The projected film, to be produced and directed by Wise, had once been set as a Mirisch production for United Artists, but a dispute over budget and contractual terms had turned the picture around to 20th Century-Fox instead. Wise had then begun pre-production rolling, only to find its pre-production onerous. In early 1963, McQueen's name was mentioned for the first time, but it was rejected for not yet being a big enough name.
Meanwhile, Wise had talked Fox into giving him The Sound of Music to do while the hurdles on The Sand Pebbles were being steadily overcome, one by one. William Wyler, who had been set to direct the musical, had a falling-out with the studio, and Wise was able to take over the project. It took a year-and-a- half of his life to make, but its now legendary earnings come as such a surprise to Fox that they give Wise carte blanche to create The Sand Pebbles.
In that 18-month interim, however, Steve McQueen has become a full-fledged star. Wise is all for casting him, thinks him perfect for the role, better even than Paul Newman, who has read the script and turned it down. Wise himself goes to McQueen's hilltop estate, and marvels that the actor, in a single decade, "has gone from being broke and hungry to living in a mansion on a hill." McQueen is signed, but only after a contract proviso allowing his whole family to accompany him to the Far East.
No expense is spared in shooting the picture using authentic Oriental locations, the realness of locale being a prime Wise dictate. Principal photography commences in November, 1965, with Wise and a crew of 100 embarking for the set-ups scheduled in Taiwan, the first American film made there with the complete approval of the Chiang Kai-shek regime. Six weeks in Hong Kong follow as Wise shoots the biggest set-piece of the film, a water battle between the San Pablo (thus the title) and 30 Chinese junks. Two months of interiors in Hollywood complete production. And when that is done, the picture's budget has doubled.
"It's the most difficult picture I ever made," recalls Wise a generation later, and truly the problems of making The Sand Pebbles would have defeated almost anyone else. Assembling the pieces is ambitious: seven antique autos imported from Australia, 50 refurbished rickshaws, daily calls for 300 to 1500 extras clothed in thousands of costumes, all with little benefit of the English language.
Then there's the weather. The lousiest: 86 degrees one day, 30 the next. Rain, rain, rain, rain, rain, rain, rain. The weather causes riots among the bored natives. Wise turns to shooting interiors, waiting for the exteriors to clear, and has the entire set that is the San Pablo crew's living quarters dismantled in Hollywood and shipped to Taipei. He's too efficient for his own good, though, and with interiors quickly finished, everyone just sits around waiting for the rain and the riots to end.
Meanwhile, the boat sits in the water, a flat- bottomed prop that cannot move under its own power. At $250,000 it is the most expensive prop ever built for a movie (and would have cost at least a million if constructed in the U.S., Wise estimates). It is based on the USS Villa Lobos, a Spanish ship seized during the Spanish-American War and drafted for service in the Far East, where it sank in the Philippines in 1929. Working from blueprints of the Villa Lobos, the movie's San Pablo is an authentic recreation, with modifications, of American gunboat design of the early 20th century. Just in case, the costly full-sized prop is insured against everything up to and including submarine attack.
Adapting a fighting ship for a film company's convenience consists of drilling small holes around the decks for catwalks which are utilized for tracking shots. The boat is photographed from afar using 20-foot-high camera platforms planted in the mud of Taiwan's Keelung and Tam Sui rivers. Press reports after the film claim the boat becomes a floating dormitory for American construction crews working behind Vietnamese battle lines. Other sources indicate that it is more a waterborne whorehouse than a sleeping quarters. Probably both.
Everything mounts up: delays, slow con- struction, bad weather. McQueen and Wise differ often on how a scene should be shot, and Wise acquiesces by shooting two versions of the scenes in question. Wise's editorial sense prevails and none of McQueen's versions end up in the final print. At least, however, there is a final print, which many Jeremiahs along the way have predicted there would not be.
The picture opens on schedule, with McQueen uncharacteristically spending ten days in New York promoting the movie. When the Oscar nominations come out a couple of months later, it is allotted eight nominations. But the Best Picture and cinematography awards go to A Man for All Seasons; Mako loses Best Supporting Actor to Walter Matthau in The Fortune Cookie; art and set decoration miss out to Fantastic Voyage; sound and editing both go to Grand Prix; and the music score bows to Born Free.
