The Steve McQueen story has never been properly told. That’s another big thing.
Terence Steven “Steve” McQueen was an American actor. He was called “The King of Cool”, his “anti-hero” persona developed at the height of the counterculture of the 1960s and made him a top box-office draw of the 1960s and 1970s. McQueen received an Academy Award nomination for his role in The Sand Pebbles.
His other popular films include The Cincinnati Kid, The Thomas Crown Affair, Bullitt, The Getaway, and Papillon, as well as the all-star ensemble films The Magnificent Seven, The Great Escape, and The Towering Inferno. In 1974, he became the highest-paid movie star in the world, although he did not act in films again for four years.
McQueen was combative with directors and producers, but his popularity placed him in high demand and enabled him to command large salaries.
There are all kinds of biographies about Steve McQueen and they mention Dr. Kelley – the “crazy guy.” I’ve talked to some of these authors.
They never really investigated it properly. I know the whole story.
Dr. Cesar Santos Vargas felt sympathetic toward the ailing man who called himself Sam Sheppard.
“He was a man sure of himself and very sincere,” Santos said.
Santos, a Juarez surgeon and kidney specialist, earned a medical reputation years ago in Juarez for treating injured bullfighters.
He gained national attention when the man called Sheppard suddenly died in his Juarez clinic at 2:50 a.m. Friday.
Sheppard, alias actor Steve McQueen, went to Santos’ Clinca de Santa Rosa looking for reprieve from the painful cancer that was killing him.
McQueen spent time in El Paso in 1972 during the filming here of “The Getaway”
McQueen was kind of a reckless guy. Motorcycle racer, smoker, drinker and lived a hard life as he is famous for. He started getting sick in 1978-1979 and went to his fancy Los Angeles doctors and they kind of blew it off.
You live too hard… you’ve got to cut down the smoking. No one took him seriously. Finally, he was so debilitated he went to his doctors and says “You’ve got to do something.” Finally the genius said, “Hey, let’s do a chest x-ray.”
He had tumors in both lungs. They work him up and he had metastatic mesothelioma.
Mesothelioma is associated with asbestos exposure. Well, he was a motorcycle fanatic and in those days the pipes of motorcycles were lined with asbestos and he would work on his own motorcycles. He was a great mechanic. He was exposed to a huge amount of asbestos and he ended up with mesothelioma.
In those days, 35 years ago and today, mesothelioma is completely incurable once it spreads. The only hope is to get it early and do surgery. Well, his “brilliant” doctors had completely missed the diagnosis for a year. So by the time it was diagnosed, it was metastatic.
Then the “geniuses” decided to give him immunotherapy. There has never been a study in the history of the world showing immunotherapy has any effect on mesothelioma.
Talk about quackery, but they gave it to him. It didn’t work so then they decided to give him radiation. Maybe they gave him the radiation first…
There has never been a study in the history of the world showing radiation works with mesothelioma. Guess what? It didn’t work. So he ends up with stage IV advancing cancer, weeks from death. He goes to see Dr. Santos.
Santos said McQueen checked into the clinic at about 5 p.m. Wednesday after he had signed an agreement for an operation.
Santos and an assistant, Dr. Guillermo Bermudez, operated on McQueen Thursday to remove advanced cancerous tumors of the neck and stomach.
The operation was performed from 8 to 11 a.m. Thursday.
There was a hospital in Mexico at the time that was administering parts of Santos elley’s therapy. He says “Go down to that hospital in Mexico and McQueen wasn’t 100 percent compliant. He still had the Haagen Dazs ice cream smuggled in from his friends and cigarettes, but he did enough of it so he started getting better and then one of the doctors in Mexico gets the “brilliant” idea… “Let’s open him up,” because they think that the tumor. (He had a tumor in his abdomen as well as in his chest.) “Let’s take it out… we think it’s a dead tumor.”
They do the surgery and the next day he dies of a pulmonary embolism, which is a blood clot in the lungs. He did not die of mesothelioma and, in fact, the tumor was a dead tumor. Santos used to have it in his office in formaldehyde – a dead tumor that had shrunk down from a huge tumor down to nothing.
Santos said the actor knew the surgery would be risky.
“If it hadn’t been for the heart failure, I believe something could have been done to make his remaining days more pleasant,” Santos said.
Santos said McQueen might have lived another two or three months if he had not undergone an operation. The Juarez doctors removed a 5-pound tumor from the ailing actor’s abdomen.
“The cancer caused him serious pains. Unfortunately, the disease was too advanced in this case,” the surgeon said.
Santos accommodated a horde of reporters in his tiny office Friday afternoon and discussed why McQueen might have come to Mexico for treatment.
“He and his wife asked for the surgery because he suffered intolerable pain,” Santos said. He was under constant sedatives.”
Santos said McQueen lived about 13 hours after the operation. He was conscious and able to talk. For a while, the actor was able to eat small chunks of ice.
“He had a desire to live when he knew the race (against death) was at a short distance.” Santos said.
The actor was still in pain after the operation. But Santos said the actor told him the pain was not as severe as before the surgery.
Santos said the abdominal tumor was so large that it would have been only a matter of time before it would have choked him to death.
The surgeon said two friends of the family were at McQueen’s bedside when he died. Santos said McQueen’s wife, Barbara, and two children by a previous marriage, son Chad, 21, and daughter Terri, 20, had just left the clinic when he died.
Santos said he believes McQueen might have been referred to his clinic by other patients that he has treated for malignant cancer. The family did not want o subject the actor to publicity, he said.
