John Norris on the set of The Sand Pebbles (1966)
(Editor's note: John's recollections were originally posted August 2000)
I was going through the internet today and thought I'd see what was available regarding Steve McQueen. I found your site and have to say it brought back a lot of memories.
I was a 20 year old army brat attending Tam College of Arts and Science in Taipei in 1966-67. Short story is, I was invited by Steve to be his stand-in and photo-double during the filming to the S.P. in Taiwan (before the production moved to Hong Kong and then back to the studio).
What kid could resist such an offer?
I had a Triumph motorcycle (Steve had a Cafe Racer, Suzuki I think) and we got on great. Believe it or not, Steve drove around in a Beetle when he wasn't on the bike (Mr. Wise was not too pleased to see their investment risking his limbs on a 2 wheeler).
Anyway, Steve was as good a guy as I think a lot of people would like him to have been in their imagination. Neile had the two small (babies almost as I recall) kids, Chad and Terry with Steve in Taipei but I don't recall seeing her on location or at any of the sets.
I have many, many fond memories of Steve and both the U.S. cast and crew while filming in Taiwan the friendship continued, even after I received my draft notice (I had dropped out of the college to work on the film and got my "Greetings" notice from the draft board. I was invited by Steve to come with the production to Hong Kong, but being a somewhat anal patriotic brat, I took off for boot camp at Fort Ord instead.
Steve, Neile and I corresponded for the next 4-5 years. I finished boot camp, intelligence training and officer's candidate school and then shipped off to Vietnam for a 13 month visit. I think I still have some of the post cards they sent.
After I returned to the States, they invited my new wife and me to the house on Oakmont. Neile and Jo Anne worked on their kid's dinner, Steve and I took off in Neile's "new" pea green 911L Porsche with the Sportamatic transmission. It was frightening and hilarious riding with Steve who had not driven the new car with the semi-automatic transmission that went into neutral when you touched the shifter!
I ran into Steve several years later in San Marcos, Texas during the filming of the Getaway. I spent 3-4 days hanging between takes. Slide One Slide Two It was something watching the sparks between Steve and Ali and, the different relationship Steve had with Sam Pekinpah who directed the film. Suffice it to say Sam and Steve appeared equally strong headed and Sam's reaction to Steve firing off a blank behind Sam ended up with the crew and Al Lettieri breaking the two apart as they rolled down a hill cursing each other!
I only spoke to Steve by phone several times while he was in Palm Springs in the late 1970's. I didn't know about his illness until I read about it locally. By then, I couldn't reach him and have to admit I didn't know what I could have said at the time had we spoken.
He was a dynamic actor who excelled. He once asked me what I thought about a guy who had nothing, came from nothing and now had everything. I got the impression he had a little doubt or insecurity in private, but his actions on the screen and from what I saw in real life really overcame this perception.
Hope the note wasn't too boring. I figured you were someone interested in Steve and would share a few memories.
I just remembered I have the SP book I bought in the black market in Taipei during filming. I had the entire cast and crew sign the book. A lot of the guys then went out and bought the book too and then took it to everyone else to sign for their personal collection!
I have a dozen or more photos (some large, some small) of McQueen (one large one is of him signing the book as he sits next to Candy (oops, Candice :-) with me. Others of Steve and me shooting a bb pistol I brought to the set (San Pablo), playing 'grab ass' on the Getaway set, etc. Somewhere I have an old 8mm home video of Steve coming out to the San Pablo on one of the small delivery boats, I remember yelling at him from the deck something like, "Hey big shot, smile for the camera." He is seen clearly 'flipping me off' with a big McQueen grin on his face!
Memories are flooding back!
I remember how Si (Simon Oakland) 'took me under his wing' as I was learning the fine skills of 7 card stud poker with the cast (I was losing my shorts:-). Simon was a really good guy who I saw in a dozen tv shows well after the SP was released. Jim Jeter was another great guy. I believe he went back to school and got his law degree and practices in LA. His wife was Candy's photo double in Taipei.
I recall the scene was being set up for the meeting between Jake and Candy. They were off in make-up or somewhere. Mr. Wise had us go through the motions while lighting, sound, cameras, etc., were being attended to. This was the point in the film where Candy is trying to persuade Jake to go AWOL. There was a kissing scene.
When Candy and Steve came on the set, Mr. Wise had us run through the motions. Then, it was the 'stars' turn. Steve was uneasy with everyone around so Mr. Wise asked all nonessentials to leave the set. I stayed on the set (not that I was 'essential'), Steve nodded and winked at me (I understood it was meant I didn't have to leave).
Believe it or not there seemed to be a little tension about the kiss.
I forget the lines, but Candy's character asked Jake to go AWOL. His response was something like, "Do you know what they would do to find me?" I think there was supposed to be a pause before Steve continued the dialogue but Candy responded, "What?" or something to that effect. Steve never missed a beat and said something like, "They would cut my %&^$ off" or something to this effect.
This broke the tension and the scene was reshot. I think Candy still had a smile on her face :-)
Here's a trivia question. There was some imaginary person that was apparently a joke between Mr. Wise and Steve. In the end, Mr. Wise included the name (Irving Schwartz) in the credits even though the person didn't exist.
The two men really bonded and had a professional relationship that also was one of what I perceived to be a true friendship.
John Norris © 2002
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