Being There

Being There is a 1979 American comedy-drama film directed by Hal Ashby. Based on the 1970 novel of the same name by Jerzy Kosiński, it was adapted for the screen by Kosiński and the uncredited Robert C. Jones. The film stars Peter Sellers and Shirley MacLaine, and features Jack Warden, Melvyn Douglas, Richard Dysart, and Richard Basehart.

Douglas won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor and Sellers was nominated for Best Actor. The screenplay won the British Academy Film Award for Best Screenplay and the Writers Guild of America Award for Best Comedy Adapted from Another Medium. It was also nominated for the Golden Globe Award for Best Screenplay.

In 2015, the United States Library of Congress selected Being There for preservation in the National Film Registry, finding it "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant".


Middle-aged, simple-minded Chance lives in the townhouse of a wealthy old man in Washington, D.C.. He has spent his whole life tending the garden and has never left the property. Other than gardening, his knowledge is derived entirely from what he sees on television. When his benefactor dies, Chance naively tells the lawyers that he has no claim against the estate and is ordered to move out.

Chance wanders aimlessly, discovering the outside world for the first time. Passing by a TV shop, he sees himself captured by a camera in the shop window. Entranced, he steps backward off the sidewalk and is struck by a chauffeured car owned by elderly business mogul Ben Rand. In the car is Rand's much younger wife Eve, who mishears "Chance, the gardener" in reply to the question who he is, as "Chauncey Gardiner."

Eve brings Chance to their home to recover. He is wearing expensive tailored clothes from the 1920s and 1930s, which his benefactor had allowed him to take from the attic, and his manners are old-fashioned and courtly. When Ben Rand meets him, he takes "Chauncey" for an upper-class, highly-educated businessman who has fallen on hard times. Rand admires him, finding him direct, wise and insightful.

Rand is also a confidant and advisor to the President of the United States, whom he introduces to "Chauncey." In a discussion about the economy, Chance takes his cue from the words "stimulate growth" and talks about the changing seasons of the garden. The President misinterprets this as optimistic political advice and quotes “Chauncey Gardiner” in a speech. Chance now rises to national prominence, attends important dinners, develops a close connection with the Soviet ambassador, and appears on a television talk show during which his detailed advice about what a serious gardener should do is misunderstood as his opinion on what would be his presidential policy.

Though he has now risen to the top of Washington society, the Secret Service and some 16 other agencies are unable to find any background information on him. During this time Rand's physician, Dr. Allenby, becomes increasingly suspicious that Chance is not a wise political expert and that the mystery of his identity may have a more mundane explanation. Dr. Allenby considers telling Rand this, but realizing how happy Chance is making him in his final days keeps him silent.

The dying Rand encourages Eve to become close to "Chauncey." She is already attracted to him and makes a sexual advance. Chance has no interest in or knowledge of sex, but mimics a kissing scene from the 1968 film The Thomas Crown Affair, which happens to be showing on the TV. When the scene ends, Chauncey stops suddenly and Eve is confused. She asks what he likes, meaning sexually; he replies "I like to watch," meaning television. She is momentarily taken aback, but decides she is willing to masturbate for his voyeuristic pleasure, thereby not noticing that he has turned back to the TV and is now imitating a yoga exercise on a different channel.

Chance is present at Rand's death and shows genuine sadness at his passing. Questioned by Dr. Allenby, he admits that he "loves Eve very much" and also that he is just a gardener. When he leaves to inform Eve of Ben's death, Allenby says to himself, "I understand," but interpretation of that is left to the viewer.

While the President delivers a speech at Rand's funeral, the pallbearers hold a whispered discussion over potential replacements for the President in the next term of office and unanimously agree on Chauncey Gardiner as successor. Oblivious to all this, Chance wanders off through Rand's wintry estate. He straightens out a pine sapling flattened by a fallen branch, then walks across the surface of a lake. He pauses, dips his umbrella deep into the water under his feet, then continues on, while the President is heard quoting Rand: "Life is a state of mind."


