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Dr. Strangelove (1964), director Stanley Kubrick's brilliant satire on sex, politics, nuclear Armageddon and the military industrial complex, is also a cornucopia of outrageous comic performances, not the least of which were the three roles portrayed by Peter Sellers. But believe it or not, Kubrick did not originally envision the film as either a black comedy or as a starring vehicle for Peter Sellers. In fact, Sellers came into the production in a very fortuitous manner. During the casting phase, Stanley Kubrick and his producing partner, James B. Harris, amicably broke up their partnership, over issues of the tone of the film and Harris' own ambitions to direct. Because of the dissolution of their partnership, Seven Arts Productions, a British production studio, refused to finance any more Stanley Kubrick pictures without the steadying influence of James B. Harris. Thus, Kubrick had to find other financial resources that would fund a production that would ultimately cost around $2 million. The project, still under the working title of Two Hours to Doom, finally found a permanent home at Columbia Studios, but not without some major restrictions in casting choice. This led to the addition of Peter Sellers to the cast, since Columbia was convinced that he was the reason why Kubrick's previous film, Lolita (1962), was a success in Europe. They insisted that not only he be featured in Dr. Strangelove but that he play multiple roles as well. The casting of the gifted comedic actor was but one factor that ultimately led Kubrick to completely overhaul the tone of the project from a straight drama to satiric black comedy.
Sellers indeed was cast in four major roles, all of which underwent considerable changes before filming ended. He was originally going to play U.S. President Merkin Muffley, B-52 pilot Major "King" Kong, Colonel Lionel Mandrake, and the mysterious Dr. Strangelove. Muffley was at first written in the script and played by Sellers as broad slapstick. In fact, the footage of Muffley's entrance into the War Room had to be scrapped because of the incessant laughter on the set, after which Kubrick decided for Sellers to play Muffley completely straight. Sellers' portrayal of the title character, Dr. Strangelove, whose full name, according to the source novel, was Dr. MerkwŸrdigichliebe, bore some similarities to former Secretary of State Dr. Henry Kissinger which were noted at the time. This was Sellers at his best, inventing bits of comic action that added immeasurably to the role, such as the bit of Dr. Strangelove's uncontrollable, homicidal hand. Capturing the right tone for the Colonel Lionel Mandrake character gave Sellers no trouble either. Having impersonated a stuffy British officer many times in the Royal Air Force as a young company entertainer, Sellers' characterization of Mandrake was almost second nature to him. In fact, Sellers' Mandrake looks and sounds suspiciously like Alec Guinness's Col. Nicholson in The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957). This connection is palpable, since Sellers worshipped Guinness and emulated him whenever possible, including performing multiple roles in films, as Guinness had done spectacularly in Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949).
Of course, Sellers emulation of Guinness wasn't necessarily a good thing for him in every situation. When Sellers objected to taking on one of his four scheduled roles, that of Major "King" Kong, he came under much pressure from Kubrick to follow through with the role. Kubrick argued that Guinness could pull off such a demanding role, so why not Sellers? But Sellers could not master the Texas dialect that the role called for, and he was intimidated by the Texas drawl that co-star Sterling Hayden and screenwriter Terry Southern spoke only naturally. But there is evidence that the dialect problem was only part of the reason why Sellers decided to forego the Major Kong role. Sellers' long-time driver and valet Bert Mortimer claimed that Sellers was terrified at the thought of shooting the climactic drop out of the B-52's bomb bay doors. The shooting of this scene necessitated placing the actor three meters off the studio floor, a considerable distance for someone who feared heights.
Kong was eventually recast with an entirely different performer. Starting the search, Kubrick reasoned that a mere actor would not do in the case of Major Kong. As reported in a biography by author John Baxter, Kubrick said, "We can't replace him with another actor...we've got to get an authentic character from life, someone whose acting is secondary--a real-life cowboy." Enter Slim Pickens, who Kubrick remembered from an open casting call for an earlier project. Pickens was a Texas cowhand who competed on the rodeo circuit and eventually drifted into movie stunt work, like many rodeo stars had before. Kubrick took full advantage of Pickens' unique personality, instructing him to play Kong "as straight as you can." But whereas Sellers was a chameleon in all three roles, Pickens basically played himself.
Director: Stanley Kubrick
Producer: Victor Lyndon, Stanley Kubrick
Screenplay: Stanley Kubrick, Terry Southern, Peter George (based on his novel, Red Alert)
Cinematography: Gilbert Taylor
Editor: Anthony Harvey
Production Design: Ken Adam
Art Direction: Peter Murton
Music: Laurie Johnson
Cast: Peter Sellers (Capt. Lionel Mandrake/President Merkin Muffley/Dr. Strangelove), Sterling Hayden (Gen. Jack D. Ripper), Keenan Wynn (Col. "Bat" Guano), Slim Pickens (Major T. J. "King" Kong), James Earl Jones (Lt. Lothar Zogg).
by Scott McGee