Lots of actors don't use the name they were born with, usually for marquee reasons. How Peter Sellers came to be called that is more complicated. Born in 1925, a year after the death of his parents' son Peter, Richard Sellers was called Peter from the start. "Conceived as a double, he was literally born to be a great impersonator," reasons biographer Lewis. British radio listeners discovered Sellers's comic gifts in The Goon Show of the 1950s, and moviegoers saw them in Dr. Strange-love and the Pink Panther series.
But those who knew Sellers, Lewis reports, saw other aftereffects of a childhood spent trying to be the perfect son to an overbearing mother. The actor was an infantile monster—killing a cockatoo and trying to drown a puppy during marital rages, abusing friendships, writing his children out of his will—and he was also just plain odd. Developing a romantic fixation on his friend Princess Margaret at one point, he wrote her love letters that he asked her to return so he could be buried with them. The married princess declared him "the most difficult man I know."
Lewis, who has also written about Laurence Olivier, is especially good on Sellers's early years, when he started out as a dance-band drummer and found his comic talent as a soldier entertaining the troops in India. After a massive heart attack in 1964 (brought on, the author says, by Sellers's taking drugs to enhance sex with Britt Ekland, the second of his four wives), he became as haunted by death (it arrived in 1980) as he was by his birth. Lewis argues that Sellers was "evil" on a par with "Roman emperors." That's too strong, but it's easier to forgive the excesses of this talented writer than those of the actor whom Panther director Blake Edwards calls "basically not a nice man." (Applause, $24.95)