A little girl’s dream: Being on the ‘Tom Horn’ film set with Steve McQueen

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Steve McQueen’s widow Barbara Minty, a self-professed cowgirl born on a dairy farm in Oregon, grants a scoop interview about the halcyon months she spent in southern Arizona seeing the 1960s box office titan film his final Western role “Tom Horn.” In the accompanying still a steely-eyed, tobacco-chewing 48-year-old King of Cool means business as the titular “Tom Horn” on location near Nogales, Arizona, circa March 1979. Photography by Dave Friedman / Courtesy of Barbara Minty McQueen / appears in “Steve McQueen: The Last Mile…Revisited”

Tom Horn was Steve McQueen’s penultimate film and perhaps the project closest to his heart. Based on the life of the controversial Wild West detective-hired assassin, the star and executive producer archived extensive notes on a tape recorder over a nearly three-year period.

The actor even went so far as to camp out one night at the gunfighter’s final resting place in Boulder, Colorado, eerily claiming Horn’s ghost dropped in on him. McQueen’s efforts paid off handsomely, as dyed in the wool fans consider the role to be among his best. Friend and fellow actor James Coburn concurred in an interview for Marshall Terrill’s acclaimed 1993 biography, Steve McQueen: Portrait of an American Rebel.

With a dependable supporting cast — a pre-Dynasty Linda Evans, Richard Farnsworth, Slim Pickens, Billy Green Bush, Geoffrey Lewis, Elisha Cook, Jr. [blown to smithereens by the despicable Jack Palance in Shane— the film nevertheless languished at the box office when distributed in March 1980.

So why was Tom Horn a failure? It bowed at a time when the Western genre was dead in the water. The last year when a recurring stream of big budget westerns was green-lit was 1976. John Wayne’s The Shootist, Clint Eastwood’s The Outlaw Josey Wales, Marlon Brando’s The Missouri Breaks, Goldie Hawn’s The Duchess and the Dirtwater Fox, Charles Bronson’s From Noon Till Three, Charlton Heston’s The Last Hard Men, and Richard Harris’s The Return of a Man Called Horse are all bicentennial products.

The newly married, 50-year-old King of Cool also didn’t have the strength to actively promote the film beyond showing up with fresh-faced wife Barbara Minty at a confrontational press preview screening in Oxnard, California, sporting a beard, blue jeans, leather jacket, and battered pick-up truck. A mesothelioma cancer diagnosis the previous December, soon after wrapping production on the grueling modern-day bounty hunter flick The Hunter — bringing his career full circle after becoming a household name on CBS television’s Wanted: Dead or Alive — had shattered any lingering notions about playing the Hollywood glad-handing game.

Fortunately for us, Minty is alive and well and was on location with her husband throughout Tom Horn’s filming. Sit back as typically uneventful moments on a western movie shoot are enhanced by Minty’s entertaining recollections starting now.

The Barbara Minty McQueen Interview

Tom Horn was your debut 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.

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 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 40 years later?

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.

© Jeremy Roberts, 2011, 2017. All rights reserved. To touch base, email jeremylr@windstream.net and mention which story led you my way. I appreciate it sincerely.

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Retro pop culture interviews & lovin’ someone fierce sustain this University of Georgia Master of Agricultural Leadership alum. Email: jeremylr@windstream.net

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