Steve McQueen in Montana
The Famous Actor and His Beautiful Wife Loved Livingston
BY DAVID S. LEWIS
As a beautiful young model in 1977, Barbara Minty’s first encounter with Steve McQueen had been arranged, by McQueen, a meeting in Los Angeles under the pretext that Steve wanted her to play an Indian princess in a movie he was planning. Minty, who would later become Barbara McQueen, told us though that her father raised her right. “I knew that was a line from the get go.”
Her initial impression of the famous movie star at that meeting, given his scraggly appearance, was less than positive. To make matters worse, she thought she was meeting Paul Newman—“the man with the dreamy blue eyes in Towering Inferno,” she was told by her agent.
“And this grubby, beer drinking dude walks out,” she told the Pio-neer. “And I thought, Oh my God.”
Unfamiliar at that time with McQueen as a movie star, and to this day having avoided watching his films, she was surprised to see a man very much her senior looking more like a homeless person than the then coolest guy in the world— known internationally as the star of such legendary films as Bullit, The Getaway, Papillion, and The Thomas Crown Affair. When their meeting was over though, Barbara Minty turned to her agent and said something startling.
“I swear to God when I walked out of the meeting,” she told us, “I turned to Nina and I said, ‘I’m going to marry that man—I love that man.”
But you just met that man, her agent told her, “and I said, I know, but that is my man, that is who is meant to be in my life. It was instant.”
Having hit it off with Steve, Barbara said that, “It was like—get in the pick up truck, get a six pack of beer, and go drive—we basically got in the truck and drove to Montana. We drove to Livingston, and stayed at Tom McGuane’s house. We stayed at Chico Hot Springs, hung out there a bit.”
Barbara said on that first trip to Livingston with Steve McQueen, the couple went horseback riding with Becky Fonda and toured a ranch they were looking to buy. It was not McQueen’s first visit to the area, as verified by Mike Art, owner of Chico Hot Springs since the time the movie star first visited, and who came to know McQueen over the course of his sojourns at the resort.
“I liked him a lot,” Art told the Pioneer, having first gotten acquainted with McQueen when he checked in using a pseudonym with actress Ali MacGraw, the star’s then wife and co-star in The Getaway.
At the time, McQueen sported a long beard, making him barely recognizable, and dressed down, Art told us, making himself look more like an over-the-road trucker than the superstar he was. Mike Art said though that McQueen’s “bright blue eyes” were unmistakable as they shone through his shaggy beard and curly mane.
Speaking with Art, McQueen expressed on one of his visits to Chico his desire to buy the resort, but Art was not so sure about Steve’s vision of installing a dirt track for competitive motorcycle racing on the grounds, one of McQueen’s passions.
Otherwise, “He just wanted to kick back and relax,” Art said, “have a good bottle of wine and soak in the pool...He was nice to be around.”
Apparently Barbara Minty thought so too. She and Steve became inseparable, exploring Montana and the Livingston-Paradise Valley area like newlyweds, though they were not married until 1980.
McQueen, though, while undoubtedly a wealthy man, hardly traveled in style, at least not on one of the trips photographed by Barbara, leaving behind his stylish Porsche and Jaguar for a somewhat rusted late 1960s Ford pick up with a camping topper. McQueen usually avoided pretense in general while traveling and in his personal habits, Barbara told us, saying he was a thoroughly regular guy, like her father or brother, whose preferred meal was scrambled eggs with hot sauce and a beer. In her book Steve McQueen, the Last Mile Revisited (with Marshall Terrill), she tells the world that, as far as she knew, McQueen did not even own a suit, much less a tuxedo, and that when they were traveling in Idaho and Montana, she and Steve were refused entry to a restaurant that had a dress code. Steve tried everything, including cash, to get seated, and then finally bought a clownish suit at a thrift store, and a similarly bombastic dress for Barbara, to which, upon their return to the restaurant, the maitre d’ remarked, “Oh no, I’ve created a monster,” then sat the couple.
