By Amy Helmes
Special to TelevisionWeek
When director Stephen Hopkins first read the script for the HBO biopic “The Life and Death of Peter Sellers,” he thought it was a miracle the movie was even being made, he said.
“I’m a huge Peter Sellers fan, but it’s a hard sell,” Mr. Hopkins said. “He’s a complicated guy.”
Mr. Sellers was so complicated, in fact, that Mr. Hopkins and executive producer Freddy DeMann had a tough time convincing their first choice for the title role – Geoffrey Rush – to take the part.
Playing a real person is considered difficult in general, and it’s something Mr. Rush has done several times before-he even won an Academy Award for his portrayal of pianist David Helfgott in “Shine.” But with the Sellers role, Mr. Rush faced the additional challenge of handling the catalog of diverse personas Mr. Sellers created throughout his 30-year showbiz career, including the central “Pink Panther” character Inspector Clouseau and his “Dr. Strangelove” alter egos.
“I sort of seduced [Mr. Rush] and lied and did all those things to get him involved,” Mr. Hopkins said.
Mr. Sellers was known to have quipped that any film about his life would be a dull one. Still, noted Mr. Hopkins, “We all tried to pretend to ourselves that he was directing this movie from beyond the grave.”
To reveal Mr. Sellers’ erratic, self-destructive behavior and identity crises, Mr. Rush was the film’s chameleon, occasionally playing the other “characters” in Mr. Sellers’ life. At times throughout the movie he appeared in snippets as Mr. Sellers’ parents and first wife, Anne (played otherwise by Emily Watson). “It was a device we used since [Mr. Sellers] was so controlling over how he would have wanted his story told,” Mr. DeMann said.
Other cast members included Charlize Theron as Mr. Sellers’ second wife, Britt Ekland; John Lithgow as director Blake Edwards; and Stanley Tucci as director Stanley Kubrick.
Gleaning research from myriad sources, including the Sellers biography by Roger Lewis, Mr. Hopkins opted not to rely on too much direct input from those who were actually depicted in the film. “To go around and ask everyone who’d been there for their opinion would have killed the script,” he said.
Only after the initial screening for Sellers’ family and acquaintances was feedback welcomed. “It was interesting to have people in different spheres of his life view the film. His family, for instance, thought we nailed the character and thought we were too kind, in some ways,” Mr. Hopkins said. “I spoke to other people, like Roman Polanski or Mick Jagger, who said, ‘We don’t know the guy in that film at all.'”
The film debuted in competition at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, and though it had a cinematic release outside of the U.S., was thought better suited to run on television in the States. “HBO in America pointed out something that is a little sad, but I think, true, which is that there are so few art houses in America that to lose the chance to have it shown exclusively on TV would be a pity,” Mr. Hopkins said.
Since HBO aired the movie in December the film has earned two Golden Globe awards (one for best television miniseries and one for best actor). Mr. DeMann is hopeful for the film’s Emmy chances, as well.
“Everyone in the business has a certain attachment to that word ‘biopic,’ but if you think about it, biopics have been some of the most successful movies,” Mr. DeMann said. “‘A Beautiful Mind’ was a biopic. ‘Amadeus’ was a biopic. People like biopics!”
Others to Consider
2004 Made-for-TV Movie Contenders
Winner: Something the Lord Made (HBO)
Other nominees: And Starring Pancho Villa as Himself (HBO); Ike: Countdown to
D-Day (A&E); The Lion in Winter (Showtime); The Reagans (Showtime)