Terence Stamp: A Fascinating Life and Career, Albeit One Filled with Insecurities
By: Ellis Nassour
Terence Stamp not only thrived in the swinging ’60s but also defined the period. He was not only talented, though often he didn’t believe it, but was also considered one of the most desirable men in the world. He had affairs with many women who were most every man’s dream. However, there were problems that almost ended his career.
Stamp, soon to turn 75, has appeared in over 60 films. He’s been Oscar-nominated, won a Golden Globe, a Cannes Film Festival Award, and, among numerous other honors, the Berlin Film Festival Silver Bear.
Straight out of drama school, he shot to fame in his second film, the lead in Sir Peter Ustinov’s film adaptation of Melville’s Billy Budd (1962), which earned him the Oscar nod and international attention. He was part of a new working-class generation that included Michael Caine, Albert Finney, and Peter O’Toole. However, for two years after Billy Budd, Stamp rejected roles "because they weren’t fulfilling enough."
He did go on to astonishing work with such top directors as William Wyler, John Schlesinger, and Fellini. However, after a storied career, everything changed as the 60s drew to a close.
Though Stamp says he didn’t realize it at the time, his career was in downfall. After a couple of flops at the start of the 70s, he suddenly found that things dried up. "I stopped getting lead offers. I was spoiled. I was of the mind that I shouldn’t do just anything, only what interested me. I didn’t want to play lorry drivers. I’d done that. I wanted to play princes, counts, intellectuals, and things that I wasn’t."
Those roles weren’t forthcoming. However, he had a distraction. He was still over-the-top for supermodel Jean Shrimpton, who had transformed his life. They were everywhere, always photographed, the couple of the moment. As they jetsetted the world, Stamp even began turning down character roles. "I’d become a creature of my ego," he says. "I wasn’t ready for that."
Even when the roles he preferred didn’t come, he kept himself in shape. But he spoke of an inner emptiness that success hadn’t filled: "I assumed my sense of heartfelt poverty would be transformed when I became rich and famous. It took me years to understand that the void was still there. I soon realized that if I couldn’t fill it with one Rolls Royce, I couldn’t fill it with three."
That inner struggle partly led to the traumatic breakup with Shrimpton. Stamp packed his bags and "dropped out" for 10 years – a lot of those spent in India seeking a spiritual reawakening. "It was a self-imposed voyage to reconnect with myself. Before long, I had a beard and hadn’t cut my hair in God knows how long."
He still speaks with angst about the breakup. "That beautiful creature represented something permanent in my life. When she proved to be impermanent, I had to question my values. I became introspective. I could see our breakup wasn’t her fault. I was impossible to live with. I had a monster ego."
He felt his personality flaw was subtle. Producers didn’t. He was no longer matinee idol material. "I saw it as a lull," he admits, "so I started traveling, seeking spiritualization."
Stamp loved India, finding that there "you get exactly what you’re looking for. It can be groovy Kashmir hash or it can be a groovy golden guru."
There were also life lessons. Being in an ashram taught him he could manage without money: "I didn’t need it – or much of it. There were times when I ran out. In the Nineties, when I didn’t even have fare for the bus. Whenever things got tight, I would sell a case of very expensive wine from my cellar and that would tide me over."
He never completely gave up on acting. "But after a while," he points out, "I thought it was never going to happen. That was fine. I was happy. I felt enriched in ways I could never have done elsewhere." He adds that he came to realize that "children, homes, commitment, stability – none of it was for me. Perhaps I knew from the start, just never acknowledged it."
But the siren call of cinema rang. Thinking he was all but washed up, Stamp received a cable. "Opening the envelope," he recalls, "there was a tremor in my hand. I knew that my life was about to change."
Inside was an offer from director Richard Donner for a part in the first of two Superman films. Without even a change of clothes – beard, long hair and all, he boarded the flight for London. On landing, he was driven to the studio where filming was about to start. "When Richard informed me that Marlon Brando was aboard, it was just irresistible. The two idols of my generation were Brando and Dean."
