(Just Barely) Being There
While an undergraduate during the late ‘80s, at the tail-end of the comedy club boom, I worked as a barback and cook at a now-defunct chuckle joint called A Comic Cafe. During my two summers and a Christmas break there, I was lucky enough to see talented people like Drew Carey, Brett Butler, Jeff Foxworthy, and Sinbad perform their craft before they landed sitcoms and book deals and became stiflingly unfunny.
Along the way I learned three very important things about the lives of working comedians: a) one should never trot out cerebral material on a Saturday night; b) most comics would rather be locked in a room with a family of rabid mandrills than with a pair of morning drive-time DJs; and c) aside from, say, air-traffic controlling, comedy may boast the highest percentage of chronic depressives of any profession.
The “tears of a clown” cliché immortalized by Pagliacci and Smokey Robinson is, like most clichés, largely true. The reason for this, as I’ve maintained here before, is undoubtedly tied into the particular wiring in the heads of people who need to perform. Considering that the number-one fear for most of us is speaking before a crowd, those who actively seek to act or sing or tell jokes on a stage are categorically outside the norm. While it would be wrong to suggest that all performers are driven by deficient egos and a need for approval, it is plainly evident that many are so motivated. It is no coincidence that so many performers who’ve attained the highest tier of celebrity have also proven to be rife with instability and eccentricities: Elvis, Marilyn, Liza, Madonna, Michael Jackson, Prince . . .
For a number of years in the ‘60s and ‘70s, Peter Sellers was the most bankable movie star in the UK and a major draw in America on the strength of such films as Lolita, Dr. Strangelove, and Blake Edwards’s Pink Panther series. Before that, Sellers and partners Spike Milligan, Harry Secombe, and Michael Bentine, were radio and television pioneers with The Goon Show, a weekly parade of surreal and absurdist sketch comedy which inspired, among others, Monty Python’s Flying Circus, Saturday Night Live, and the humor of the Beatles.
At the top of his game, Sellers was one of the genuine Jet Set, flitting between hot spots, hobnobbing with rock stars and royalty, awash in material excess. According to Ed Sikov’s Mr. Strangelove, Peter Sellers was also hopelessly neurotic, paranoid, violent, and possessed an Oedipus complex the size of Big Ben. Sikov posits that the role with which Sellers most identified was the walking tabula rasa Chance the gardener, from 1979’s Being There, a man so devoid of personality that he became whatever other people expected him to be. Sellers’ particular genius was his ability to create and embody—to channel, almost—fully realized comic personae, not hard to do when one has no identity of one’s own to get in the way. Thus even a one-note joke like Inspector Clouseau had more substance to him than did Sellers, the quintessential Man Who Wasn’t There.
Sellers’ story is like that of another Peter, a boy who never grew up. Born into a family of burlesque performers with a musician father who was barely around even when he was home, Sellers’ mother compensated for the meanness of their circumstances by spoiling her son rotten. Whether clothes, toys, or a drum kit when it was discovered he had an aptitude for it, whatever Peter wanted Peter got. As often is the case, such excessive dotage fostered in Sellers an unwavering identification between material things and expressions of love, a compulsive need for immediate gratification, and a decidedly unhealthy dependence on his mother, all of which would be factors throughout his life. Sellers could never simply be interested in a girl, but rather he would fall instantly into obsession, proposing marriage on the spot and threatening to kill himself if the girl of the moment said no. This scenario played out again and again, through four marriages, a brief and bizarre engagement to Liza Minelli, and a pursuit of Sophia Loren that bordered on stalking.
Like most compulsive personalities, Sellers got bored or unhappy with what he had almost as soon as he had gotten it. Sellers would buy flashy cars, electronics, and other toys on impulse and then dispose of them just as quickly. Unfortunately Sellers appears to have felt that way about his wives and children as well, swinging unpredictably at times between utter indifference and outright physical abuse. Professionally, Sellers gained a reputation as a brilliant performer but a nightmare on the set. Too impatient to deal with repeated takes that robbed him of his spontaneity and yet always convinced that his directors manhandled his performances, Sellers would often hijack or sabotage his own films. Sellers made bitter enemies of such luminaries as Billy Wilder and Orson Welles, and several of the movies Sellers made with Blake Edwards were under such a cloud of animosity that actor and director communicated solely by sending notes to each other.
Deeply superstitious, Sellers consulted a quack psychic for career advice and once shut down a day’s filming because an actress wore purple, a color he associated with death. This is not to say that Peter Sellers was a monster, just a supercharged mixture of volatile contradictions. Terminally self-absorbed but with no discernible self on which to fixate, ever money-conscious but with wildly extravagant tastes, an extremely undisciplined perfectionist, Sellers’ life resembled the anarchic black comedy that was his professional forte, a point Sikov notes and on which he structures Mr. Strangelove. As with so many other wild talents, Sellers’ particular genius was the byproduct of a constant struggle to force his psyche and the world to make sense.
Sikov’s book may be the most painful celebrity bio I’ve read since Albert Goldman’s Elvis (the similarities between the two men’s lives are startling), and though Sikov’s treatment of his subject is certainly more sympathetic than Goldman’s Louisville Slugger assault on the King, it is likely to taint one’s appreciation of Sellers’ work, which is unfortunate. Like most working-class British actors of his generation (Michael Caine and Sean Connery, to name two), for whom any work was better than no work, Sellers’ filmography is filled with failed experiments and genuine bombs. But his best films, made so on the strength of his unique characterizations—Quilty, Strangelove, Clouseau, Chance—remain truly brilliant and his influence on modern comedy, and thus the way many of us view this absurd world, cannot be appreciated enough.
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