Best Actor: the nominees are Alan Arkin for The Russians Are Coming, Michael Caine for Alfie, Richard Burton for Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Paul Scofield for A Man for All Seasons, and Steve McQueen for The Sand Pebbles. And the winner is: Paul Scofield.
"So real, so right," Wise has praised McQueen's performance. But the Academy had another one of its British years and, boy howdy, Steve McQueen is anything but British.
He is unhappy. He has spent many months on Taiwan with his family, living in one room in the middle of a rice paddy. Neile has turned down an offer to star with Brando in something called Southwest to Sonora to go with her man halfway around the world. "I don't think a married man should ever be left alone for more than two weeks," she explains. His winning World Film Favorite, along with Julie Andrews, at the Golden Globes is some consolation, but not enough to make up for what he has had to endure abroad. "Anything I ever did wrong, I paid for in Taiwan," he ruefully proclaims.
And while he feels it is the best picture he has ever made, McQueen hates himself in the Jake Holman role. Part of it comes from having lived through the grueling shoot. Part of it is due to his feeling that the character didn't act as McQueen himself would have. He is at odds with his reel life and his real life.
Failing to understand completely his dissatisfaction, he takes the family to Alaska on a fishing vacation. It isn't enough, so he leaves the movie industry for one full year.
Excerpt source: The Complete Films of Steve McQueen, Casey St. Charnez, Citadel Press Book, 1992
In 1962, Richard McKenna's first novel, The Sand Pebbles, spent twenty- eight weeks on the New York Times best-seller list. The book was based on his experience as an enlisted navy man in war-torn China in 1926.
Director Robert Wise read the novel and wanted to do the film as soon as possible. The movie rights for the novel had been sold for $300,000 to United Artists. Soon thereafter, a budget dispute evolved and 20th Century-Fox wound up with the rights.
It was early 1963 when Steve McQueen was first mentioned as a possible lead, but Paul Newman had the first right of refusal in Wise's eyes. The Great Escape had not yet been released, and McQueen wasn't as big a star as Newman.
Wise knew the kind of effort that had to be put into The Sand Pebbles, an epic film. Fox suggested that San Francisco would be an ideal location for filming. Wise nixed that idea. "We could have built cities on the Sacramento River, but no one had a quick answer to obtaining up to twenty river junks, several hundred sampans, and authentic Chinese extras," says Wise. "For some scenes, I needed a thousand people, and I doubt San Francisco could guarantee that on any given day."
No, Wise thought, it would have to be shot on location in the Orient, and it would take time for all the locations to be scouted, the sets to be built, and the proper permits to be taken care of. It would take eighteen months for The Sand Pebbles to get under way. Meanwhile, director William Wyler had left the set of The Sound of Music at 20th Century-Fox. Wise was asked to take over the musical, and the rest is history. The picture went on to win the Academy Award for Best Picture, and Wise for Best Director.
Paul Newman had turned down The Sand Pebbles and in the last eighteen months of preparation, Steve McQueen had become the number one box office attraction in the world. When Newman dropped out of the race, McQueen was the natural choice for the lead role of Jake Holman.
Wise was invited to the Castle to discuss the film with Steve. As he entered the palatial grounds, he thought to himself, "In a single decade, McQueen had gone from being broke and hungry to living in a mansion on a hill." The last time Wise saw McQueen was when Steve was unemployed and pestering Neile on the set of This Could Be the Night. Several times during the filming, Wise had to shoo McQueen away. How times had changed.
When Wise left the Castle, Steve had been offered his most challenging role to date. In addition, he was to be paid most handsomely, a $650,000 salary and a percentage of the profits. Not knowing what was to come, McQueen earned every penny.
"He was the perfect choice for Jake Holman," said Wise. "I've never seen an actor work with mechanical things the way he does. He learned everything about operating that ship's engine, just as Jake Holman did in the script. Jake Holman is a very strong individual who doesn't bend under pressure, a guy desperately determined to maintain his own personal identity and pride. Very much like Steve.
"He's marvelous in the picture, because he has the attitude and looks to carry the dialogue. He's not only an emotional and instinctive actor, but a thinking actor."
Following The Sound of Music, 20th Century-Fox gave Wise the red carpet treatment; its success practically bankrolled The Sand Pebbles' $8 million budget. Wise could have anything he wanted, and he took advantage of Fox's generosity.
Then the most expensive prop ever for a film, a $250,000 re-creation of a gunboat used in the 1920s, was built for the film, the San Pablo.