“The press bothered him a lot when he was in Tijuana. He had a bad impression of journalist,” he said.
Santos said McQueen checked in using the pseudonym Samuel Sheppard, a Cleveland osteopath who was the defendant in tow sensational trials in the 1950’s and 1960’s allegedly for killing his wife. He eventually was acquitted.
Santos said McQueen’s condition seemed to stabilize after the operation. McQueen was asleep when his heart failed and the doctor said he died without saying anything. But late Thursday he developed respiratory problems and died of heart failure a few hours later.
He was 50.
“It’s very strange when people mention, ‘Oh, you were married to Steve McQueen?’” confesses Barbara Minty McQueen in her most comprehensive interview to date debuting exclusively today. “He was such a normal guy and unlike most Hollywood stars that I often say, ‘I could have just as easily been married to a plumber or electrician.’”
Erase any preconceived notions — Minty isn’t your typical self-absorbed former supermodel. Before she married the quintessential action movie icon, Minty was the proud daughter of a tough as nails dairy farmer.
As a five-year-old little girl growing up in Corvallis, Oregon, Minty would stay glued to the television every Saturday night to catch her favorite show, CBS’s Wanted: Dead or Alive, the series that established McQueen into a household name.
Within months of her high school graduation, the fresh-faced if driven young lady was on her way to encounter the bright lights of New York City, ultimately appearing on the covers of prestigious publications like Cosmopolitan, Glamour, and Sports Illustrated.
In July 1977 the straight from the hip shooter’s life was forever altered when she received a phone call from her gruff talking, chain-smoking modeling agent Nina Blanchard in Los Angeles.
Blanchard revealed that McQueen had spotted Minty in a Club Med advertisement during an extended airplane trip and wanted her to audition for the role of a Native American princess in his next project, the underrated western Tom Horn. Apparently, this was a clever ruse as the final cut of the film contains nary a trace of any Indian maiden.
McQueen’s legendary charisma and penetrating blue eyes sealed the deal. Minty was soon smitten. The three and a half years the couple spent together provided some much needed grounding for the mesmerizing actor who had always lived life on the edge and seemed destined to never experience lasting peace.
Unlike McQueen’s previous two wives, entertainer Neile Adams and Love Story’s Ali MacGraw, Minty preferred to hang out as just “one of the boys” and get a bunch of dirt under her fingernails, leaving without a moment’s hesitation on open road motorcycle adventures, attending classic auto swap meets, dressing up like a cowgirl and sticking by her man in a camper for a gnarly location shoot less than one mile from the Arizona-Mexico border, and even temporarily living in a much safer Santa Paula airplane hangar.
A pleural mesothelioma death sentence — a cancer which McQueen felt he likely contracted while stripping asbestos off creaking pipes in a ship’s sweltering engine room during his stint as a U.S. Marine — shattered their idyllic existence not long after their quietly arranged Jan. 16, 1980 marriage. Importantly, throughout the awful ordeal Minty was there.
An avid photographer, Minty captured hundreds of intimate images [e.g. on the sets of Tom Horn and The Hunter] with McQueen’s total blessing. Whether eating an early morning breakfast sans shirt enhanced with bleary eyes and an unruly mountain man beard or intently fueling up his prized yellow Stearman biplane, you honestly get a sense of McQueen unmasked.
Minty’s elaborate, painstakingly crafted 235-page coffee table memoir Steve McQueen: The Last Mile…Revisited, published by Dalton Watson Fine Books, was originally unveiled in 2006 with the cooperation of best-selling McQueen chronicler Marshall Terrill. The tome presents Minty’s Kodak moments in full blossom along with supplemental text.
The ardent supporter of the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization [ADAO] refused to grant interviews or make any appearances exploiting her relationship with the King of Cool until over 25 years after his untimely passing. The Last Mile enabled Minty to finally come to terms with her husband’s vast legacy, and she graciously shares her serendipitous journey from Oregon farm girl to Malibu princess and beyond starting now.
The Complete Barbara Minty McQueen Interview
Why did you become a model in 1972?
I was in it strictly for the money because I wanted my ranch in Idaho and a certain lifestyle. I still want more country, more animals, things like that. I’m almost there. I didn’t do it to get my pictures on the covers of magazines; nevertheless, I did my duty as a model. People think all you do is go wash your face, grin, go places, and get paid a lot of money.
I didn’t go to college, and my education and smarts are in different places. Everybody wanted to know what schooling you had; today, things are different. It’s how you think or what can you bring to a situation, and I think it’s much nicer these days.
I never wanted to be an actress; it’s a hard job. Life is enough acting as it is. When I was with Steve on a film, I loved to be busy and on the set watching. As far as Steve telling me I couldn’t continue modeling, if something really good came up, I wasn’t going to turn it down.
Modeling isn’t brain surgery, and neither is acting. One gift that modeling did give me is you turn on, you turn off. I like that, and I think the majority of actors do just that. Steve certainly did.
How aware were you of Steve’s life and career before you met him?
This is the part of his life that I don’t know. I only know the guy I was with. I think he had such a public life before we met. There’s certainly a lot of press about him out there, so by the time we were together, he enjoyed his privacy, being incognito, and having no one bother him, not that anyone really bothered him.
So, how did you meet Steve in July 1977?
Nina Blanchard, my modeling agent in Los Angeles, called me in Idaho and said, “I want you to fly to Los Angeles to meet the star of The Towering Inferno. He’s thinking about casting you for a part as an Indian princess in his new movie.”
