Low-key heiress: Student Cassie Unger in jeans and flip-flops out in Hollywood
In her scruffy jeans, flip-flops and baggy T-shirt, she could easily pass for a penniless student.
But while her classmates at UCLA in California return after lectures to modest rented homes, Cassie Unger takes a short stroll from the college campus to her own £1.2 million luxury apartment, complete with 24-hour concierge.
Cassie’s wealthy lifestyle was paid for by the legendary British actor and comedian Peter Sellers.
At 25, she is too young ever to have met her benefactor – Cassie was born four years after Sellers died of a heart attack in 1980.
Nor is she related to the former Goon, who famously starred as the hapless Inspector Jacques Clouseau in the 1963 film The Pink Panther.
But in the week that The Pink Panther 2 starring Steve Martin is released, The Mail on Sunday can reveal this pretty and unassuming American student is sole heir to Sellers’ multi-million-pound fortune, the star’s own three children having received just £800 each.
Cassie seldom talks of the strange twist of fate that made her a millionairess or of her late mother, the minor British actress Lynne Frederick, who – crucially – was married to Sellers at the time of his sudden death nearly 30 years ago.
The couple had been married for only three years and Sellers and Frederick were bitterly estranged when he suffered the first in a series of major heart attacks that eventually killed him.
Friends always insisted he had begun legal moves to cut Frederick out of his will, but died before the relevant documents were signed.
The result was that his children Michael and Sarah (from first wife Anne Howe) and Victoria (by Swedish actress Britt Ekland) inherited only a token amount, complete with their father’s written admonition from beyond the grave that they should ‘stand on their own two feet’.
Victoria, who spent 20 years in and out of prison and rehab, now ekes out a living as a jewellery designer in Los Angeles. She has always blamed her father’s betrayal for her own alcohol and drug abuse.
Now 44, she told a friend: ‘It’s something that’s always haunted me.
'I always wonder what my life might have been if I had the money. What could I have accomplished?
Cassie's mother Lynne Frederick with Peter Sellers pictured in St Tropez where they Honeymooned
'Of course it hurts. It is still an open wound. It hurts that a girl who was not even a blood relative of my dad gets to have all the fruits of his labours.’
Victoria said her father never really loved any of his children and that the ‘final insult’ had been to exclude them from his will.
‘Dad snubbed us in his will – and I know Michael never got over it. He went to his grave feeling such pain,’ she said.
Michael, who died in 2006 from heart failure at the age of 52, appears to have suffered even more than Victoria.
Five years ago, while working as a building contractor in North London, he wrote an emotional account in The Mail on Sunday of his famous father, describing him as a spiteful and neglectful parent.
In one appalling incident when Michael was just five, Sellers thrashed him mercilessly with his belt after the boy innocently tried to repair a tiny scratch on his father’s beloved Bentley.
Even after venting his fury, Sellers stormed inside and took away all Michael’s toys – leaving only one, on a shelf he could not reach.
Michael also revealed that Sellers sent him a letter when he was in his early teens saying: ‘I no longer wish to be thought of as your father. The time has come for you to continue on your own way. My final suggestion is that you change your surname.’
Victoria Sellers always blamed her father for her own alcohol and drugs abuse
Sarah is the only one of the three who appears to have escaped her father’s shadow. Today she lives quietly and runs an antique teddy bear shop in Central London.
No one can know whether Michael and his two sisters would have been better off had Sellers lived long enough to rewrite his will.
Certainly, the actor’s last testament appeared to be carefully worded so as to give them no chance of legal challenge.
Michael wrote: ‘Had we been cut off with nothing, we could have challenged the will on the basis that he had forgotten to include us. But we were told that taking it to court would mean throwing away money we didn’t have.’
Victoria, however, was bolder than her brother and did end up challenging the will. She was subsequently awarded £10,000 to pay for her school fees.
Meanwhile Sellers’ £4.5million estate – including his property, art collection, family heirlooms and residual rights from his records and films – passed to Frederick who, six months later, married broadcaster Sir David Frost. They were divorced within a year.
Frederick increased her fortune by a further £1million by successfully suing the makers of the much-slated 1982 film Trail Of The Pink Panther.
It was made after Sellers’ death and brought Clouseau back to life by splicing together outtakes from previous films. Frederick claimed it tarnished her late husband’s memory.
Sellars' first wife Anne Howe with their children Sarah and Michael
Within months of her divorce from Frost in 1982, the actress was married again, this time to wealthy Californian heart specialist Dr Barry Unger.
That marriage was also to end in divorce, but not before Frederick had given birth to Cassie.
In the last few years of her life, Frederick had become obsessed with the memory of Sellers and kept a shrine to him in the Swiss chalet in Gstaad she inherited as part of his estate.
