Writer/Biographer Marshall Terrill has just released an updated version of his highly respected bio
Steve McQueen: Portrait of an American Rebel, and is now working on a new Photo Book project with Steve’s widow Barbara Minty, which will feature deeply personal photographs taken by Barbara during her and Steve’s time together over the years 1976 to 1980.
In an exclusive interview Marshall talks with McQueenOnline about both books.
MO: Hi Marshall, thanks for talking here about your latest Steve McQueen projects. McQueen fans all over the world are always hungry for more of Steve. Even 25 years after his death, he is alive in the hearts of many people. As a writer, where do you feel the general public’s interest is at with Steve, compared to, say, back in ’93 when American Rebel was first published?
Marshall: When I originally wrote Portrait of An American Rebel in the early 1990s, I introduced the idea that McQueen’s acting was not only ahead of its time, but his talents were greatly under appreciated, especially given the fact that he was nowhere near as confident in real life than what you saw on the screen. I think what you’re seeing now is that people have embraced this concept that he was truly a remarkable one-of-a-kind talent and an iconoclast who lived by his own rules. What you’re seeing today is a full-blown renaissance, much like Humphrey Bogart experienced on college campuses in the 1970s. Lets just say I’m very glad to see that this has happened because in my opinion, Steve McQueen is the greatest film actor in cinematic history. Marlon Brando is revered as the first method actor and gets a lot of kudos for that, but Brando, in my opinion, didn’t have McQueen’s range or natural God-given talent. Often you can see Brando acting whereas with McQueen, he inhabited his roles, meaning, you’ll never catch him acting. That’s perhaps the greatest compliment you can give to an actor.
Regarding the new updates to Portrait Of An American Rebel.
MO: Congratulations on the release of your revised and extended version of American Rebel. What inspired you to update the book?
Marshall: Plexus Publishing actually asked me to write an update for the book to coincide for what would have been McQueen’s 75th birthday. I gladly agreed because so much has happened since the book was originally published in 1993. Chiefly, that McQueen has become an icon on the same level as James Dean, Marilyn Monroe and Elvis Presley. His image and likeness generates millions of dollars for the McQueen estate and is used to sell more than 30 different products, including a big multimillion campaign for the Ford Mustang. Trust me, it wasn’t always like that.
MO: Did you interview any new people for this revised edition?
Marshall: I interviewed new people and got updates from some of the people I interviewed in the past. It was like a high school reunion of sorts. The new people I interviewed mainly were linked to Dr. William Kelley, who treated McQueen for cancer. Kelley died in 2005 and I found out he went a little nuts towards the end of his life. It seems as if Kelley was regarded as a “mad genius” by his peers, but grew increasingly paranoid as a result of the fact his alternative treatment to cancer was never accepted by the medical community. His demise will definitely intrigue McQueen fans.
MO: So you went back to your old sources?
Marshall: Yes I did, and it was a lot of fun to contact the ones who are still alive. Sadly, many of the people who I originally interviewed died. But I did catch up with Steve’s karate instructor and best friend Pat Johnson; stuntman Loren Janes; former manager Hilly Elkins and former Solar partner Robert Relyea. I also had a chance to interview McQueen’s last wife, Barbara Minty, who I plan to do a photo book with in the near future.
MO: For the fans that have already read American Rebel, what’s new in terms of information?
Marshall: I have written a new foreword updating readers on my life, what’s happened with McQueen’s legend and an entirely new end chapter that updates readers on the lives of those closest to McQueen. I update readers on all of McQueen’s three wives, his son Chad and his family, the death of daughter Terry McQueen and Neile’s second husband, Al Toffel. The McQueen family has endured a lot of tragedy and triumph in the last decade.
MO: What were you able to learn from Barbara Minty (Steve’s widow, who was with him during his illness) about Steve’s battle with cancer and their involvement in the Kelley Institute’s metabolic therapy program (the controversial cancer treatment Steve received)?
Marshall: I basically learned that McQueen’s cancer was too far advanced for Kelley to do anything, and unfortunately for him, got the lion’s share of the blame for his death. Barbara said that when McQueen found out he had cancer, he gave her a choice: live their final days in peace or fight it until the very end. Barbara told him he should fight and that’s what he did. He not only fought for Barbara, but for his two kids, Terry and Chad. He was a very noble person.
MO: In the documentary Steve McQueen: The Essence of Cool, Barbara Minty states that in hindsight she would rather that she and Steve had not gone into the Kelley program. Based on your recent talks with Barbara, what would she have done differently?