Steve’s appearance, more over, was so “grungy,” according to Barbara, and his behavior apparently suspect as he inad-vertantly flashed a roll of $100 bills while traveling with a young woman half his age, that the two were escorted by police to the edge of town in Whitefish, Mont., and told never to return, by no means the first time McQueen had a run in with the law—a glassy-eyed McQueen having been arrested in Anchorage, Alaska, five years earlier for reckless driving, with his mug shot plastered in the press.
In Whitefish, Steve had apparently been mistaken for a certain trouble maker. The wad of hundred dollar bills he used while paying for gas and the like didn’t help. The police, who gave him the third degree, as Barbara recounts in Steve McQueen, the Last Mile Revisited, somehow failed to recognize Terrence Steven McQueen, as his driver license read, for the celebrity he was, or perhaps they did. Barbara vowed never to return to Whitefish, and has kept her pledge, she said, even while living nearby in Idaho.
Speaking of McQueen person-ally, Barbara McQueen revealed that the man was a great influence on her life. “He taught me everything I know about life,” she said, “good and bad.” She spoke of the force of his personality, saying that he had great internal “strength and powerful thoughts,” evidence of which we find in his films, even as a relative beginner. In The Great Escape, for example, it was McQueen —not a big movie star at the time, but a TV actor—who proposed the now legendary motorcycle chase sequence, insisting it be in the film, and that he himself, of course, would ride the motorcycle across the German countryside. His famous 60-foot motorcycle jump scene, film historians would say, became emblem-atic of the movie and of McQueen himself. It also jump started his career, from having been the star of television’s Wanted Dead or Alive, in which he played a bounty hunter, to film super stardom.
In addition to telling us that Steve “taught her strength and how to deal with life,” especially after he was forced to deal with mesothelioma, and his own mortality, Barbara offered a practical example of one of the things Steve taught her—how to take apart and reassemble a Colt .45 semi automatic, and how to shoot various weapons (McQueen loved firearms, was a collector, and handy with a western style six shooter, having taught Yule Brynner the shooting skills he displayed in The Magnificent Seven, though McQueen, as was his practice, and while hardly the star Brynner was, managed to upstage everyone in the cast with his quick draw skills and agile shooting stunts.
Barbara was quick to say that she has a conceal and carry permit, and that she carries a gun to this day, owing to the influence Steve McQueen had upon her life.
He also influenced her travel plans. Livingston, in particular, and Montana, in general, were a special place for the couple. The first words Barbara spoke to us in our recent interview declared the area as one of her favorites, and she conveyed to us that Steve felt likewise, not for the sheer beauty of Montana and Paradise Valley alone, but because Steve felt he could blend in and be himself here.
“We both loved Montana, Living-ston especially. It was right up Steve’s alley. He loved it,” she said.
Something about Montana, more over, coincided with McQueen’s personality. “I think he loved the wild ways and that there were no rules—he was a no rules kind of guy…His love for Montana was very true. He liked the way people thought, acted, and dressed, and everything about Montana.”
McQueen also valued the fact that he could be treated as an ordinary person in Montana, not necessarily as a celebrity. Barbara told us that on one of their first trips here, “we drove and drove and drove, and their was no place to stay. Barbara and Steve then accepted the hospitality of a western Montana man, staying at the man’s home near Lolo Hot Springs, and spent four days fishing with the fellow. In a cafe, Steve and Barbara’s gracious host noticed that patrons had begun to recognize McQueen, turning their heads and talking amongst themselves, causing a stir in the cafe that was audible. “Who are you again?” the man asked.
“Steve McQueen,” his house guest told him.
“You’re the actor fella?” the man asked, finally realizing who his guest actually was.
“We’d stayed in the man’s house for four days,” Barbara McQueen told us. “It was wonderful. But as soon as we went into the restaurant, we were busted.”
McQueen was so impressed with going unrecognized in Montana, we learned, that he recounted his experience of having remained incognito to others while staying in the Paradise Valley. Blending in then, interacting with regular folks in an ordinary way, being the ordinary guy he felt himself to be, and not being treated like the famous movie star that he was, had become quite important to Steve McQueen.
“Unless he was doing a movie,” Barbara McQueen went on to say, “he looked like a homeless guy. He had the beard, the mustache, long hair, and terrible clothes (often from K-Mart). Nobody recognized him unless they looked really hard....If he shaved, he looked nice.”