The Sand Pebbles would be the first major American film shot entirely in Taiwan. It had four locations: Keelung, Tamsui, Taipei, and Hong Kong. Wise would bring with him a 111-man crew, with forty-seven speaking parts and thirty-two interpreters. A thousand extras would be required for several scenes. To get the Taiwanese government to agree to this, a $100,000 building was erected near the river for the film's town station, which would be turned over to the local government when the crew left. For all of this to go as planned, eighty days were originally slated for filming. Unforeseen problems turned that into seven grueling months.
Taiwan at the time was still technically at war with China. Just ten days prior to the production startup, a defecting Communist pilot had crash-landed a Russian-built 1L-28 jet bomber near Taipei. A week before, nationalist Chinese gunboats had fought a pitched battle in the Formosa Strait, then limped into Keelung victoriously. The Sand Pebbles began filming on November 22, 1965.
Between projects, Steve always let himself go a bit. An extra ten or fifteen pounds might be gained when he wasn't on a picture. On The Sand Pebbles, Steve never appeared to be more fit. He had his home gym shipped to Taiwan to keep him in shape when he wasn't working. "Lawyers sharpen up with law books, and astronauts in pressure chambers, but an actor has to do it the way a prizefighter does," McQueen reasoned.
Many things contributed to the constant delays that plagued The Sand Pebbles. The first major delay occurred when the Keelung River, where the San Pablo was supposed to dock, was at low tide, and the crew had to wait two weeks for high tide. When the San Pablo finally arrived, the rainy season began. Steve Ferry, an extra on the film, remembers, "For three weeks, the rain put us out of business, but we still got paid." McQueen and crew did the best they could to beat the boredom. "We spent a lot of time together. We were all trapped on a little boat, and we amused ourselves as best we could: playing, diving, swimming, all those warm water things," says Ferry.
Steve found Taiwan to be a whole new world. He watched the people and observed their ways. "The thing is," he insisted, "everything is different over there, I mean all of life from top to bottom. It was wild. Like they say that's a nice shirt you've got on, and what they mean is there's a spot on it." On their work ethic, "They were building a house near where we lived out in the country, and I used to watch the guys working. You'd see this cat going over to pick up a beam. A big 8-by-10 beam and this skinny guy gets one end up, see, and he squats down and lays it on a pad on his shoulder and he works his way in the center and lifts up the whole damn thing. He's got this huge heam balanced there, you know, and he runs a couple of steps forward and a couple of steps backward and leans into it and takes off across the field. I mean one guy!" Steve added, "And those studs on bicycles. Everything tied on somehow. You know, boxes and baskets and old suitcases and God knows what--all piled up ten feet high. Rickety-rackety down the street. You couldn't believe they'd make it, but they always did."
While in Taiwan, Steve and Neile discovered an orphanage for young girls, mainly prostitutes, run by Edward Wojniak, a Catholic priest. In Taiwan, a boy was often the preferred child, as he could help lend a hand and support the family as he got older. A girl's only asset to her family was earning money through prostitution, and Steve found this way of life disheartening. He donated $25,000 to Wojniak's mission and continually supported Wojniak until the priest's death in the late seventies. Says a friend, "Steve supported that mission even after Father Wojniak's death. He sent them money; he sent them clothes; he sent them autographed pictures, and remember, he didn't sign autographs. He never wanted anyone to know about this. He just reached out to help. Steve was a very generous man. He would give the shirt off his back to anyone who needed it."
When the cameras finally did start rolling, Wise found himself at his wit's end with Steve. McQueen insisted that a scene be shot totally opposite the way Wise wanted it. Finally, Wise came up with a solution. A scene would be shot both ways, a Wise version and a McQueen version. If Steve liked his version better when the film was being edited, then Wise would accommodate him. This procedure would prolong filming and eventually add to the film's budget. (Incidentally, none of the scenes that Steve insisted on made it to the final version of the film.) Says Wise, "The thing with him was that you never quite knew what the mood was going to be. I was trying to line up a dolly shot. It was a difficult thing, and then all of a sudden, I felt a tap on my shoulder and it was Steve. He said, 'Now, Bob, about this wardrobe,' and I blew up. I said,'Steve, for heaven's sake.' I used a little stronger language, frankly.'Please don't bring that up now, I'm in the midst of something difficult right now. Let's talk about it tonight. That's it.' Well, he was really hurt, and he didn't speak to me for three days. Here I was directing the star of the film and he took directions and he was in the scenes and he would listen to me, but he did not speak one word to me for three days." Steve's agent, Stan Kamen, happened to visit McQueen that weekend. Kamen and Wise got together to decide what to do to get Steve to talk to the director again. It was decided that Wise would let Steve watch his dailies, something that Wise never allowed. "When Steve saw the dailies and saw how good he looked, he decided to talk to me again. As a matter of fact, Steve never gave me a hard time again..."
