cover image The Life and Death of Peter Sellers: Cloth Book

The Life and Death of Peter Sellers: Cloth Book

Roger Lewis. Applause Books, $24.95 (502pp) ISBN 978-1-55783-248-1

This dense, maddening and frequently brilliant book on the life and career of the British actor Peter Sellers (1925-1980) isn't a biography in any conventional sense. Rather, it's an epic meditation on talent and rampant egomania, a rambling improvisation on the theme of Sellers's intermittent genius as a performer and his relentless monstrousness as a person, by the erstwhile chief book reviewer for the British magazine Punch. There is a great deal here to frustrate the reader: the book doesn't follow Sellers's career chronologically, but swoops back and forth in time, and as many pages are devoted to the exegeses of flops such as Casino Royale and obscurities such as Ghost in the Noonday Sun (which was never released theatrically) as to such successes as The Ladykillers and Dr. Strangelove. Nearly all of the many anecdotes and reminiscences about Sellers by his co-workers over the years--from Spike Milligan to Blake Edwards--come to the same conclusion: that he was a genius but also a monumental jerk, a borderline psychopath. The book is likely to be especially frustrating to American readers, as it assumes an intimacy not only with Sellers's work but with postwar British pop culture in general. If one has never heard of the Goon Show and has no idea who Bluebottle is, this is a very difficult book to track. Readers who can adjust to Lewis's aggressively personal tone, however, and who are willing to wade through references to unfamiliar performers and movies, will find much of the book stunning. Lewis's analyses of the films, even the obscure ones, are masterly, and his understanding of how Sellers's megalomania fed and was fed by his performances is shrewd, insightful and forgiving. In the end, the book itself plays like one of Sellers's antic, multicharacter turns: quicksilver, hard to follow, often self-indulgent--but, ultimately, unforgettable. Author tour. (Nov.)