I said, “Nina, I don’t know how to act.” She said, “I know, but it’s a free trip to Los Angeles, and you never know what might happen. Maybe you’ll get a small part in a movie.” So I went to Los Angeles, thinking I was meeting Paul Newman because I didn’t know who Steve McQueen was.
When I met him at the Wilshire, in walks this grungy looking guy. I thought, “That sure doesn’t look like Paul Newman to me,” and so I finally figured out who he was. Like all the stories say, I fell absolutely in love with him. It was like, “Whoa, someone sent me a present!” I didn’t talk during the entire two-hour meeting, but it was very clear there was an attraction.
How many pictures did you take of Steve during your three and a half years together?
Gosh, I don’t even have a clue; I’ve never really sat down and counted them. I always had my camera with me, though not nearly enough, because I never thought I was chronicling somebody’s life. I just thought I was taking nice pictures of a guy.
Marshall Terrill thinks I have about 450 good shots, but there are loads of outtake photos from the same sessions. I’ve still got everything, but there’s definitely not another book for me out there on Steve.
Did you only take photos of Steve?
Oh, I took pictures of all kinds of things. Coming from being a model, I was always around cameras. Plus I owned one. It was just part of my being. I don’t know if you’re born with an eye or whether you learn it, but I really love it.
Was Steve a driven individual when you first met him?
I got Steve at a very good time, the last three-and-a-half years of his life. He was never mellow, but he was probably mellower than what I’ve heard about him. I do know that when he got a bee in his bonnet, it was going to get done one way or another.
When he decided to fly, he was sitting down one day reading his trade-a-plane magazine, and before you could even blink, he calls up and buys an airplane. A couple of weeks later, he has an instructor, and we’re living in an airplane hangar in Santa Paula. So if that’s what called driven, he was driven, either driven or a little insane, I’m not sure which it is.
What was it like to actually live in an airplane hangar?
I absolutely adored it, and I would do it to this day if I could. We had everything we needed: a television, a bed, and a kitchen that was extremely small, which was fine with me, because I hate to cook.
But how cool is it to wake up in the morning surrounded by airplanes, motorcycles, and tool chests? I was brought up on a dairy farm, and I’m not a girly girl. If I woke up in Paris Hilton’s closet, I’d freak out!
Steve thought it was great when I told him I wanted to fly. He immediately went out and bought me an airplane. I was like, well, honey, I don’t need an airplane, I just want to learn how to fly.
It pissed Steve off to no end when we went down to take our flight test, and I was the one who came away with a license. I had never set foot in the cockpit of an airplane, I passed the first time, and I only missed three or four questions at the most.
Steve took it three times, and he passed on the fourth. He only passed because the flight guy behind the counter gave Steve a cheat sheet for a few minutes. Steve was so mad at me that I had to leave and go outside and wait for him to finish.
When I did my first cross country trip, I had about five airplanes behind me, my own little parade, getting me the first five minutes out of Santa Paula. Steve probably told them to make sure I was safe. When I got back, all the boys were there with a cold beer for me. They patted me on the back and offered their congratulations. They were really our family in Santa Paula.
Talk about Steve’s sense of humor a bit.
Steve was very funny with a dry sense of humor. He didn’t have a comedic sense of humor, but he liked to get you. I remember, one day we were fighting like cats and dogs. I’m not one to back down; we were screaming and yelling, so I ran into the bathroom and locked myself in.
I could hear him banging on the door, still screaming, although he would never lay a hand on me or anything like that. He just enjoyed our verbal arguments. I thought, “Alright, I’ve got him, I’m going to crawl out the bathroom window, because he’ll never find me, and I can go hide in the chicken coop.”
I was almost all the way out the window, my foot was about to hit the ground, when Steve grabbed me from behind, around my waist, and yelled “Gotcha!” We just ended up rolling around on the ground, laughing, because I got busted crawling out the window, so that’s the kind of sense of humor he had.
Even when Steve became ill, his sense of humor was probably one of the good things that got him through that time. A case in point: Steve and I had originally thought of calling The Last Mile “The Long Haul.”
It was based on the fact that one day I was pushing him down Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in the wheelchair. He looked at me, kinda grinned, and said, “Well, it’s the long hall, but it’s not exactly the one we had in mind, honey.”
Is it true that Steve got a perm during the zenith of disco fever in early 1978?
Steve came home one day with a perm in his hair at the beginning of our relationship when we were living in Malibu. Oh my god, everybody laughed at him. Steve’s son Chad and I were rolling on the floor because it was funny. I got the tail end of the — pardon my French — the movie star bulls — t with him. I found it very hilarious and humorous.
Did Steve exhibit any chauvinism?
Steve was a sweetheart underneath all of it, but he was old fashioned and liked to be the man. If there was a big bad situation, it was always nice to have him there, since there wasn’t much he couldn’t handle.
As sweet as he was, Steve could have a very menacing outward appearance and personality. Those eyes could become quite cold, and let’s just say, I wouldn’t want to mess with him.
Did Steve ever carry any money on him?
Steve always feigned broke, but he wasn’t. He’d have a couple hundred stashed in his pocket. If you were out having lunch or coffee, he never had any money, so you just had to bite the bullet and pay for him.
When it came to a bargain, was Steve a good haggler?
He was so good, he was bad. The funniest thing was, if Steve was with a friend, they would have to make deals before they would go junkin’ together, because they would try to outbid each other.
