The goodness of Steve McQueen’s heart: On the set of final film ‘The Hunter’

“Magnificent Seven” star Steve McQueen’s widow Barbara Minty bluntly reflects, “‘The Hunter’ was not as much fun as Steve’s previous film ‘Tom Horn’ — the former 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 ‘The Hunter’ was going to be Steve’s last picture.” Here the jovial couple are pictured during the disco-fueled summer of 1978 in Malibu. Image Credit: The Barbara Minty McQueen Collection / appears in “Steve McQueen: The Last Mile…Revisited”

Barbara Minty McQueen came face-to-face with future spouse Steve McQueen in July 1977 after receiving a phone call from Nina Blanchard in Los Angeles. The modeling agent told her client that the “King of Cool” had spotted her in a Club Med advertisement while he was aboard an airplane and wanted her to audition for the role of a Native American princess in his penultimate project, the western Tom Horn. Apparently it was a strategically planned ruse, as the final cut contains no traces of any Native American princesses.

That initial meeting led to a whirlwind courtship and her ultimate marriage to McQueen in 1980. Minty maintained an active role in her husband’s life, whether amateur aviation — they temporarily called a funky Santa Paula airplane hangar home — going to swap meets, taking spontaneous motorcycle adventures, spending months near the Mexico border shooting Tom Horn, or providing tender love and support during McQueen’s cancer ordeal.

Minty had the foresight to document their time together and capture rare behind-the-scenes memories from Tom Horn and The Hunter for posterity. Minty’s tribute to her husband, Steve McQueen: The Last Mile…Revisited, is a brilliant, engrossing coffee-table book containing hundreds of full-page color and black and white candids.

Minty graciously agreed to reflect on her years with the taciturn cowboy, and if you missed it, the previous installment revolved around the making of Tom Horn. Otherwise, the talk proceeds to McQueen’s final movie.

The Hunter was a decent moneymaker, netting $37 million at the box office — against an $8 million budget — when distributed in late July 1980. McQueen was battling mesothelioma and was in no condition to attend The Hunter’s premiere or conduct any publicity to tout the film. Nevertheless, it performed considerably better than McQueen’s passion project Tom Horn, eventually becoming a solid earner when released on home video and television.

The Hunter is decidedly modest compared to the iconic Bullitt, although it sports an exhilarating car–combine chase through a circuitous corn field. McQueen wanted to do the movie, and that’s what counts in the final analysis. He had repeatedly passed over films after the unbelievable triumph of the disaster epic The Towering Inferno in 1974. Those rejects include such classics as The Driver, Apocalypse Now, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and The Bodyguard.

Viewing the late actor in a role that acknowledges his actual age is revelatory. Tough as unoiled leather, bounty hunter Ralph “Papa” Thorson does things his way — occasionally screwing up and landing on his ass in the process — but acknowledges that he is becoming a relic of a bygone era. It is also an ironic, simple twist of fate that McQueen’s last part found him chasing fugitives. Twenty years earlier McQueen had depicted Josh Randall, a deadly, often hot-headed bounty hunter who sported a sawed-off Mare’s Leg rifle, on Wanted: Dead or Alive, the violent 1958–1961 western series that catapulted him into the Hollywood stratosphere.

The Barbara Minty McQueen Interview

What are your memories of being on the set of The Hunter, Steve’s final film?

The Hunter was not as much fun as Steve’s previous film Tom Horn — the former 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 The Hunter 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.

Tell us about the production company traveling to Illinois’s 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.

When we visited Karen’s mother, 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, how did Steve’s generosity rise 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?

© Jeremy Roberts, 2011, 2018. All rights reserved. To touch base, email jeremylr@windstream.net and mention which story led you my way. I appreciate it sincerely.

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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