  • Peter Sellers as Chance the gardener (Chauncey Gardiner)
  • Shirley MacLaine as Eve Rand
  • Melvyn Douglas as Ben Rand
  • Richard A. Dysart as Dr. Robert Allenby
  • Jack Warden as the President
  • Richard Basehart as Soviet Ambassador Vladimir Skrapinov
  • Than Wyenn as Ambassador Gaufridi
  • David Clennon as Thomas Franklin
  • Fran Brill as Sally Hayes
  • Ruth Attaway as Louise
  • Denise DuBarry as Johanna
  • Sam Weisman as Colson
  • Alice Hirson as the First Lady
  • Arthur Rosenberg as Morton Hull
  • Jerome Hellman as Gary Burns
  • James Noble as Kaufman
  • John Harkins as Courtney
  • Elya Baskin as Karpatov
  • Richard McKenzie as Ron Steigler
  • Oteil Burbridge as Lolo (boy on corner)
  • Hoyt Clark Harris, Jr. as Secret Service agent Riff


    Principal filming occurred at the Biltmore Estate, the largest private home in America, located in Asheville, North Carolina.

    Melvyn Douglas's granddaughter, Illeana Douglas, visited the set and met Peter Sellers, who is her favorite actor. She has since credited the film for inspiring her to pursue a career in acting. According to Illeana, Sellers and Douglas had known each other since the 1940s, when they first met in Burma during World War II. They often reminisced about their war days while on the set.

    Burt Lancaster was Ashby's first choice for the role of Ben Rand. Laurence Olivier was also considered for the role, but he turned it down because of the masturbation scene.

    According to MacLaine, "(Peter) believed he was Chauncey. He never had lunch with me... He was Chauncey Gardiner the whole shoot, but believing he was having a love affair with me."

    The making of the film is portrayed in The Life and Death of Peter Sellers, a biographical film of Sellers' life.


    Incidental music is used very sparingly. What little original music is used was composed by Johnny Mandel, and primarily features two recurrent piano themes based on "Gnossiennes" No. 4 and No. 5 by Erik Satie. The other major piece of music used is the Eumir Deodato jazz/funk arrangement of the opening fanfare from Also Sprach Zarathustra by Richard Strauss.

    Mandel was also assisted by his late cousin and fellow composer Miles Goodman with the orchestration of the film.


    The film opened to positive reviews, and gave Sellers a hit after many of his previous films outside of the Pink Panther series had flopped. Film critic Roger Ebert awarded a full grade of 4 out of 4 stars in his original print review and mentions the final scene in his 2005 book The Great Movies II (p. 52), stating that his film students once suggested that Chance may be walking on a submerged pier. Ebert writes, "The movie presents us with an image, and while you may discuss the meaning of the image, it is not permitted to devise explanations for it. Since Ashby does not show a pier, there is no pier—a movie is exactly what it shows us, and nothing more." Gene Siskel also gave the film a perfect grade of 4 stars, calling it "one of those rare films, a work of such electric comedy that you are more likely to watch it in amazement than to break down and laugh." Janet Maslin of The New York Times called the film "a stately, beautifully acted satire with a premise that's funny but fragile." Variety called it "an unusually fine film" that "represents Peter Sellers' most smashing work since the mid-1960s." Kevin Thomas of the Los Angeles Times called it "a gentle, exquisitely funny film," adding, "Sellers hasn't been so terrific—or had such terrific material—in years."

    Vincent Misiano reviewed Being There in Ares Magazine #3 and commented that "The film's humor never flags and yet its delicately bitter irony is never far away. It satirizes politics and politicians, business and businessmen, and, finally, all the rest of us and what we imagine we see when we look at one another."

    The credits at the film's end roll over an outtake, known as the "Rafael outtake." Sellers was later displeased that the outtake ran because he believed it took away from Chauncey's mystique. He also believed the outtake was what prevented him from winning the Oscar.

    An alternative credit sequence has waves on a television set as they would appear on an "unoccupied" channel.

    The film holds a score of 94% on Rotten Tomatoes based on 54 reviews, with an average rating of 8.56/10. The critical consensus reads: "Smart, sophisticated, and refreshingly subtle, Being There soars behind sensitive direction from Hal Ashby and a stellar Peter Sellers performance."

    Melvyn Douglas won his second Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor and Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actor – Motion Picture.

    Awards and nominations

    The film is recognized by American Film Institute in:
  • 2000: AFI's 100 Years...100 Laughs – #26

    Home media

    A 30th Anniversary Edition was released on DVD and Blu-ray in February 2009. The Criterion Collection issued the film on DVD and Blu-ray in March 2017.