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Ed Sikov, biographer of comedy legend Peter Sellers

The May issue of readersvoice.com talks to a crime reporter, and a comics artist who once set up a lectern at the sheet metal factory where he worked, so he could do some reading. But first up, a biographer of comedy legend Peter Sellers. Ed Sikov is the author of MR STRANGELOVE, (Sidgwick and Jackson). He's written a few books on Hollywood, particularly about comedy, including ON SUNSET BOULEVARD: The Life and Times of Billy Wilder; and LAUGHING HYSTERICALLY: American screen comedies of the 1950s.Reader's Voice asked Ed Sikov about MR STRANGELOVE and got some reading tips, of course.

READER’S VOICE: How long did Mr. Strangelove take to write after the subject was suggested to you by the editor of your biography of Billy Wilder, and her assistant, at Hyperion?

ED SIKOV: Researching and writing MR STRANGELOVE took about two and a half years. I spent the first year and a half doing nothing but research, so I’d be able to concentrate solely on the writing when the time came.

RV: How did you go about researching the book? What did you do first and what else was involved?

ES: Mr Strangelove is my second biography – the first was ON SUNSET BOULEVARD: The Life and Times of Billy Wilder – so I had a working system already. I started by accumulating as much raw data as I could, in no particular order, just to get a sense of what was out there. Then I went to London and to Los Angeles a couple times each to do archival research – I live in New York – and I began setting up and conducting interviews, some in person, some by phone. I also tracked down almost all of Sellers’ films; there are over 60 of them. A portrait of Sellers began to emerge over time, though frankly at a certain point the stories of his bad behavior started to depress me greatly and I wondered if I could continue. Then a friend suggested I write the book as a black comedy, and that made it possible to keep going. As it turned out, I grew to like Peter Sellers a lot; the bad behavior was only part of the picture. And I never grew tired of his performances.RV: There must be thousands of Peter Sellers anecdotes. Did you have trouble deciding which to include? Which is your favorite?

ES: I went for the most colorful tales, of course, but I also went for stories and observations that struck me as most representative of his complex nature. I wanted to be fair. For example, I was honored to interview Sir Alec Guinness shortly before he died; virtually everything he told me went into the book. How could I leave any of it out? Sir Alec said, among other things, that he and David Niven actually saw Sellers down on his knees with a tape measure measuring his dressing room trailer on the set of Murder By Death to make sure it was bigger than everyone else’s. That’s one of my favorite tales. As Sir Alec put it, “I think he’d gone rather round the bend by then.” At the same time, Peter’s old friend Max Geldray told me at much greater length about his incredible generosity and kindness, and while that sort of stuff isn’t necessarily entertaining as an anecdote, it’s still key to Sellers’ personality, and I included as much of it as I could.

RV: Can you give an idea of some of the most important books for you that you’ve read over the years, and a bit about why? What are some of the best books on humor and comedy that you’ve read?

ES: Gee, where to start? One book that turned my life around is LOLITA– still my favorite novel. I reread it for Mr Strangelove because Sellers plays Quilty in Kubrick’s

film, and I realized that the book is both funnier and sadder now that I’m middle aged, like Humbert. (Well, sort of like Humbert.) E. M. Forster’s MAURICE always affects me. It may not be as magnificent as A PASSAGE TO INDIA, but it’s still the best coming out novel ever written. When I was in college and read ULYSSES I wanted to write like James Joyce, but of course that’s impossible. And I tend to take Dickens on vacations. Right now I’m reading MIDDLEMARCH for the first time. As for books about comedy, Freud’s JOKES AND THEIR RELATION TO THE UNCONSCIOUSis fascinating, but it only goes so far.

RV: What would it be like now for people who lived with Peter Sellers? Do you think they’d have trouble just living a normal life having had such a major character pass through it. He’d be a hard act to follow, and I imagine people would always be hanging onto that time they knew him and not really moving on. Is this the case?

ES: Not really. I talked to a number of his close friends, and they’re all amazingly loyal to him to this day – very protective. They genuinely liked Peter and appreciated him for who he was, troubles and all. But none of them really lives in the past – no more than the rest of us, anyway. They feel lucky to have known such a dazzling and complicated guy, and I can see why. But he’s not the center of their lives any more, and I don’t even think he was at the time. They had wives and kids and careers of their own.

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