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How Peter Sellers Lost His Fourth Role in ‘Dr. Strangelove’

Slim Pickens Riding Bomb in Dr. Strangelove Movie
Columbia Pictures

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How Peter Sellers Lost His Fourth Role in ‘Dr. Strangelove’

… and the man that took his place.

Stanley Kubrick’s classic dark comedy “Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb” has some of the most interesting characters in film, one of which includes the bomb hugging commander T.J. “King” Kong played by Slim Pickens. But did you know Pickens’ iconic role was a last minute decision?

It’s well known that Peter Sellers played three roles in the film: Group Captain Lionel Mandrake, President Merkin Muffley, and the titular character, Dr. Strangelove. But Colombia Pictures originally set a condition for Kubrick: The studio would only finance the film if Sellers played at least four roles in the movie. In addition to the three aforementioned characters, Sellers was originally meant to play the Air Force Major T. J. “King” Kong, but Sellers was reluctant since the beginning. He initially voiced his concerns to Kubrick stating that he was worried about the workload and was afraid that he would not do the character’s strong Texan accent justice. Kubrick managed to convince Sellers to take on the role and even elected co-writer Terry Southern who was raised in Texas to help Sellers with his lines. But once filming started, Peter Sellers fell on set, exacerbating an injury the night before and was unable to continue with filming in the cramped cockpit set. 

Terry Southern writes in his 1994 essay, “Notes From the War Room,”

“Once the grim reality had sunk in, Kubrick’s response was an extraordinary tribute to Sellers as an actor: ‘We can’t replace him with another actor, we’ve got to get an authentic character from life, someone whose acting career is secondary–a real-life cowboy.’

“Notes From the War Room” by Terry Southern

After much trial and error, Kubrick managed to find a perfect match: Slim Pickens. Pickens was “an unschooled cowhand who traveled the rodeo circuit from El Paso to Montana … Except for the occasional stunt work on location, Slim had never been anywhere off the small-town western rodeo circuit, much less outside the U.S.” When Pickens arrived in England, Kubrick sent Southern over to see if he had settled into his hotel okay. According to Southern, Slim replied:

“Wal, it’s like this ole friend of mine from Oklahoma says: Jest gimme a pair of loose-fittin’ shoes, some tight pussy, and a warm place to shit, an’ ah’ll be all right.”

“Notes From the War Room” by Terry Southern

… And the rest is history. 

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