Michael Sellers on his father, Peter
"No, no," he says as sweat starts to form on his brow. "It’s bad luck."
The superstition was inherited from his father but he’s keen to stress it’s the only one that’s been passed down to him. For Peter Sellers, the actor, was world-class at bodyswerving ladders and hoping at the same time that a black cat would scamper across his path. Many of us are superstitious to some degree, and actors probably attach more credence than most to old wives’ tales. But Michael’s old man was a walking compendium of hang-ups. Except when he got bad vibes from reading his horoscope over breakfast. Then he wouldn’t walk out of the house, onto a film set, anywhere.
You’re probably thinking: so far, so eccentric. If he wasn’t bonkers before the surreal humour of The Goons and the slapstick comedy of all those Pink Panther movies, his day job must have turned him mad. But a new TV documentary disabuses you of notions of mere whimsy. The Paranormal Peter Sellers describes how a superstitious nature handed down by his mother snowballed into a dangerous obsession with the spiritual, the occult and the well weird which completely consumed him.
It’s the programme’s contention that the obsession damaged Sellers’ career, wrecked his relationships with his four wives and his children, indeed destroyed his life. Michael, his only son, is better placed than most to respond to these claims. Now 48, he’s come off a north London building-site to talk about his late dad over a pint of cider in a pub next to the Lords cricket ground. There is little family resemblance in his round, ruddy face. Emotional scars? He doesn’t think he has any of those either, though after the childhood he had, you might doubt this.
"Dad was fascinated with all things new and strange," Michael begins. "They influenced his career choices, and I don’t think he was the best at picking his roles. But they didn’t break up his marriage to my mother [Sellers’ first wife, the actress Anne Hayes]. His infatuation with Sophia Loren did that. And I’m not sure you could say that in the end they destroyed him, although they loomed large in his life. If he was destroyed by anything, it was the freedom afforded him by his wealth and fame."
All of which leaves Sellers’ relationship with Michael... It was the keys thing Michael noticed first. "I never knew Dad to be anything other than very superstitious. He went to see a clairvoyant when he was very young and was told he would become a household name, fall very ill in middle-age and live to the age of 76. Everything came true apart from the last bit."
The highly suggestible Sellers didn’t leave anything to chance, not even that reading. He regularly visited other clairvoyants, notably Maurice Woodruff, a gay seventh-son-of-a-seventh-son, and Michael remembers having to wait in the car while his father had his consultations.
"What Maurice said, went. There was a famous time when Dad was told how someone with the initials BE would change his life. Dad took that to mean Britt Ekland and married her. But it might just as easily have been the director Blake Edwards who cast him as Inspector Clouseau. The Pink Panther films dragged his career out of the doldrums, so you would have to say the relationship with Blake was the more productive."
In old Swinging Sixties footage glimpsed in the documentary, Sellers looks impossibly glamorous, an international superstar right down to his velvet cuffs, as he hangs out with the Beatles and some of the most beautiful women in the world. In other shots, barechested and bronzed, he steers his speedboat straight at the sun. "It was the Age of Aquarius," says the programme, "so in common with many others of that time he would never let a spiritual bangwagon pass him by." Some highs were chemically induced, of course, but he took Princess Margaret - another lover - to seances.
So did that jet-set sheen hide insecurities? "Superstitions are weird things," says Michael. "If you’re suggesting a weakness, I suppose Dad used his funny fads as excuses. He couldn’t do that because of this, and so on. In his religious beliefs, he jumped from horse to horse. I suppose he was always looking, questing for something."
He laughs. "Dad could never bloody settle! If he had a row with the neighbours, he’d tell us we were moving house. He’d buy a new car because the ashtray was full. Between 1947 and 1967 he averaged five cars a year. My favourite of them was a Ferrari 275GTB. It was supposed to be for Britt but he kept it."
But for every funny story about Sellers, Michael can summon up a few to make you wince. When he was six, his father woke him in the middle of the night to ask him if his parents should divorce. "They often argued, but I didn’t know what divorce meant. When he told me, I said no."
When he was seven, Sellers challenged him on which parent he liked best - then flew into a rage when he answered, "Mummy." A year later, he wrote his son a letter disowning him and suggested he take his mother’s maiden name as his surname.
Michael laughs again. His mother, now 77, often reassures him about how well he has turned out, despite everything. "Friends wonder, when bad things happen to me, how I can just shrug them off. Well, my childhood gives me my sense of perspective. Dad did some horrendous things to me and my sister Sarah. I’ve been hardened by them, but I try not to be too cynical."
