The Ghost of Peter Sellers (2020)

Actors, from left, Peter Sellers, Peter Medak and Spike Milligan in a scene from the documentary “The Ghost of Peter Sellers.”

In 1973, Hungarian director Peter Medak ran into an old friend, actor Peter Sellers, while strolling down King’s Road in London’s West End. Sellers, already had two Pink Panther films under his belt as well as Stanley Kubrick’s “Dr. Strangelove Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.”

Medak was riding the success of his 1972 film, “The Ruling Class” starring Peter O’Toole who received an Academy Award nomination for his performance. The director’s debut film, “Negatives” with Glenda Jackson, also received critical acclaim as did “A Day in The Death of Joe Egg” starring Alan Bates. So, after a few British hits, Hollywood came calling. “Death Wish” would have been Medak’s big studio break but it fell through after he insisted Henry Fonda play the lead. The studio rejected the idea and the role was later made famous by Charles Bronson.

It seemed as fate had brought Medak and Sellers together, an actor without a director and a director without a film. The two teamed up for the pirate comedy “Ghost in the Noonday Sun” which almost derailed Medak’s career. Everything went wrong that could have gone wrong. The script suffered rewrites by Sellers and his costar Spike Milligan, shooting on the water was a nightmare, and Sellers became very difficult to work with. The film was so bad that Columbia Pictures never released it. Eventually a bad copy made it on to VHS in the early 80s.

Medak’s career survived “Noonday” and he went on to direct the frightening horror film “The Changeling” starring George C. Scott, the gangster drama “The Krays,” the British drama “Let Him Have It,” and the cult classic “Romeo is Bleeding” with Gary Oldman and Lena Olin. He also directed an episode of “Breaking Bad” from Season 2.

“The Ghost of Peter Sellers” is the new documentary directed by Medak, who has decided to open old wounds and discuss the film that almost ruined his career 47 years ago. The fascinating film features newly restored footage of “Noonday,” interviews with various actors, filmmakers, and those associated with the project, plus candid footage of Sellers, whose presence is felt throughout the documentary 40 years after his death.

I spoke with Medak about the doomed film, his friendship with Sellers, and returning to Cypress where “Noonday” was shot, for the first time in over four decades. At 82, the Hungarian-born film director holds no grudges. He considers Peter Sellers a magical actor and one gets the feeling that the experience of working together was worth risking it all.

Q: You’ve had so many film successes, why did you decide to revisit a painful part of your career and tell this story?

A. Because I love Peter even though he passed away so many years ago, and Spike Milligan, and to keep the memories alive. It was very important. Sometimes I go and speak at film schools or events and ask the younger generation and talk about Peter Sellers and there’s a terrible blank in people’s minds not just about Peter but about George C. Scott or Alan Bates, they have no knowledge. Their knowledge goes back 10 years.

Q: Peter Sellers was such a comic genius. I grew up watching his movies and to this date there’s no one that’s been able to master that kind of comedic genius.

A: Absolutely, but genius creates a very schizophrenic strange mindset to be able to be that performer, to create those roles, and to hide behind makeup to avoid his real being. According to Peter who was a really great friend, “Being There” was one of his favorite movies where he played Chauncey Gardiner, because he played himself. And it’s probably the first time he played himself in a movie.

Q: Chauncey Gardiner was such a quiet, reserved, individual. Are you saying that’s what Peter Sellers was like in real life?

A: Yes, very much so. I was trying to put it in the documentary. There’s a wonderful interview with Jerzy (“Being There” author Jerzy Kosinski) about “Being There” where he says Peter was playing himself. He wasn’t acting. It was him. I didn’t put in the film because I was persuaded by my editor to leave it out because it had nothing to do with the documentary. Peter was just a magical instrument of comedy.

Q: When you agreed to make “The Ghost in the Noonday Sun” after bumping into Peter Sellers at King’s Road, was it common knowledge that Sellers was a difficult actor to work with?

A: Yes, of course it was, absolutely. But he was a friend and I thought I can manage him because we knew each other so well. One day he came over to my apartment in Kensington and I opened the door and he was standing there with a 16mm projector and a screen and he said “Darling, you’ve got to see this movie.” It was “The Producers” by Mel Brooks. We were just rolling around on the floor watching this movie. We were friends.

Q: About the problems with Peter Sellers on the set of “Noonday.”

A: “Peter for Christ’s sake, what are you doing to me?” “Don’t do this.” He wasn’t aware of what he was actually doing to me and to anybody else, to the other actors on other movies, and to other directors. It was completely unconscious. After some of my worst days with him on the set, two days later he didn’t remember it. He’d say, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Q: What did it feel like to revisit Cypress and all these beautiful locations that held painful memories for you? Was going back a form of closure?

A: It’s always very scary to go back to the place where you shot a movie which made a deep, deep, deep, impression in your life. It was a closure because it’s something you closed up in your mind for so many years even though you talked about it with writer friends that you worked with on other projects. You start telling these antidotes about working with Peter Sellers. It was an incredible moment when I landed in Cypress after 47 years. The structure, everything is there but that moment is gone. It looks the same, but it creates an incredible feeling of being a ghost. I’m a very emotional person and it felt like the ghosts of Peter and Spike were there with me. And that’s why I say at one point that I can hear them laughing their heads off as they say “What is this crazy Hungarian doing again?”

Q: I also wanted to mention that I’m a fan of “Romeo is Bleeding” and “The Changeling.” I think “The Changeling” is one of the scariest movies ever made and George C. Scott is terrific.

A: He was magic. And again, George had a very difficult reputation which I knew about. To my amazement he was just the easiest actor to work with of my whole career. George was magic, absolute magic. Doing “The Changeling” with George was one of the highlights of my whole career as “The Ruling Class” was and “Romeo is Bleeding.” I love ghost stories and I cannot semi-believe in ghosts. I guess that’s why I called the documentary “The Ghost of Peter Sellers” because I’m talking about the past, I’m talking about Peter, tragically he’s not alive anymore and I think it’s a wonderful title for the film.

Q: You’ve worked with all these terrific actors Peter Sellers, Peter O Toole, Glenda Jackson, Gary Oldman, Lena Olin, Bryan Cranston, reflecting on your career, which piece of work would you use to introduce yourself to this generation?

A: Oh my God. That’s such a difficult question. There isn’t one. It’s like asking a father of 17 children, “Which one did you love the most?” My favorite really is “Negatives” my first movie with Glenda Jackson who was magic.

Joe Friar is a member of the Critics Choice Association (Los Angeles) and the Houston Film Critics Society. A lifelong fan of cinema, he co-founded the Victoria Film Society, Frels Fright Fest, and is a Rotten Tomatoes approved critic.

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Joe Friar is a member of the Critics Choice Association (Los Angeles) and the Houston Film Critics Society. A lifelong fan of cinema, he co-founded the Victoria Film Society, Frels Fright Fest, and is a Rotten Tomatoes approved critic.

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