The Day I Met Steve McQueen by Tony Piazza
Jacqueline Bisset (Cathy) and Steve McQueen across from S.F. General Hospital.
I met STEVE McQUEEN for the first time in the basement of San Francisco General Hospital during the filming of the motion picture, “Bullitt.” San Francisco General, an atmospheric old brick and mortar structure located in the Mission District was a popular filming location. It would later be used in the film “Dirty Harry” and the television series, “The Streets of San Francisco.” I was thirteen at the time when my mother and I had traveled to the set. They were filming the foot chase that occurs during the first quarter of the film. My father (as I’ve mentioned before was assigned by the SFPD to the film) met us outside and took us down to the basement. The filming site could only be reached through a labyrinth of passageways that were lined with electrical lines, water and heating pipes. It was a tricky journey. The set was “closed” to the public due to the closeness of the working area, but we were given special treatment thanks to my dad. It was hot in the basement because of the multitude of steam pipes that supplied heat to the hospital, and that, added to the motion picture lights made the environment extremely uncomfortable. The camera crew made a point of “saving” the lights (in other words shutting them down) until they were needed to improve the conditions- but still it was hot and humid. Present, aside from the camera crew, were a handful of electricians, sound people, stuntmen, the director, PETER YATES and of course McQueen and the actor PAUL GENGE (the killer). My father called McQueen over and he seemed happy to meet us. There were no distractions from other on-lookers due to the “closed” set, so we had his full attention.
Bisset and McQueen taking a break on a motorcycle.
Steve McQueen was dressed in a checked blue shirt, dark slacks, and a heavy brown sweater (which he had taken off in-between shots due to the heat). Still, he emitted that aura of “The King of Cool” and seemed every measure of it- even under such adverse conditions. After exchanging some polite comments to my mother he turned his attention to me. I think he knew his fans came from the younger generation, and so I think that was why he centered his attention on me. During the radio interview that I’d mentioned in an earlier blog I was also asked by the host, DAVE CONGALTON, “what made McQueen so cool to our generation?” We both decided that he had that “It” factor. And what was that “It?” That would be hard to define, but let’s say that here’s a guy who loved bikes, fast cars, and lived outside the conventional. I’d say that could explain it. Then, they also called him a rebel, although quite frankly I didn’t see it that day. A rebel to me is someone that is anti-social, distant, and brooding. You can tell that he was thoroughly interested in his fans- extremely social, and although stories said that he hated police, he really liked and respected my dad…he was sincere about that, I could tell. I think that he was labeled a rebel because he resisted conforming to the dictates of the studio system. And the executives were robbed of their power to punish him because he was so popular with the public. Or in their thinking, a big money maker. This was something they couldn’t argue with. But still it irked them because it denied them of their power. Sure he got into scrapes with the law, and he didn’t behave as the publicity boys would have preferred, but after all, that seemed to be what made him popular, and what was expected of him by his fans. Change that, and you change his appeal.
McQueen liked to hit the hills in S.F. during breaks.
When McQueen talked with me, I have to admit that I felt somewhat intimated. Not that he meant to, in fact I’m sure he was trying to make me feel comfortable. He certainly was extremely down to earth and friendly. It was due in part to my reaction at meeting a star of his stature, and also a response to his intense way of questioning me about the mundane things in my life. I remember that he had placed one hand against a post and was leaning in towards me, his blue eyes unblinking, as he fired off a number of questions which he seemed very interested in hearing the answers to: “How old was I?” “Where did I go to school?” “What were my interests?” As I responded, at times not meeting him squarely in the eyes, he tilted his head, one ear slightly forward. It wasn’t until recently that I’d learned that he was partially deaf in one ear due to an infection he had as a kid, and realized that that could explain this intensity. When I mentioned that I enjoyed drawing as a hobby he invited me to come down and sketch on the set. He told me that he’d already allowed some students from the S.F. Art Academy to come down and do just that. As I said elsewhere, he really seemed interested in his fans, and enjoyed staying connected with them.
McQueen in front of a flower stand on Stockton Street.
Here is an additional “tidbit” on McQueen. He was not comfortable in morgues. That became evident when it came to shooting his scenes in the S.F. morgue; he seemed extremely anxious to get it over quickly. He didn’t hang around in-between shots, and even expressed his feeling of discomfort to my father. It was no secret. I don’t think he’d feared death, otherwise he wouldn’t have taken the risks that he did with stunts and racing, but I believe it had to do with being in the presence of it. The atmosphere created an opportunity for reflection, and that was what made him feel uncomfortable- thinking about it. It is interesting though- Natalie Wood was nervous around water…and McQueen hated morgues- premonition?
Robert Vaughn (Chalmers), Cinematographer (William Fraker), and Peter Yates (director) lining up a shot at Grace Cathedral, Nob Hill.
Some final thoughts on McQueen; as I mentioned a moment ago he liked doing some of his own stunts, and did them when allowed by the studio. Whether driving during the chase, jumping from a commercial airliner, or hunkering down as a jet rolled above him. He was cool in that way and I think that is what defined him. The likes of this “superstar” will never be seen again, and I consider myself very lucky that I got to meet him.
Author’s additional notes: I had visited the set numerous times afterward and in the future will share more stories (including my impressions on Jacqueline Bisset). I also worked with McQueen on “The Towering Inferno” and will be sharing that as well.
In my last post I included a letter that McQueen had sent to my father after they “wrapped”. What I didn’t mention was what it was attached to- a beautiful picnic basket from Abercrombie & Fitch. I have inherited it from my dad, and below is a picture of it.
Author’s trivia: The trauma unit doctors seen working on the victim shot by the assassin in the film were actual doctors and medical students. For realism, the director opted for them instead of actors.
(Above photographs were a rare find from the Piazza archives- these came from a S.F. Examiner article dated from 1968 and included a quote from my dad, as well as he given a credit with the production crew).
We had the original script from “Bullitt” at one time. I’ve been tearing the house apart to find it, but sadly no luck so far. I will keep looking however.
Tony Piazza is author of the 1930s Hollywood murder mystery novel; “Anything Short of Murder,” which had its roots on the TCM fan website. His next novel, “The Curse of the Crimson Dragon” is due out early 2012. He was an actor/extra during the 1970s and worked with such legends as Steve McQueen, Paul Newman, and Karl Malden.