Minkey See, Minkey Do : THE LIFE AND DEATH OF PETER SELLERS. By Roger Lewis (Applause: $24.95, 528 pp.)

Anne Beatts, a two-time Emmy winning writer for "Saturday Night Live," is the creator of "Square Pegs" and co-editor of "Titters: The First Collection of Humor by Women" (Macmillan)

People can generally be divided into two categories: those who do an Inspector Clouseau imitation and those who don't. For those of us who fall about helpless with laughter at the mere utterance of the line "Do you have a license for this minkey?" Peter Sellers is a cultural hero. For others who have never seen the original Pink Panther movies, the Sellers phenomenon can be difficult to explain. Roger Lewis, author of the somewhat melodramatically titled "The Life and Death of Peter Sellers," is a member of the first category trying to make Sellers meaningful to the latter. It's not an easy job.

Although Lewis doesn't share his personal Clouseau impression with the reader, he does confess in the first few pages that during his adolescence he wanted to be Sellers and actually went about in "tinted spectacles (rare then), a French fireman's helmet and a leatherette-effect lady's mackintosh" in imitation of a Sellers character he'd seen on a talk show.

It's sad and yet perhaps inevitable that Lewis' study of Sellers' life leads him from this early adulation to the conclusion that Sellers was an anti-social, drug-addicted, sadomasochistic, megalomaniacal psychopath comparable to both Hitler and the devil himself. Oh, and he was also a self-hating Jew who may well have been a closet homosexual. These are Lewis' words, not mine. So does love turn to hate. Behind the bumbling lovable Inspector Clouseau is the real Dr. Strangelove.

My experience was rather the reverse of the author's. I started the book well aware of the industry scuttlebutt on Sellers being a monster who was hell on wheels to work with. By the end of it, I felt sorry for him--surely he couldn't have been all that bad? Sadly, all Lewis' evidence indicates that he could be--and was.

In America, Sellers is best known for the "Pink Panther" series of films and for his Oscar-nominated portrayal of Chauncey Gardener in "Being There." In England, his fame is closer to Charlie Chaplin's. Like Chaplin, Sellers was a British comedian who started out in the music halls before he crossed over to international success, appearing opposite such glamorous co-stars as Sophia Loren.

His filmography includes such comic gems as "I'm All Right, Jack," "The Wrong Box," "The World of Henry Orient," "What's New, Pussycat?" and the underrated "After the Fox" and "The Party," as well as the pair of brilliant black comedies he made for Stanley Kubrick, "Dr. Strangelove" and "Lolita."

But to comedy aficionados on both sides of the Atlantic, Sellers' true legacy is "The Goon Show," a series of radio programs that aired on the BBC from 1951 to 1960, in which Sellers teamed with Spike Milligan, Harry Secombe and Michael Bentine to create some of the most inspired comic lunacy of our time. It's impossible to reproduce the humor, but the character names give an idea of the tone: Major Blodnok, Henry Crum, Grytpype Thynne and Bluebottle--all of whom were Sellers.

Lewis makes a good point when he insists that "the gist of the 'Goon Show,' and the source of power for its performers," was "a surreal response to the violence and behavior of the war. . . . Right up until the final show in 1960, it was still the Germans the characters were up against. . . . The background of Goonery [was] a world of conscription and England in the '40s, relived in the '50s."

I'm reminded of the scene in Richard Lester's "A Hard Day's Night" when a stiff-upper-lip upper-class twit in a railway carriage chides the Fab Four, "We fought a war for your sort," and the response is, "Bet you wish you'd lost." Goonery, with its mockery of all things military and patriotic, was an essential precursor to that exchange.

What we now think of as classic British humor--Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, the Pythons and the Beatles--can be traced directly back to the Goons. A case could even be made that the lighter moments of the recent Scottish hit film "Trainspotting" owe a debt to Goonery.

Sellers himself referred to his time with the Goons as "the happiest professional period of my life" and, appropriately enough, Lewis' section on the Goons is one of the most lively and interesting, though least scandal-ridden, parts of his book. With a liberal use of quotes and odd tidbits of information--like the Goonishly appropriate aside that musical arranger Wally Stott "has since had a sex-rectifying operation to become Miss Angela Morley"--he summons up the creative ferment in which Sellers thrived--and in which quantities of cognac and milk were consumed to lubricate the birth process.

