MR. STRANGELOVE

A Biography of Peter Sellers

By Ed Sikov

Hyperion. 433 pp. $27.95

Director Stanley Kubrick may have inadvertently come up with the definitive bio of Peter Sellers when he once said of the actor, "There is no such person." Sellers himself was equally succinct when asked by a fan, "Aren't you Peter Sellers?" "Not today," he replied. And apparently not on most other days either, to judge by Ed Sikov's exhaustive biography. Sikov interviewed Sellers's family, friends and co-workers over a three-year period, and his conclusion is that Sellers lacked a strong sense of self. What he had were selves, all fictional, all born from his remarkable ability to mimic other people.

Everyone Sikov spoke to pointed out how contradictory Sellers could be -- sometimes charming, funny and generous, but often shockingly cruel and selfish. His first wife, Anne, called him "amoral, dangerous, vindictive." Writer Wolf Mankowitz said he was "a treacherous lunatic," and director Jonathan Miller described him as "a receptacle rather than a person." Raised by a mother who gave him whatever he wanted, Sellers married unsuccessfully four times, each time to a woman younger than the last. At his third marriage, two dogs served as bridesmaids, and when his first daughter was born, he couldn't be bothered to be present. (He just had to see Judy Garland at the Palladium that night.) When one of his wives casually remarked she'd like to get out of the house more often, he reacted by destroying their belongings, including rare porcelains, and threatening to kill her, though he settled for beating her up.

Sikov's strength as a biographer is that he is unflappable, reporting this bad news matter-of-factly while he presses on toward a professional understanding of Sellers's complete body of work. (Sellers died of a massive heart attack in July 1980, a few weeks short of his 55th birthday.)

He was born Richard Henry Seller on Sept. 8, 1925. (The "s" was added later, and his parents always called him Peter, the name of an older brother who died in infancy.) His was a bizarre show-biz family. His great-grandfather was the greatest Jewish prizefighter in British history, and his grandmother was a vaudeville manager named Welcome Mendoza. His mother, Peg (ne{acute}e Agnes), spent her youth cavorting around provincial theaters as a barely clad nymph splashing in a water tank. Peg was a horror by all accounts, but also a trouper who finished her act when she first went into labor with Peter. (It was inevitable that the child would go into the entertainment business.)

Sellers first found lasting fame on BBC Radio's "The Goon Show," but today Americans best remember his excellent comic portrayals of multiple characters in "Dr. Strangelove," his clumsy but self-confident Inspector Clouseau in a series of Pink Panther movies and his shrewd interpretation of the mysterious Clare Quilty in Kubrick's "Lolita." True aficionados also prize his work in "The Party," "After the Fox," "The Mouse That Roared" and "Being There," the movie that features what many feel is the definitive Sellers role -- that of an empty man who satisfies others by letting them believe him to be whatever they need him to be.

Sikov, author of two witty and perceptive books on film comedy, Screwball and Laughing Hysterically, is a first-rate scholar but never a bore about it. His main contribution is providing details on material the average person doesn't have access to, such as the "Goon Show" routines that paired Sellers with the wildly talented Spike Milligan. Their Alice-in-Wonderland approach is illustrated in such skits as the one in which a mountaineer hanging off a cliff writes them for advice on what to do, and Sellers tells him, "Fall off." Sikov also provides details on the custard-pie-throwing finale originally planned for "Dr. Strangelove" (cut before final release) and on rarely seen films such as "The Blockhouse" (a 1973 release). The latter, which Sikov counts among his personal favorites, has an unusual subject: A group of soldiers is accidentally sealed into a well-stocked bomb shelter where they slowly, one by one, die, desperate but very well-fed. Sikov concludes that Sellers was "the master of playing men who have no idea of how ridiculous they are" and proves his point with a sharp-eyed description of Sellers talking to a caged bird in "The Party."

What readers can take away from this book is the sense that Peter Sellers was a horror and an enigma, but also a true comic genius. Sikov's fair-minded, thoughtful and honest look at him may be all the understanding anyone will ever have of the strange comedian, and, in fact, is probably all anyone needs. Sellers was apparently a Jekyll/Hyde chameleon with an astonishing ability to become someone else, an ability that made him rich and famous. It was an ability that was more than artistic talent, however. For him, it was a way of life. *

Jeanine Basinger is the chairman of the film studies program at Wesleyan University.

Peter Sellers in "The World of Henry Orient"