'A Monstrous Slur on Peter Sellers'; Next Week the Cannes Festival Will Premiere a Film about the Great Comic Actor, but His Best Friend and Surviving Family Have Denounced It as a Travesty

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Byline: PAUL PALMER

GRAHAM Stark was Peter Sellers's best friend for more than 40 years.

He helped nurse and suppor t him through the entire professional and personal roller coaster of Sellers's remarkable life.

Stark saw it all: Sellers's four tempestuous marriages, most which ended in acrimony; rumours of his philandering, including alleged affairs with Princess Margaret and Sophia Loren; his notoriously difficult and distant relationship with his three children; and, through it all, the up-and-downs of a career which left Sellers at times immersed in a black cloud of depression and insecurity.

Which is why, today, Graham Stark finds himself in the unique and somewhat lonely position of publicly defending his late friend's reputation as it is about to suffer perhaps its most vehement assault yet.

Next week, at the Cannes Film Festival, a new film - The Life and Death of Peter Sellers - will be premiered in front of an expectant media. If reports are to be believed, they will not be disappointed. The movie features Shine star Geoffrey Rush as Sellers and Oscar-winner Charlize Theron as the late comedian's third wife, Swedish former model Britt Ekland.

Its producers describe it as a "lavish" production. It is also, according to their press release, "a warts and all" depiction of Sellers's life, detailing his alleged affairs, his cruelty to Ekland in their brief marriage and his indifferent role as a father.

It cost $20 million to make and is based largely on a brutal and unforgiving biography of Sellers, who died in 1980 at the age of 54 after suffering from heart disease for many years.

Because it also features an array of British stars - including Emilia Fox and Stephen Fry - the film is being touted at Cannes as "the only British contender" for an award. Ironically, in death - rather than life - Sellers might eventually be honoured.

Such is the controversial nature of the film that its makers have kept the actual storyline under wraps until the first public showing next week.

To date, there have been threats of legal action to stop the film ever being shown in British cinemas.

Sellers's own children have expressed their fury over its apparent content.

And, the Evening Standard understands, such is the savage depiction of one of Britain's greatest comedy actors that a major Hollywood star, himself a huge admirer of Sellers, withdrew from the project in disgust.

It is a portrait of a man far removed from the great friend Stark knew for more than four decades. "Apart from his wives, I knew Pete better than anyone in the world," he said at his north London home yesterday.

A mild-mannered and intelligent man, Stark, himself an actor, has worked with everyone from Gregory Peck to Bruce Willis, and starred with Sellers in all of the Pink Panther-movies. "From what I can gather, the film portrays Peter as some kind of madman, which is absolutely, utterly untrue," Stark goes on. "It is cruel and unnecessary. The film is utterly monstrous. Peter was no saint, I certainly know that. But this is simply rewriting history after someone is dead.

"Peter could be petulant, he could be childish, he could be very naughty sometimes when you were working with him; he was something of a show-off. But I spent more time with him through his adult life than virtually anyone else.

We all have our difficult moments, we can all be a nightmare, especially in the movie business. But the Peter I knew could be, and was, a very funny, if highlystrung and emotional man, who deeply cared for the people he loved."

Such is the secrecy surrounding the film that even Geoffrey Rush - the leading man - has only very recently seen a final cut. But according to the film-industry grapevine, the movie will viciously expose the weaknesses and vanities of a man who was adored in public but consumed, as many great comics are, by his own private demons. …