Marshall: I know the reference you’re talking about, but I haven’t spoken in depth to Barbara about his cancer treatment. So far, we’ve only been talking about the good times. We will be getting together in late November/early December and perhaps we’ll broach that subject. My personal opinion is this: Steve McQueen was told by American doctors he had three months to live when he was originally diagnosed with cancer. He was essentially given a death sentence. Kelley, whether you agree with his treatment to cancer or not, offered him hope. Not false hope, but hope and there’s a major difference. McQueen did what he felt was right for him and I think with the wisdom of hindsight, people understand that today.
MO: Based on your research in writing both the ’93 and 2005 editions of American Rebel, what are your personal views on the Kelley program?
Marshall: I think my book in 1993 took a fairly strong stance that Kelley’s method to treating cancer had merit, and that wasn’t a very popular stance at the time. Why did I make that stance? Because I was put in touch with a cancer survivor named Kaye, who employed the Kelley method and cured herself. (She died in 1994 but was originally diagnosed with cancer in 1973) Kaye also put me in touch with employees of Plaza Santa Maria, who I got to know on a very personal level. They never ducked the hard questions or came off as quacks. In fact, they worked with me to get me to understand how his method worked and how mesothelioma attacks the body. Mesothelioma is one of the deadliest forms of cancers and when rock singer Warren Zevon died in 2003, no medical advances had been made since McQueen’s death. Today, I am trying to help the Mesothelioma Advanced Research Foundation (www.marf.org) bring about more awareness to this deadly form of cancer.
McQueen’s nurse, Teena Valentino, turned over to me an 800-page document of his last 99 days on earth and his specific treatment. As a reporter, you develop a sense of who’s bullshitting you and who’s not. Every person I interviewed who had an association with Dr. Kelley all had one thing in common-they wanted to cure cancer patients, not exploit them. Understand this as well: McQueen showed up at the Plaza Santa Maria with an unlit cigar in his mouth, so Kelley clearly had his work cut out for him. Barbara also told me that Steve had smuggled in all kinds of food that wasn’t on the diet plan such as cakes, pork chops, etc. Sadly, he didn’t work the program as diligently as he should have. However, I don’t think it would have made a bit of difference – the mesothelioma had been working on his body for over 30 years.
In the updated version of the book, I interviewed Dr. Nicholas J. Gonzalez, who was assigned by the Sloan Kettering Institute to evaluate Kelley’s work. Kelley welcomed Gonzalez with open arms and gave him access to more than 10,000 medical records. He also allowed him to interview approximately 1,300 patients who were appropriately diagnosed with cancer. Gonzalez studied Kelley’s method over a five-year period and found that 60 percent of Kelley’s patients were cured of cancer. Now, not all of his patients lived, but a 60 percent success rate for late term cancer is phenomenal. When Gonzalez placed his findings in a monograph, he found the medical establishment would not publish it, and it sent Kelley into a tailspin. Kelley grew increasingly paranoid and in my opinion, became almost delusional. He accused Gonzalez of conspiring against him even though Gonzalez was his biggest booster. Kelley’s wife also left him and he eventually lost control of his organization. Kelley then made the outrageous claim that McQueen was murdered by either the CIA or the medical establishment, who longed to see him fail. He also claimed many other organizations were out for him and it was clear that he “lost it.” At one point, he was living in squalor and resorted to eating in dumpsters for food. It’s sad because I truly believe Dr. Kelley was on to something. I do think he was a genius, but like all geniuses, they have that tendency to walk the tightrope between brilliance and insanity.
MO: A long time Steve McQueen fan yourself, what has been the emotional impact of writing this book, and revisiting it again?
Marshall: It was wonderful for me to revisit this territory again. I was surprised at how much I got into it because after I’ve written something, I have a tendency to want to push it away and say, “I’m glad I’ve got that out of my system.” McQueen, like Elvis Presley, is one of those original characters that you can write about over and over again because they’re so damn interesting and complex. I’m very happy to be able to update readers because it makes the book that much more complete.
Regarding the upcoming McQueen/Minty photo book.
MO: Since Steve’s death, Barbara Minty has avoided the media. Really, she became something of a “mysterious recluse” in the minds of many of Steve’s fans. Then suddenly she appeared in the new Essence of Cool documentary. For such a reclusive person this was a brave step. What do you think has inspired Barbara to open up to the public about her life with Steve?
Marshall: It’s funny that you describe her as “reclusive” because Barbara is truly a warm, funny and down-to-earth person. It’s easy to see why Steve loved her. Barbara doesn’t seek the spotlight and never has. I don’t think she’s too fond of the Hollywood crowd. With that said, the reason for her resurgence is that she is now about the same as age Steve when he died and I think it’s been a time of self-examination.
