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

November 03, 1996|Anne Beatts | 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.

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