I first met Steve McQueen at Riverside Raceway, in the early 1960s, when he was racing a Porsche 1600 in the SCCA sports car races here in Southern California. The thing that most impressed me about Steve, at that time, was that he was a regular guy and he did not put on the so called movie star persona that was starting to overtake Hollywood at that time. Having had both parents involved in the industry for many years, and having been raised around many of MGM’s biggest stars, I appreciated how down to earth Steve was.
Our paths crossed many times before I actually first worked with him as the Still Photographer on Tom Horn in 1979. I remember that film very well because of the difficult locations during a very cold Arizona winter. In spite of the long hours and hard work, we all managed to have a hell of a good time. I’ll never forget the RC car races around the hotel swimming pool in which many of the cars went for a career-ending swim in that pool. I also remember the time that Steve rented out a go kart track and we all went there and totally destroyed the place by the end of the night. I guess there were too few go karts and much to much beer to suit the track owner’s fancy. It was on this shoot that I met a beautiful young lady named Barbara Minty who was to eventually become Steve’s wife. It wasn’t long before we discovered several common interests, mostly photography, and we became immediate friends. When Tom Horn was about to wrap, Steve asked me to be involved on his next project, which at that time, was to be the large scale epic film of James Clavell’s best selling novel Tai Pan. Unfortunately that project never came to be due to serious production and financial problems.
After the completion of Tom Horn, Steve and Barbara invited me to Santa Paula to visit the hanger and their home. During that visit, after viewing Steve’s incredible motorcycle collection, I came up with the idea of doing a large coffee table photographic book about the collection. Several weeks later, I approached Steve with the idea of the photographic book. My idea was to photograph all of the bikes, using many of the wonderful Victorian period homes in the Santa Paula area as set pieces and background. We would also feature models dressed in the period in which the motorcycles were built. Needless to say, Steve loved the idea and told me to find a publisher and that we would do it when we finished the Hunter, which was to start production in September 1979. I told Steve that I had already taken the liberty of talking to a publisher of high quality art books who was based in Lausanne, Switzerland. I explained that I had already worked this publisher on a previous project and the minute that I had mentioned my idea to the owner, he immediately green lighted it and couldn’t wait for me to do it. Steve looked at me for a minute and then we both broke into a good laugh. Sadly the book would never happen.
We started The Hunter, which sadly would be Steve’s last film, in Chicago just after Labor Day in the early fall of 1979. Once again, it was a difficult shoot and we were rushing to complete our work in the Midwest before the cold weather settled in. Although most of us didn’t know it at the time, Steve was terminally ill. Being a real man’s man and a true professional, Steve never complained and was always the first one on the set every day. One of the things that I will always remember most about Steve happened one day when we were working in an area of Chicago that could only be described as a white trash section of town. We were filming a scene where Steve was chasing the bad guy through a dilapidated old house and one of the extras on the staircase of that house was a very poor young teenage girl named Karen. What we didn’t know at that time was that Karen’s mother was in the hospital, dying of cancer and Karen was living on her own with almost no family to support her. I remember the first thing Steve did when he found out about the girl’s situation was to have her taken on a shopping spree so she could get some badly needed clothing and other personal things. We also used her for several weeks as a Production Assistant after we completed filming in her neighborhood. After her mom died, Steve and Barbara took Karen back to Southern California and enrolled her in an excellent private school in Ojai and gave her a life that she could have never imagined months earlier.
When Steve passed away in the fall of 1980, I was working at Culver City Studios on a film called Lookin’ To Get Out. One of the stars was Ann Margaret who had worked with Steve on The Cincinnati Kid and when I got the call that he had passed away, I told her. We both left the stage, hand in hand, and once outside in private, we both hugged and cried.
Steve was the very best. He was honest and a true friend who would go to bat for anyone who was on his crew, or was his friend and he would defend that person to the maximum. Like some of us in the business then, he understood the difference between the reel world and the real world. He was one of a kind and those of us who worked with him and knew him will miss and love him forever.