Terry O’Neill: ‘I'd love to have photographed Amy Winehouse’

The photographer, 79, on the cultural watershed of the 60s, turning down Marilyn Monroe and how all the proper stars have gone

I was a war baby, literally brought up in an air-raid shelter. The Nazis bombed Heston airfield [near Heathrow] at the bottom of our road every night. I’m lucky I’m here at all.

Mum never lived long enough to see my success. That’s a sadness. She wouldn’t have believed it. She hero-worshipped the kind of stars I’ve photographed and would take me to the stage doors after Saturday matinées to get autographs from the likes of Laurence Olivier.

One of my teachers singled me out to become a priest, along with another boy. After two years I was told I wouldn’t make it because I had too many questions and not enough belief. The other guy became a monsignor.

My reputation was bigger than the Beatles’ when I was sent to shoot them on my first newspaper. I was only 20, and the youngest photographer on Fleet Street. It was obvious that John was the one with the personality, so I put him in the front.

The cultural watershed of the 1960s gave working-class boys like me opportunities we wouldn’t have had otherwise. I wouldn’t have had a prayer of being successful in any other era.

There’s nobody around now I’d want to photograph. Amy Winehouse was the last person – real talent. All the proper stars have gone.

Frank Sinatra’s ex-wife Ava Gardner gave me a letter of introduction. And when Frank read it, he told everyone, “He’s with me.” And I was for the next 30 years. The first three weeks we barely spoke but he let me go everywhere with him. It taught me that a top photographer should “be there” but never get caught up in the lifestyle.

I turned down Marilyn Monroe. My girlfriend at the time was her publicist and she told me Marilyn took all her photographers to bed, so she wouldn’t let me work with her.

Getting romantically involved with people you shoot is a huge mistake. I did it once with my ex-wife, Faye Dunaway. I hated the whole circus after we married. I was becoming Mr Faye Dunaway.

Peter Sellers treated me like his psychiatrist. He’d ring me up at 2am and ask, “Why do all the women fall in love with you, Tel?” He could never understand why women wouldn’t fall in love with him. But I had no trick; I just bluffed it.

Being a Catholic boy I lost my nerve after taking those pictures of Raquel Welch on a giant crucifix, so I didn’t publish them for 30 years. The idea came to me after Raquel told me she thought she would have been crucified for wearing that revealing costume in One Million Years BC.

I turn 80 in July and I’ve no plans to mark it. For my 50th I went to dinner with Eric Clapton, Mickey Rourke and Bernie Ecclestone. Then I descended into a three-day depression. It was a proper midlife crisis. Now I’m at the stage of seeing all my mates die off. Michael Caine always says, “Tel, they’ve started bowling in our alley.” Fab way of putting it.

The Queen is the only person I’ve ever been nervous of photographing. I researched some horse-racing jokes to break the ice and thank God she laughed.

The perfectionist in me always left me thinking I could have taken a better shot. But now when I look at photos of all the icons I’ve shot – like Mandela, Sir Winston Churchill and Sinatra – the memories come flooding back and I think, “Yeah, I did all right.”

My Generation, featuring Terry O’Neill, is available now on DVD, Blu-Ray and digital download

  • The headline to this article was ammended on 20 November 2019 to reflect the fact that Terry O’Neill had in fact photographed Amy Winehouse


Ruth Huntman

The GuardianTramp

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