Mr. Strangelove: A Biography Of Peter Sellers
Very few actors can send me like Peter Sellers. As a kid, he’d break me up with his most famous creation, the bumbling French Inspector Clouseau of the Pink Panther movies. Later I discovered lesser-known characters that were sometimes even more rewarding. A life with Sellers made me a ready audience for Ed Sikov’s biography. It was already discarded by a local library soon after publication, thus dating Sellers and me in one fell swoop.
I was a well-watched fan by the time this bio came along (about 21 movies, not much compared the complete filmography at the end of the book). But I knew little about Sellers’ life. So the stories here were almost all new to me, and captivating they were, too. I’ve always liked to do impressions and accents, but there are levels, and the level at which Sellers operated was so extreme it sometimes caused him great risk. He impersonated officers in WW2 and later a film insider in order to get a needed audition. A live performance in 1949 got him notice when he did a bizarre characterization of Queen Victoria. As Sikov has it, this exceeded We Are Not Amused and presented Victoria “when she was a lad.” Also a surprise to me was Sellers’ career in the war as a jazz drummer and his many years as a seriously overweight man who utterly transformed his body so he could fit the leading man norm. But the thing that made Sellers a national name was his membership in radio’s Goon Show.
I’ve never really been able to get a handle on the Goons, but that’s the thing about Sellers—you can never tell what’s going to grease your skids, his best-known creations or his least-known. So when I learned from Mr. Strangelove that one I liked a lot—I’m All Right, Jack—was a smash, I thought, “Well here at least I’m in tune with the masses.” The latter Panther movies—not so much. But that’s another thing about the man—no two fan’s likes and who cares and dislikes are going to be remotely alike. He was always mercurial and polarizing, his brilliance a matter of great debate. Back to Jack. For his lead role in it, Sellers beat out Richard Burton and Laurence Olivier to win a British Oscar. His most famous era is the late '50s and early '60s, a brilliant run, when you have The Mouse That Roared, Lolita, Dr. Strangelove, and the first Panther movies. It’s mostly because of this stretch that’s he’s known today. Sellers’ brilliance put him there, but he was a man with very little self-esteem, and this would be a big part of his undoing. Painfully remembering how excruciatingly hard it was to Make It, and feeling he couldn’t afford to turn any film offer down lest they disappear for good, he accepted every offer, which inevitably meant he signed onto mediocre and even abysmal films. Sikov well illustrates the dynamics of the man—the mood swings, with dismal crashes and Olympian heights. Manic depression like this is rare, especially coupled with such phenomenal talent, and such useless waste. Time and again, I was reminded of the saying that no one goes into movie acting because they are well-adjusted. That observation becomes especially sad when you read Mr. Strangelove and you realize what a shocking understatement it is when applied to Sellers. This is why it’s so hard to convince the unconverted about why Sellers is worth it—there is a lot of junk in his filmography, but there are also films such as A Day At The Beach where it really is worth it to fast-forward through almost the whole dreary movie just to find an astonishing Sellers small role. Most of the better Panther movies are like this, too—tiresome when Sellers is off screen, energized when he is.
But anyone who’s seen the high marks—the labor leader in I’m All Right, Jack, the three roles in Dr. Strangelove, the Christlike vicar in Heavens Above! (one of the best religious movies I’ve ever seen), the three roles in The Mouse That Roared, Clare Quilty in Lolita, the early Clouseaus and the pinnacle Being There (Chance the Gardener, one of the finest performances by anyone in film history) will almost certainly be an admirer. You do wonder,”How do you get that good?” If Alec Guinness is your hero, how to you equal him? To say that Sellers had an amazing range would be a criminal understatement. Sikov is good at showing us how Sellers did it, and what it cost him. How do you so efface yourself that you can play the role of a street performer right there on the street in London in 1973 and no one recognizes you, the passers-by putting their coins in your hat? (The movie camera was hidden across the street.) And why would you claim contact with a dead person as an explanation of how you can pull off that street performer? There are some plausible answers here. One may be an admission Sellers made, answering an interviewer who asked who the real Sellers was. He said there was no real Sellers.
If you want to know how Peter Sellers got to be perhaps the best-known actor in the world, why he self-destructed and rose again, this book will help you. It’s more than 35 years since his death, and he’s past due for a revival. It’s time to get those DVDs back into print and for all the formats to show him again, failures and all. Sikov shows us why it’s time.