MO: As I understand it, you had been interested in doing a book with Barbara for quite a while, but found it to be very difficult to make the necessary contact. How did the pieces finally fall together?
Marshall: You’re right, it did take a long time to get a hold of her – more than 15 years. Interestingly enough, I did contact her in 1989 when I started American Rebel. She was very nice and cordial, but said she wasn’t ready to talk about Steve at that time. Mimi Friedman, who produced The Essence of Cool, put me in contact with Barbara in May of 2005, who expressed interest in doing a photo book about Steve. But Barbara didn’t know who to go to. I told Mimi that I would gladly help Barbara fulfill her wish. I called a publisher who I knew had been wanting to do a McQueen book for some time, and then called Barbara to tell her he was interested. It fell into place naturally, only it took 15 years for it to happen!
MO: You’ve just recently met with Barbara in person. What were your first impressions?
Marshall: Actually, I’ve only spoken to Barbara on the phone and exchanged many e-mails. We plan on meeting in the next few weeks. So far, my impressions of her are good and I really like her. She’s sweet, funny, down-to-earth and has a very unique perspective on life. Barbara has remarried and she and her husband David spend a lot of time traveling around the country in their decked out bus, visiting with friends and tending to their two homes in Montana and Western Arizona. I think she’s leading the life she wants to lead and is very happy.
MO: How far have Barbara and yourself gotten with regards to the books planning?
Marshall: We’ve talked about the concept of the book, with me just mainly listening to her ideas. She said she wants to do a photo book that’s a tribute to Steve focusing on their years together (1976-1980). She wants to tell fun and poignant anecdotes and the stories behind the photos. I think we’ll be focusing just on the good days before his cancer, which is fine by me. I’m just there to carry out her vision.
MO: How many photographs did she have in her collection?
Marshall: She has more than 100 images. Many people don’t know this, but Barbara is a fantastic photographer and the pictures she took are of professional quality. In my opinion, she is a professional photographer. She told Steve when they first started dating, “Wherever I go, the camera goes.” Steve thankfully agreed. I say thankfully because the images are incredible. Very artistic.
MO: What was it that struck you the most about these photos? What insights did they give you into the McQueen/Minty relationship, and into the Steve of 1976-1980?
Marshall: The main thing that comes across is how at peace McQueen seemed to be in the last years of his life. As you know, he took several years off from the film industry and finally began living his life away from the camera. These aren’t the Hollywood go-go years of stardom but the Steve McQueen who tinkered with his cars, motorcycles, antiques and planes. The photos have a very rustic feel and you get the sense that McQueen was very happy with Barbara and the way his life was going.
MO: Can you describe the planned textual layout of the book?
Marshall: That’s something that Barbara will decide, but I have suggested something similar to Elvis by The Presleys, a recent photo book put out by Priscilla and Lisa Marie Presley. Barbara even bought a copy at my suggestion and said it’s a concept she likes. One story she told me, which goes against McQueen’s image, has to do with his taste in music. I asked her out of curiosity one day, “What kind of music did Steve listen to?” Her answer blew me away. “He wore out his copy of Saturday Night Fever. Every time he put it on, I said, ‘Honey, c’mon, this isn’t cutting it.'” Something about Steve McQueen grooving to “Stayin’ Alive” is a visual I can’t get out of my head. That story has to be in the book!
MO: Have you formulated a title yet?
Marshall: No title yet. I think that will come later. Titles usually don’t come to me until the project is near completion. But again, I’ll defer to Barbara.
MO: Do you have a projected release date at this point?
Marshall: No release date, but we do have a publisher that is ready to start in December. We’re going to work very closely on this project with the publisher because he’s very committed to quality. I think Barbara will take the lead and we’ll just have to help her find the vision. Maybe a year. We’re not going to be in a rush.
MO: Any plans for further projects with Barbara in the future?
Marshall: I recently coordinated an interview with her for a Japanese documentary on the 25th anniversary of his death. It was aired November 4. I’d certainly be willing to work with Barbara on anything, but I get the feeling this might be a one-shot deal. Once this book is finished, I don’t know what more Barbara would want to say. She just may disappear into the sunset once again.
MO: Thanks again for sharing this excellent information with us McQueen fans Marshall. I can tell you that I am really looking forward to this new book of Barbara’s photographs. I think it has the potential to really be something special.
Marshall: More than anything, I think Barbara’s photo book will fill in the picture to as what Steve McQueen did during his “lost years”. The answer simply is that he was living his life to the fullest.
Darren Wright is the webmaster of http://www.mcqueenonline.com