As a result, the retailer would end up getting more than he wanted. Of course, if Steve really wanted something, he’d go behind the other guy’s back and get it. Steve was very determined. That boy didn’t really know the word “no.”
Steve could almost always get a good deal. He’d take it to the limit, going back and forth. If he didn’t like the way the negotiations were going or thought he was getting taken advantage of, he wouldn’t do it and walk away.
Do you think Steve’s childhood influenced his need to buy so much “junk?”
Sometimes I think that, but often I just don’t understand all that phil-o-soph-i-locca. I know childhoods make a lot of difference on people growing up. I grew up in a great family, I had everything I wanted, yet I still craved the junk and the second hand stores. I think it’s something that’s in your blood.
In Steve’s case, perhaps it was due to the fact he didn’t have anything as a kid. For instance, when he would sit down to eat, he had two beers, two sides of peas, and one main course, but everything came in separate little plates. There would always be two, and I assumed that stemmed from his childhood.
Steve had a special bond with children.
Yes, he was so wonderful with kids. One day we were sitting around having coffee when we read in the paper about this little kid dying of cancer. All this kid wanted to do was go to Disneyland.
The next thing you know, Steve was on the line with the Make-A-Wish Foundation and made arrangements for the trip. A big car picked up the kid’s family, and they got to spend a weekend at Disneyland.
I don’t think they ever knew who did that for them, because Steve did it anonymously. That sort of thing Steve never did for the publicity, and that truly shows you Steve’s heart.
As a matter of fact, you and Steve later raised a young girl.
I call Karen Wilson my “insta-kid.” We didn’t legally adopt her, but she was basically ours. We brought her home to Santa Paula from Chicago [Author’s Note: During location shooting for The Hunter in late 1979, the McQueens realized that Wilson’s mother wasn’t able to raise her properly].
When Steve died, I took her in, and she’s turned out pretty well. Today she’s been married for 20 years, has a nice family, and her life is good. She was very important to Steve.
Steve’s son, Chad, often stayed with you guys, too.
Well, Chad lived with us, and he was a hoot. We’d fight like cats and dogs, and Steve would have to break us up. One time we got into a fight in the baked goods section of a grocery store, and we were throwing bread, muffins, and bagels at each other.
By the time we walked out of the store, we were laughing our heads off. Chad is a very good and decent person and has a great wife, two wonderful kids and has made a nice life for himself.
There are some beautiful shots in The Last Mile…Revisited of Steve and Joshua Evans — Ali MacGraw’s son with Paramount executive-Chinatown producer Robert Evans — skeet shooting. Do you still stay in touch with Joshua?
Joshua is all grown up now and doing very well. I saw him in Feb. 2007 in Los Angeles. He’s a good-looking kid; actually, he’s an adult, but we’re all adults now, unfortunately. He’s a screenwriter and director and is very talented.
Was Steve just as friendly with animals?
Very much so, he definitely had a soft spot for animals. I had a horse that I couldn’t get into the back of a horse trailer for anything in the whole wide world. Whenever I had to haul that stupid horse, I called Steve, and he would come up and put the horse in the horse trailer for me. That horse is in the book.
Steve could do it the first time. He’d been around horses a long time — Wanted: Dead or Alive debuted on television in 1958 — and I guess they talked the same language.
How would Steve react to today’s technological innovations?
I can’t picture Steve being on the Internet or using email. That would have been too sedentary for him. Steve liked the phone; he was kind of a gabby person, and I’m the same way.
He would have enjoyed the convenience of a cell phone, but he wouldn’t have been on it all the time. I bet you he never would have used text messaging. Steve wouldn’t have had much patience for those people.
I googled myself the other day, and I was like, “Where do they come up with some of this stuff?” It’s wild. How do they find out so much about you?
Describe a typical day with Steve.
Malibu was a lot different than the later airport/Santa Paula years. I remember the Santa Paula years, since we spent most mornings in the hangar. We’d have coffee, go for our flight, come home, go to lunch, go to either Santa Paula or off somewhere in the truck looking for crap.
We’d go all over Ventura County — the antique capital of the world — finding all sorts of weird little places, haunts, and garage sales. Then we’d come home, go for another flight, depending on how many beers he had — Steve loved his beer — go to dinner, and then turn in early for bed.
We didn’t really do anything; we just lived. We never went out to do things, but the days were so full. He’d come home sometime and say, “Okay, pack your stuff, because we’re leaving.” My job was to fetch a six-pack of Old Milwaukee and pack some clothes in the back of the pick-up.
I didn’t even ask where we were going, because I don’t think he knew half of the time, so we’d just head north. Steve was a spur of the moment guy, which was great, because he met a spur of the moment girl.
Was Steve able to relax, or was he always on the go?
There’s one picture in The Last Mile I just find hilarious — it’s all of us sitting around the airport, the door’s open, and the planes are inside. My saddle’s out front, because I sat on the saddle on the stool. All the boys were in the rocking chairs, chugging beers.
Steve had a little chew in his mouth, as he went through a little chewing phase. There’s an old man in one of the rocking chairs, and to this day, I don’t know who he was. At night we’d close up and go to dinner, and I’d ask Steve, “Who was that old guy?” Steve said, “I thought you knew him.”
The old gentleman just came and sat down and hung out with us. The funny thing is, he sat and listened to all of our stories, but he never said a peep. We definitely had some interesting people come hang out with us.
You guys had many adventurous road trips.