Some of these things would nowadays be class ed as mental abuse. Did Sellers ever hit him? "Only once. I was five and we went for a run in Dad’s brand-new Bentley. But some chippings bounced off the road and hit the car and he drove us home in a foul mood. Later, I went down to the garage and found a pot of touch-up paint and tried to cover over the blemishes. I thought I was doing a good thing, but he went berserk. He took off his belt and thrashed me, then he confiscated all my toys."
In the documentary, friends describe how Sellers wasn’t content with his own superstitions; he magpied others from fellow actors. From Peter O’Toole, he nicked a paranoia about the colour green (though he always wore purple when he was on set). From Wilfred Hyde White, he appropriated the belief that if you could squeeze yourself between two nuns walking in the street, you would enjoy good fortune.
"Dad always joked that he’d had the real Peter Sellers surgically removed," says Michael. It’s an actor’s job, of course, to get inside the characters they play; when they’re completely taken over by their alter egos, some remarkable performances can result (and also some overblown ones). Sellers, though, didn’t seem to switch off. The programme describes him as a "hollow man out-of-character, always waiting for the next role". He stole from everyone around him, just like Chance in Being There - a part he was born to play.
Friends contributing to the documentary can’t seem to agree on who the real Sellers was. One suggests that, deep down, he was Suburban Man: "He could have been a bank manager. He had an ordinary, boring set of values that were knocked haywire by superstardom." But another laments the fact she never once saw him light a fire or make a cup of tea.
"Dad always wanted to be special," says Michael. "If he didn’t have a new character on the go, he got bored. I think he found himself quite boring. He didn’t like the suburban aspect of himself, and if Sarah and I lapsed into cockney-speak, he’d give us a row. He found the day-to-day totally abhorrent."
Growing up, Michael did not bond with Sellers. "He wasn’t very good at playing dad, but he was outstanding in the role of an angry man." Once, Michael sneaked a look at his school report. It said: "This boy craves the attention of his father." But he enjoyed a good relationship with his mother’s second husband, Ted Levy, an architect. "He gave me the guidance I needed. Dad’s advice would have been: ‘Spend it!’
"Dad squandered millions. Cars, boats, private jet travel - he hated flying public. And wives, of course. The 21-year-old, blonde, blue-eyed ones he married certainly don’t come cheap."
Michael liked Ekland - "I had to chaperone her on clubbing nights in Switzerland when Dad didn’t want to go - that did wonders for a 14-year-old boy’s confidence" - but didn’t really get to know his father’s third wife, Miranda Quarry. In 1980, when Sellers died of a heart attack, aged 54, he left his 4 million fortune to his fourth wife, Lynne Frederick. His children got just 800 each.
"Well, obviously I was pissed off," says Michael. "Especially later, when things got harder for me." (A classic-car business went bust, forcing him to return to the building trade.) But was it a shock to be disinherited? "Not really, not after all those times when he chucked Sarah and me out of his house and had his chauffeur dump all our toys at Mum’s." Frederick, he insists, was a gold-digger. "She took decisions regarding Dad’s health that did not prolong his life." She later died of drug and alcohol abuse, with just 27,000 of her inheritance left.
Michael managed to bond with his father in his final years despite him seeming to lose it as an actor, fleeing a set because he was terrified of co-star Orson Welles’ reputation, and at other times, according to the programme, behaving like a "mad Roman emperor". When his son’s first wife, Kathy, left him after just six weeks for another man, Sellers got on the phone. "I was sulking in Swiss Cottage. So he hired a jet and a few hours later we were in Switzerland. At last we had something in common we could talk about - strife with women."
Michael is currently coping with some more strife - he and his second wife Alison are divorcing after 22 years. "It’s sad, but we’ve just drifted apart."
While she looks after their children, William and Hannah, he plans to get himself a bedsit in London where his building work is centred. But he has a dream… "I’m not in the place I wanted to be: almost 50 and single again. I could either go ‘Woe is me’ or do what I’ve always wanted to do. Me and a mate, we have this band. It’s been a hobby thing so far, but now were thinking: ‘Let’s go for it!’ I think I was a disappointment to Dad because I didn’t do anything creative. I loved him despite everything, and of course I loved his work, but he was an impossible act to follow. Now, just maybe, he might be proud of me…"
The Paranormal Peter Sellers is on Channel 4 tonight at 9.30pm.