Times Obituary: Terry O'Neill

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O’Neill in London last year with his trusty Leica camera

From The Times, 18 November, 2019

As a young and unknown photographer Terry O’Neill once conversed with the then equally anonymous Beatles on the “real jobs” they would all be doing in two or three years’ time. Ringo said that he would like to open a chain of hair salons. John thought he might become a tailor. “We all thought it was going to come to an end,” O’Neill recalled.

Good-looking, working-class and exuding cockney charm, O’Neill was in fact at the beginning of an illustrious career in which he would chronicle the Swinging Sixties on both sides of the Atlantic and establish himself as one of the world’s best-known celebrity portrait photographers.

By the end of 1966 O’Neill had been invited to the Playboy Mansion and in 1969 he took poignant shots of a heavily pregnant Sharon Tate unwrapping baby clothes. Three days later she invited him back to her Hollywood home, but O’Neill declined because he was jetlagged. That night she was murdered by members of Charles Manson’s cult.

His star did not fade. In the Seventies he became renowned for his pictures of the best-known rock stars of the decade: David Bowie and Elton John. Above all, he became associated with his intimate and unusual portraits of famous and beautiful women, including Brigitte Bardot, Raquel Welch, Audrey Hepburn and Faye Dunaway, with whom he had a 12-year relationship.

O’Neill had a particular talent for catching sirens of the screen off-guard and for capturing their vulnerability. Unfazed by celebrity, he quickly befriended his famous subjects and had a gift for making them relax.

It was perhaps to his advantage that he was unobtrusively short, 5ft 7in, while female subjects would also warm to his china-blue eyes and comical, self-deprecating manner, during which he would talk incessantly while snapping away with his “trusty little Leica”.

He privately admitted that he developed this patter to cover up his “crippling shyness”, but he ended up in bed with many of his glamorous subjects. His friend Peter Sellers would phone him in the middle of the night begging him for chat-up lines. “The definitive lesson I learnt was that the beautiful woman doesn’t think she’s beautiful,” O’Neill said. “It’s the ones who are not beautiful who think they’re beautiful.”

He had relationships with Priscilla Presley and Ava Gardner, and broke up with Jean Shrimpton when he “accidentally” slept with her friend Julie Christie. “Jumping into bed in those days was a doddle,” he said.  

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O’Neill out on the job in the 1960s REX FEATURES

Early in his career he eschewed the chance to photograph Marilyn Monroe because he had heard of her propensity to sleep with her photographers. O’Neill was dating Monroe’s publicist at the time and thought that the job would ruin their relationship. “Because Marilyn slept with her photographers, this girl wouldn’t let me near her. It would have spoilt things.”

O’Neill claimed that the only woman to reduce him to jelly was the Queen, whom he had admired since he was a child and finally got the chance to photograph in 1992. “I worried every day for three months about what could go wrong, then I walked in and straight away she put me at ease. I told her a horse-racing joke and I was off and running.”

Terence Patrick O’Neill was born in Romford, Essex, in 1938, to Irish émigrés Leonard O’Neill, a foreman at the Ford car plant in Dagenham, and Josephine (née Gallagher).

During the war his father, who was an alcoholic, started working at an aircraft factory near Heston Aerodrome in west London. The family moved near by, but the airfield was a favourite target of the Luftwaffe. As his mother could not bear to send him away, Terry spent much of the war in an Anderson shelter.

Raised in a devoutly Catholic home, Terry was selected at ten years old to train for the priesthood, but this idea was soon abandoned. “I asked too many questions,” he said. He was more interested in jazz and had fashioned his first drum kit from biscuit tins.

O’Neill left Gunnersbury Grammar School in west London at 14, despite being one of the brightest in his class. After National Service in the Army, he played in combos, performing bebop at RAF bases and his ambition was to move to the US to become a jazz drummer. He decided to become an air steward, so that he could shuttle back and forth at minimal expense. Applying to British Overseas Airways Corporation, he was told that there were no openings for stewards, but the company needed a technical photographer. He applied for that instead and got the job.

