Peter Sellers' On-Set Injury That Lost Him A 4th Role In Dr. Strangelove

Stanley Kubrick is widely regarded as one of the greatest directors in history, and one aspect of his legacy stems from his ability to churn out classic films regardless of the genre, Kubrick took a swing at horror films with "The Shining," he took on science fiction with "2001: A Space Odyssey," and war films with "Full Metal Jacket." Each one of those is considered to be a masterpiece of its respective genre.

Kubrick's comedy and satire film "Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb" is no exception to the rule. It's a comedy classic known for memorable jokes and biting satire that lampoons the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union, which was near its peak when the film was released in early 1964. However, at the time it was controversial, with some finding its plot — where a general bypasses the president and drops a nuclear bomb — farfetched, though according to The New Yorker, President Eisenhower agreed to this exact thing in case of an emergency.

One of the aspects of the film that has always drawn a lot of attention is that comedy legend Peter Sellers takes on three vastly different characters: President Merkin Muffley, Group Captain Lionel Mandrake, and, of course, Dr. Strangelove. However, Sellers was originally supposed to take on one other iconic role in the film (via Metaflix).

Peter Sellers was supposed to play Air Force Major T. J. King Kong

According to Terry Southern, who co-wrote the film, in his essay "Notes From The War Room" (via Criterion), Columbia Pictures had been impressed with the success of Kubrick's 1962 film "Lolita," but it wasn't the directing that caught their eye. Instead, the studio believed that the real reason the film was successful stemmed from how Peter Sellers played multiple parts in the film. They wanted this for "Dr. Strangelove."

So, the studio agreed to greenlight the film on the condition that Sellers take on four major roles. Sellers' roles as Mandrake, Muffley, and Dr. Strangelove were sure things, but the fourth role caused him some degree of trepidation. The legendary comic actor was supposed to tackle the role of Air Force Major T. J. "King" Kong, a part best remembered for the character riding a nuclear bomb down to the ground while waving a cowboy hat.

Sellers' concern, per Metaflix, was that he wouldn't be able to do a proper Texan accent, or at least not one that would be up to snuff with that needed to make the character memorable. Kubrick — likely remembering Columbia's "four roles" condition — managed to get Sellers to agree to the part, and even had Terry Southern work with Sellers to perfect the accent, as Southern had grown up in the Lone Star state.

An injury limited Sellers to 3 roles

According to Metaflix, while shooting the film, Sellers suffered a fall on set that re-aggravated a previous injury. This prevented him from shooting the role of Major Kong as the role required filming scenes on a cramped set designed to look like the cockpit of a bomber, putting Kubrick and the entire production in a bind. Still, considering Sellers was never confident about playing the part from the jump, maybe it was for the best.

Kubrick went about finding a replacement and toward the top of his list were John Wayne and Dan Blocker, the start of the television show "Bonanza." However, Kubrick never got a response from Wayne, and Blocker's agent shot down the idea of his client playing the part of Major Kong. So, the role went to Slim Pickens, an actor who, according to Mental Floss, had only ever appeared in westerns before getting his part in "Dr. Strangelove." In fact, according to Terry Southern's "Notes From The War Room" (via Criterion), Pickens had never left the United States before hopping across the Atlantic Ocean to shoot the film in the United Kingdom.

Slim Pickens wound up being a perfect choice

Going with Pickens wound up being a stroke of genius from Kubrick, but that didn't mean that the director shied away from clever ways of coaxing the performance he wanted out of the Western veteran. According to Mental Floss, while Pickens' accent was already ideal for the part, and according to various sources including co-star James Earl Jones, Pickens acted and dressed like his character offset, not because he was a method actor, but because that's just who he was. While shooting, Kubrick opted to not tell the actor that the film he was making was actually a satire, and instead had him believe that they were really making a serious war film.

Pickens wound up delivering a memorable performance that culminates with the film's most enduring scene when the nuclear bomb is dropped with Pickens' Major Kong riding on top of it, yee-hawing and waving his cowboy hat as the warhead plummets to Earth and plunges the world into nuclear war.