Peter Sellers was one of the world’s greatest comic actors. He was recognised as a comic genius and was perhaps best known and loved for his brilliant performances as the bumbling Inspector Clouseau. Yet, for all his success, Sellers was an unhappy and insecure man driven by his belief in the paranormal.
Having worked alongside Sellers on several films, actor Simon Williams recalls that his friend was, like many performers, very aware of and very keen to learn new superstitions. “I remember telling him in Paris, that my father and Wilfred Hyde had got a superstition whereby if they saw two nuns in the street, you had to walk between them… and he loved that. He thought that was really good and said he was going to try it.”* His personal secretary, Hattie Proudfoot also recalled her employer’s obsession with superstitions. “If Peter was filming, and you went on the set wearing purple, that would be the end of the day. He couldn’t possibly go on filming because somebody had come in wearing purple.”*
However, rather than see such superstitious behaviour as part and parcel of his father’s theatrical profession, Sellers’ first child Michael, from his marriage to Ann Levey, saw his father’s actions as an excuse. “It allowed him to misbehave in one way, oh well, it is because he is superstitious, so in that case it is okay.” Astrologer Marjorie Orr assesses that “for people who are deeply superstitious, as Sellers was, it is a question of not feeling in control of anything and therefore you have to litter your life with talismans to make yourself feel you are keeping the unsafe world at bay.”
Behind the superstitions and in spite of Seller’s enormous successes as an actor, he was a deeply insecure man, and his superstitions were in fact only part of a much darker journey and a much deeper obsession with all things paranormal. It is believed that Sellers’ interest in this world began through his friendship with fellow Goon, Michael Bentine who himself had grown up surrounded by psychics. As Peter Evans, Sellers’ biographer and friend recalls, “Peter came under people’s influence, people that he admired and he was deeply impressed in the early days by Michael.”
Influenced by Bentine, and other friends in his spiritualist circles, Sellers started exploring other areas of the paranormal and developed a consuming interest in astrology, an interest that soon became a daily obsession which would govern his everyday movements and routine. He would spend a great deal of time and money on daily horoscopes and rely on his agents and secretaries to bring such regular information to him. As his personal assistant and confidante Bert Mortimer recalls, “There was a time when we were going down to Twickenham Studios and he had had a bad experience the night before and the horoscopes for this new day were not conducive to a good day. So he said to stop at the phone box and give the studios a ring and tell them he can’t make it in today.”
The more he tried to take control of the future through such spiritual and paranormal means, the more these obsessions took control of him. It is believed that it is Sellers’ professional and subsequent personal relationship with Clairvoyant Maurice Woodruff which shaped the rest of his life. Claiming he was the seventh son of a seventh son and a gypsy, Woodruff would give Sellers advice on all matters of his life, from his career to his women. Even when filming abroad, Sellers would use his assistant to contact Woodruff for psychic readings down the phone.
And when Sellers began to lose control of the world around him, as his marriage failed and his domestic life collapsed, he leant more and more heavily on Woodruff, to the extent that all major decisions were left in the hands of his clairvoyant. It was not long, however, before film-makers got wind of Woodruff’s hold over Sellers. As Evans recalls, “Producers would say to him, I’ve got a lovely part for Peter you know, if you could happen to mention it next time you are reading the tea cups it would be great for me and a couple of bob in it for you.”
Sellers’ son Michael was equally as mistrusting of his father’s clairvoyant. “He tells him you’re going to be doing this and this is going to be great for you and he does it and it is great and now he believes a hundred per cent in Maurice. Once it works, you are going to come back for more really aren’t you?”
*From 2002 documentary The Paranormal Peter Sellers.