- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 13, 2002

These days a reader approaches any celebrity biography with more than a little trepidation, having been burned by innumerable earlier through-the-keyhole scandal sheets masquerading as thoughtful studies of a life. You only have to know about Peter Sellers' multiple marriages to understand that he's a prime candidate for this sort of expose. Uh-oh, one thinks as one pulls the latest Sellers biography out of its envelope, another nonpareil comic talent about to be given the treatment.
Happily, Ed Sikov's "Mr. Strangelove: A Biography of Peter Sellers" is the exception that proves the rule. To be sure, there's plenty of material in his book to please the gossip columnists because Sellers' life abounded in such material. But thanks to diligent research and insightful analysis, Mr. Sikov does what biographers are supposed to do: He helps us understand the personality and the formation of the personality that produced such behavior.
He also comes probably as close as anyone can to explaining just what made Sellers funny. Mr. Sikov hasn't just written a celebrity biography. He's rehabilitated a literary form.
Sellers was born in 1925, the son of vaudeville entertainers. His childhood was dreadful: His mother, an overprotective, domineering stage mother, determined that Peter (he was named after an earlier, stillborn, son) would go into showbusiness as well. The family led an itinerant existence, moving repeatedly in search of commercial opportunity and, Mr. Sikov suggests, occasionally trying to stay one step ahead of the law.
An only child, Sellers spent much time alone. Like Steve Martin and Robin Williams, other such children who later became successful comedians, he sought refuge in the life of the imagination, in Sellers' case, by listening to the British Broadcasting Corporation.
It was by whiling away the hours next to the radio that he discovered his twin avocations: mimicry, which was to be the root of his success as an actor, and improvisation. As radio and, later, movie audiences were to learn, Sellers was to evolve into a preternaturally gifted mimic. As fellow comedian Eric Sykes put it, "You'd be in a taxi with Peter, and he'd listen to the taxi driver talking. And when he would get out, he would be the taxi driver. But not only in words and voice. His whole metabolism would have changed."
After World War II, Sellers effectively forced his way into his beloved BBC. by phoning a producer and, mimicking a current star, told him to give Peter Sellers a job. The producer did. By the early 1950s, Sellers had hooked up with Spike Milligan and Harry Secombe and created "The Goons" an anarchic, absurdist radio show that perfectly captured the mood of postwar Britain and that, despite initial BBC misgivings (one executive asked "What is this 'Go On Show,' about anyway?") swept the country.
The program's first broadcasts attracted about 300,000 listeners, but by the end of its first 17-week season, was being heard by nearly two million people. "The Goons," which ran for nearly a decade and prefigured the later "Monty Python" series, became Sellers' ticket to stardom: Theatrical engagements and, most important, movies followed.
Yet, to put it mildly, there was a downside to Sellers' enormous comedic gifts. Sellers could "become" different people, but there was no Peter Sellers. Friends and colleagues quickly noticed that the actor himself was a cipher, a man with no personality of his own, an empty vessel into which were temporarily poured different human concoctions . (And it started early. Tellingly, Mr. Sikov notes that, "The most striking feature of Peter Sellers' schooldays is the fact that practically nobody remembered him.")
The problem was , and Sellers recognized this too, "I don't know who Peter Sellers is," he told an interviewer in the 1960s when he was approaching the height of his fame. "Except that he's the one who gets paid." He was a desperately lonely, manic depressive, who would propose to women he hardly knew, contemplated suicide more than once, and who could be charming and generous one moment and violently abusive and tyrannical the next to colleagues, friends and family alike.
Mr. Sikov is best on the early, formative part of Sellers' life and career. He correctly sees him as a kind of neurotic passive aggressive, who assumed other identities as a way to escape from the domineering mother whom he could not confront or defy himself, and as a means of attaining, however fleetingly, an identity he had been deprived of by her obsessive adoration.
The author is equally good at placing Sellers within the larger context of British comedy, and showing how, after the war, he was in the vanguard of the creation of the cerebral yet surreal humor that gradually replaced the broadly physical, vaudeville-based comedy that had been the norm for generations .
Finally, Mr. Sikov grasps the essence of Sellers' brilliance as a comic actor: restraint. What makes every signature Sellers character unforgettable, is that, even in those moments that call for slapstick expansiveness, Sellers keeps himself on a short leash, always underplaying, never overplaying.
But once Sellers' career takes off, the book deteriorates into a repetitive litany of tantrums, fights with actors, producers and directors, marital woes, girlfriends, and manic gift giving. This isn't the author's fault; it's the subject he's saddled with.
The grim cliche, "good career move" that is uttered on the death of certain celebrities applies to Peter Sellers as well. The "Pink Panther "was such an enduring franchise (there were six in all, if one includes the posthumous "Trail of the Pink Panther" of 1982, an unsatisfying patchwork of outtakes) that it's easy to forget that by the end of his life the 1970s Sellers' career was in a tailspin.
A succession of bombs combined with Sellers' reputation as a difficult star to work with made it increasingly hard for him to get work. He pulled out of it by finally being able to get backing to make and star in the 1979 movie of Jerzy Kosinski's "Being There." Its success and his Oscar nomination, meant that, when he died the next year, he went out on a high. It's hard to imagine him having another such success, and not only because of his difficult personality.
Just as "The Goons" inaugurated a sea change in humor in postwar Britain, the post-Vietnam, post-Watergate atmosphere of the late-1970s saw another shift, from the innocently anarchic comedy epitomized by Sellers to the more ironic humor of "Saturday Night Live" and the then-rising stars, such as Steve Martin and Robin Williams.
The arch, over-the-top quality of Sellers' last Inspector Clouseau impersonations suggests that he (or his writer-director Blake Edwards) was aware of this shift and was struggling to maintain its cultural relevance. For an actor of Sellers' masterful sense of comic poise, this willed loss of control was surely a signal that it was time to take a final bow.

Eric Gibson is the Leisure & Arts Features Editor of the Wall Street Journal.



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