Too Marvelous for Words (Almost)

A new book of photographs by Terry O'Neill draws on more than two decades of unrivaled access to Frank Sinatra. He talks with Robin Morgan about shooting the legend.

Terry O'Neill's friendship with Frank Sinatra began in 1967, on the Miami set of Lady in Cement, a film starring a young new actress named Raquel Welch. "Ava Gardner wrote me a letter of introduction," O'Neill says. "I flew over and put it in Frank's hand. He opened it up, read it, and just said, 'The kid's with me,' and that was it. Suddenly I had access to all areas—the door never closed after that."

The relationship spanned three decades. In that time O'Neill's cam- era followed Sinatra across continents, from home to airport to movie set to stage. Hundreds of rolls of film and thousands of images had been accumulating dust in his archive—until now most had never been published.

Sinatra: Frank & Friendly is O'Neill's homage to the star. Combing through thick files of negatives, the photographer selected his hundred or so favorite im-ages of Sinatra at work, rest, and play. "I was staggered by the number of pictures I had—there were so many I'd sim-ply forgotten, and the memories just came flooding back with every manila envelope I opened," O'Neill says.

Many of the book's images are from the four-week period when Sinatra was filming Lady in Cement. Perhaps most mem-orable is the shot of Sinatra sauntering along the Miami boardwalk surrounded by security guards and his stunt double, with starstruck families rubbernecking as the icon strolls by. There are photos of Sinatra on the set of the 1980 film The First Deadly Sin, onstage with Count Basie and Sarah Vaughn, in rehearsals for a 1989 concert at the London Palladium. In one of the book's intimate moments, O'Neill captured Sinatra gathering his thoughts in the doorway of his Palladium dressing room before making a curtain call (nearly 400,000 people had besieged the box office for the 15,000 tickets).

The pictures are priceless. "It couldn't happen today," O'Neill says. "Photogra-phers aren't allowed to get up close and personal. Celebrities are camera-shy, and managers throw a cordon around them to protect their image. Now a famous face is a brand and everything must be controlled and manipulated to market the talent. But Frank never needed any hype or ballyhoo."

O'Neill, 68, has photographed some of the most recognizable names of the past half century, from presidents and princes to stars of stage, screen, and rock and roll. Few others have worked so feverishly on the front lines of fame. A jazz musician himself before taking up the camera to shoot such bands as the Beatles and the Rolling Stones when they were still boys, O'Neill remains in awe of Sinatra.

"I wanted to capture the real Sinatra," he says, "not the star but the man at work, the master of his trade, the man I knew who always had time for his fans, friends, or young talent, and above all the man who loved his music. That was everything to him—the song and his audience."

O'Neill spent days, sometimes weeks, at a time with Sinatra over a period of 20-plus years—at rehearsals, backstage, even onstage. During performances the photographer would move around, from the wings to the orchestra pit, and Sinatra never blinked. "He gave me the same artistic freedom he demanded for himself," O'Neill says.

There was a time, the photographer recounts, when Sinatra called him up at four in the morning and threatened to shoot him. "A picture he didn't like had appeared in a newspaper and he thought it was one of mine," O'Neill says. "It wasn't. To this day I don't know if he was serious, but I found out he'd had his 'guys' scouring London for me. I turned up at his hotel a few days later and he didn't say a word. It could easily have been his sense of humor—he was always playing gags."

In his pictures O'Neill was able to capture Sinatra methodically preparing for a performance or burying his face in a hot towel in his dressing room, exhausted after a show. "I was always amazed by his work ethic. In rehearsals he wasn't Sinatra, he was just another member of the band," says O'Neill. "The musicians worshipped him and he respected them, regarded them as equals. And before going on he'd watch the audience during the warm-up acts to feel the mood, judge the anticipation, and tailor his roster of songs to the atmosphere. All he wanted to do was entertain. I don't think he was ever happier than when he was singing with a band at his back."

The photographer remembers vividly the first days he spent with Sinatra, at the Fontainebleau hotel in Miami. "Frank would walk to the set each day, film until sunset, then go back to the hotel and put on a concert. And he'd do that every night, week after week," he says. "Now stars work three times a year for six weeks and complain they're exhausted. I doubt anyone today could match Frank's stamina. He was relentless."

O'Neill is fond of repeating the phrase Noel Coward used to sum up Sinatra: "Never once a breach of taste, never once a wrong move."

Robin Morgan edited Terry O'Neill's Sinatra: Frank & Friendly ($50), which will be published by Evans Mitchell Books in October.