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The Life and Death of Peter Sellers

Roger Lewis, in his no-holds-barred biography, exposes a Peter Sellers the world little knows. Recognized as the greatest British comic since Charlie Chaplin, Sellers was the grand master of fifty-five films - from Dr. Strangelove, to Being There and the Pink Panther hits. But shadowing his phenomenal career was a history of increasingly bizarre behavior involving psychotic violence, compulsive promiscuity, drug abuse and humiliating self-destructive obsessions with people including Princess Margaret, Sophia Loren, Liza Minnelli and each of his four wives (Ann Hayes, Britt Ekland, Miranda Quarry and Lynne Frederick). He alternately showered his wives and children with gifts and then threatened to kill them. Sellers' fluidity as an actor made for a terrifying madness that grew like a slow metastasizing cancer throughout his adult life. The story of Peter Sellers concludes with his premature death at the age of 54, "sick at heart and alone in those sunless hotel rooms, " so recoiled from intimacy that no one really knew him anymore.
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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.)

That Peter Sellers was an actor of uncommon gifts is established by films as diverse as Lolita, A Shot in the Dark, Dr. Strangelove, and Being There. That Sellers was a superstitious, cold-hearted, vain, and ultimately insecure man is well documented in this outstanding biography by the former book editor of Punch. Lewis is unsparing of his subject's foibles without undercutting his achievements. After Sellers suffered a major heart attack in 1964, his career only inconsistently touched brillance. Lewis is at his best in describing performances by not only Sellers but his colleagues such as Alec Guinness. Highly recommended.‘Thomas J. Wiener, "Satellite DIRECT," Washington, D.C.

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