There was a pick-up for everyday of the week; Steve had all kinds of vehicles. It was awesome, almost like a lady going into her closet to decide what to wear that day. In this case, he would go into his garage and decide what to drive that day.
When I was still modeling and on the cover of three magazines, we were in one of the old trucks going up Interstate 5 to a swap meet in Bakersfield. A carload of girls drove up beside us and started squealing, pointing, and waving.
Steve said, “Keep your head down, and don’t look at them. They’ve recognized me, so just ignore them.” I said “Oh god, I’ve got to pee in the worst way, please just pull over at the next rest stop.”
Steve wasn’t happy, and so when we pulled in, the car followed us, and the girls got out and came screaming after me into the bathroom. When I walked out of the bathroom, I was signing pieces of paper and posing for pictures with these little girls.
Steve was a bit jealous, since I was getting this attention, and his chest puffed out, and he said, “Well, I’m Steve McQueen, the actor!” One of them said, “But she’s on the cover of a magazine!”
They didn’t care or know who he was, because he had a beard and long hair. Even so, they still wouldn’t have known who he was, because they didn’t come from that era that grew up with Steve. Every once in awhile, if Steve didn’t get what he wanted, he’d let them know he was Steve McQueen.
- Drinkin’ Beer and Fishin’ in Montana
One time we were in Montana, in the sticks, and it was getting late, and we came upon a cabin area. We knocked on a cabin door, and a nice man answered. Steve literally begged him, saying, “Mister, we can’t drive any further, and we’re tired. Can we stay here?”
The guy said of course. Steve smelled spaghetti and mentioned how good it must be, and the gentleman responded, “Why don’t you join me and my wife?” He gave us this little cabin, and after we put our things away, we went up and had dinner with them. Steve and this guy drank beer and bonded immediately.
We must have been up ’til midnight, and the guy says to Steve, “Do you wanna go fishin’?” Steve said, “Yeah, we’ll get up and go fishing.” So we went back to the cabin, and I said, “You hate to fish; you’ve never been fishing that I know of.” Nevertheless, they got up the next morning and off they went.
We spent two days there, and Steve and this guy really hit it off. On the third day this guy says, “Come on, we’re gonna go into town for coffee and meet the boys.” He had already spent two days with Steve and had no idea who we were.
Steve had signed in under a strange name, and this guy must have thought, “Here’s an old man with this young girl, whatever, they’re safe, they haven’t killed anybody or done anything wrong.”
So we went into town to this local coffee shop, and Steve’s just digging the heck out of it because it’s right up his alley. Well, all of a sudden you could hear the buzz start, and I saw Steve’s face change, like he was busted.
Eventually, within ten minutes someone came up and said to the guy, “You know, that’s Steve McQueen the actor you’ve been hanging out with.”
We stayed one more night and moved on, but here’s Steve McQueen the actor, and nobody would have guessed it. That was cool because Steve was entirely in his element, and he could be completely anonymous or even somebody else.
Did you ever have an awful road trip?
I remember waking up, it was one of our little pickup journeys back from Montana, in a horrible hotel room in Challis, Idaho. It was dreadful, the worst place to this day I’ve ever stayed in.
I looked hard at Steve, and we were on a twin bed that was just gross. I thought, I could just get up and put my thumb out, and I could be home in an hour and a half. But I stuck it out a little longer [laughs]. I reckon he had a pretty stubborn girl in me, too.
How did Steve feel about letting you take the wheel?
I never drove Steve around — that was never an option. It’s not that he didn’t want me to; I could never beat him to the wheel. He liked to drive and that was his deal. I wasn’t going to step on his toes.
Steve loved trucks, and we’d often drive by the Mexican farmhands in the fields of Ventura County, a very agricultural part of California. We would spot these old pick-up trucks, and so Steve would pull in, and nobody would know who he was.
He could talk to the migrant farm workers, and pretty soon he’d come back and toss me the keys and say, “We’re bringing it home.” He’d buy it, give the guy cash, and away we would go.
There were many beautiful images of Steve driving his white Chevrolet Cameo Carrier truck in The Last Mile. Do you still own the truck?
Well, he didn’t drive that too much. I got to drive it once after extreme begging. That was my favorite automobile, and when Steve passed away, Chad and I would steal the car from each other.
One week the car would be at Chad’s house, the next at mine. He’d call the cops on me; I’d call the cops on him, but it was never done with malicious intent. I finally got the car back for good; unfortunately, I often banged it up.
People even stopped to admire it, and when they found out it was Steve’s, I thought, okay, I should take better care of it. I kinda restored it — not mechanically — but I did make a pretty thing out of it.
I put the truck in the 2006 auction, and hopefully it went to a very good home. I just loved it to pieces, and that was the best I could do for it. It was one of the reasons I had the auction.
Is it true Steve asked you to take a motorcycle apart?
We rode motorcycles all the time compared to the few times I flew with him. Sad to say, we just didn’t have enough time to do a lot of stuff, yet we ended up doing a whole lot in a short amount of time.
One day he came home and threw a pair of coveralls at me and said, “Okay honey, I’m gonna teach you how to take a motorcycle apart.” I knew exactly where this was going to go, so we got our coveralls on and went into the garage, and we tore that thing to pieces.
It took a day or so to get it apart, and there wasn’t a screw undone on that motorcycle, as it was in a million different pieces. To me, that was fun because I was just making a mess. I knew someone else would have to put it together eventually.
