HE NEVER CONSIDERED himself "a real star," nor did he think that "comedian" was a fitting description -- but Peter Sellers, the enormously gifted character actor, was easily both. Mr. Sellers, who died Wednesday in London at the age of 54 after battling a series of heart attacks over the years, was always uncertain about his talent and professional standing. But if this self-doubt was what inspired his genius for dialect, impersonation, humor and dramatic creation, it produced brilliant illusions on the screen: dozens of memorable characters -- somtimes several in the same movie -- who were not Peter Sellers, but individual people with their own voices, personalities and appeal.
So distinct were these people that the characters, rather than their creator, seemed to get the blame for a rough interval of cinematic turkeys during the early 1970s. Just as those characters shielded Mr. Sellers from public displeasure, others played won hearts and memories: the pompous, klunky and lovable Inspector Clouseau; the stuffy union official in "I'm All Right, Jack"; in an acting tour de force, the British officer, the meek American president and the mad rocket scientist in "Dr. Strangelove"; the deceiver Clare Quilty in "Lolita"; or Chauncey Gardner, the simpleton caretaker who is "discovered" as a political guru.
"I haven't a clue who Peter Sellers is," he once remarked. "As far as I am aware, I'm nothing. I have no personality of my own. . . . I have no character to offer the public." This was a running theme through countless interviews -- or attempts at interviews, really -- but with each impressive performance it convinced fewer people. That Peter Sellers the personality will no longer create new characters is difficult to accept; but there is joy in the prospect that the huge cast that he did create will live on to regale generations.