It's later on in the life of his subject that Lewis appears to become bogged down, abandoning chronological order to intersperse his own capsule reviews of Sellers' films, many of them obscure to American audiences--"The Dock Brief," "The Optimists of Nine Elms," etc.--with tale upon tale of misconduct on a grand scale, thoroughly besprinkled with amateur psychologizing: "He was as cold and lonely (i.e. as independent) as a homosexual--and as for his tomcatting? Didn't he work too hard at that? Didn't he dramatize his rakishness to hide his aridity?"

Well, did he or didn't he? Lewis never says for sure. Putting aside the feelings of those homosexuals, independent or otherwise, who might well object to being characterized as "cold and lonely," it was the piling-up of loose speculations such as the above that began to make me feel the need to defend Sellers from his posthumous biographer.

Unfortunately, his conduct was mostly as indefensible as his talent was unassailable. Sellers was famous for behaving badly back in the days when British actors were more likely to be knighted than arrested. Today's single-monickered modern divas--Roseanne, Barbra and others of their ilk--could take lessons from Sellers in tantrum-throwing and other manifestations of tyrannical eccentricity.

He was a monster on the set; he was a monster at home. He showed up days late or not at all. He destroyed entire rooms of furniture and, worse, he wrecked careers, friendships, marriages, his children's lives. He drank, he drugged, he drove too fast. He squandered his money and his talent. He tried to drown a puppy in a swimming pool. He raged, he lashed out verbally and physically, he whined and cried and threatened suicide.

To justify his whim of iron, Sellers relied on astrologers, psychics and Ouija boards. According to Lewis, there would come a point "where he'd refuse to look at the colors green or purple. . . . His secretaries and personal assistants had to pre-inspect visitors and divest them of the offending hues. . . ."

Lewis catalogs this obsessive misbehavior in dispiriting, thoroughly documented detail.

And his concluding point is that "Sellers was evil. . . . [He] was a destroyer. He was pandemonium." For any biographer, this is a tough row to hoe. Why should anyone like reading about someone so unlikable? Of course, Sellers' talent is the hook that draws the reader in. We want to love the people who make us laugh, even when it proves impossible. And Sellers undeniably gave us laughter into tears.

No doubt that's why I found myself searching his life story for any stray crumbs of compassion. His first wife, Anne, provides a vivid snapshot of Sellers in 1949, on the cusp of his career: "He had sticky hair, overstuffed suits and was the kind of person who'd grab all the cream cakes for himself without offering them round. He wouldn't put his glasses on--and he was very nearsighted. He used to look at himself in the dressing room mirror . . . full of self-disgust, and say 'A big, fat, jolly boy, that's how I'm meant to see myself.' " Who would not find pity in his heart for the fat, nearsighted boy who loathes his looks but stuffs himself with cream cakes nonetheless?

He was in pain, so he inflicted pain. Spike Milligan, his "Goon Show" collaborator, whom Sellers befriended and then betrayed many times over, seems to have the clearest sense of what it was like to try to know him: "Like going to a desert island," he said. "In the middle is a lake, and in the middle of that, another deserted island. He's that lonely."

Yet Milligan also offers a picture of the joy of knowing Sellers: "One of the funniest moments of my life was being woken up in my flat--I lived opposite him--at 3 o'clock in the morning, and Peter was standing there naked in a bowler hat and asked, 'Do you know the name of a good tailor?' " It is images like this that make Lewis' otherwise lugubrious tome worth plowing through.

After all the horror stories, the picture I prefer to retain is of Airman Sellers in wartime, impersonating "for larks" a wide variety of officers and other important personages: "The Sikh Flying Officer, organizing rations of fresh food; the South African Group Captain, at large in Burma; the Indian fighter pilot, with medal ribbons and a white turban with the RAF badge, getting people to salute him in Dieppe; a Maharajah received with full honours. . . ." Those were outrageous performances given purely for the pleasure of it. I wish I had seen even one.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World