Sunday, April 9, 2017

Working with Steve McQueen on "Le Mans": An Interview with Don Nunley

The new book Steve McQueen: Le Mans in the Rearview Mirror, which arrives in stores today, chronicles the making of McQueen's 1971 cult classic about the famous international endurance race. It was written by Don Nunley, who worked as the film's property master, and Marshall Terrill, who has written biographies about McQueen, Elvis Presley, and Pete Maravich. Filled with over 400 fabulous photos, this book will appeal to anyone who enjoys reading about the making of motion pictures. Co-author Don Nunley--who purchased, acquired, manufactured, and placed props in over 30 motion pictures and television series--took time out of his busy schedule to stop by the Café for an interview. 

Café:  What inspired you to follow in your father's footsteps as a property master? 
Don Nunley on the Le Mans set.
Don Nunley:  My father did not encourage me to follow him into the film business. He knew how hard it was on your personal life. Long hours, and travel away from home and family. And the need to deal with personalities and huge egos on a regular basis. I started in 1960. There was an opening at Universal Studios in the Labor Department. It was to be a summer job until school started again in the fall. I was already enrolled at UCLA. It turned out I liked working at the studio. Later I moved into the prop department and that's where I stayed for my entire career. Call it serendipity. 

Café:  How did you first meet Steve McQueen?
Steve McQueen in 1971.

DN:  I met Steve McQueen on the set of Wanted: Dead or Alive. We weren't formally introduced. It was more of an acknowledgment of each other while I was working as part of the set-dressing crew for the series.

Café:  When production designer Phil Abramson fell ill, you replaced him on Le Mans. What additional duties did that involve? Was any there discussion of you receiving a credit for your production design work?

DN:  When Phil left the picture, we were well into production. Most of the locations had already been chosen since most of the film was shot on the Le Mans circuit itself. There were still a few sets to dress and, of course, the big one was the paddock that had to be re-created after Steve's refusal to be filmed walking through it on the actual day of the race. I never asked, nor did I expect, to take Phil's credit from him. I know the studio appreciated what I did and that was enough.

Café:  What led to the two-week production shutdown on Le Mans and the departure of director John Sturges?

Director John Sturges.
DN:  Nobody could come up with a script that everybody liked. We had been shooting for several weeks without a leading lady or one word of recorded dialogue. Steve did not give John Sturges the respect he deserved. The studio was watching its money evaporate. John Sturges told (executive producer) Bob Relyea he was going home, and Relyea thought John was going back to the hotel. But John got on a plane the next day, flew to LA, and never looked back. That's when the studio took over. Within two weeks they brought in a new director, Lee Katzen, and took away all control from Steve's company, Solar Productions.

Café:  Next to Steve McQueen's erratic behavior, what was your biggest challenge with making Le Mans?

DN:  I would say matching the cars for the particular hour of the race we were shooting each day. The cars changed dramatically from hour one to hour 24. We wouldn't get our marching orders until the night before as to what we would be shooting the next day. This picture had no shooting schedule as a normal picture would have had.

Café:  You mention in your book that one of the Heuer watches worn by Steve McQueen in Le Mans fetched $800,000 at an auction many years later. What was your role in those watches being featured in the film?

The Heuer Monaco.
DN:  One of my duties as a prop master was to supply the personal effects an actor used in the film. Steve wanted to look like one of the top drivers on the circuit. He liked the way (auto racing drivers) Joe Siffert, Derek Bell, and Brian Redman looked. I always needed to offer options. Ray Summers, the costumer on the film, and I put together a variety of choices for Steve to pick to wear on his uniform and on his person. One of the patches Steve choose to wear on his driving suit was the patch for the Heuer watch. He then selected, from the several brands of watches I provided, the Omega Moon watch. I tactfully pointed out to Steve that he wouldn't wear an Omega watch and a Heuer watch patch.  I had several choices of the Heuer chronograph for him to choose from. I thought he would pick one that was more subtle and mainline, but to my astonishment he chose the now famous square, blue-faced Monaco. Now, it's perhaps better known as the Steve McQueen watch.

Café:  Looking back over his career, what is your final assessment of Steve McQueen--both as an actor on the silver screen as well as a person you worked with on the set?

Steve McQueen and Don Nunley (center).
DN:  I was never one to hang around with actors. Steve had a lot of buddies, people who rode motorcycles and raced cars with him. When we started Le Mans, Steve was the number one box office star in the world. He was not the most difficult actor I worked with, but he certainly wasn't the easiest. He was careless with his props and required one of my staff to shadow him to make sure we got back what we gave him each day. He did not demand special treatment, at least not from my department. For me, Steve was always interesting and made the kinds of movies I wanted to see. 

Café:  You were involved in a host of other famous films, including Little Big Man, The Scalphunters, and The List of Adrian Messenger (one of our faves). What was your favorite movie that you worked on and why?

Dustin Hoffman in Little Big Man.
DN:  I would have to say Little Big Man. Working with Dustin Hoffman very early in his career, and Arthur Penn, one of the top directors in Hollywood, was both a great challenge and a delight. With Arthur's support, I was able to spend the money, and do things right. I am very proud of my work on the film. In 2014, Little Big Man was deemed "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant" by the Library of Congress and selected for preservation in the National Film Registry. 

Café:  Finally, your filmography includes one acting credit as "Doctor" in the 1983 Kirk Douglas movie Eddie Macon's Run. There's got to be a story there, right? 

DN:  In Eddie Macon's Run, I became an actor by default. It turned out that the actor chosen to play a doctor could not remember his lines. Out of frustration, the director, Jeff Kanew, turned around, looked at me and asked: "Can you remember the lines?" By then, I think everyone on the set--except for that actor--knew the lines. I put on the doctor's coat, grabbed a prop stethoscope and somehow did a page of dialogue in one take. I still receive about two dollars a year in residuals. So much for my acting career. 

All photos are from the book Steve McQueen: Le Mans in the Rearview Mirror (except for the one from Little Big Man). Don Nunley's book was published by Dalton Watson Fine Books.


  1. Thanks for the very interesting interview.

  2. I'm a big fan of the movie and McQueen as well. Interesting trivia about the watch. Must have been pretty bad on the set for a pro like Sturges to walk out on it.

  3. Great interview, Rick. The book sounds interesting. I like reading these kind of books.

  4. Wow – great info you were able to get, Rick. Some terrific observations.

    You truly are the Dick Cavett of the classic movie blogging world.

  5. I really enjoyed reading your interview with Don Nunley! I don't think I ever thought of how complex it would be to match the cars at different times of the day! It was also interesting to read about the Heuer Monaco watch and the insistence to be in continuity. Lastly, it was a fun story to hear about his moment as an actor. And he still gets paid for it! Well done, Mr. Nunley.