One day at London airport he took a picture of a dozing passenger awaiting a flight, surrounded by African chieftains. Once it was developed, O’Neill was told that he had snapped the home secretary, Rab Butler. He sold it to the Sunday Dispatch and was offered the job of reportage photographer, tasked to hang around the newly built terminal at Heathrow on the lookout for travelling worthies.

In 1959 he landed a job at the Daily Sketch and, at 21 years old, was the youngest photographer on Fleet Street.

An early assignment in 1962 was to photograph the Beatles, about to release their first single, and the Rolling Stones, about to assault the nation’s senses with Come On. His editor was unimpressed with both, saying: “Go and shoot some pretty boys.” Three months later the editor relented, the Beatles pictures were printed and the paper’s sales rocketed. Pop stars had never before appeared in a national newspaper, but this practice changed almost overnight and O’Neill would be able to enjoy the run of the field. “The old-timers didn’t want to take these photographs on and almost looked down on them,” he said.

In 1964 he flew to the US to take on an assignment in Hollywood. “People like Fred Astaire threw dinner parties, and all they wanted to talk about were the Beatles, Stones, Mary Quant, Jean Shrimpton. I suddenly realised that this was going to last.” It was only then that O’Neill saw photographing these people as a “proper job” and, more importantly, that he should keep all his negatives. He resigned from the Daily Sketch in 1965. His furious editor told him he was “finished”, but O’Neill was soon inundated with commissions as he emerged with other young working-class snappers such as Terence Donovan and David Bailey.

An early freelance job was to turn Marianne Faithfull into a sex kitten, and so put her in a black basque. O’Neill disliked the outcome, which looked to him “like a somewhat frightened child, a kind of Bambi in suspenders”. Nonetheless the picture was sold to the Daily Mirror and thousands of copies were sold as posters. He also snapped Raquel Welch in a bikini on the set of One Million Years BC — another picture that adorned the bedroom walls of a generation of teenage boys.

Most of his posed shoots were more successful, and many have become iconic. Among them is the series of Tom Jones “returning to his roots” in 1974, parking his Rolls-Royce in a street in Pontypridd and smoking a cheroot with the pithead behind him. He snapped Peter Cook and Dudley Moore in a swimming pool in Beverley Hills, the hungover Cook supine on a Lilo in trench coat and flat cap.

Because O’Neill socialised with his subjects, he often had scruples over whether to photograph celebrities in less than flattering scenarios. He once encountered Brian Jones, of the Stones, at Malaga airport spread out on a bench “drugged out of his brains”. O’Neill decided not to take the picture and helped him on to the plane instead, but years later felt a twinge of professional regret. “It could have been an important picture”.

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O’Neill’s publicity shot for the 1973 James Bond film Live and Let Die with, from left, Gloria Hendry, Roger Moore and Jane Seymour            TERRY O'NEILL / ICONIC IMAGES

Famous men were generally more challenging to photograph. The actor Steve McQueen was “introverted, uptight and mistrustful”. Initially O’Neill did not even try to photograph him. However, when the Hollywood actor took a phone call from a close friend his features relaxed — O’Neill appeared from behind a corner and started snapping. McQueen was delighted with the results.

When the photographer learnt that Paul Newman and Clint Eastwood were filming in Arizona in 1972, he managed to achieve the famous portrait of the pair. O’Neill worked on Newman by talking about motor racing and Eastwood by talking about jazz. “That took two weeks to get the shot.”

Although one of dozens who turned out to photograph Brigitte Bardot on the set of The Legend of Frenchie King in 1971, it was O’Neill’s moment — as a gust of wind blew hair across Bardot’s face — that produced the memorable photograph. His shot let Bardot fill the frame; womanly and confident, not petite and fragile as she had often been rendered before.

