The Interview

An Audience With Mr Terry O’Neill

Having shot everyone from Mr Robert Redford to Mr David Bowie, the photographer has many a tale to tell

Inside his Marble Arch HQ, legendary photographer Mr Terry O’Neill is talking about Mr Frank Sinatra and an iconic shot of the singer he took in 1968 on the boardwalk of Miami’s Fontainebleau Hotel. Almost 50 years on, the broodingly kinetic, black and white image, now blown up to a large-format print, has lost none of its heat or velocity. Sharply attired, hard-boiled and menacing, Mr Sinatra is captured, at pace, in a fawn suit and collegiate neck tie. He’s also mob-handed with an identically dressed movie body-double and three heavies in tow. One glance at the photograph and you know it really wouldn’t be advisable to interrupt this gentleman’s day. Not so if you are Mr O’ Neill.

Life magazine had commissioned Mr O’Neill to create a photographic story ─ “Night And Day With Frank Sinatra” ─ following the singer while he was shooting the Mr Tony Rome movie Lady In Cement. But it hadn’t parlayed a single minute of access to Ol’ Blue Eyes. Mr O’Neill, being the well-connected type, asked his friend Ms Ava Gardner to write her ex-husband Mr Sinatra a letter of introduction. So, there’s Mr O’Neill, sitting on a lounger in the Miami sun, letter in hand, when Mr Sinatra and his security detail come clattering down the wooden deck. “I saw him walking round the corner and I just thought, ‘Click!’” says Mr O’Neill. “As soon as I’d taken the picture, I thought, my God! What I have gotten into here? I gave Frank the letter. He read it, smiled, turned to his guys and said, ‘The kid’s with me.’”

  • Mr Robert Redford, circa 1975

Mr O’Neill was soon hooked up with the rest of the Rat Pack ─ Messrs Sammy Davis Jr, Dean Martin, Peter Lawford and Joey Bishop ─ but had no inkling of Mr Sinatra’s rumoured Mafioso connections or what a “big-time guy” he was. “All I know is, if you could survive him, you could survive anyone, because one mistake and you were out,” says Mr O’Neill. This is a typical anecdote. Casually star-studded and self-effacing, Mr O’Neill has dozens of them. Not least, the time at one of Sir Michael Caine’s 4 July parties at Langan’s Brasserie when he grabbed the mic and sang one of Mr Sinatra’s songs… with Mr Sinatra in the room.

The still handsome, bright-eyed 78-year-old doesn’t do much photography these days (among his most recent work is a portrait of Ms Amy Winehouse), but two of his portraits, as well as a tryptique, are for sale on MR PORTER via Sonic Editions.

“There are no stars, no Hollywood anymore, really. I mean, who wants to go and see Batman V Superman? And anyway,” he says with a grin. “I’ve already done everyone.” And he has ─ Messrs Frank Sinatra, Paul Newman, Sir Sean Connery, The Beatles, The Stones. About Mr Steve McQueen, he says, “Great looking, but not a nice man. He was rude.” Then there’s Mr Terence Stamp, Sir Winston Churchill, Mr Muhammad Ali and some women, too ─ Ms Audrey Hepburn, Ms Brigitte Bardot. Mr O’Neill reckons he has more than two million images in his archive.

  • Mr Frank Sinatra, 1968

His first job in the US was to shoot Mr Hugh Hefner at his original Playboy mansion in Chicago. “Which was a lot of fun because I managed to work my way through three Playboy centrefolds while I was there,” he laughs. “Honestly, they used to knock on the door and say, ‘Talk to us. You sound just like Michael Caine.’” In his time, Mr O’Neill also dated 1960s supermodel Ms Jean Shrimpton and the actress Ms Susan George. He has had three wives: the first was the British actress Ms Vera Day; he married Ms Faye Dunaway in 1983 (with whom he has a son, Mr Liam Dunaway O’Neill), and they split up four years later; he’s now happily married to former model agency boss Ms Laraine Ashton.

Mr O’Neill met Mr David Bowie in the early 1970s and was invited to join him on a tour of the US. “I didn’t enjoy Bowie’s singing or his garb, but I always loved photographing him,” says Mr O’Neill. “He was like an actor who took on all these different personalities. That said, half the time he was out of it. But he was always very organised, always a polite, gentle, lovely guy.” Was Mr O’Neill ever tempted by the rock ’n’ roll lifestyle himself? “I wasn’t into drugs,” he says. “I saw what they did to people, how they pulled them all apart and gave them weird personalities. Even if I had been, I couldn’t ever get involved. They stayed up all night and slept in, but I had to be up at eight o’clock in the morning and ready for work.”