Steve Ferry, a friend of both McQueen and Bergen, refutes her charges of fighting with the locals. "In all the time I knew Steve, he got in one fight. That was in Hong Kong. He was in a club and some guy gave him the movie star routine and followed Steve into the john. McQueen punched him out and left him there. He panicked because it had just hit him that he was with a publicity guy. He disappeared and left the publicity guy looking for him. He went home immediately."
Loren Janes, Steve's stunt double on the film, actually dated Bergen during the movie. He doesn't remember McQueen getting in fights either. "He'd go out with the boys for a drink every now and then, but he didn't go out and beat people up. I don't think Candice liked him too much." Janes asked Bergen how she felt the picture was going and she responded, "It's going okay under the circumstances." Janes pressed her for a more detailed answer. "What do you mean?'' he asked. "Well," responded Bergen, "the director, the actors. How can I work with these people? There's no talent there." Janes couldn't believe his ears. Robert Wise, Steve McQueen, Richard Attenborough, Richard Crenna. How could she work with these people? "In my opinion, " says Janes, "the guys with the little parts in the movie had more talent in their little finger than she did in her whole body. I think she was just young, impressionable, and thought there was more to her than there was."
McQueen's other costar, character actor Mako, saw another side of the movie star. The two men first met on the lot of 20th Century-Fox. "He seemed like a quiet, unassuming type of fellow," recalls Mako. "He was wearing blue jeans and a blue polo shirt and sweat socks and sneakers. He did possess confidence and charisma, but he was very quiet." Mako was a newcomer to feature films and was portraying Po-Han, a friendly local who befriends Jake Holman on the ship. Mako was pretty much left to do his own acting without much direction from Wise. McQueen, however, liked his scenes acted out before him. During a scene in the engine room, Mako scratched his head during a rehearsal. "Are you going to scratch your head in the scene!" McQueen asked him. Unaware that he was doing anything out of the ordinary, Mako re- sponded, "I don't know." McQueen thought Mako might steal the scene with the very act of scratching his head, something he certainly did with Yul Brynner on The Magnificent Seven. Now that Steve was a movie star, no actor, big or small, was ever going to steal a scene from him.
Mako learned later on when seeing the film for the first time that McQueen "really impressed me. Not so much when you're working with him in person, but when you see his work on screen. There is little wasted emotion. He came to know the camera so well. His work was so subtle and right on the money. I think that he was unique in the fact that he chose to do less on the screen. By doing less, he brought simplicity on the screen, and at the same time he was very much the image of the American man."
On almost every location, Steve had Neile bring Terry and Chad to to visit him. His family was his number one priority. “Our family was important to him, and he'd bring us on location to be together,” says Terry. The McQueens would stay in a rented villa outside Taipei. For Steve and Neile, it was the best time of their marriage. The Sand Pebbles was our happiest period ever. Steve was having a terrible time, but we were totally together. No temptations..."
Times got even tougher in Taiwan when Steve became sick with the flu for three days. He had never missed a day on the set, and it was a blow to his ego when he couldn't come to work.
One day, while Steve was out, Wise began shooting the fireball scene in which the extras were throwing torches at the San Pablo. Camera operator Paul Hill took a flaming torch in the chest. No one had it easy on The Sand Pebbles.
To this day, director Robert Wise claims The Sand Pebbles was the most difficult picture he's ever made. "I must say that the cast and crew came through a very difficult situation admirably. It's not easy for Americans to be dropped into a country that is completely foreign, and then be subjected to lengthy delays." (Ten years later, when Francis Ford Coppola was experiencing the same problems on Apocalypse Now, he requested a copy of The Sand Pebbles from Wise. He wanted to show the crew what the end result could be in spite of any problems.)
In May 1966, after six months abroad, three months of delays, and $3 million over budget, The Sand Pebbles was completed. Said Neile, "I never saw him work so hard or get so bored as he was after those six months in Taiwan. By the time we got to Hong Kong, he'd really had it. He couldn't wait to get home." When the McOueen family safely landed on U.S. soil, Steve got out and literally kissed the ground.
