Many actors have a crucial moment when the magic of the stage and screen captures them. For a four-year-old Terence Stamp, sitting in an East End cinema during World War II with mum Ethel, it was watching Gary Cooper in Beau Geste. For the next decade and a half, Stamp wanted to be Cooper.
But if the desert seemed impossibly exotic, stardom and Hollywood might as well have been on another planet. The young Terence was the oldest of five, born in Bow (and later living in Stepney and Plaistow). Dad Tom was away in the merchant navy for months at a time, and the close family unit saw the kids looked after not just by mum Ethel, but by his grandmother and a coterie of aunts.
Gary Cooper may have been an inspiration, but it was a huge handicap too, as Stamp later recalled, saying he was ‘poisoned’ by the unattainable fantasy of being a glamorous leading man, such as Cooper or Cary Grant – how on earth could he leap from his East End existence to that? The truth was, he didn’t really know what to do. ‘My mother was an unusually strong woman. I remember her once telling me I should be a journalist … that was toaly out of the question because I was so bad at school!’
So, shelving his ambitions, he found work on leaving school as a runner for an advertising agency in the West End. It took the emergence of a new generation of screen idols to free Terence’s ambitions again. In a West End cinema one cold New Year’s Eve in the mid-fifties, Stamp saw James Dean in East of Eden. ‘I was 17 and overwhelmed by him,’ remembered Stamp. ‘He was doing it … I was just dreaming about it … he was the first guy I ever saw that was not so removed. I thought “I’m like that.”‘
Fate intervened in the shape of Stamp’s feet – an earlier operation was enough to persuade the Army he was not fit for National Service. He had just been handed back two years of his life and realised that if he tried drama school and failed, he would be no further behind than his mates coming back into Civvy Street. He enrolled at the Trained at the Webber Douglas Academy of Dramatic Arts in London, alongside fellow East End hopeful Stephen Berkoff.
The turn of the sixties saw Stamp honing his craft on the stage, where he assumed he would stay. Notable roles included that of Private Whittaker in Willis Hall’s The Long and the Short and the Tall, during which he became friends with the young Michael Caine. ‘To be a young man, in London, in this career, at the turn of sixties … it couldn’t be any better, it was heaven,’ he laughed. But things were about to get better. In 1962, Stamp landed the role of Billy Budd in Peter Ustinov’s movie and became an overnight sensation. Working class actors were the darlings of the press in the newly egalitarian sixties. ‘The star from Stepney’ and ‘Tugman’s son: the boy with the Stamp of a star’ shouted the headlines in the Evening News and Evening Standard.
Stamp and Caine were now sharing a flat. The roles (and the women) came thick and fast. Stamp played Alfie on Broadway, but turned down the film role, which went to Caine. Iconic movies followd such as William Wyler’s The Collector and Far From the Madding Crowd. His girlfriends included Julie Christie (they were immortalised as ‘Terry and Julie’ in the Kinks’ Waterloo Sunset) and Jean Shrimpton. Meanwhile, younger brother Chris Stamp, an East End mod, was making his fortune as co-manager of The Who.
But as the sixties drew to a close the golden touch failed him. Antonioni replaced Stamp at the last minute with David Hemmings as the lead in Blow Up and Shrimpton left him for another man. A devastated Stamp took off for an ashram in India. His search for answers would take him away for nearly a decade, including a spell working on an organic farm in Ibiza.
When he rejoined the circus in the late seventies, it couldn’t have been in more dramatic fashion. Stamp was recruited as evil General Zod for the Superman movies. The eighties saw one terrific role. In The Hit, Stamp plays a sixties cockney who emerges from years of hiding, much the wiser in spiritual matters.
Stamp had, as he readily admits, made his share of duds. But the nineties saw a couple of classics. The former sixties poster boy shone as a transsexual in The Adventures of Priscilla: Queen of the Desert. Then, in The Limey, he brought superb menace to the role of Wilson, an ageing Cockney villain in Los Angeles. The tireless Stamp was also launching his own range of gluten-free foods, The Stamp Collection, and penning a cookbook of the same name.
The new century saw Stamp ‘homeless’ after leaving his long-time base in Piccadilly’s Albany apartments for a life in hotels, going where the work took him. On New Year’s Eve 2002, Stamp finally married, to 29-year-old Elizabeth. The boy from Bow had come a long way but had no wish to stop. ‘It’s still the most fun thing I can think of in which to make a living. I’ve never wanted to become a politician, I’ve never wanted to become an interior decorator, I’ve never wanted to speculate and make a load of money. I just wanted this. It’s fun!’