Movie junkies, rejoice. Director Peter Medak has made an instructive and nightmarishly funny documentary about how actor Peter Sellers drove him crazy and nearly trashed his career. The Ghost of Peter Sellers (now available on demand) recounts the filming of Ghost in the Noonday Sun, a 1973 pirate-epic folly so riven by fits, fights and clashing egos that its producers decided never to release it. “We all just wanted to kill ourselves,” said Medak after the film’s first screening.
On Cyrus, where this 17th-century adventure was shot, disaster was in the air from Day One, thanks to a drunk captain who steered the three-mast ship being used in the film onto the rocks. Medak, then a 35-year-old refugee from communist Hungary, had enjoyed critical raves for Negatives, A Day in the Death of Joe Egg and The Ruling Class with an Oscar-nominated Peter O’Toole, and his friendship with Sellers had made him aware the actor’s eccentricities. But nothing prepared Medak for the mercurial mass of insecurities who showed up on set, reeling from his breakup with Cabaret star Liza Minnelli. On screen, Sellers was set to play a murdering Irish cook-turned-pirate who can’t remember where he buried his treasure. Offscreen, the 47-year-old comedian behind the bumbling, beloved Inspector Clouseau had turned into a tyrant.
Shooting at sea was a challenge for Medak, but nothing compared to filming with the Dr. Strangelove star, who refused to act with costar Anthony Franciosa after some perceived slight. He kept threatening to fire Medak, threw tantrums about a script he hadn’t even bothered to read, and proved to be an expert for sniffing out oncoming catastrophe. Despite the fact that his Goon Show buddy Spike Milligan was acting with him and helping to rewrite the script, Sellers would show up late on set or not at all. Though photos revealed him dining in London with former love Princess Margaret, Sellers infuriated the crew of Ghosts of the Noonday Sun by claiming he’d suffered a heart attack. (Ironically, it was a massive coronary that would kill him in 1980 at the age of 54.)
It’s a chronicle of vintage narcissistic Hollywood madness, and the lumps it takes here feel deserved and infuriatingly timeless. In a series of interviews with witnesses to the torturous 67 day shoot — including producer John Heyman, Sellers personal assistant Susan Wood and his daughter Victoria — a riveting portrait emerges of chaos unbound, some of it darkly comical. Sadly, none of the hilarity made it to the screen. Clips from the film indicate a leaden farce that deserved to sink like a stone. It’s Medak who brings the proceedings a touching gravity by taking the film’s failure so personally. The director, now 82, survived the Nazi occupation during World War II, but Sellers torments him to this day. “My career was nearly completely destroyed by this movie,” says Medak. It wasn’t — just witness his subsequent work on film (The Krays, Romeo Is Bleeding, The Changeling) and TV (The Wire, House, Breaking Bad). But there’s no doubt that the ghost of Sellers still haunts him. You’re never sure whether this bruising doc is an exorcism or a nod toward forgiveness. Most likely, it’s both.