Flying to New York in 1963, Terence Stamp found himself in the company of Muhammad Ali. His charisma was so overwhelming, Stamp kept up with his career, noting that when he was banned for refusing to fight in Vietnam, he stayed very fit so that when he returned to the sport he would be ready at an hour's notice. It was a strategy Stamp would adopt in his own wilderness years, just one of the lessons he's learned, recounted in his new memoir, Rare Stamps: Reflections on Living, Breathing and Acting.
Stamp greets me looking scruffier than I've seen him in half a century. He's come straight from the set of his latest film, Song for Marion, in which he plays a grumpy old-age pensioner, married to Marion, played by Vanessa Redgrave. That explains the grey stubble, but Birkenstocks? What happened to his beautiful George Cleverley hand-made shoes?
"I'll explain later," he laughs, "first, let's get something to eat." Over a Greek salad in Harvey Nic's café, he explains how the memoir came to be. "An old friend, Richard La Plante, rang to say he was starting an electronic publishing company and had a title for me, 'Ten Things Every Young Actor Should Know by the Yes Man Himself'. I hated the title, but the idea sort of resonated with me. I thought to myself, if, when I'd been starting out, Gary Cooper had written a book for young actors, I would have saved up my money to buy it. And while I'm not putting myself on a plane with Cooper, that was my impetus."
By 1969, Stamp's films included The Collector, Modesty Blaise, Far from the Madding Crowd, and Poor Cow. He'd enjoyed a much publicised love affair with the first supermodel, Jean Shrimpton, and he and his flat mate, Michael Caine, were regarded as the most eligible bachelors on the planet. At which point, Stamp disappeared off to India. The story went round that he'd gone on a spiritual quest. "The truth was that I travelled because I couldn't get work. I was 32, in my prime, but producers were looking for a young Terence Stamp. It was deeply humiliating. Now I can see it was the best thing that could have happened to me."
Rare Stamps centres on his encounters with remarkable people, and how he relates the experiences to his craft. His antennae were always tuned to improvement. In his teens, he learned that Sinatra swam to improve his breath control and he has swum ever since. In those days, he'd go to matinée performances, calling backstage in the hope of getting an audience with a hero. On his first visit to Pinter's No Man's Land, Gielgud gave him tips on vowel pronunciation, on his third visit, Sir Ralph Richardson rewarded his persistence with an invitation to his home. "What grabbed my attention were handwritten paper foolscaps hanging up withsamples of Pinter's conundrums. Seeing my obvious curiosity, he said with a wave, 'These are the lines I am working on this week.' Three months into the run and he was still mining for new meaning.
"Brando confirmed my feelings about the importance of voice. Orson Welles gave me something to aspire to – when you're hanging out with someone like that, everything, even the most superficial conversation, has meaning. Joan Sutherland taught me the importance of practising daily through anonymity, fame, penury and wealth." Most influential of all was Fellini.
"I think of my career as before and after Fellini – prior to him, I was always fearful about being in front of the camera. On the first day of shooting, I felt very self-conscious. I was called and shown to my mark and suddenly realised that the camera was about to turn and I hadn't had any direction. I caught Fellini's eye and he looked me as though I was a puppet come to life. Maestro, I said, I need some direction. What was charming was that there was no pause, he just moved his mouth close to my ear and said, 'You're this great, but drunken actor, last night was your last performance of Macbeth, you come from the theatre to a party, but really it's an orgy, lots of drinking, lots of smoking, cocaine and screwing, you screwing some big busty blonde, some big black guy screwing you all night. In the morning, somebody drive you to Heathrow, just before you get on the plane they give you this big tab of LSD. Now, you are here.' I never asked him for direction again.
"That summer, the legendary yoga teacher Vanda Scaravelli taught me how to breathe. From birth we breathe unconsciously, but learning to breathe fully enlivens every atom in the body. Today, less emphasis is paid to natural voice production, but regardless of technological advances, voice still is the essence of the art. I consider every moment spent in conscious development, capital in the bank."
Son of a merchant navy stoker, Stamp grew up with low expectations. "When I asked for career guidance at school, they recommended bricklaying as a good, regular job, although someone did think I might make a good Woolworths manager. Basically, I just wanted to be Gary Cooper.
"When I realised I could earn my living at something I loved, what I wanted was a long career, and to have that you have to take care of the vehicle. Muhammad Ali's example stayed with me through the eight years when I didn't work, I had the feeling my recall would come, when it did I wanted to be ready."
Following his re-emergence in 1978 as arch-villain Zod in Superman, he appeared in a number of cameo roles before returning to leading man status in The Hit, and The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. His happiest memories are of Steven Soderbergh on The Limey. "When you are working with a Wyler, a Fellini, or a Soderbergh, they love actors who nail it on the first take. For me, a second take is anathema. Steven loved that I got it in one, I loved that he got it in one. Where ever I go in the world the only person people want to talk about is Steven –he's a god to young film-makers – and to me.
The Birkenstocks, it emerges, are part of his pared-down lifestyle that began when he disposed of his possessions and left London for good in 1994.
"For years, I went through withdrawals because aesthetics – antique furniture, clothes – the finest I could find, had always been so important to me. Then slowly I understood there is incredible freedom when you are not attached to your possessions. Today, my life goes into a suitcase."
He has one single regret. "Turning down Camelot. I'd never sung, I was afraid they'd re-voice me, and it would be the end of my career. The irony being that they cast Richard Harris – and I sing every bit as well as he did. The lesson is, never turn down something through fear, fear is only ever in the imagination."
Rare Stamps: Reflections on Living, Breathing, and Acting is published today as an eBook and audio book by Escargot Books: www.escargotbooksonline.com