Something about the pair just didn’t look right, at least not to the Whitefish, Mont., police department.
The man behind the wheel of the forgettable old pickup truck had long, shaggy hair and an unkempt beard, and his clothes were worn and grungy. On the seat beside him, a lithe, uncommonly good-looking girl who looked young enough to be his daughter clenched a six-pack of beer between her legs. When they pulled into a station to fill up on gas, flashing a wad of cash to pay for the fuel, the police stepped in, escorting the pair to the town limits with a warning not to come back.
Little did the officers realize that the disheveled-looking man was the King of Cool, movie star Steve McQueen. The girl was Barbara Minty, a farmer’s daughter turned fashion model half McQueen’s age who would become his third and final wife.
And the pair, says Barbara McQueen (she dropped her maiden name after the couple wed in 1980), had been “right” from their very first date — dinner and a breakneck, Steve McQueen-style drive up California’s coast.
“We were just made for each other,” she says. “He’d say, ‘Let’s throw some clothes and stuff in a duffle bag and drive out to Montana or somewhere,’ and I’d just say, ‘OK.’ It suited me fine. We were alike that way. It was never any problem for me to just go along with him.”
Barbara McQueen appears Friday in Chandler at an exhibition that showcases some of the more than 400 photographs she took of Steve McQueen during their three and a half year relationship. The images appear in the book “Steve McQueen: The Last Mile,” a lush, coffee-table tome the widow released in 2006, after the photographs had been boxed up in her garage for nearly 25 years.
Taken along country roads, outside the couple’s RV, and next to old trucks and airplanes, the images illustrate Steve McQueen’s very private last years, a time when he dropped largely out of the Hollywood limelight in favor of a quieter, simpler existence.
“It’s a fascinating story,” says Marshall Terrill, co-author of “The Last Mile.” The Tempe biographer has written two other books on Steve McQueen, 1993’s “Steve McQueen: Portrait of an American Rebel” and “Steve McQueen: A Tribute to the King of Cool,” due out this fall.
“You don’t see movie stars drop out at the top of their careers; they don’t just fall off the radar. But he did, and he found this wonderful girl who was willing to do it with him.”
Together, the actor who defined cool and the top model — a regular at the time on the covers of “Glamour,” “Elle” and “Cosmopolitan” — turned their backs on life in the spotlight, preferring instead to sight-see along the backroads of the West; browse garage sales and swap meets for vintage toys and motorcycle parts; and stay home to make mashed potatoes, drink Old Milwaukee beer and watch “The Love Boat.” The lived in an airplane hangar at a tiny airport, refurbished an old farmhouse, and made friends with regular people who often didn’t know, or care, that they were famous.
But the couple’s time was short. In 1980, just three years after he met Barbara, Steve McQueen was diagnosed with lung cancer. He died within a year, at age 50.
“He was taken from her,” says Terrill. “They were in love, and all of a sudden he was diagnosed, and their whole world turned upside down. That kind of thing lingers. She’s finally getting over all that, and for her to do the book and the tour — it’s the first time people have heard anything from her in 25 years.”
But rather than focus on Steve McQueen’s illness and death — a chapter he wanted kept private — the book and exhibition are a celebration of the actor’s life, a sweet and poignant tribute to a 24-year-old girl’s first love. The photographs reveal a man who collected old toys and motorcycles, loved vintage airplanes and a mean-as-sin mutt named Junior, and brought home a kitten every time he and Barbara had a big fight. They show the actor — known the world over as a fashion icon and the quintessential American alpha male — in plaid shirts and mesh trucker caps, with a bad perm and reading glasses.
“He was kind of the King of Cooled Off by the time I got to him,” says Barbara McQueen. “He still rode his bikes like crazy and did stuff, but he was quiet.”
In those years, the press called the actor a recluse and a hermit and said he was isolated. But Terrill says McQueen was simply getting back to basics.
“They weren’t hiding out; they just stopped talking to the press. He had made the biggest movie in Hollywood, ‘The Towering Inferno,’ and once he reached the top, there was nowhere else to go. He wanted to get back to a normal life, to just do the things he wanted to do, to find out who he was again as a human being. These pictures show that,” he says.
The Chandler exhibition features 30 photographs, many from the movie set of “Tom Horn,” which Steve McQueen filmed near Patagonia in 1979. It’s the last planned stop for the exhibition, which has traveled to London and San Francisco. Both Barbara McQueen and Terrill will answer questions at Friday’s opening reception; the exhibit will remain on display through April 11.
“In the last five or 10 years, there have been so many nods to Steve McQueen in movies, songs, on TV. It’s amazing. He’s been dead almost 30 years, but as time goes by, I think we realize who were the originals, the true trailblazers, and those guys never go out of style. He was an icon, and he always will be,” says Terrill.