Terence Stamp wants oysters, but not just any oysters. ''If they have Westcott Bay petites, they are the finest oysters I have ever eaten,'' the actor says, scanning a menu at the Oyster Bar in New York's Grand Central station. He's wearing a Hawaiian shirt, but not just any Hawaiian shirt. Made from silk of muted sage, it was sent by a friend from the Islands. ''I said to her that I wanted one really great Hawaiian shirt,'' he says, ''as good as any in Tom Selleck's collection.''
Lean and taut at 60, with a stare like a blue flame, Stamp is not a gentleman who settles for second best. ''The ideal thing would be to follow Terence's social schedule,'' says director Steven Soderbergh, who sought out the London native for the lead in his mesmerizing new film, The Limey. ''Go to the restaurants he goes to. Hang out with the people he hangs out with. Go to the clothing stores he shops at. Your life would be elevated.'' Ever since Stamp blazed through Swingin' London in the 1960s squiring starlets like Julie Christie, bonding with Michael Caine and Fellini he's been as famous for his fine living as for his fine acting. He's had one of the most mercurial careers in cinema. There have been killer roles: the angelic sailor in Billy Budd (which earned him a 1962 Oscar nod), the demonic General Zod in Superman and Superman II, the tough-as-Streisand's-nails trannie in The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, the smarmy guru in Bowfinger. There have been long reveries, too, years when Stamp was organically farming in Ibiza or spiritually seeking in India.
The Limey puts the seeker back in the spotlight. Stamp plays Wilson, a Cockney ex-con who flies to California to kick the arse of the bloke responsible for his daughter's death. The trail of blood leads to a scaly record exec played by another Age of Aquarius refugee: Easy Rider's Peter Fonda. It's like a face-off between the Kinks and the Byrds. Which is pretty cosmic, if you want to get all Haight-Ashbury about it. ''There's a real kismet about Fonda and I, because we spent a rather riotous night together in Sicily,'' says Stamp, still a bachelor, recalling one '60s romp. ''I thought he would be a very fun guy to work with.'' ''We were wonderfully bad boys,'' Fonda slyly remembers.
Maybe it's apt that the karmic connection took more than 30 years to come full circle: In The Limey, Stamp and Fonda play men grappling with lost time. ''What's so elegant about this movie is that by casting us, Steven's plugged in to a whole collective memory,'' Stamp says. ''Fonda and I bring so much baggage.'' Indeed, whenever Wilson has a memory of his younger self, The Limeyflashes back to footage from Poor Cow, a 1967 Ken Loach drama starring...Terence Stamp. ''You see him in the '60s and he's so beautiful you can't believe it,'' Soderbergh says. ''For my money, I had the best visual effect in the world: a close-up of Terence Stamp.''
As for more sweeping optical wizardry, well, Stamp did have a cameo in The Phantom Menace as Chancellor Valorum, universal dignitary. ''Ohhh, it was pretty standard, you know,'' he laughs, dabbing horseradish on a gleaming mollusk. ''I have a scene with Natalie Portman, but George Lucas had given her the day off, so I was just performing to a bit of paper nailed to a post.'' In fact, Stamp hasn't actually seen his contribution to the Star Wars saga. ''I went to see the first movie because of Harrison Ford,'' he explains. ''Harrison had a wonderful sense of irony that, according to the critics, is totally missing from the new one.'' And after all, why settle for second best?