Three weeks later, I called Sammy Pierce, who worked on Steve’s motorcycles, and Sammy asked if he wanted me to put it back together. I immediately said, “Yep,” and I didn’t have to explain anything, since Sammy knew exactly what was going on.
Steve taught me a lot, but that was his only attempt at sitting me down to try to show me something.
Did you meet many famous people while you were with your husband?
It’s like my modeling days. When I used to work, there were so many people I knew and hung around with. I didn’t realize exactly who they were, but I guess that’s the beauty of being naïve sometimes. It gets you through life a little safer in the long run.
I didn’t meet a lot of people, or if I did, I don’t remember really meeting them. I wanted to socialize a bit more, but Steve was jealous. He liked his women with him by his side.
- Keith Moon
Keith Moon was there, and to this day I realize I should have taken better notice of the people who were around. I didn’t realize he was the drummer for The Who. People were constantly throwing beer cans on our part of the beach, and that was likely him or some of his rock ’n’ roll friends.
The funny thing is, a friend of mine, author-photographer Nancy Andrews, was engaged to Ringo Starr for many years. Her beautiful book, A Dose of Rock ’n’ Roll, was also published by Dalton Watson Fine Books. As I was reading it, I came across a picture of Keith Moon sitting on Trancas Beach.
I said, “Nancy, I can’t believe it. I know exactly where you were sitting because I used to sit there.” And in the corner of one picture was our dog Junior, the one who bit everybody. The interesting thing was we were all there together, but we didn’t know each other, since we kept to ourselves.
Steve shot out Keith’s window one night. I can close my eyes right now, and I’m back there. The drummer wasn’t there, but he had this light that shone through our bedroom window. Steve called first and no one answered, so Steve mumbled a few choice words.
Steve finally got fed up, fetched his gun out from under the bed and blew the window out. There were sparks and glass flying, and I thought his house was going to burn down. Turned out nobody was home, no alarm went off, and no people came out.
We waited for a little bit to make sure the house wouldn’t catch fire. But that’s the last time that light turned on in that bathroom. I never got a chance to meet Keith, but I’ve heard some wonderfully crazy stories about him. He probably would have scared me to death.
- Lee Majors
Lee Majors was a friend of Steve’s and I really liked him. He was a regular guy and always wanted to bring his wife, Farrah Fawcett, to the house. I said, “Nope, you do, and I’m leaving.” She was so gorgeous and a big star that I was completely intimidated.
Steve asked, “Why, she’s so nice?” I later talked to her on the phone, and she was the most wonderful person in the world. I told her, “You’re so beautiful and cool, I just can’t meet you.” There was nothing wrong with her, I was just terrified.
Steve and Lee hung out a lot, and I snapped a lot of great photos of them when Lee visited us in Santa Paula in May 1979, when Steve soloed the Stearman for the first time. Lee remains a good friend to this day.
- James Garner
James Garner came to the door one time, and I was so shocked to see him. I loved The Rockford Files, and so there he was, standing at our front door. He asked, “Is Steve here?”
I replied, “Mr. Rockford, hold on a minute.” I called to Steve, and those two got a good laugh out of that since I couldn’t remember his real name.
What was funny about that incident was that I looked pretty young for my age, wore short shorts and long, almost knee-high socks. I’m almost sure Garner thought I was some high school chick that Steve had secretly stashed away [laughs].
- Peter Fonda
I met Peter Fonda a couple of times through Steve, too. Fonda is sort of an enigma. I don’t even know what to think of him, but he’s always been good to me. He’s one of those people that I look at and say “Wow!”
One time he and his wife, Becky, came over for breakfast in Malibu, and Steve asked me to cook them two eggs. Well, I’m not a great cook by any stretch of the imagination, and my eggs didn’t look very tasty judging by the look on Peter and Becky’s faces.
Steve didn’t want my feelings hurt, so he gave them a look that said, “You’d better eat my ol’ lady’s eggs.” He was serious, but it’s funny to look back and laugh.
- Paul McCartney
I truly wanted to meet Paul McCartney, and one day Steve said he was coming to our house, along with Lee Eastman, Linda McCartney’s brother. Eastman was an attorney who represented both Steve and Paul. I was so excited to meet Paul that I was literally bouncing off the walls.
I was a first generation Beatles fan and was about 10 years old when they appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show. I’ve been a fan ever since. Because I was so giddy over the fact that Paul McCartney was coming to our house, it got nipped in the bud real fast, due to Steve’s apparent jealousy. I was furious.
Was McQueen the kind of guy who watched his movies?
I don’t think Steve ever watched his movies on TV. For some reason, I can picture him watching The Blob with the kids. I can’t ever say anything about Steve’s movies, because to me he was like a mechanic or plumber.
Steve went to work every day and that was his job. He brought home a paycheck, he put food on the table, and of course, a lot of people got to watch him work. I think he enjoyed it. Heck, it was good fun and good money. It allowed us to do whatever we wanted to do.
Do you ever run into actors who worked with McQueen?
I was in Los Angeles last July, and I had dinner with Susan Blakely, who was in The Towering Inferno with Steve. She had very nice things to say about him. I haven’t seen that movie since high school, yet I definitely remember it. That’s really the last movie of his I’ve seen in its entirety.
Susan told me a story that Steve walked past her in the dressing room, and she was looking frumpy. They had dyed her hair and had her frumped out. She was and is a beautiful lady and was a model before she became an actress.
