Thursday, February 17, 2011

Barbara McQueen interview

Tom Horn was actor Steve McQueen's penultimate film, and it was perhaps the project closest to his heart. Based on the life of the famed Wild West detective/assassin, McQueen recorded extensive notes on a tape recorder over a nearly three-year period.

The actor even went so far as to camp out one night at the gunfighter's grave in Boulder, Colorado, claiming Horn's ghost visited with him. Fortunately, McQueen's efforts paid off (he was also executive producer), as many fans consider the role to be among his best, including his good friend and fellow actor, the late James Coburn.

With a good supporting cast, including a pre-Dynasty Linda Evans, and noted character actors Richard Farnsworth, Slim Pickens, and Geoffrey Lewis, the film was still not a box office hit when released in March 1980.

Why was this? Largely, because Tom Horn came at a time when the western was virtually dead. Nineteen seventy-six was the last year when a significant continual stream of westerns hit the big screen, including John Wayne's The Shootist and Clint Eastwood's The Outlaw Josey Wales.

McQueen also didn't have the opportunity to promote the film as much as he might have liked to, as his cancer diagnosis came a few months before the film's release. Fortunately for us, Barbara McQueen is alive and well, and she was on location with her husband throughout the filming.

As part of an ongoing interview series (go here for the previous installment), what follows below are Ms. McQueen's always-entertaining recollections of life on a western movie shoot. So sit back, because the fun starts right now...

The Barbara McQueen Interview

Tom Horn was your first film shoot with Steve. How do you remember that experience?

I’ve never sat down and watched Tom Horn. But I was there, and the film was just the best adventure and my absolute favorite experience. But god, it was cold.

Being part of a movie set was every little girl’s dream, at least for me, since I grew up on a dairy farm in Oregon. I’ll always be a cowgirl, and I tended to lose myself in that western setting.

When the film company was shooting on location in southern Arizona, we had the option of staying in an upscale hotel in Tucson, but we decided to take a motor home and live there on the set.

Steve parked it out in the middle of nowhere, close to the set, and early every morning he and his good friend Pat Johnson would jog. I loved that experience.

Staying Near The Mexican Border, With a Colt .45…

We changed location about three times, and on one such occasion we were less than one mile from the Mexican border. Remember, this was in 1979 before there were serious border issues between the two countries. Steve would go in the daytime to the set, which was a couple miles away, and he’d leave me all alone.

He thought I was a nutcase since I’d dress the part of a cowgirl, putting on little petticoats, cowboy boots, the whole works. I was really diggin’ it, as there wasn’t a soul around. I could get on my little horse and ride, or I could just walk around and be in my own world.

When the crew was shooting in another area, the entire western town was virtually empty except for a few wranglers and set builders. I often seized the moment and loved riding my horse on the sidewalks, since all the buildings were facades. Even in my mid-twenties, I imagined being on horseback in the late 1800s. Such a blast.

One day before heading out on location, Steve walked over to me and put a holster and Colt .45 on my belt. He said, “If you’re gonna stay here, this will be on you at all times. The border has a lot of traffic and nobody’s gonna hurt you, but just in case, I want you to be prepared.”

He taught me how to use the pistol really well. I had a field gun permit, but it didn’t matter down there. I saw several guys crossing the border and I’d just wave at them. My thinking was, Hey, you do what you do, and I do what I do; you stay there, and I stay away.

Would Steve often go over the script with you?

I remember sitting in the trailer at night and Steve would throw a script at me. He’d say, “Here, read the other part,” and when he read his part, I’d laugh at him. I’d answer, “Good god, you’re horrible.” Steve often retorted, “Shut up and just read it please!”

Now I understand Steve was memorizing the lines. He wasn’t putting any emotion into it. He was dyslexic, so he didn’t read very well, and he went over and over that script. We laughed and giggled, I teased him, and it was just a good, fun time for us.

So, how did your dad become a shotgun-carrying extra?

My father (Gene) and mother (Wilma) visited the set one day and Steve said to them, “Would you like to dress up and be extras? It won’t be a problem at all.” My dad said immediately, “Oh yeah, that sounds like a good idea.”

Mom wasn’t too crazy about that proposition, but my dad was a huge western freak. So Dad became a general extra for a few days. Not long after the casting director had to pick five or six extras to play the jailers who were behind Steve during the final hanging scene.

The only stipulation was the extras had to have the meanest, grumpiest face you could imagine. Well, darned if they didn’t pick my dad. He went up to Steve and thanked him, but Steve said, “Thank you for what?”

My dad explained that he would get to stay an extra two weeks and play a little part in the movie. Steve said, “Mr. Minty, I had nothing to do with it; that’s all your doing.”

As it turned out, the only reason they picked my dad was because he looked mean as hell. While my dad was a pussycat to me, because I was his little girl, he wasn't a man you wanted to cross.

My dad didn’t have any lines, but he got to walk with a shotgun behind Steve to the gallows. I don’t think Steve was too nervous. My dad probably just loved that, and that became a joke around the set. I’m glad my dad got to do it because he got a kick out of playing dress up.

Did you become friends with any of Steve’s co-stars, such as the beloved cowboy actors Richard Farnsworth or Slim Pickens?

I loved Richard Farnsworth, and I kept in touch with him after Tom Horn. I played polo for many years after Steve passed away, and Farnsworth was always around the field in L.A. He’d make a point or I would to go say hello to each other.

He was the most wonderful, gentle soul; Farnsworth was exactly the man you saw on the screen. If there was ever a real thing in the world, he was the real thing. The epitome of a man’s man, he was something else.

Slim Pickens and Dirty Jokes

Slim Pickens was funny, nice, and just an all-around good guy. He was exactly what you would have wanted him to be. I don’t know any of his earlier movies, but I remember him riding on that bomb in Peter Sellers’ comedy classic, Dr. Strangelove.

Between shots and setting up, the actors would all go to this one little house. They’d sit down, and Slim would go off on these tangents of filthy, dirty jokes. For two days I sneaked in there, as nobody knew I was hiding behind one of the walls.

On the third day, all of a sudden I heard, “Barbi, get out here!” I went, “Oh god, I’m busted,” and I quickly walked out. My dad was looking at me very sternly, shaking his head, and he said, “You know better than that.” Unfortunately, that was the last time I got to do that.

Thirty years later, how does Tom Horn stack up?

Tom Horn could have been a great film, but the studio wouldn’t give them enough money. It’s too bad the film didn’t go further, but once again, I don’t know the business.

Regardless, from what I heard about Steve during the shoot, he could be difficult. That was his baby, and he wanted it his way.

See Barbara McQueen and biographer Marshall Terrill at 6 p.m. on Wednesday, Feb. 23, 2011 at the Ingleside Inn in Palm Springs. The two will make a presentation, answer questions and sign copies of Terrill's new biography Steve McQueen: The Life and Legend of a Hollywood Icon and McQueen's 2006 photo book Steve McQueen: The Last Mile.

To RSVP for this special event and book signing, call 760-325-0046 or visit

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