Behind Inspector Clouseau; the Funny, Often Elusive Peter Sellers and His wives.(BOOKS)

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These days a reader approaches any celebrity biography with more than a little trepidation, having been burned by innumerable earlier through-the-keyhole scandal sheets masquerading as thoughtful studies of a life. You only have to know about Peter Sellers' multiple marriages to understand that he's a prime candidate for this sort of expose. Uh-oh, one thinks as one pulls the latest Sellers biography out of its envelope, another nonpareil comic talent about to be given the treatment.

Happily, Ed Sikov's "Mr. Strangelove: A Biography of Peter Sellers" is the exception that proves the rule. To be sure, there's plenty of material in his book to please the gossip columnists because Sellers' life abounded in such material. But thanks to diligent research and insightful analysis, Mr. Sikov does what biographers are supposed to do: He helps us understand the personality - and the formation of the personality - that produced such behavior.

He also comes probably as close as anyone can to explaining just what made Sellers funny. Mr. Sikov hasn't just written a celebrity biography. He's rehabilitated a literary form.

Sellers was born in 1925, the son of vaudeville entertainers. His childhood was dreadful: His mother, an overprotective, domineering stage mother, determined that Peter (he was named after an earlier, stillborn, son) would go into showbusiness as well. The family led an itinerant existence, moving repeatedly in search of commercial opportunity and, Mr. Sikov suggests, occasionally trying to stay one step ahead of the law.

An only child, Sellers spent much time alone. Like Steve Martin and Robin Williams, other such children who later became successful comedians, he sought refuge in the life of the imagination, in Sellers' case, by listening to the British Broadcasting Corporation.It was by whiling away the hours next to the radio that he discovered his twin avocations: mimicry, which was to be the root of his success as an actor, and improvisation. As radio and, later, movie audiences were to learn, Sellers was to evolve into a preternaturally gifted mimic. As fellow comedian Eric Sykes put it, "You'd be in a taxi with Peter, and he'd listen to the taxi driver talking. 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."

After World War II, Sellers effectively forced his way into his beloved BBC. by phoning a producer and, mimicking a current star, told him to give Peter Sellers a job. The producer did. By the early 1950s, Sellers had hooked up with Spike Milligan and Harry Secombe and created "The Goons" an anarchic, absurdist radio show that perfectly captured the mood of postwar Britain and that, despite initial BBC misgivings (one executive asked "What is this 'Go On Show,' about anyway?") swept the country.

The program's first broadcasts attracted about 300,000 listeners, but by the end of its first 17-week season, was being heard by nearly two million people. "The Goons," which ran for nearly a decade and prefigured the later "Monty Python" series, became Sellers' ticket to stardom: Theatrical engagements and, most important, movies followed.

Yet, to put it mildly, there was a downside to Sellers' enormous comedic gifts. Sellers could "become" different people, but there was no Peter Sellers. Friends and colleagues quickly noticed that the actor himself was a cipher, a man with no personality of his own, an empty vessel into which were temporarily poured different human concoctions . (And it started early. Tellingly, Mr. Sikov notes that, "The most striking feature of Peter Sellers' schooldays is the fact that practically nobody remembered him. …