Character Acting – Peter Sellers and Lionel Mandrake


When discussing Hollywood film, directors, audiences and film critics tend to rave about the lead actors. Their pictures can be found in every newspaper, headline, google image search, and they quickly become the face of the film. Often unnoticed or even overlooked, however, are the character actors. Without them the worlds we see as the audience would seem far less real. In the film Dr. Strangelove directed by Stanley Kubrick, there were several character actors who played a significant role. Peter Sellerss creates an excellent experience for the audience by playing not one, but three different and distinct characters (President Mirkin Muffley, Captain Lionel Mandrake, and Dr. Strangelove).

 Lionel Mandrake is a comical character who catches the audience’s attention quite early on. While it is difficult to pinpoint the “main character” in a film like Dr. Strangelove, we can reasonably suggest that Mandrake played one of the more pivotal roles in the film. After Ripper shoots himself, Colonel Guano enters to take Mandrake away. Here, Mandrake is given his task – to reach the president by any means to give him the code that will turn the jets around, thereby averting nuclear holocaust.

 In our course text, Melissa Bruder presents nine steps to good action that an actor must use when performing an action to a scene. Mandrake had to perform actions that were physically capable of being done. This decision is an actor’s way of acknowledging how the task will be accomplished. In this case, Mandrake was pleading for permission. His struggle enabled the audience to see his desperation, but also his otherwise calm demeanour needed to achieve his goals.

 As the pressure builds and the Colonels patience wears thin, Sellers (and Kubrick) take this opportunity to make things fun. A series of events take place that make the scene quite comical; The phone has a broken cord, he doesn’t have enough change for the phone.

The third step suggested by Bruder is to be specific. Mandrake was specific with his urgency to get the president on the phone, trying to convince the Colonel asking “Can you possibly imagine what is going to happen to you?”

 The Colonel and Lionel Mandrake display an extensive understanding of each others character. As the scene unfolds, we see that Mandrake never loses a sense of the Colonel’s presence which is his test in the other person. As he turns to the Colonel he says “shoot if off! Shoot … with a gun! That’s what the bullets are for, you twit!” Mandrake keeps the action alive by working off the Colonel.

 Mandrake is presented by Kubrick and Sellers as an extreme caricature of a British Air Force officer. Sellers achieves this using a variety of techniques physically as well as vocally. He acts to fit the whole atmosphere of unrestrained satire present in the film and does an amazing job convincing us of the identities of three different characters.