She insisted on being referred to as ‘Mrs Peter Sellers’ – even having that title printed on her chequebook and credit cards – and, as the drink took hold, would sit alone, vodka bottle in hand, watching his movies endlessly.
By the time she died in 1994, this once-beautiful woman, whose only real claim to fame was playing the part of Catherine Howard in a 1972 film about Henry VIII, weighed more than 18 stone. She took cocaine to help her lose weight and tranquillisers to help her sleep.
She was buried wearing a ring Sellers had given her that had once belonged to his mother.
Michael said: ‘Her money brought her no happiness. She died at 39, bloated and miserable and hopelessly addicted to drink and drugs. I was appalled when her ashes were mingled with my father’s.’
Victoria last saw Frederick three weeks before her death.
She told a friend last week: ‘I was so shocked. Lynne was sitting in her kitchen, dressed in a filthy kaftan. She could hardly move. She was swigging vodka directly from a jug with a handle on the side.’
Sellers with his second wife Britt Ekland at Guildford Registery Office in Surrey
Her decline – and obsession with Sellers – clearly caused pain to her third husband, Barry.
One of his friends said last week: ‘He never discusses the money or even mentions the Sellers name. It’s something the family just never talk about even to their closest friends.
‘When Lynne inherited the money, it caused nothing but grief. When she married again and had Cassie, she was still unhappy.
‘The money never brought Lynne any pleasure. The only time she felt recognition and a sense of accomplishment was when she was Peter’s wife. When she was no longer Mrs Sellers, no money and no child could replace the hole she felt.’
Sellers’ fortune passed into a trust fund – the Lynne Unger Children’s Trust – which is administered by a Californian accountancy firm in Santa Monica for Cassie’s benefit.
It was this trust that paid for Cassie’s luxurious university flat. The task of raising Cassie fell largely to Frederick’s mother Iris, a former BBC casting director who helped make a Sellers documentary, The Unknown Peter Sellers, and who moved to California to be near her granddaughter.
Victoria’s friend said: ‘Iris let Lynne follow her dreams but Hollywood ate Lynne up and spat her out. Iris was determined to shield Cassie.
‘Iris warned Lynne not to marry Peter. She believes if Lynne hadn’t become Mrs Peter Sellers she would probably be alive today. Now Cassie is the apple of her eye.
‘When you ask her why Peter left the money to Lynne, she says, “I guess she had some sort of hold over him that his children didn’t.”
‘Cassie has a good relationship with her father and sees him on weekends, but by the time Lynne died, he had remarried and had a second family and a busy medical practice.
‘Iris has deliberately kept Cassie out of the public eye and is determined the Sellers fortune will not destroy her the way it did her mother. Cassie is given certain things.
'But she is by no means a spoilt brat. Iris has instilled in Cassie the belief she needs to get a good education and stay away from the pitfalls of Hollywood – particularly the drugs and drink that killed her mother. Iris is a quietly formidable woman who is determined history will not repeat itself.’
Cassie declined to be interviewed, referring all inquiries to the lawyers who control her trust. But according to those who know her, she is a remarkably level-headed and ‘normal’ young woman, currently in the final stages of a four-year English degree at UCLA.
Before university, she spent two years studying at a small community college in the beach town of Santa Monica.
She leads a quiet life and is called ‘bookish’ by one college friend who said: ‘Cassie is like most students. She sleeps late and then walks to her local Starbucks and reads the paper and has a caffe latte. She is studying hard at the moment because she has her finals coming up.
‘She’s very low-key. She shops at the local supermarket and rarely goes out at night. She’s just a normal student, even if she does live in a luxury apartment and has millions in the bank.’
A doorman at the Venezia, the luxury five-storey apartment block that Cassie calls home, said: ‘Most people who live here are elderly or wealthy professionals. No one can figure out where she got the money. We just assumed it was family money. She’s a very quiet girl, she never has parties or friends around. I’ve never seen her with a boy.’
Although she goes by the name Cassie Unger at university, on the flat entry phone system, she is listed under the name ‘Frederick’.
On her Facebook page, Cassie notes her favourite films are the latest Clint Eastwood drama Gran Torino and the raunchy Mickey Rourke movie 91⁄2 Weeks. There is no mention of any Peter Sellers films.
Meanwhile, Victoria lives modestly in a rented two-bedroom apartment, just about managing to survive. Her friend added: ‘It seems very unfair but she has to live with it. What is the alternative? She’s thought about going to Cassie to ask for money, but told me she wouldn’t grovel for what is rightfully hers.
‘Victoria has nothing of her father’s. Cassie has everything – the awards, the films, his diaries, the family jewellery and artwork. What could it possibly mean to her?
‘She wasn’t even born when Peter Sellers died. I only hope Cassie does something good with the Sellers money. God only knows it has caused nothing but heartache so far.’
Steve Martin and John Cleese in the new film, The Pink Panther 2