Terence Stamp: A Fascinating Life and Career, Albeit One Filled with Insecurities
By: Ellis Nassour
As much as any young English actor, Terence Stamp not only thrived in the swinging ’60s but also defined the period. He was hot. Stamp, co-starring in the well-received Unfinished Song [which opened Friday, opposite Vanessa Redgrave and Gemma Arterton], in the 60s with his piercing eyes, striking face, and run-your-fingers-through hair, was considered one of the most desirable men in the world. It led to affairs with many women, but also to a huge ego problem and a long journey of spiritual renewal and self-discovery.
Since 1962, Stamp, who turns 75 in July, 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 prestigious Silver Bear of the Berlin Film Festival.
Stamp shot to fame in his second film, Sir Peter Ustinov’s film adaptation of Melville’s Billy Budd (1962), which earned him the Oscar nod, international attention – even being called ”the most beautiful man in England.’ ‘ He was part of a new working-class generation that included one-time flatmate Michael Caine, as well as Albert Finney and Peter O’Toole. There could have been great career momentum after Billy Budd, but for two years Stamp rejected dozens of roles "because they weren’t fulfilling enough."
Stamp went on to work with such leading directors as William Wyler (The Collector), Joseph Losey (Modesty Blaise), John Schlesinger (Far from the Madding Crowd), Fellini (Spirits of the Dead), Pier Paolo Pasolini (Teorema), and Richard Donner (Superman).
He was chosen to step into Sean Connery’s shoes as James Bond when Connery left the franchise. Stamp, and not for the first time, clashed with the producer, Harry Saltzman. "My ideas about how to play the role weren’t the same as Harry’s. I didn’t get a second call."
Working with Fellini was "a love affair. I loved Federico and he loved me.. Fellini loved actors who were in love with him and being in love with him was so easy. He was simply one of those rare filmmaker souls who knew how to create magic onscreen.
Magic created not from special effects, but from human emotion and foibles."
After their shoot, Stamp lived in Italy for several years. In 1968, he starred for Pasolini opposite the fiery Silvana Mangano [internationally famed for her sultry, gritty field worker in Riso Amaro (Bitter Rice)]. Back home, in 1966, he was approached to star in Alfie, a role tailor-made for him; but much to the relief of Caine, his former flat mate, he turned it down. [Caine was Oscar-nominated.]
An infamous ladies man, Stamp says the quality he finds most attractive in females is modesty, "‘I find that beguiling."
He was often beguiled. The long list includes affairs with co-star Julie Christie (…Madding Crowd) and Brigitte Bardot.
Stamp admits to being "modest to the point of being self-deprecating." He has said that he’s "incredibly self-contained," apparently a disappointment in some of his relations. "I didn’t want to commit, because early on I got damaged emotionally." All fears were wiped away when he met supermodel Jean Shrimpton, with whom he fell madly in love and settled down. They became one of the most photographed couples of Mod London. The 60s were filled with beautiful people seeing themselves as beautiful.
Terence Stamp is one of six children. When he was four, his mother took him to see Gary Cooper in Beau Geste. "In that moment, everything changed. More than anything in the world, I wanted to be like Gary Cooper. But it never occurred to me to say anything about it because that sort of life wasn’t open to people like me. It was just this secret dream. Whenever I could, I went to the movies. They were the only light in an otherwise bleak existence."
He claims that partly due to his spending every spare moment in the cinema, he grew up reserved and solitary; and that he was "completely blind to the gifts nature had bestowed on me. I never imagined I was good- looking." As a boy I believed I could make myself invisible. I’m not sure I ever could, but I certainly had the ability to pass unnoticed."
Stamp worked in a variety of London ad agencies before, greatly influenced by James Dean in East of Eden and Rebel without a Cause, realizing he wanted to be an actor. He started in amateur groups. "I was s—-," he has said. "I really was. I couldn’t learn lines or anything. It was a nightmare."
Ironically, he received a scholarship to drama school. Stamp says the best advice he was given came when he was preparing to start there. On the Underground one afternoon, he recognized the great actor Wilfred Lawson*. "I summoned the courage to ask ‘ I’m trying to be an actor. Is there any advice you could give?’ He was known to be a heavy drinker, and seemed to have had a few. He hemmed and hawed and muttered something. I asked, ‘What?’ He replied [doing a spot-on imitation], ‘I learn the words. It’s as simple as that.’"
* [Lawson performed on the West End and Broadway and appeared in over 50 English and American films. His most celebrated film portrayal was Alfred Doolittle in the film adaption of Shaw’s Pygmalion (1938). Alcoholism almost destroyed his career, but he had a resurgence of major roles in War and Peace (1956), the film adaption of Room at the Top (1958), opposite Simone Signoret and Laurence Harvey; and opposite Albert Finney in Tom Jones (1963).]
Stamp says, "At the time, I was mystified and taken aback by the response, but as I got older and got deeper into the craft, I found it to be a considerable piece of advice. Truth be told, if you just do that, when you get out there [onstage or in front of the camera] something happens. It’s all about the words."
Speaking of Unfinished Song, he says that no sooner than writer/director Paul Andrew Williams sent him the script, he knew it was going to be special. "An actor can tell from reading the words."
However, when he had second thoughts about playing Arthur "because I wasn’t sure I could pull it off," Williams made an arresting observation: "It’s because of your looks." Stamp agreed. The writer/director replied, "We all age, and you’ve aged well."
He put Stamp at ease, telling him he wrote the film about his grandfather, who he explained was quite good looking in his later years. "That gave me confidence," reveals Stamp. "I began to think it was about my working class parents."
Stamp pointed out his father, who was a stoker, then tugboat captain, "never earned more than twelve quid a week, was unusually good looking though emotionally closed. Still, mum was completely besotted with him down. For much of Stamp’s childhood, his father was away in World War II. "When he came home," he explains, "the atmosphere became more strained. My impression is that he took one look at me and thought, "His mother’s really f—– him up." He used to call me Little Lord Fauntleroy. I never really knew what he thought of me. I think he was proud, but he never said so. I found it strange channeling him."
All actors are insecure, and after some of his starring roles, some quite sexy, he had reservations about playing working class. " I never play ordinary very well. I feel I’m never convincing. Maybe, coming from my background, there’s this deep-seated fear that I’m ordinary."
There was earlier gossip that Stamp never had to struggle, that, forgetting some of his brilliant performances, that his looks took him a long way. He told an interviewer, "’The rumor that I’d do anything for a bowl of soup wasn’t completely untrue because I was hungry all the time." He revealed that he was drawn "to the exciting and the exuberant, the over-the-top and the dark," maybe a reason he played so many villains.
No matter the roles, he had friends in high places. He was particularly close to the Queen Mother, whom he delighted with stories, some not PG. He says he can still remember her laughter. He became an intimate friend of Princess Margaret and reveals a strange evening together when she confided that, as a teenager, she used to have sexual fantasies about the workmen she observed out of Buckingham Palace’s windows. Years later, he and Princess Diana became such friends that he’d invite her to his place and cook for her. He detected her loneliness and tried to be a "shoulder" to her.
>>> To be continued: Tune in Tuesday for Part Two of Ellis Nassour’s intimate profile on Terence Stamp’s life and career. <<<