"Anything I ever did wrong," Steve confessed, "I paid for in Taiwan. I just hope something good comes out of it." What came out of it, for Steve McQueen, was an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor...
For The Sand Pebbles, he embarked on an unprecedented publicity tour. David Foster was called by the president of 20th Century-Fox, Richard Zanuck, to accompany Steve to New York for a media blitz. "In those days, publicity in New York helped a picture tremendously," says Foster.
Foster lined up all of the shows on which McQueen was to appear. He first went on The Ed Sullivan Show. It was tradition at the beginning of the show for Sullivan to announce a celebrity in the audience. And so, Sullivan said, "Now, tonight in our audience is Mr. Steve McQueen. Steve, would you please take a bow." And Steve took a bow. Next was What's My Line?, on which he appeared as a mystery guest. He then did The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. "He was excited about all of these things. It meant that he had arrived," says Foster. "He didn't enjoy doing them, but he also realized that these things made him a star. He was uncomfortable in one sense, but he realized the value of what it did for him. Certain things he did for great pleasure because it elevated him."
Zanuck hired a limousine for McQueen and Foster as they made the rounds. Each day in New York, a full schedule of interviews with reporters was slated. By the second day, Steve had had enough. He told Foster, "You call Fox and dump the limo. I can't stand it. Have them deliver a Volkswagen and I'll drive us around to the interviews." Foster complied with Steve's wishes, and they finished their interviews with McQueen driving them around the Big Apple.
Foster also remembers a night at the Metropolitan Opera when he, his wife Jackie, Steve, and Neile had been given choice seats. Five minutes into the show, Steve got up and left. "He didn't say to us, 'Hey, I'm bored, let's go do something else.' He didn't even bother to tell Neile he was leaving. He just got up and left," laughs Foster.
Three months later, Foster got a phone call from Zanuck. "Remember when you guys were in New York for The Sand Pebbles?" Cautiously, Foster answered, "Yeah?" Zanuck continued, "What the hell happened to that Volkswagen?" Foster remembered that he and McQueen had taken a limo back to the airport. He quickly put in a phone call to Steve. "Steve, where did you leave the rental car in New York?" Steve thought about it for a second and remembered, "In the parking lot of the hotel." Foster says incredulously now, "It had been in a parking lot of some hotel for three months and the clock was ticking, and Dick Zanuck was breathing down my neck." It all came down to movie star behavior. Now that the studios were picking up the tab, Steve could act like one.
The Sand Pebbles premiered at the Rivoli in New York on December 20, 1966, to rave reviews. Arthur Knight of The Saturday Review wrote, "Richard Crenna is outstanding, Candice Bergen attractive, Richard Attenborough effective-and all of them dominated by Steve McQueen, who is nothing short of wonderful in the pivotal role of Holman." The New York Times raved, Performed by Steve McQueen with the most restrained, honest, heartfelt acting he has ever done, . . . we see the ultimate reward for the kind of service he ruefully performs." Vanety announced, "Steve McQueen delivers an outstanding performance and looks the part he plays so well. Wise's otherwise expert direction is matched by meticulous production."
The Sand Pebbles was nominated for eight Academy Awards, including Best Actor for McQueen, the first and only Oscar nomination of his career. The others nominees were Paul Scofield for A Man for All Seasons, Richard Burton for Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf and Michael Caine for Alfie. It was a British sweep for the Oscars that year and Paul Scofleld took the Academy Award home, though it is McQueen's portrayal of Jake Holman that is much better remembered today than Scofield's Sir Thomas More.
Neile believed it was fate, as Steve would have been impossible to live with if he had won the Oscar. As to some consolation, Steve won the World Film Favorite award for favorite actor by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association and received the Photoplay Gold Medal Award. In Japan, he was named the most popular foreign star for the second consecutive year...
Excerpt source: Steve McQueen - Portrait of an American Rebel by Marshall Terrill - Donald I. Fine, Inc., 1993
The kid from the orphanage went off on location for The Sand Pebbles in Taiwan accompanied by his family, a complete home gym, a motorcycle, and a pistol. He was stopped by customs in China when they found a .38-caliber revolver in his luggage. Steve explained with an ingenuous smile that he had planned on "doin' a little boar huntin'." The customs inspector didn't buy his story; the pistol was confiscated.
