Many actors are superstitious. Some like Peter Bull kept a collection of Teddy bears to bring him good luck; others like Jack Lemmon said the words, “It’s magic time,” before filming each scene. But few have ever been quite as obsessed with superstitions and the occult as comedy genius, Peter Sellers.
Sellers’ introduction to the Occult came via fellow Goon, Michael Bentine, the “Watford-born Peruvian,” who had grown-up in a household where seances and table-turning were regularly practiced. Not long after they first met, Bentine told Sellers of his psychic abilities - how during the Second World War, when Bentine served in the Royal Air Force, he had been able to tell which of his comrades would die before a bombing mission. Bentine claimed if he saw a skull instead of his colleague’s features, then he knew this person would be killed. How often Bentine was correct in these predictions is not known. No matter, Sellers was greatly impressed by the shock-haired comic and was soon obsessed with all things paranormal.
From then on, Sellers collected superstitions, as easily as others collect stamps. He refused to wear green or act with anyone dressed in the color. If anyone gave him something sharp, he gave them a penny. He read his horoscopes every day so he would always know what he should do.
Sellers often said he had no idea who he was: “If you ask me to play myself, I will not know what to do. I do not know who or what I am.” This was his way of renouncing any responsibility for his actions. He claimed he found comfort and stability in consulting clairvoyants and fortune tellers, which again only underlines the fact he did know who he was - a control freak, who wanted power over his future. It was inevitable, therefore, that once under the spell of sooth-sayers and psychics, Sellers was open to fraudsters, tricksters and con-men.
The clairvoyant who had most influence over his life was Maurice Woodruff, the famed TV and newspaper astrologer, whose syndicated column reached over fifty million people at the height of his career. Woodruff received over 5,000 letters a week, asking for advice and had a Who’s Who of of celebrity clients, including composer Lionel Bart and actor Diana Dors. Woodruff had famously predicted the death of President John F. Kennedy and the end of the Vietnam War. Sellers was devoted to Woodruff, consulting him before he accepted any film roles, and regularly had tarot readings performed over the telephone. But Woodruff was heavily in debt and open to the persuasion of earning a little cash when film studios asked him to suggest film scripts to Sellers.
One famous tale, recounts how Woodruff was asked to suggest the initials of director Blake Edwards as being very important to Sellers. Unfortunately, Sellers failed to connect ‘B.E.’ with the famous Hollywood director. On return to the Dorchetser Hotel, his usual residence when in London, Sellers was smitten by the sight of a beautiful, young blonde-haired woman at reception. When he enquired who was this vision of loveliness, he was told Britt Ekland. Sellers recalled Woodruff’s prediction and married Ekland within weeks.
Not long after the marriage, Sellers suffered a multiple-heart attack in California, in part caused by his heavy use of Amyl Nitrite. As he later told his close friend and first biographer, Peter Evans:
“When a 38-year-old bloke marries a 21-year-old bird, he needs all the help he can get. We used poppers (amyl nitrite), you know, to tweak the thrill a bit. Bubbly, poppers and Britt. It was all too much. Before I knew it, I was dead as a bloody kipper.”
Sellers ‘died’ on the the operating table, and had an out-of-body experience that influenced the rest of his life.
“Well, I felt myself leave my body. I just floated out of my physical form and I saw them cart my body away to the hospital. I went with it ... I wasn’t frightened or anything like that because I was fine; and it was my body that was in trouble. I looked around myself and I saw an incredibly beautiful bright loving white light above me. I wanted to go to that white light more than anything. I’ve never wanted anything more. I know there was love, real love, on the other side of the light which was attracting me so much. It was kind and loving and I remember thinking That’s God.
“Then I saw a hand reach through the light. I tried to touch it, to grab onto it, to clasp it so it could sweep me up and pull me through it.” But just then his heart began beating again, and at that instant the hand’s voice said, “It’s not time. Go back and finish. It’s not time.”
More probably, Sellers had seen the doctor who had massaged his heart back to life.
Following his death experience, Sellers immersed himself in the Occult. He began to practice Ouija and increased his use of marijuana to open up his untapped psychic powers. Through Ouija, Sellers had conversations with a variety famous people from history, leading friend and fellow Goon, Spike Milligan, to jest that Sellers seemed to only make contact with the likes of Napoleon, Julius Ceaser and Leonardo Da Vinci, rather than an ordinary Joe.
Sellers believed the Occult shaped his performances. For The Optimists (aka The Optimist of Nine Elms) he believed he was possessed by Music Hall comic, Dan Leno, who created the central character of Sam. Sellers used Ouija to talk with Leno, who seemed oblivious to anything had gone wrong in his life, which was odd, considering the great Music Hall comic died at the age of 43, from “General Paralysis Of The Insane,” or syphilis, in a lunatic asylum. For his last great performance, as Chance, in Being There, he channelled Stan Laurel to create the role.
When his mother, Peg, died, Sellers claimed he kept in touch with her by using a ouija board. Apparently, Peg was more interested in her pet dog, who was also on the other side, rather than what her son was up to. Convinced he would live to be in his seventies, Sellers refused to have the open-heart surgery that could have saved his life. He died of a heart-attack at the age of 54, in 1980.