The Lost Roles of Peter Sellers
Lost Roles is a weekly column exploring “what might have been” in movie and TV comedy as we take a different actor, writer, or comedian each week and examine the parts they turned down, wanted but didn’t get, and the projects that fell apart altogether. This week, we turn our attention to Peter Sellers, regarded as one of the greatest comedic actors that ever was. Renowned for his chameleonic abilities, Sellers proved capable of disappearing into a wide array of characters, from bumbling French detectives to sinister German scientists. Let’s take a look at some of the parts Peter Sellers almost played but didn’t, including Charlie Chaplin, Willy Wonka, and two parts for Mel Brooks.
Dr. Strangelove (1964)
The role: Major T.J. Kong
Who got it: Slim Pickens
Peter Sellers played three roles in Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove – British officer Lionel Mandrake, U.S. President Merkin Muffley, and ex-Nazi nuke expert Dr. Strangelove – but he was supposed to play a fourth role: Major T.J. Kong. Sellers was reluctant to portray a character with such a thick Texan accent, but writer Terry Southern, a Texan himself, coached Sellers through it. As soon as Sellers became comfortable with taking on the role, he ended up spraining his ankle, making it impossible for him to fit into the cramped cockpit sets that the role would require.
Inspector Clousseau (1968)
The role: Inspector Jacques Clousseau
Who got it: Alan Arkin
Peter Sellers and director Blake Edwards both refused to participate in this Pink Panther movie. They were both busy making The Party together, but the studio went ahead anyway and slid Alan Arkin into Sellers’s place. Sure, it doesn’t seem like such a big deal now, after Steve Martin played Inspector Clousseau twice and Robert Benigni played Clousseau’s son in his own movie, but replacing Sellers during the era in which he played the character was a total slap in the face. Sellers and Edwards didn’t return to the character until seven years later with The Return of the Pink Panther.
The Producers (1968)
The role: Max Bloom
Who got it: Gene Wilder
Peter Sellers expressed interest in the part of Max Bloom in Mel Brooks’s first movie but didn’t end up playing it. When the movie came out, Sellers took out a full-page ad in the paper endorsing the film. Here’s Mel Brooks talking about it:
“Peter Sellers was a champion of The Producers and he nearly ruined it. It was about to open in England, and he took out a double-page ad in the Sunday Times that said, ‘This is the funniest and the best picture ever made.’ The critics said, ‘Hmm, we’ll be the judges of that, thank you.’ So I got good and bad reviews because they decided that they would judge it for themselves and not just take Peter Sellers’ word for it.”
The Twelve Chairs (1970)
The role: Father Fyodor
Who got it: Dom DeLuise
According to Dom DeLuise, Sellers was supposed to play his part in Mel Brooks’s second movie but dropped out. DeLuise took his place, leading to many future collaborations with Brooks.
Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971)
The role: Willy Wonka
Who got it: Gene Wilder
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory author Roald Dahl wanted Peter Sellers or his Goon Show cohort Spike Milligan to play eccentric candyman Willy Wonka in the big-screen adaptation of the story, according to the Dahl biography Storyteller. Sellers had called Dahl personally to beg the part and Milligan shaved off his beard to audition, but the producers went with Gene Wilder instead. Roald Dahl was so upset that he considered disassociating himself with the movie and “campaigning against it on TV and magazines in the US.”
The role: The Specialist
Who got it: Jack Nicholson
According to the Jack Nicholson biography Five Easy Decades, director Ken Russell considered Peter Sellers for the part of the doctor in his movie version of The Who’s rock opera Tommy until he found out Jack Nicholson was in town and hired him instead.
The role: George Webber
Who got it: Dudley Moore
“I turned down the lead role many, many times. I just didn’t feel I was right for the part,” said Sellers about his frequent collaborator Blake Edwards’s movie 10. Fellow Brit Dudley Moore took the role as a songwriter having a mid-life crisis, which does seem like it’s a little outside of Sellers’s wheelhouse, what with it just being a regular guy and not being a broad character role.
The role: Michael Dorsey
Who got it: Dustin Hoffman
In the mid-70s, when Tootsie was originally called Would I Lie to You?, the lead part of a struggling male actor who disguises himself as a lady to win a soap opera part was offered to both Peter Sellers and Michael Caine before going to Dustin Hoffman years later.
The role: Charles Chaplin
Who got it: Robert Downey Jr.
Peter Sellers was supposed to, at one point, star in a biopic of silent era comedian Charlie Chaplin, according to Sellers’s biography The Life and Death of Peter Sellers. Things never came together with the Sellers/Chaplin movie, and director Richard Attenborough ended up casting Robert Downey Jr. in the role decades later.