SLATER — Actor Steve McQueen would have had a good time in his boyhood home of Slater this weekend.
His widow, Barbara Minty said so, as did his friend and stunt double Loren Janes, who were both in the small Missouri town to celebrate his life.
McQueen was the highest paid actor of his time in Hollywood, starring in over 40 films and television shows, and was considered “the king of cool.” He was also a semipro race car driver and collector of antique cars and motorcycles.
Abandoned by his parents at a young age, McQueen spent his boyhood with his uncle, Claude Thompson, on a farm outside of Slater, a town about sixty miles northwest of Columbia. He left around the age of 14.
Last year, the town set out to remember him every year around the time of his birthday, which was on March 24, 1930.
This year, residents and visitors alike filled the hamlet’s main street Saturday for Steve McQueen Day to show off their cars and bikes and pay tribute to the cinema legend.
The automobile show was a draw for many despite the cold weather and chance of rain that never came. And then there’s the legacy of a great American rebel to bring the rest.
Dozens of events were planned throughout the city. At a local junior high school auditorium, several of McQueen’s films — including his breakout role in “The Blob” — as well as a documentary on his life were screened on a small white screen. There was a motorcycle burnout contest, automobiles awards, a talent show and barbecue stands. Columbia attorney and McQueen aficionado Dan Viets auctioned off video collections and McQueen-related novelties to benefit the Boys Republic, where McQueen received his education in California.
Main street was lined on one end with bikers and antique cars on the other. Slater has a population of 2,200; nearly 3,000 people participated in the day’s events.
Four people appeared in a look-a-like contest judged by Minty, including the town’s mayor, Stephen Allegri, and a welder from Minnesota, Mike Riley, who drove down in a Ford police interceptor immortalized in the film “Bullit.” Riley dressed as Calvera from the “The Magnificent Seven,” and brought Hot Wheels cars to give to the kids in town.
The annual event has given the people of the town a cause to talk with each other about the legend.
Bob Holt lived across the street from the Thompson farm as a boy, which, in farming country, means about half a mile down the road. The 70-year-old man was too young to remember McQueen well but remembers him being known as “mischievous.”
“One time, he took a handful of rocks and broke all the windows in the chicken house when he come over to see me or my dad,” Holt said. “Now, he left here at a pretty young age, and the way I understand it, he joined up with the circus and took off across the country.”
Charles Heinz said he had forgotten the actor until later in his life. Heinz, who now lives in Independence, and his son helped restore a race car on display at the festival.
“All of a sudden it came to me one day that him and I’d been playing down there (in Slater). When he was a kid, he had real curly hair and real bright blue eyes. And of course I was just a country boy, you know, I hadn’t been anywhere hardly, and I thought he was kind of ugly. He had really curly hair really stuck down on his head.” he said, laughing.
Heinz said McQueen was similar to a lot of people from Slater.
“There wasn’t a doubt about it he was a heck of an actor because every one movie he was in was a hit,” said Heinz. “Of course he was just passing through when he came here, like a lot of us. We’re just passing through.”
The presence of the two stars in on McQueen’s day made the event more significant for many in the community.
Janes was one of the greatest stuntmen in Hollywood, doubling for McQueen in many movies and working in the industry for 50 years — acting or coordinating stunts in 500 films — without breaking a bone.
The audience in the community youth center were fascinated with Janes’ stories of exotic film locations and life as a stuntman. He also talked about how, as a stunt man, despite a prolific career, he did not have to deal with the pressure of movie production that McQueen did, which led the actor to retreat from Hollywood in the last years of his life.
Locals also said they were impressed by the generosity of Minty, who took the opportunity to sign her new book about McQueen called, “The Last Mile.” She co-wrote the book with Marshall Terrell, McQueen’s biographer who lectured at the festival as well.
Minty flew from her home in Montana to spend several days in the area, listening to stories about her husband.
“I never expected to do this but nobody else in the family would,” she said. “And I thought, ‘Well, you know what, if they ask, I’ll do it to keep Steve’s name alive, and to do the things that would make him happy.’ I mean, he would get a kick — that’s why its not raining, because he’s not up there making it rain.”
Minty was only married to the star for four years before he died from a rare form of lung cancer at the age of 50 on Nov. 7, 1980.
“He was intense, and I was naive, and I caught him at a time in his life where I wanted to hang and he wanted to hang, and we just had a great time, we just had beautiful time,” Minty said. “I meant we didn’t travel in jets and do that kind of stuff. We took old pick-up trucks and drank beer and went down the road and saw things and talked to people.”
Why McQueen rarely came back to Slater is a matter of consideration among many people in town. There are stories that he came back several times to see Claude but never told anyone. Minty and Janes both said the actor used to talk about coming back, but he died before he had the chance.
“I’ve heard them say that they asked him to come back to Slater to be the grand marshall in the fall festival parade and he just declined,” Holt said. “He said he didn’t leave anything in Slater to be remembered, and that’s just the way it was.”
Holt said he can understand McQueen’s desire to stay out of the spotlight after withdrawing from Hollywood. “To me what I’ve heard is that Steve was more or less a private person. He didn’t kick up his heels or make the front page everyday, and maybe we’re kind of similar in that way,” Holt said.
Until the festival, residents say that McQueen was not the most well-known person in Slater. Many of the younger kids in Slater only knew of McQueen because of the festival, though some said they had heard the name before.
“I guess he’s a big deal around here, got all these cars coming through,” said Uneke Aka Scarbrouz, an eighth grader in Slater. “I’ve never seen his movies but I guess I’ll go and purchase some of them to see what it’s about. So, he’s a racer? And an actor?”
The town hopes to be able to continue to hold the festival every year, Mayor Allegri said.
“We’ll make sure it continues. His friends will let it continue. We’ve got people from all over the country who come in here for this thing, and really it’s amazing,” Allegri said.
“You have to be impressed, when the kids sit there and say there’s nothing to do, this is Slater, Missouri. But, you’ve got the highest paid movie star in the world came from Slater, Missouri,” Allegri said. “And I think that’s what’s amazing is that you can still become a superstar and still become the king of cool and still maintain those hometown values.”
At the end of Saturday night, as the dozen or so people who watched the documentary “Steve McQueen: An American Rebel” left the junior high school’s auditorium, a woman turned to the child walking next to her and said, “Did you know that man lived here?”