Tag Archive: Robert Vaughn


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.

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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.

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ON ASSIGNMENT WITH U.N.C.L.E. by agent Tony Piazza

 

ON ASSIGNMENT WITH THE MEN FROM U.N.C.L.E*   by agent Tony Piazza

As most kids in the ’60s I got caught up in the spy craze, and one of my television favorites was “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” This sudden surge back then in the popularity of espionage sagas was feeding off the JAMES BOND frenzy; a phenomenon that was triggered when it was discovered that J.F.K. had Ian Fleming’s novel, “From Russia with Love” on a White House bookshelf. The U.N.C.L.E. show was actually created by Fleming, at least the concept and some of the character names…like Solo, and April Dancer. During the early ’60s he met with one of the show’s future producers and co-creator, Norman Felton in New York and handed him a cocktail napkin with all the details! So…Fleming!

I was fortunate enough to see my U.N.C.L.E. agent favorites in the flesh. ROBERT VAUGHN (Napoleon Solo) worked on “Bullitt”. I spent a great deal of time on that set, but unlike STEVE McQUEEN who was very approachable, Vaughn was very private. He came out, did his lines, and retired back to his dressing room. When he did stay on the set he was always surrounded by production types. I did observe him at a distance, but I’ll admit it was disappointing. Mr. Vaughn was very private, and spent only as much time as necessary on the set and then he was gone. However my visits with Steve McQueen and our friendly, down to earth conversations made up more than enough for it!

DAVID McCALLUM, on the other hand, was a different story. He was the second half of the U.N.C.L.E. team. A Russian named Illya Kuryakin. He was also in real life the heart throb of many young female fans, the same who fainted at the antics of “The Beatles.” He had a “Beatle cut”, so I suspect it may have been calculated. I got to work with him in 1976 on the Quinn Martin detective show, “Bert D’Angelo, Superstar.” I found him to be serious, and extremely professional; a consummate actor, who enjoyed his profession. I also found him to be human and compassionate for reasons I will mention in a moment. In addition to my duties as stand-in to the main star, BOB PINE in this case, I was also assigned to McCallum as well. We usually crossed over…especially when scenes did not include our designated primary actor. I remember one Saturday afternoon in front of the University of San Francisco campus (our location). We were both sitting in a picture car…a van…during one of the set ups and I got to talk to him personally for some time. He mainly discussed acting, and even gave me some tips! It was a great experience. He seemed really intent in giving advice and being helpful to a fellow actor…kudos for that! And if you were to judge by his successes…he would be the man to listen to.

Now, earlier I mentioned his compassion. An “extra” told me a story that she was listening to another “extra” speaking of a family member that was ill. It was at a restaurant location where McCallum’s character was sitting at an adjacent table. When she happened to glance over towards him during the course of this woman’s story, it was evident to her that he had overheard the conversation… she could read the compassion on his face!

Just as a side note; during the ’60s era I was also on location with the “I Spy” television show, starring BILL COSBY and ROBERT CULP. But, I’ll leave that as another story for another day.

I now close my fountain pen communicator with the immortal words…

CHANNEL D….OUT!

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Author’s final note: A couple years before getting caught up in the Bond craze I was introduced to the slick ’60s world of espionage through “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” As most kids you picked the agent you most wanted to be on the show and mine was Napoleon Solo…little did I know that I would fulfill my fantasy by getting an assignment with Illya Kuryakin (David McCallum)! Proof that dreams really can come true.

I also had the fortune to meet and work with that “Girl from U.N.C.L.E.”, STEPHANIE POWERS, and three other U.N.C.L.E. alumni, NORMAN FELL (Moonglow Affair), FRITZ WEAVER (Vulcan Affair), and had lunch with PATRICIA CROWLEY (Vulcan Affair).

Patricia Crowley

There has been talk that a “Man from U.N.C.L.E.” film is in the works. And even though the original show at times got a bit campy, I hope the screenwriter(s) will take a more serious approach with the movie (but, keep in some of the fun!)…and please set it in the ’60s.

* United Network  Command for Law and Enforcement.

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Tony Piazza is the author of the murder mystery “Anything Short of Murder”. A classic whodunit set in 1930s 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 for America’s freedom!