He points out taking the job, playing General Zod, wasn’t an obvious choice. "It was recognition that I hadn’t been forgotten, I was back in the marketplace. It had wonderful pluses. I got to work with Brando. I felt if it turned out well, it was a movie everyone would see."
At his first meeting with Brando, he was still in his ashram clothes. "Marlon came over and touched my robe, and, quite perplexed, asked, ‘What have you been up to?’
"Being on film, albeit briefly, with him was a career highlight," continues Stamp. "He was very different to anything I imagined. Marlon was hysterically funny, but he didn’t learn his lines. He had them written large on cue cards and placed so it wouldn’t appear he was reading them. There was one point where he was really trying to get this one entrance line right. I heard him repeating it and struggling with it. There was talk of his playing Macbeth. I went up to him and said, ‘How are you going to play Macbeth if you can’t learn one line?’ He replied [doing a spot-on Brando imitation], ‘I’ve already learned them!’"
In one sense, Stamp was back – although he wasn’t under any illusions. "I knew I wasn’t a leading man anymore. I was getting on. I thought if I could become a character actor, do the occasional thing, that would be fine."
Then, in 1978, as Superman was breaking box office records worldwide, came an opportunity to star on the West End and in a role reeking with sex appeal and the art of seduction. Stamp returned to the stage as the famed Transylvanian with bite in Dracula, the 1927 dramatization of Bram Stoker’s novel with B&W sets by Edward Gorey. It had been a hit on Broadway, starring Frank Langella.
Sporting a pencil-thin moustache, he had the misfortune to go up against The Passion of Dracula, starring Oscar winner George Chakiris [Bernardo, West Side Story]. The latter won the raves; in the former, Stamp and the production were panned for not taking things serious. In spite of his General Zod, audiences weren’t seduced. On the closing, Stamp said, "It seemed like a good idea."
Working for George Lucas on Star Wars: The Phantom Menace (1999), in the role of Chancellor Valorum, he was confronted with the changing way films were made.
"There was this scene where I was to do with Natalie Portman, just off her Oscar and BAFTA win for Black Swan. I arrived on set and asked, ‘Where’s Natalie?’ George replied, ‘She has the day off. That’s her.’ He pointed to a cut-out stuck on a post. I thought, ‘I won’t be doing many more of these.’ I didn’t want to do films for kids. I didn’t want to see films for kids. I wanted to work with the kind of actors I grew up respecting."
On New Year’s Eve 2002, at age 64, Stamp did something quite uncharacteristic: he married for the first time – to an Australian pharmacist 35 years his junior of Eurasian and Indian Singaporean lineage. But, in 2008, his wife divorced him for "unreasonable behavior."
"I wasn’t cut out for marriage," he admits. "At heart, I’m a bachelor. I spend an inordinate amount of time on my own. Sometimes that’s good, sometimes not. I’m always happy for the phone to ring, though, and someone to invite me to dinner." For 30 years, until recently when he bought a home in California, he had no permanent home.
Stamp said he "always regretted not being in a rip-roaring comedy. I ‘d like to find roles that would show my lighter side."
He got his wish, and it showed quite a few sides no one ever expected: Bernadette, the transsexual club singer in The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994). It was a long shoot across Australia’s Outback, "but a dream one." The film was a smash and put Stamp back in cinema consciousness.
He’s played lighter roles, such as in Disney’s The Haunted Mansion (2004) and appeared in the film version of the TV comedy spy series, Get Smart (2008). With Unfinished Song done, he’ll next be seen in the heist comedy The Black Marks with Kurt Russell and Matt Dillon.
There’ve been three autobiographies. He began writing his first memoir upon the death of his mother. "I was so distressed by her loss, the only comfort I could find was writing my memories of her. It was a way of centering myself. It was very cathartic."
He also wrote a sexually-explicit novel, The Night, "about a midsummer’s night with a full moon and an unusual configuration of stars and planets when three self-absorbed people meet for the first time. "They don’t know it," Stamp explains, "but they’ve been looking for each other all their lives. It’s a look at what I see in a world in tremendous flux with tremendous decadence."
All in all, looking back, Stamp says, "It’s been a fascinating journey and one of self-discovery. I’ll continue to enjoy the miles I have to go.