally, shared by a number of reviewers.
Michael Sellers had also made no secret of his displeasure at not being consulted by the film-makers (though some claimed it was he who had refused to co-operate with the project). The scene was set, therefore, for a very juicy public spat.
But his reaction to the movie was unexpected. He cited a number of inaccuracies, some minor, some substantial, and regretted that, as so often, it seemed "to dwell on the dark side". He added,
Anyone who know him would say, "Yes he was that tormented man but at the same time he was a very funny, loving guy as well." He was like his characters, never constant.
Michael Sellers admitted to being surprised at the choice of the Australian actor Geoffrey Rush to play his father - "Frankly I always thought whoever it was would be on a loser" - but told me he admired Rush's performance and found the resemblance at moments uncanny. I asked if he would recommend the film, despite having had nothing to do with it, and he answered that he would. "We [the family] are as independent as they kept themselves from us," he concluded, laughing. Measured, generous and honest, his assessment was, on reflection, entirely characteristic.
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