In the summer of 1980 I worked and travelled around the USA. At one point I reached Salt Lake City, where I decided to stop over for a night in order to experience the slightly bizarre cultural motifs of the Mormon city. I checked into a cheap and shabby downtown hotel, which had enough amenities to make life comfortable, had a bath and decided to go see what SLC had to offer.
This being early afternoon, I decided to eat out later but began by locating a small cinema in order to see the latest film by one of my heroes, Peter Sellers. Having been a lover of the Pink Panther series, the Goons, Dr Strangelove and many other Sellers guises, I had heard many good things about Being There; I knew it was a film I had to see.
I was not disappointed: this was arguably the apogee of Sellers’ career – an intelligent performance, beautifully subtle and quite unlike his Clouseau persona. Sellers played the unlikely rise to fame and power of Chance the dimwit gardener with just the right mix of bewilderment and sincerity, it seems remarkable in hindsight that he did not win a richly deserved Oscar for that role.
Awestruck, I walked out of the cinema, then immediately saw a news stand. I bought a local evening paper and unfolded it. There on the front page was a blazing headline:
“Peter Sellers dies aged 54.”
It was a staggering coincidence, one I have never forgotten. Now can’t see Sellers without thinking of Salt Lake City… but also what roles me may have performed, had he lived another 20 years or more. Indeed, you wonder what he could have gone on to perform, had he taken to more serious acting rather than stupid roles like Fu Manchu, his final performance.
A truly great and tragic talent who died way, way too young. RIP.