A talented jazz drummer, Romford-born Mr O’Neill played at US Air Force bases and jazz clubs in and around London before applying for a job as an air steward with BOAC (later British Airways). The company saw him more as a backroom boy and offered him a position in its technical photography department at Heathrow Airport. His first important photograph was a complete fluke. He snapped a sleeping figure in the terminal’s departure lounge, who turned out to be the home secretary. Fleet Street was interested and Mr O’Neill landed a job on the (now defunct) Daily Sketch newspaper. “I was 20 years old,” he says. “I said to my editor, ‘I don’t know what I’m doing here.’ He said, ‘We think pop music is going to be big. We need someone who’s a similar age who can converse with all these new pop stars and relate to them and hang around with them. Being an ex-musician, we think you’d be ideal.’”

His first assignment was to head off to Abbey Road Studios to snap a young band from Liverpool called The Beatles, who were recording their debut album. “The concept of photographing a group was still very new at the time,” says Mr O’Neill. “To be honest, the picture I took was amateurish, but when it was published the paper sold out.”

Soon, a Mr Andrew Loog Oldham was on the telephone. “Terry, can you do the same thing for my band, The Rolling Stones, as you did for The Beatles?” The five Stones (“They were very much Brian Jones’ group back then”) showed up with their instruments in their cases. Mr O’Neill took them to Tin Pan Alley (Denmark Street in Soho, famed for its music shops and songwriters) and photographed them; donkey jackets, lips, petulance, haircuts, cigarettes, spots and all. “My God,” said his Daily Sketch picture editor when he saw the contacts sheet. “They look like five prehistoric monsters.” The images were recently published as a book, Breaking Stones 1963-1965: A Band On The Brink Of Superstardom. It’s a raw and candid set of pictures that depicts a group of young men who managed to be simultaneously self-conscious and utterly carefree. Mr O’Neill doesn’t think he could repeat the trick with any male stars of today.

“There’s so much more vanity these days,” he says. “There wasn’t any room for it back in the 1960s and 1970s. The men I shot, they were all great guys. Fab guys. Naturally stylish, masculine and handsome. None of them particularly enjoyed being photographed, but they put up with it, and they were great at it. Now, they preen and groom and take these selfies and have all these people dressing them. I never bothered with stylists because it got in the way. I like to photograph people as they are. You would never dream of asking Paul Newman to change his clothes for the sake of a picture, would you?”

  • Left: Messrs David Bowie and William S Burroughs, for Rolling Stone magazine, 1974. Right: Mr David Bowie and Ms Elizabeth Taylor, 1975. Photography by Mr Terry O’Neill 

Mr O’Neill knows a thing or two about clothes. Of course he does. He grew up in the 1960s surrounded by some of the most elegantly dressed, preternaturally stylish men in London and Los Angeles. The Mount Street tailor Mr Douglas Hayward was a good friend. “I’d shop at Cecil Gee and Lord John on Carnaby Street for those shirts with ruffs on them. But whenever we needed a nice corduroy suit, we all went to Dougie.” Mr Hayward, the suit-maker of choice for Messrs Clint Eastwood, Kirk Douglas, Oliver Reed, Richard Burton, Peter Sellers and Sir Laurence Olivier and the inspiration behind Sir Michael Caine’s depiction of Alfie and the Mr John Le Carré character Harry Pendell in The Tailor Of Panama became Mr O’Neill’s W1 mucker. Along with Sir Michael Caine and Sir Roger Moore, the group became a raffish, Rat Pack-ish bunch known as the Mayfair Orphans. “We’d meet for lunch – eight of us – once a week at Peter Langan’s brasserie in Mayfair. The only criteria for membership was that your mother had to be dead. It was a lot of fun. Sadly, there are only a few of us left now.”

Despite Mr O’Neill’s unassailable portfolio of work and his undeniable talent with the 35mm Leica, there remains something of the happy chancer, of the boy who still can’t quite believe his luck. “Back in the 1960s, we all used to go to this bar, the Ad Lib, in Leicester Square and talk to each other. The Stones, The Beatles, everyone was there. And we were all united by the idea that we’d been given an incredible opportunity to do this incredible thing, but also that, sooner or later we’d have to go off and get proper jobs. Really. We’d talk about what we were going to do when all this was over. No one thought it would last. If it all went wrong, George Harrison told me he wanted to work in a shop. Ringo Starr was going to buy a chain of hairdressers. I’m not kidding.”

Mr O’Neill pauses for a second or two, musing at the happy, naive memory of that 1960s moment. “I’m so glad we all managed to make it last a bit longer,” he says.