Steve told her that she’d look much better with her hair down rather than up; however, the director-producer didn’t agree. She remarked, “You know, I should have followed what Steve said because he had the right idea.”
When you first met McQueen, he had recently completed An Enemy of the People. Have you watched the film?
I’ve never seen An Enemy of the People. I refuse to watch his movies today, because it’s such a heartbreaking, painful experience. All I know is it was an Ibsen play, it was trouble for everybody, and it tanked at the box office.
I know he wanted to do the film, but I don’t know why. He never mentioned that to me, and we never really discussed his film career. Because I was so young when I married Steve, I didn’t want to pry into his business. Now that I’m older, I wish I would have asked a lot more questions.
Tom Horn was your first film shoot with Steve. How do you remember that experience?
I’ve never sat down and watched Tom Horn. But I was there, and the film was just the best adventure and my absolute favorite experience. But god, it was cold.
Being part of a movie set was every little girl’s dream, at least for me, since I grew up on a dairy farm in Oregon. I’ll always be a cowgirl, and I tended to lose myself in that western setting.
When the film company was shooting on location in southern Arizona, we had the option of staying in an upscale hotel in Tucson, but we decided to take a motor home and live there on the set.
Steve parked it out in the middle of nowhere, close to the set, and early every morning he and his good friend Pat Johnson would jog. I loved that experience.
- Staying Near the Mexican Border with a Colt .45
We changed location about three times, and on one such occasion we were less than one mile from the Mexican border. Remember, this was in 1979 before there were serious border issues between the two countries. Steve would go in the daytime to the set, which was a couple miles away, and he’d leave me all alone.
He thought I was a nutcase since I’d dress the part of a cowgirl, putting on little petticoats, cowboy boots, the whole works. I was really diggin’ it, as there wasn’t a soul around. I could get on my little horse and ride, or I could just walk around and be in my own world.
When the crew was shooting in another area, the entire western town was virtually empty except for a few wranglers and set builders. I often seized the moment and loved riding my horse on the sidewalks, since all the buildings were facades. Even in my mid-twenties, I imagined being on horseback in the late 1800s. Such a blast.
One day before heading out on location, Steve walked over to me and put a holster and Colt .45 on my belt. He said, “If you’re gonna stay here, this will be on you at all times. The border has a lot of traffic and nobody’s gonna hurt you, but just in case, I want you to be prepared.”
He taught me how to use the pistol really well. I had a field gun permit, but it didn’t matter down there. I saw several guys crossing the border and I’d just wave at them. My thinking was, ‘Hey, you do what you do, and I do what I do; you stay there, and I stay away.’
Would Steve often go over the script with you?
I remember sitting in the trailer at night and Steve would throw a script at me. He’d say, “Here, read the other part,” and when he read his part, I’d laugh at him. I’d answer, “Good god, you’re horrible.” Steve often retorted, “Shut up and just read it please!”
Now I understand Steve was memorizing the lines. He wasn’t putting any emotion into it. He was dyslexic, so he didn’t read very well, and he went over and over that script. We laughed and giggled, I teased him, and it was just a good, fun time for us.
So, how did your dad become a shotgun-carrying extra?
My father Gene and mother Wilma visited the set one day and Steve said to them, “Would you like to dress up and be extras? It won’t be a problem at all.” My dad said immediately, “Oh yeah, that sounds like a good idea.”
Mom wasn’t too crazy about that proposition, but my dad was a huge western freak. So Dad became a general extra for a few days. Not long after the casting director had to pick five or six extras to play the jailers who were behind Steve during the final hanging scene.
The only stipulation was the extras had to have the meanest, grumpiest face you could imagine. Well, darned if they didn’t pick my dad. He went up to Steve and thanked him, but Steve said, “Thank you for what?”
My dad explained that he would get to stay an extra two weeks and play a little part in the movie. Steve said, “Mr. Minty, I had nothing to do with it; that’s all your doing.”
As it turned out, the only reason they picked my dad was because he looked mean as hell. While my dad was a pussycat to me, because I was his little girl, he wasn’t a man you wanted to cross.
My dad didn’t have any lines, but he got to walk with a shotgun behind Steve to the gallows. I don’t think Steve was too nervous. My dad probably just loved that, and that became a joke around the set. I’m glad my dad got to do it because he got a kick out of playing dress up.
Did you become friends with any of Steve’s co-stars, such as beloved cowboys Richard Farnsworth and Slim Pickens?
I loved Richard Farnsworth, and I kept in touch with him after Tom Horn. I played polo for many years after Steve passed away, and Farnsworth was always around the field in L.A. He’d make a point or I would to go say hello to each other.
He was the most wonderful, gentle soul; Farnsworth was exactly the man you saw on the screen. If there was ever a real thing in the world, he was the real thing. The epitome of a man’s man, he was something else.
- Slim Pickens and Dirty Jokes
Slim Pickens was funny, nice, and just an all-around good guy. He was exactly what you would have wanted him to be. I don’t know any of his earlier movies, but I remember him riding on that bomb in Peter Sellers’ comedy classic, Dr. Strangelove.
Between shots and setting up, the actors would all go to this one little house. They’d sit down, and Slim would go off on these tangents of filthy, dirty jokes. For two days I sneaked in there, as nobody knew I was hiding behind one of the walls.
On the third day, all of a sudden I heard, “Barbi, get out here!” I went, “Oh god, I’m busted,” and I quickly walked out. My dad was looking at me very sternly, shaking his head, and he said, “You know better than that.” Unfortunately, that was the last time I got to do that.
