Book Sellers
When a biography of Peter Sellers -- Mr. Strangelove by Ed Sikov -- was published last year, Python Michael Palin reviewed it for the New York Times.

Here are all the paragraphs of the review, in order:

''How many of us really did know Peter?'' David Niven asked in his eulogy at Sellers's memorial service in 1980. Quite a challenge for would-be biographers, and though Ed Sikov's book is not the first to rise to it, the aptly titled ''Mr. Strangelove'' is the most comprehensive account of Sellers's life I've read.

I didn't know Peter Sellers well enough to be able to say that I never really knew him. Our paths crossed only once, in a television studio, when he emerged from a dressing room door as I was walking past. To my eternal embarrassment I went involuntarily into the voice of Eccles from ''The Goon Show'' -- not even one of his characters. Sellers smiled tolerantly, disappeared round the corner, and that was that. Much later I described our brief meeting to Spike Milligan. ''I met Sellers once. I passed him in a studio in North London.''

Spike winced. ''That must have been painful.''

From the age of 9 or 10, when I first became aware that the funniest voices on the radio all belonged to the same man, Peter Sellers became one of the best reasons to be young and living in England. ''The Goon Show,'' in which he and Milligan teamed up with Harry Secombe, was to comedy what Elvis Presley was to pop music -- a quantum leap forward, a permanent and irreparable rupture with a staid and conventional past and, more personally, a discovery of my own that could not be shared with anyone of an older generation. The wireless set on which I first heard the Goons was the same one on which we listened to royal funerals and Oxford and Cambridge boat races. When my father first heard the quivering voices of Minnie Bannister and Henry Crun, the shrill complaints of Bluebottle and the cathartic roars of Major Bloodnok as he dealt with the aftereffects of another strong curry, he assumed there must be something wrong with the speakers. When he discovered it was meant to sound like that, he just shook his head and left me alone.

Milligan and Sellers became my friends, or rather their characters did. They were silly and idiotic but somehow real, and I was pleased to read that Sellers felt the same thing too. ''To all of us, they absolutely lived,'' Sikov quotes him as saying. Milligan, looking back on the rich gallery of Sellers's characters, called them ''the boiler house of his talent.''

This talent took many forms, the greatest of which, for me, was his ability to invest dignity in even the most outlandish characters. Sikov uses as an example an outrageously camp character called Sir Jervis Fruit. Sellers, he writes, ''believes in Fruit. There's no contempt or derision.''

People talk with awe of the way Sellers was taken over by the characters he played. Even on the radio, Sikov writes, he physically changed as he did the different voices. This transcended mere imitation. ''You'd be in a taxi with Peter,'' one of the scriptwriters on ''The Goon Show,'' Eric Sykes, says, ''and when he would get out, he would be the taxi driver. But not only in words and voice. His whole metabolism would have changed.''

Sellers was also a master of understatement. As much as any comic actor I know, with the possible exception of John Cleese, Sellers realized how much funnier comedy can be if played not only straight but with gravity and conviction. As Sikov writes, ''He remains to this day the master of playing men who have no idea how ridiculous they are.'' He was blessed with an inexhaustible gift for mimicry, what Sikov calls his ''omnidextrous voice.'' The only accent that defeated him, apparently, was Texan.

Throughout my teens I never missed a Sellers film. His performances in ''The Ladykillers'' (1955) and ''I'm All Right, Jack'' (1959) defined good comic acting, and I had a gut feeling that whatever Sellers was doing was what I wanted to do.

I was pleased to learn that I was not the only one to be dazzled. Woody Allen, whom Sellers apparently treated highhandedly during the filming of ''What's New, Pussycat?,'' thought he had ''the funniness of genius.'' The G-word is also used by Liza Minnelli and many others. The director Peter Hall thought Sellers as good an actor as Alec Guinness or Laurence Olivier, who had confidence enough in Sellers to ask him to take on King Lear. He turned it down, not thinking himself good enough.

Yet even as Sikov examines Sellers's qualities, clues to his darker side emerge. The reason he could so completely and convincingly inhabit a character was that he felt much more comfortable in someone else's world than in his own. ''I'm like a mike -- I have no set sound of my own,'' he once said. ''I pick it up from my surroundings.'' His prodigious output of 67 films in less than 30 years is interpreted by Sikov as a desperate attempt to avoid playing the one part that terrified him, Peter Sellers.

Sikov offers various reasons for Sellers's self-loathing. His father was weak and frequently absent (Milligan called him ''the original man who never was''); his mother, who at one time ate bananas underwater in a show called ''Splash Me!,'' was dominating and controlling. From Sellers's birth in 1925, she smothered him with affection, while expecting him to spend much of his childhood cooped up in dressing rooms while she pursued her stage career. He hated his appearance and once told an interviewer that ''I writhe when I see myself on the screen. . . . Some fat awkward thing dredged up from some third-rate drama company.''

His mother gave him everything except a sense of proportion. As she spoiled him, so he in turn spoiled himself, buying and selling recklessly. If he wanted it, he had to have it, and he had to have it right away. There was no sense of restraint. Interests became manias. The same compulsive intensity that led him to the heart of the characters he played drove his private life. Gadgets, photography, women, fast cars were picked up and cast aside with equal enthusiasm. Sikov quotes Sellers's friend Jimmy Grafton as saying that all comedians are manic-depressives to some degree, but nothing in the book fully explains the flip side of Sellers's genius -- the violence and abuse directed toward his four wives and three children, the tantrums, the lashing out at good friends, the manipulative deviousness, the unreliability and the sublime selfishness that grew with his wealth and recognition.

Sikov, the author of books on Billy Wilder and American film comedy, takes care to balance the horror stories with testimony from those who loved Sellers and loved working with him, and a book that could have been sensational is fair and thorough. A few stones are left half-turned. Maurice Woodruff, the phony clairvoyant whom Sellers consulted on a daily basis for many years, seems to drop out of the story without explanation, and the account of the split-up with Liza Minnelli is tantalizingly brusque. (While I'm in quibble mode, the restaurant where the Goons and friends used to meet is spelled Tratoo, not Tratou.)

''Mr. Strangelove,'' with all its unhappy revelations, does not, for me, reduce the delight of watching and listening to Sellers's work. That it draws attention to his bad behavior is at best a clue to his talent, and at worst the price you pay for being interesting. Sikov has pulled off the difficult trick of producing both an authoritative biography and a compulsive page turner. He is careful to let his sources do most of the talking, interjecting his own pithy and relevant judgments here and there to keep the whole thing on course. That the course is a slow, remorseless slide into a brick wall is the fault of the subject rather than the author.


Click here to listen to Sellers recite the lyrics of A Hard Day's Night in the style of Olivier's Richard the Third.

Click here to listen to Sellers in a sketch called "A Right Bird." (From here.)