On the Set of Bullitt with Steve McQueen by Tony Piazza

    Personally autographed photograph of Steve McQueen.

   It was a sunny Saturday morning in the summer of 1968, on one of those rare weekends when my dad was not working. Whenever he was assigned to a movie detail, his schedule never allowed for Saturdays off, but on this rare occasion it did. The Warner Brother’s production company that was filming the motion picture “Bullitt,” starring STEVE MCQUEEN was shooting on a location outside of San Francisco and hence not within SFPD jurisdiction. Therefore the day off. That day’s script called for the filming of the final moments of what was to become a classic movie chase. The site selected was a vacant property at the foot of San Bruno Mountain, just where Guadalupe Road (a pass that ran along the mountain) met Bayshore Boulevard. Technically it is right on the border of San Francisco, but still came under the jurisdiction of the Daly City Police. The studio’s carpentry department had been hard at work during the earlier part of the week constructing a gas station and several low storage buildings- mostly fronts- that would be subsequently destroyed by an explosion and fire. It would prove to be quite a show, and knowing this, my dad piled both my mom and myself into our white, 1966 Buick LeSabre and headed out to the site. I mention the car in such detail because it actually made two appearances in the film. It was directly behind the Sunshine Cab (with the dog bobblehead) being washed in the carwash, and again parked in front of the Mark Hopkins on Nob Hill when that same cab driven by ROBERT DUVALL drops Steve McQueen off at the hotel. In fact I was watching them shoot the scene from the car’s backseat as they pulled up behind us. Returning to that Saturday morning, we were given a front row spot to park amongst the other equipment and trucks. CAREY LOFTIN the stunt coordinator was milling about, as well as LOREN JANES who drove McQueen’s 1968 390 CID V8 Ford Mustang- when McQueen didn’t drive it himself. Actor PAUL GENGE, the white haired hit man who was firing at McQueen with a sawed-off shotgun in the film during the chase, was pacing nervously in front of our car. I remember asking my parents why he seemed so nervous, and my mother in her usual sense of humor said it was because he “knew he was about to be killed”.

If any of my readers have worked on films, you’ll know that there is a lot of waiting in-between filming- especially on features that don’t have a tight shooting schedule- and even more so when the scene involves stunts and special effects. This day was no exception. Explosives were going to be used to simulate the result of a ruptured gas pump, and the two principle cars were being rigged so they seemed to be driving side by side in the shot. The Mustang and the black 1968 440 CID/375 Dodge Charger were connected together by a bar with a release. Two dummies were placed in the Dodge and only one driver (Janes) controlled both cars. As they raced down the hill, at a certain point, Janes would fire the release which would detach the “driver-less” Dodge. Momentum would carry the Dodge the rest of the way, where it would hit a ramp and fly into the gas station pumps- the impact causing an explosion and fire that would spread to the adjoining buildings- at least that was their plan (I’ll explain later).


A still taken from 8mm footage. Notice the Dodger just after hitting the ramp.

   In the meantime there was also a slight delay because they were waiting for McQueen and some special guests. As part of the agreement between the City of San Francisco and Warner Brothers- for the city’s cooperation in the making of the film- the studio promised a million dollars for the building of a swimming pool in Hunter’s Point. That morning was the dedication (or ground breaking?) and McQueen attended. After the ceremony, Mayor Alioto dropped McQueen back to the set in a limousine. The mayor didn’t stay to watch the action, but his daughter Angela, and one of her friends did remain to catch the filming. As a side note, my dad brought his Kodak 8mm movie camera. We have about three minutes (length of a roll of film) documenting the activities of that day. I put a portion of it on YouTube (showing McQueen, Angela, and her friend), and Angela saw it. She e-mailed me back and shared some of her memories of that day! Some other sights on that film (besides the actual stunt) were views of the company’s trucks and equipment, including the camera car- a stripped down sports car that could be driven with a mounting for a camera that could be pivoted 360 degrees,  and many glimpses of the crew-especially, Daisy, one of the first female assistant directors. One problem with the 8mm camera was that the viewfinder and the lens were on two different levels, so as my father filmed from the front seat of the car through the windshield, some of the shots were partially blocked by the Buick’s steering wheel.

   Steve McQueen seconds after leaving the limo. Still from 8mm film.

   The chase in Bullitt lasts almost eleven minutes on film, and takes you- with no particular order all over the city. Any one familiar with SF would be amazed at the routes. They moved from Columbus Street, moving towards the Golden Gate Bridge ( incidentally, authorities wouldn’t allow the company to film on the bridge, but it made a nice backdrop), cut to Hyde Street- and then Leavenworth, Filbert, and neighborhoods thereabouts, eventually leading to the San Bruno Mountain located far south of the city! I was recently asked by  DAVE CONGALTON, a popular  California Central Coast radio talk show host (and big McQueen/Bullitt fan) why they did this. My answer was that they were planning a spectacular chase and selected locations (hills, especially) that would provide the thrills they were looking for- in other words, following logical street routes were not high on their “to do list”.  And in retrospect the director was correct. PETER YATES filmed the chase on the city streets with the two cars reaching speeds up to 110 miles/ hour- no wonder these vehicles went airborne- launched from some of the steepest of SF’s rolling hills. Spectacular… something never before seen on the screen up to that time!

  Steve McQueen talking with his special guests. Taken from 8mm footage.

   After several “run- throughs” the actual filming was ready to commence. Daly City fire trucks, ambulance, and police cars were off camera waiting- the traffic officers closing off the area from both ends of Guadalupe Road. The rigged cars reached their position at the top of the hill, the director radioed, “camera” and… “action,” and everyone held their breath. Within seconds the two cars sped down the hill, separated on “cue”, with the Dodge hitting the ramp, flying through the air- and into the explosion! Yes, the sfx guy got a little over anxious and blew the pumps BEFORE the car struck them. Fortunately, it wasn’t a major problem. They had several cameras shooting from different angles, and with a little creative editing they could correct the problem- and they did so convincingly, as you can see when you view the final film.

   Another still from 8mm footage.  The fire after the explosion. You can see one of the gas pumps, and camera crew in foreground.

   It was a memorable day and still forever etched on this writer’s memory. Most of the people involved in this story, including Steve McQueen and my parents have been long gone, but their story lives on in the telling.

(AUTHOR’S NOTE: I’ve visited and worked (during my film career) with Steve McQueen. That story will be told in a future blog).

A letter of thanks from Steve McQueen to my father


  Tony Piazza is the author of the murder mystery “Anything Short of Murder”. A classic whodunit set in 1930’s Hollywood. It is available online at all bookstores. Also available March 2012…The adventure, “The Curse of the Crimson Dragon” will be published, starring a new hero who will fight to protect America’s freedom!