Walking into a billiard-room wall, where he thinks there should be a door, Inspector Clouseau (in A Shot in the Dark) recommends having the architect’s head examined. In life, Peter Sellers careened and caromed from one wall to another, looking for the exit from an unhappiness of which he was chief architect. Maybe his biographer Roger Lewis should have his own head examined, given the daunting task of examining Sellers’. The greatest film comedian since the silent-film era was, in his private life, ”truly demented,” ”bonkers,” ”bitter and paranoid,” ”basically not a nice man,” ”heartless,” ”really dangerous,” ”a monster,” and ”more seriously f—ed up than a chameleon crossing a kilt.” At least, these are the assessments of assorted colleagues and Lewis, a former Oxford don who is the author of a probing, unconventional, intensely agile and alert biography, The Life and Death of Peter Sellers.
As Lewis makes clear, even in the crowded pathography field, Sellers is an outstanding basket case. As Dr. Strangelove, Clare Quilty (Lolita), Chance Gardener (Being There), or Pearly Gates (The Wrong Arm of the Law), he was subtle, uncanny, incomparable. As Peter Sellers, he didn’t have a clue. ”There used to be a me, but I had it surgically removed,” the actor once kidded, but it was more than a joke. Behind the brilliant accents and impersonations cowered a desperate, aching void. Lewis notes how this desperation gave Sellers’ performances edge and depth, creating ”an impression of privacy (and of mystery).” Sellers himself was aware of it. He poured the emptiness he felt in real life into the passive Chance in Being There, a role he cherished. Even Clouseau, he believed, was a ”sad and serious man.” And his own life was a frantic attempt to fill the loneliness with homes, cars, gadgets, women, astrology, nostalgia, mysticism, and, when all else failed, undiluted nastiness. He threw punches and furniture at Anne Hayes and Britt Ekland, the first two of his four wives. He could crush the feelings of his children without seeming to notice. He attacked strangers at parties and restaurants. He wrecked careers and lives, starting with his own.
Lewis at one point concludes that Sellers was simply ”evil,” but mostly his book is a case study of the warping of a great talent: ”What made Sellers an artist on the grand scale was what made him mad: the intensity and excitement of his imagination.” Along the way there are some standard self-destructive plot elements. According to Lewis, drugs, including cocaine, probably greased Sellers’ descent into irrationality and aggravated the heart disease that killed him in 1980 at 54. His manic restlessness was partly a legacy of his nomadic and threadbare theatrical family. There were other legacies from his obsessive Jewish mother and his recessive Church of England father: The tantrums she had indulged became Sellers’ weapon of choice against wives, directors, and shop clerks; his family abandonments followed his father’s footsteps.
Sellers’ career had a melancholy trajectory, upward from the inspired lunacy of radio’s Goon Show of the ’50s through classic Brit comedies like The Ladykillers to international fame in The Mouse That Roared and Dr. Strangelove, then downward into the scatterbrained chaos of Casino Royale and the later Pink Panthers. ”Sellers seemed to want to deny his gifts, which were for subtle and observant comedy,” Lewis writes. His pungent accounts of Sellers’ performances are reminiscent of Pauline Kael, with the same tendency to put clinching points in parentheses. (Maybe it’s catching.) Lewis circles his subject, weaving in and out of chronology, as if in imitation of Sellers, who tried to retrieve the past and battle time to a standstill. It’s a vivid portrait of a man who literally lost himself in artful disguises and acrid self-absorption. A