Bowie would become something of a creative muse for him in the Seventies and he forgave the singer for his erratic behaviour, such as turning up four hours late for a shoot with Elizabeth Taylor in 1975 while high on drugs. One of his most famous portraits of Bowie was for the album cover of Diamond Dogs. During the shoot the huge hound at Bowie’s feet reared up on its hind legs and howled. “He didn’t turn a bloody hair. Mind you, he was zoned out at the time,” O’Neill said. Bowie was among his most interesting subjects: “You never knew who was going to show up. He could look alien-like or female-like; it was always so exciting as everything he did was so unpredictable.”

O’Neill’s friendship with Gardner led him to a long working relationship with Frank Sinatra. O’Neill got the job of photographing him on a film set in Miami in 1968 after Gardner wrote a letter of introduction. O’Neill approached Sinatra, only to be confronted by his giant minders, who had the distinctive look of mafiosi. He heard the singer say: “The kid’s with me.” O’Neill recalled: “We hardly talked to each other, but he let me go everywhere with him and he never questioned me. He rounded out my education.” One picture shows the singer with the gun he often carried.

As a young photographer in 1962 O’Neill had married the actress Vera Day — known as “the British Marilyn Monroe”. The marriage ended in divorce. He is survived by their two children, Keegan Alexander and Sarah Jane, who lead private lives.

O’Neill then became involved with Dunaway, whom he first met on the set of the film Doc in 1970. He later moved to California to be with her. They were married for four years and adopted a son, Liam, who would become an actor.

These years in the of the mid to late Seventies and early Eighties would be the most unhappy of his life because he felt as though he could not work quietly in the background after becoming a celebrity himself.

He expressed his feelings most eloquently with his famous image of Dunaway, looking forlorn and hungover next to a swimming pool in a peach nightgown the morning after she won an Oscar for Network in 1977. Her high heels are surrounded by newspaper reports proclaiming her success.

After the break-up of his relationship with Dunaway in the mid-1980s he moved back to London and would go on to work prolifically for The Sunday Times Magazine. He and Andrew Neil, who was the editor of The Sunday Times, would frequent Tramp nightclub, along with Donovan. They were known collectively as the “Maltesers”, cockney rhyming slang for old geezers.

Demand for O’Neill’s work never ebbed: each year from the Sixties he created, on average, 500 magazine covers. A self-confessed workaholic, he hated taking holidays. He also claimed that he never took drugs.

He created “at home” studies of the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh, and of Tony and Cherie Blair at No 10. He was one of the first to photograph Kate Moss, but disliked the fad for overly thin models and called on British agencies to ban skeletal girls from their books. Moss, he said, was the thinnest model worked with. He also railed against the modern-day concept of celebrity: the idea that anyone could be famous. It made him almost as angry as the idea — abetted by the dawn of digital photography — that anyone could be a photographer. Both spheres, he said, had been utterly denigrated. He had once digitally enhanced a photograph of the Queen, he admitted, but had felt thoroughly sullied by doing so.

O’Neill was also disenchanted with many modern celebrities and was not interested in photographing them. “There’s no one like Ava Gardner, who was incredible-looking and didn’t need a posse of stylists fluttering around her. And there’s never been a greater-looking guy than Paul Newman. Stars then were individuals. Now it’s like they all come out of the same factory.”

After Dunaway, O’Neill avoided actresses, saying that he had met only one — Judi Dench — who was truly happy. He was involved with the US entrepreneur Martha Stewart, whom he greatly admired, before her indictment in 2003, and finally settled down with his third wife, Laraine Ashton, a London model agency executive, who survives him. They lived in Battersea, where he indulged in his abiding love of jazz — his portraits of Miles Davis, Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie were the only ones that adorned his walls. O’Neill underwent a triple bypass and, in 2006, an operation for bowel cancer.

In a 2012 interview with The Daily Telegraph he imparted one final secret about his life of photographing beautiful women. Asked if he would like to photograph the Duchess of Cambridge, he replied: “Kate? Nah, I don’t think so. Why not? Because I don’t fancy her.”

Terry O’Neill, CBE, photographer, was born on July 30, 1938. He died of prostate cancer on November 17, 2019, aged 81

© The Times


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