When asked if McQueen’s personal fashion decisions—his homeless look with apparel to match— were deliberate in order to remain incognito, Barbara said, laughing, “I would hope so.”
Asked about excursions to K-Mart, where McQueen himself shopped and bought five dollar dresses for Barbara (only to later buy her expensive, stylish shoes), Barbara laughed again, and said, “He was cheap, totally cheap—he had me pick out two five dollar dresses at K-Mart, then he’d take me to Rodeo Drive and get me $400 shoes,” because, Steve insisted, a woman needs to have good shoes.
Poignantly, she described how on occasion Steve interacted with people anonymously, unrecognized in his long beard, long hair and trucker’s cap, and that when the person he was speaking with finally realized he was Steve McQueen, their entire demeanor would change—regrettably for McQueen, who, above all, according to Barbara, was a regular guy who enjoyed the company of other regular guys, along with motorcycles, sports cars, pick up trucks, shooting sports, and just having a beer with friends.
“If he walked into your office right now,” Barbara said, “and you didn’t know who he was, he’d take you out and buy you a beer, and a hamburger, and you guys would sit and bullshit and just have the greatest day. And then, at the end of the day, he’d say—Oh, by the way, I’m Steve McQueen.”
That, in no small way, was part of McQueen’s attraction to Montana, as told to us by various sources, that he could be himself here and be treated like anybody else.
In a local incident that has since become legendary, a piece of local history, McQueen once bellied up to the bar at the Chico Saloon, Mike Art and others told us, having checked in anonymously and informed Art that he was not interested in being singled out. At the bar, he struck up a conversation with a man, probably a rancher, Art said, asking the man the usual questions about life, what he did for a living, and the like. After a time, the man turned to Steve McQueen, the biggest movie star in the world, and asked—and what do you do for a living, Steve?
“I told you, Steve,” Mike Art said to McQueen, “nobody’s gonna’ bother you here.”
Apparently, that impression stayed with McQueen, drawing him back to the Livingston area repeatedly, where he and Barbara had hung out and had coffee with Tom McGuane (the novelist and screenwriter who wrote the script for Tom Horn, one of McQueen’s later films) and Peter and Becky Fonda. Indeed, while in the area with Barbara, the couple visited a local ranch with the intention of buying it, although McQueen already had the intention, as he approached 50, of retiring from the film industry at his spread in Idaho and living an ordinary life away from the limelight.
It’s worth noting that Steve McQueen, a man’s man in film and in real life, according to Barbara McQueen, and a person of great internal strength, she told us, whose background and personal history was as a “street kid,” and “a pretty savvy guy,” as she described him, was also “a very, very good man,” according to Barbara and others. Acts of kindness and generosity flowed from the man anonymously, gestures he never touted or desired to be made known, as people in need mysteriously found their needs met—inner city kids in Chicago, the reform school he attended, and a struggling teenage girl Barbara and Steve met on the set of The Hunter, who they then took in, providing her with a good education and hope for a better life.
Barbara McQueen told us that on Sunday mornings Steve would search the newspaper for Make-a-Wish Foundation announcements, make phone calls, and provide his credit card, insisting he not be singled out if a fuss were made, but that whatever the need it simply be taken care of.
Incomprehensibly, until it came out later, McQueen had insisted during his film career that movie studios provide him with bulk quantities of household and personal items—toiletries and blue jeans, for example. As it turned out, McQueen had been funneling those bulk items to the Boy's Republic Reformatory, the reform school he had attended as a teen and that he visited periodically as an adult, playing pool, talking about life, spending time with the teenagers living there who undoubtedly looked up to McQueen, and whose shoes he had walked in.
We can be reasonably sure, as well, that financial needs of the Boy's Republic Reformatory were met by a certain donor who preferred to remain anonymous.
“He wanted to be a hard ass,” Barbara McQueen told us, “but he was just a very, very good man.”
Note: Steve McQueen, the Last Mile Revisited is a book of photography and entertaining passages (by Barbara McQueen with Marshall Terrill) available at www.dalton watson.com, Amazon.com, and locally at Conley’s Books & Music in Livingston, Montana).