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Mrs Steve McQueen

November 2010

WHEN 24-year-old model Barbara Minty flew to Los Angeles to audition for an acting job, she believed she was meeting Paul Newman.
“I was told it was that really cute guy from the Towering Inferno with the beautiful blue eyes and I thought ‘well that’s Paul Newman,” laughs the 57-year-old.
“And out walks Grizzly Adams.”
She was in fact meeting acting giant Steve McQueen, then 47, who had cast off his film star looks and grown a long, scruffy beard.
He had seen a photo of her in a magazine and faked an audition in order that they could meet.
She didn’t really know who he was, she says. Still, weren’t her family concerned?
“Well, no. They didn’t really know who he was either.”
Hang on, throughout the sixties and seventies he was one of the most famous actors in the world, star of The Magnificent Seven, The Great Escape, The Thomas Crown Affair, Bullitt, The Getaway, Papillon, and The Towering Inferno. Didn’t your family watch television?
“Well, as a kid I used to watch Wanted: Dead or Alive,” she says, referring to the early sixties TV show that brought McQueen to the attention of filmmakers.
“They knew that him being in that would make him an awfully lot older than me.”
She adds: “My dad and my grandfather took him for a walk before we got married. I wasn’t sure whose talk was going to be worse,” she laughs.
She was with McQueen for three and a half years, right up until his death in November 1980.
By that time he was a virtual recluse. He stayed away from big film projects and spent his time racing bikes and flying planes.
“He was more in to staying at home,” says Barbara, his third wife.
“He kept to himself. Lee Majors was a friend so I met him. James Garner came to the house once and I couldn’t for the life of me remember his name so I shouted ‘Steve, Rockford’s here.”
Aside from the illness, an asbestos-related cancer called mesothelioma, does she think she got the best years of his life?
“Oh yeah, I think I got him when he was all kind of mellowed out.”
McQueen was notoriously difficult. No doubt the result of a problem childhood; his mum was an alcoholic who handed him to his great uncle to raise for much of his childhood. His dad had left home when McQueen was just six months old.
Says Barbara: “He was still a bad boy but he’d gotten over being a dumb movie star and he was more in to being the actor and doing what made him happy.”
Still a bad boy?
“The first night we had dinner, he told me to meet him at his apartment. When he opened the door I could see a motorcycle in the living room and I thought ‘well, that’s cool.’ Then I saw these two blonde-haired women with big you-know-whats and said ‘OK, I’ll come back another time’ and I started to leave. He said ‘No, these girls were just leaving.’ That was last of the naughty boy I ever saw in him.”
Did she perhaps tame him a little?
“I don’t think there’s ever taming a wild animal.”
McQueen had been married twice before, first to Neile Adams, then Ali McGraw, his co-star in The Getaway. She’s not keen to mention either, although I’d read she was friendly with Adams.
“I’d prefer not to discuss her. She doesn’t exist in my life.”
Was that because you auctioned a lot of his artefacts in 2006? I read you’d had a lot of flak for doing that.
“I didn’t get any flak for anything,” she says, frostily.
“You know what, don’t get me started on that because I have a foul mouth.
“I moved so much and things were getting kind of beat up and moved around a lot. And so many people loved him I thought that this stuff really needs to be out there for the public to see. So we had an auction in Los Angeles and it was absolutely beautiful.
“I still have things at my house that were ours. It’s not like a museum or anything like that. There is one room I call the Steve McQueen room because it’s all the pictures that people have given me that I don’t know what to do with. And friends like to stay there. Maybe because it’s the Steve McQueen room or because it has the best television in the house,” she laughs.
Living with McQueen changed her life but not dramatically.
“I was a model in New York and I was used to travelling and meeting people, strange hours and strange places.”
Friends call her Barbie, so what did Steve call her?
“You know what, I don’t know what he called me.”
“No! Nobody calls me Babs.”
Can I call you Babs?
“No, you can’t,” she laughs.
“You know what, I haven’t thought about that. I can’t remember what he called me.”
I tell her how much of a fan I was as a teenager, prompted by the repeated screenings of his movies after his death. While the rest of the family were sat in the lounge for an FA Cup Final, I was watching Hell Is For Heroes on a back and white portable. And years later, at college, I had a photo from McQueen’s last moment on screen, holding a baby in The Hunter, on my bedroom wall.
“That’s very sweet,” she says, as if she’s heard this a thousand times before.
It’s the movie star that millions remember that she didn’t really know. But she is finding out by touring to promote a new book by Marshall Terrill, called Steve McQueen: A Tribute To The King Of Cool, which features many of her pictures.
It tells the actor’s story through the eyes of family, friends, co-stars, business associates, doctors, acquaintances and fans.
“It is kind of weird talking about him all these years later but it is nice to remember. And this has given me a nice opportunity to meet some really wonderful people and to learn who my husband was back then when he was the big movie star.
“Who is not the person I knew. I got the kinder, gentler version.”
And if he was still around today, what would an 80-year-old Steve McQueen been like?
“Oh, he’d have been a cranky old b*stard.”

Steve McQueen: A Tribute to the King of Cool, by Marshall Terrill is published by Dalton Watson Fine Books, price £35.

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