How does Tom Horn stack up today?
Tom Horn could have been a great film, but the studio wouldn’t give them enough money. It’s too bad the film didn’t go further, but once again, I don’t know the business.
Regardless, from what I heard about Steve during the shoot, he could be difficult. That was his baby, and he wanted it his way.
What made you decide to return to Patagonia, Arizona, after 35 years?
I wanted to revisit our old stomping ground in Patagonia, a teeny hole-in-the-wall border town near Nogales in the San Rafael Valley. Steve filmed much of Tom Horn there. They do have a Velvet Elvis pizza parlor [laughs]. It hasn’t changed much at all, there’s just a lot more cow s — t [laughs]. It’s so beautiful and gorgeous out there. I liken it to God’s country.
I should have taken the book out with me to the place so we could see exactly where we were camped. It’s been so long ago, so I just kind of guessed where we camped. I took a picture of it, and my picture is real close to where the picture in the book was taken. Steve and I used to eat breakfast in this little restaurant. Steve would have Mexican food topped off with two beers. That was breakfast. Now it wasn’t every day [laughs].
I also wanted to visit Joe Brown, who was a wrangler on Tom Horn. He also had a bit role in the movie. He’s a very, very good Western writer with a number of books published. One of my favorites is Jim Kane, which was adapted into Pocket Money, a 1972 western starring Paul Newman and Lee Marvin. He’s just a great old guy. We’ve retained our friendship over 30 years.
What are your memories of being on the set of The Hunter, Steve’s final film?
The Hunter was not as much fun; it was more of a “city” movie. I don’t know where or why the thought came over me, but I had the distinct feeling that this was going to be Steve’s last picture.
On the other hand, it was really fun learning about explosives and stunts. As for the cast, I did get to know LeVar Burton pretty well, and Eli Wallach was a good guy, too.
It was clear that LeVar was in awe of Steve and did nothing to hide his admiration. Privately, Steve deeply cared for LeVar and took on a fatherly role at times. Steve loved him in Roots and lobbied to get him the part in the movie.
Steve was determined to play the real life modern-day bounty hunter who apprehended more than 5,000 criminals and bail jumpers. To soften the bounty hunter’s rough edges, Steve incorporated several cool habits and attributes that mirrored his own personality.
For example, he collected antique toys, drove an old Chevy convertible — rather badly I might add — and was even involved with a beautiful brunette almost half his age — wonder where that idea came from?
Were you guys really in the Chicago ghetto?
Absolutely, and I’d never been exposed to the real slums before that experience. It was interesting. I knew Steve always had my back, so I didn’t have to worry about anything bad. They had us downtown in a nice little hotel, and this is where the goodness of Steve’s heart came out.
Steve realized the crew was staying in a stinky, old, horrible Holiday Inn. So, of course we had to move there and endure those conditions.
I completely understood where he was coming from, though. Steve always viewed the crew as part of his family. He worked when they worked, ate when they ate, and slept when they slept.
The production later traveled to the agricultural heartland.
After The Hunter finished shooting sequences in Chicago, we headed southwest to the Kankakee River Valley where the movie was slated for more production. Our hotel was located next door to a meat packing factory. Frankly, it stunk.
However, Steve did befriend a wonderful couple, who lent the studio their farm for a scene. This couple took a real liking to Steve, and the nice lady would make little treats for him.
In return, Steve liked spending time with the family, which was a recurring theme in his life. Right before we left she gave us a book called The Farm Journal, which was a guide on how to survive on a farm. They must have thought we needed it.
What’s the story behind Karen Wilson, the teenager you both adopted?
Chicago’s a great town, and that’s where we found Karen Wilson, our little “insta-kid.” One scene required lots of extras, but for some reason, this feisty young girl caught Steve’s eye. He questioned her, asking “Why aren’t you in school?”
Her reply floored him. “Because I need to make extra money,” she said. She had been watching over a seven-year-old neighbor named “Bobo.” It turned out that Karen’s birthday was the same as mine, which Steve took as some sort of sign.
We visited Karen’s mother in the ghetto, where we found her and her entire family living in squalor. Steve wasted no time telling Karen’s mother, “We’d like to take Karen back with us to California and put her in a good school, so that she has a chance to get out of here.”
After several weeks of going back and forth, her mother came to the decision that it was best for Karen to leave with us. Once The Hunter wrapped, we enrolled her in a private boarding school near our Santa Paula home.
On weekends we would bring Karen home so she could have some sense of normalcy. Almost a year after we became her legal guardians, Karen’s mother passed away.
When Steve died, I personally saw to it that she graduated high school. To make a long story short, Karen is now a happily married mother of four kids and works for an L.A.-based escrow company.
During the making of The Hunter, Steve’s generosity rose to the forefront.
One time Steve saw some local kids throwing a football stuffed with rags. He dispatched [stuntman] Loren Janes to a sporting goods store. Before you could blink, hundreds of baseballs, footballs, mitts, and bats were left in a large recreational field.
Although he had practically stopped giving autographs a decade before, Steve freely handed out several thousand signed 8 x 10 glossies. When Steve discovered that a local Catholic church was in need, he wrote a check covering all expenses.
Before he handed over the check, he stopped by to see the film’s producer, Mort Engleberg, and said, “Mort, this is what I’m giving to the church. I’d like you to match it.”
No one knew he performed all of these great deeds, but he did. By the way, Mort immediately said yes and wrote a check on the spot. How could he say no to Steve McQueen?