No character was closer to Steve than that of Jake Holman in his first epic film, The Sand Pebbles. Josh Randall was a part of him, as was Virgil Hilts of The Great Escape, but Jake Holman, the tough, moody, rebellious, machinery-loving ship's engineer, was the quint- essential Steve McQueen.
The part of Jake Holman could have been written with Steve in mind, said director Robert Wise. Holman is a strong individual who doesn't bend under pressure, a guy desperately determined to maintain his own personal identity and pride. Very much like Steve.
Steve was paid $650,000 for the film, yet he found the greatest ease and the greatest truth in playing enlisted men, have-nots, men who are ill-at-ease at formal dinner tables and leave politics to their bosses. Jake Holman listens quietly as a political debate rages around the dinner table. When asked his opinion, he says, I run the engines. All the rest is a show for the officers.
The Sand Pebbles was a period piece based on a novel by Richard McKenna with a screenplay by Robert Anderson. It was set in Shanghai in 1926 and tells the story of an American gunboat, the San Pablo, nicknamed the Sand Pebble, which gets caught up in the political turmoil that was tearing China asunder. The film would be shot primarily in Taiwan, with six weeks' location work in Hong Kong; it would involve hundreds of crew, many of them imported from the States, thousands of extras, and the (then) most expensive prop ever built for a film, the $250,000 San Pablo, an authentic recreation of an American 1920s gunboat. Although there is a love story in the film, between Steve and costar Candice Bergen (playing a demure missionary), it is subsidiary to the real love affair, that between a man and an engine. When Steve heard that he was to have a real honest-to- god reproduction of a 1920s steam engine to work with, his reaction was pure joy. He learned everything there was to know about its operation and could keep it running as if his life actually did depend on it."Hello, Engine, I'm Jake Holman," he says in the film. He examines it carefully and his look is tender, weighing, knowing. He is attuned to its every whisper, every catch in its rhythm; he understands every nuance the way a man can read his beloved's face.
Relations with his costar Candy Bergen were somewhat cooler, if professional, and they were to grow cooler still some years later when Steve was to marry her best friend, Ali MacGraw. Bergen's primness contrasted with his earthy directness in life as well as on screen and her distaste for him is palpable. "Steve was friendly during the shooting," recalled Ms. Bergen later in her book Knock Wood, "inviting me to dinner with his wife Neile and the kids; advising me--in a well-meant attempt to get me to 'loosen up'-that what I really needed was to 'get it on' with some of his buddies."
"His buddies were hardly my idea of heaven: He'd arrived in Taiwan with a commando unit of six stuntmen, none under six feet and all ex-Marines. They were like his personal honor guard and when he moved, they jumped."
"Coiled, combustible, Steve was like a caged animal. Daring, reckless, charming, compelling: It was difficult to relax around him and probably unwise--for like a big wildcat, he was handsome and hypnotic, powerful and unpredictable, and he could turn on you in a flash ... He seemed to live by the laws of the jungle and to have contempt for those laid down by man. He reminded one of the great outlaws, a romantic renegade, an outcast uneasy in his skin ... he tried to find truth and comfort in a world where he knew he didn't belong." ( Bergen, Candice. Knock Wood. New York: The Linden Press/Simon and Schuster, 1984).
Steve and his family stayed in a rented villa outside Taipei. Five crates were required for the initial shipment of Steve's personal gym to Taiwan. Everyone who went over during principal photography-- actor, crew, reporter--was asked to carry a piece of additional equipment for the star.
He brought his fears for his family with him to Taiwan; they were part of his emotional baggage. His villa was isolated; Steve worried about their safety. Guard dogs were unknown there; instead they used guard geese. A ferocious ill-tempered gander named Ha-Ha; stood guard over the McQueen domain. Dinner guests gingerly worked their way past him to get inside. He did a damn good job, Steve said later.
Laughter helped ease his tension and the McQueen family shared an antic sense of humor. Fireworks were legal in Taiwan and readily available. That was one thing about the place Steve liked. He was up on the roof in no time, shooting off rockets. When one took off and landed under a producer ... "it was wonderful," giggles Terry. "We had the best time."
In rural China, human excrement was used as fertilizer, that being the most abundant commodity; the area, quite literally, stank. Terry, Chad, and Steve were riding their bikes one day when Chad, then about six, fell off into a mound of waste. Steve laughed so hard, he fell in on top of him. Terry, knowing full well what was coming next, zipped around and took off for home before they could pull her in with them.
