EDNOTE.  This is VN very marginalia, but I was bemused to note Seller's character's name in STRANGELOVE--the milquetoast American President, Merkin Muffley. The word "merkin" provides VN with a bit of fun in LO. If I recall correctly (and I often don't) Terry Southern, who was often grouped with VN because of his comic novel CANDY, did the STRANGELOVE screen play.   I ran across an interesting interview in which Southern interviews Kubrick: see -- http://www.terrysouthern.com/archive/SKint.htmI
From: Sandy P. Klein
Sent: Friday, November 22, 2002 10:13 PM
Subject: In Lolita, Sellers was the shadowy antagonist Claire Quilty ...

Online at: http://www.projo.com/books/content/projo_20021110_sellers.2fe11.html

The unfunny life of Peter Sellers


Special to The Journal

He was a winner in his many classic roles, but a loser as a family man
MR. STRANGELOVE: A Biography of Peter Sellers, by Ed Sikov. Hyperion. 433 pages. $27.95.

"There is no such person."

The late filmmaker Stanley Kubrick, known as a sagacious seer of the human condition, made that observation about one of his favorite actors, Peter Sellers. "He was the only actor I knew who could really improvise," Kubrick added.

Indeed, the multi-talented Sellers did some of his best work in two Kubrick films: Lolita (1961) and Dr. Strangelove: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1963).

Ed Sikov, author of a biography of director Billy Wilder, obviously had that latter film in mind when he titled his Sellers biography, Mr. Strangelove, which turns out to be a workmanlike yet probing account of one of the most unusual figures to step in front of a movie camera.

Sellers, who died of heart failure in 1980 at the age of 54, was an acting chameleon. He could convincingly fit himself into the guise of a bumbling French gendarme (The Pink Panther movies), a ragtag busker (The Optimists, 1972), a middle-aged attorney with a hippie girlfriend (I Love You, Alice B. Tokas, 1968) or a lousy Brooklynesque concert pianist with a phony French accent designed to woo the ladies (The World of Henry Orient, 1964).

And he was perfectly up to the task of playing multiple characters in a single film. In Lolita, Sellers was the shadowy antagonist Claire Quilty, who in turn morphed into three disguises, including a hilarious German psychologist, "Dr. Zemf."

But it was Sellers's stunning performance(s) in Dr. Strangelove that truly showcased his genius. There he convincingly took on the appearance and accent of three entirely different characters: the milquetoast American President, Merkin Muffley; a stiff-upper-lip British officer (Group Captain Lionel Mandrake) and the neo-Nazi with the uncontrollable right arm, Strangelove himself.

Sikov's book -- the product of three years' research -- meticulously traces Sellers's unique style to the early 1950s and his days with Spike Milligan and Harry Seacombe on BBC radio's Goon Show.

Seller's many voice characterizations were "the boilerplate of his talent," Milligan is quoted as saying. Sellers didn't just do the voices, he became the characters. "He physically changed as he did the voice," Sikov quotes Seacombe.

Despite his obvious respect for his subject, Sikov is not afraid to swing a harsh lamp in Sellers's direction. "His ego was made up of multiplying electrons around no nucleus," he writes. And, "He had a dependence on his mother that verged on obscenity."

Sellers was a notorious womanizer. He was married four times, in each case to a nubile beauty. He had three children and cut all of them from his will. Indeed, a son, Michael, was the frequent recipient of physical abuse from his father.

"Peter used Mike as a punching bag," says Sellers's first wife, Anne. When she announced to Sellers that she was leaving him, Sellers "wrecked the entire living room. Have you ever seen a child lose its temper and go beserk and pick up things and throw them?"

Sellers could also be difficult on a movie set. Sikov reports that, while filming Alice B. Toklas, he demanded that guards be posted outside the set to keep people away. Yet when he worked for a director he respected, like Kubrick, he was a completely different person. On Lolita, Kubrick allowed Sellers free reign to improvise.

Sellers's most celebrated performance was the last great one he gave: that of the child-like "Chance the Gardener" in Hal Ashby's Being There (1979). For this part, Sikov reports, Sellers became Chance not only on the set, but off: "Throughout Being There Peter achieves the pinpoint-sharp exactitude of nothingness . . . a performance of extraordinary dexterity."

Arguably, no one but the eccentric Sellers could have played Chance. Sikov devotes a good deal of space to this film, including Sellers's understandable rage at Ashby's decision to include outtakes at the end of Being There, and his disconsolate state after losing his bid for an Academy Award.

Like all great funnymen, Sellers was, in reality, a decidedly unfunny man. But, as Sikov points out, the actor's legacy to us is solely what he left on film. And what a multifarious legacy it is.

Bob Leddy has a passion for movies, which he indulges more easily now that he is retired as a Journal sportswriter.


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