What is that charming odor? Neile asked, nose wrinkling, when her men returned. Out of the house! Out! Don't come in until you clean up!
"Steve worked from his nerve ends and the pit of his stomach," says director Robert Wise, "and you were never quite sure from day to day what his mood would be." There was that painstaking, obsessive worry about detail. Steve wanted his wardrobe--dungarees and sweatshirt- to be carefully aged so as to look lived-in, used, washed. During one difficult day's shooting on the banks of the river, Steve excitedly reported to Wise that a new batch of wardrobe had been sent to him and the clothes didn't look aged enough.
"Steve," said the harassed director, "we don't need those things right away. Why don't we talk about it at the end of the day?"
Steve went off. Later that afternoon, Wise was standing at the side of the gunboat, trying to figure out a complicated technical shot, when he felt a tap on his shoulder. "About those dungarees .. ." said Steve.
"For Chrissakes!" Robert Wise exploded. "You don't need them now! I'm in the middle of something; leave me alone. We'll talk about it tonight."
Steve's feelings were hurt. He didn't talk to the director for the next three days. "He'd take my direction, do his scenes, but ignored me all the while," says Wise. "He felt I had turned on him. But it was simply that his worries were about wardrobe for scenes to be shot next week and I had problems here and now."
Taiwan was alien to anything Steve had ever known and he disliked his time there intensely. Steve's sympathies were always with the underdog--in this case, the indigenous Taiwanese--and he despised the Chinese conquerors as much as they did. "It was a repressive society," explains his friend Steve Ferry, who was a prop man on the picture. "The people there weren't used to dealing with large, healthy Caucasians. We were freaks in beautiful downtown Taipei."
Wrote Candy Bergen: "Hard-drinking, hard-fighting--as time on the island ticked by, McQueen and his gang grew increasingly restless and often spent nights on the prowl, roaming the little city, drinking, heckling, picking fights, and pummeling."
Part of the reason for Steve's unhappiness during the making of The Sand Pebbles stemmed from a personal defeat. He hadn't been in China very long when he picked up a copy of the Hong Kong English language newspaper to see a photo of his friend and rival James Garner in a race car.
And went berserk.
John Sturges and Steve had planned to start Day of the Champion immediately after completion of The Sand Pebbles. Delays in that film's schedule caused their plans to be postponed. In the meantime, James Garner was also planning a racing film. "It became a life- or-death issue," says Robert Relyea, "to the point of personal insults. A rather ugly fight to see who got onscreen first." That photo of Garner was an announcement of a new film, called Grand Prix, to be directed by John Frankenheimer and shot on location in Monaco. Apparently it would be James Garner, also an actor/racer, who would star in the definitive racing film, the first ever by an actor/ racer.
When Steve saw that story, he erupted. "He went wild. Just nuts," says publicist Rupert Allan.
Bud Ekins, who knew both Steve McQueen and James Garner very well, says of the two: "McQueen was faster, but he'd ride too hard and break down. Garner was slower, but he'd get there."
This time Garner got there first. It was questionable whether the market would support one racing film, let alone two. And coming in second had never been to Steve's liking. Day of the Champion was aborted.
The Sand Pebbles brought him an Academy Award nomination, his first and only one. (The Oscar itself was won that year by Paul Scofield for A Man for All Seasons.)
Says Norman Jewison: "Steve played himself in each role, but he himself was enriched by each of the characters he portrayed. They rubbed off more on him than he on they. He became the sum total of the characters he played."
In actuality, Steve played not himself, but the man he would have liked to have been. Jake Holman, in The Sand Pebbles, is proud, tough, and a man of courage. Sickened by the killing, he finally will take no more and runs away with his lady love into the interior. "Do you know what this is? Desertion in the face of the enemy," he is told. "I ain't got no more enemies," he replies. "Shove off, Captain."
At the end, he dies a loner's death, sacrificing himself to a sniper's bullet, having let everyone else escape while he stays behind to act as decoy.
Although he was quoted as saying that he himself would have run rather than staying behind to save the others, courage was not alien to Steve; nor were pride and toughness and stubbornness...
End of excerpt - McQueen: The Untold Story of a Bad Boy in Hollywood
by Penina Spiegel - Doubleday and Company, Inc., 1986