THE JOURNAL OF THE CAUCUS: ARCHIVE

Cowboy


Norman S. Powell, was in senior management at CBS Television for 14 years. After leaving CBS in 1992 he has produced, executiveproduced and/or directed 90 hours of long form and episodic television and theatrical features. He has received the People’s Choice Award, two Telly Awards and nominated for three Emmy Awards and a Producers Guild of America Award.
by Norman S. Powell

I have known a lot of cowboys. I’ve found them mostly an admirable group, agile in body and in mind. By the nature of their culture, they are resolute, laconic, mischievous, skillful and highly pain tolerant. Like the U.S. Marines, you can have no better friend, no worse enemy.

When I knew him, Steve McQueen was a cowboy. It was on a half-hour western series called “Wanted: Dead or Alive”. I was a newly minted 2nd Assistant Director just out of college and Steve was an up and coming actor recently out of the Lee Strasberg School in New York. We hit it off very quickly despite the fact he was the series lead and I was well down the food chain.

I guess what we had in common was a sense of humor, the ability to work long hours cheerfully, and a love of motorcycles. I had been riding since I was fifteen and was pretty good at it, but Steve was a natural.

He brought the same competitive drive to horsemanship. He worked at it every day and within a few weeks the wranglers told me he was riding as if he’d done it all of his life. For his series character, he developed a signature way of mounting a horse. He would do a standing vertical jump of about 34 inches, kick his left foot into the stirrup and swing the other leg over, all in one fluid movement. Being competitive, I secretly practiced the same maneuver, but never got it coordinated enough to reveal it to Steve.

Toward the end of the first season, we took the unit to shoot three episodes in the desert near Phoenix. The Director, a refined gentleman called Tommy Carr, and I went out to scout locations. Steve came along. One scene called for some bad guys to cross a river on horseback and we found a river that was photographically perfect. As Tommy and I stood on the bank discussing the feasibility and trying to guess the depth of the river, Steve stripped naked and waded to the middle where the water was up to his armpits. “It’s this deep Tommy … and being February, it’s really, really cold.” Actions, not words, are a cowboy thing.

My friend Bob Gray, the special effects guy, had some cowboy in him I suspect. He worked with a speed and efficiency that would have made an OSHA man hyperventilate, had there been any around in those days. (There weren’t.) We had shot a scene with five drunken outlaws, lusting for revenge, emptying their six guns into a tray filled with glasses of whiskey and beer. Bob Gray’s challenge was to rig an insert of the bullet hits quickly and cheaply. Within minutes Bob told me he was ready, bring a camera. Bob had set the tray on a table in the desert behind the old western street set. He handed me a fully loaded .357 magnum revolver, chambered a round into his Colt .45 automatic, I rolled the camera and we fired away. The result was a very realistic shot of glass shattering and liquid flying at 48 frames per second.

The big action sequence of this location trip was to be a stagecoach robbery. There was no money for walkie-talkies and I was stationed approximately three-quarters of a mile from the cameras (we had two, a big deal back then), to cue the bad guys to ride down to intercept the stage. When I saw the flag signal, I cued the riders and they charged, guns blazing. Print!

The stage continued up the hill to pick me up and I climbed aboard for the ride back to camera. Turning a stagecoach around with a six-horse team on a single-track dirt road is no easy feat and it exposes the horses to the infamous cholla-jumping cactus. (It doesn’t actually jump, but when it hits you it feels like it’s been shot from a cannon.)

So I’m sitting on top of this coach, my ass approximately eight feet off the ground, with two cowboys in the seat below me, one driving, one riding shotgun. This stagecoach, like all of them, was an oversized matchbox with a high center of gravity, being pulled by six really big horses, pissed off I’m sure by all the cholla quills sticking in them. We start down the hill and they bolt! We’re in a down hill runaway. The driver hauls in fighting for control. The brake is a primitive mechanical device, powered by his leg strength but pressure begins to make the coach skid. The driver eases up on the brake, raises his hands and the cowboy riding shotgun takes the reins of the wheel team. They haul back with everything they’ve got but the horses are in a dead run, out of control. Suddenly the coach hits a rut and rolls up on the right wheels then sickeningly rocks back up on the left. We’re going more than twenty miles an hour and I’m assessing my chances if I bail out with cactus and boulders flashing by. Not real good. Then, to my horror, I realize a horse on the swing team is running on three legs, one of his rear hoofs having hung up on the chain traces. If he goes down, it’s all over.

So there I am, the wind blowing in my face, the cowboys just below me fighting for control, the coach careening left and right, only slight degrees from the rollover point, and one horse at a dead run on three legs. The irony hits me. I’m at the dawning of the Age of Aquarius and I’m going to die in a stagecoach wreck.

Adrenalin is an amazing thing. Everything goes into super slow motion. I see the wrangler by camera ... mount up and gallop toward us. The cowboys in front of me rake back and forth on the reins. The crew on the road ahead runs for cover, the wranglers on horseback converge and with incredible skill reverse course, close on us at full speed, grab the reins of the lead team and finally bring them to a stop only a few yards from the cameras. After a moment of awed silence, Steve says, with hardly a trace of irony, “That must have been a fun ride”. Not having the wit for much else, I say something like “not really … but did anyone have the sense to roll cameras and capture this event?”

The key grip who was a likeable wiseass pipes up “no time for that … we were too busy taking bets on how it would come out.”

That night I went out with Steve and the wranglers and stunt guys, and I got real drunk. I figured God must love cowboys. I was in their company that day and we all survived.

During the first season of “Wanted: Dead or Alive” Steve would ride his Triumph Bonneville to work, often making his entrance through the front gate on the rear wheel only. My father, a former motorcycle rider himself, was CEO of the production company and realized his reckless young series lead might hurt himself, thereby hurting the company’s bottom line. So, in the second season, Steve was contractually prohibited from riding motorcycles. This information had not trickled down to me and Steve knew it when he offered to sell me his Bonneville at a price I couldn’t refuse. I bought the bike. My Dad, always appreciative of ingenuity, graciously accepted the delicious irony of the McQueen oneupmanship and took us to lunch where they both admonished me to ride carefully. I did only so-so in that regard.

Time went by, the series ended, and I went on with my career making television programs, and Steve went on with his, becoming the world’s most famous movie star.

One evening, years later, I was having dinner in a quiet Italian restaurant with my then girlfriend.

She was an incredibly sweet, somewhat shy emergency room nurse whom I had met while being patched up after a motorcycle accident. We were chatting quietly when I realized Steve was sitting at the bar looking at me. He got up, strolled over, and said, “What’s the matter Norm, you too good to say hello to an old friend?” I assured him that was not the case, thinking to myself that I definitely had known some movie stars who had forgotten old friends. But not Steve.

He sat down and we talked about the old days and agreed that there had been a lot of water and all kinds of other fluids, and solids under the bridge and over the dam. He told my nurse friend how pretty she was and how lucky I was to have her. He was in essence the same charming, funny, edgy guy I knew years before. Then he got up and strolled away and that was the last time I ever saw him face to face. As for my girlfriend, I cannot adequately describe the profoundly powerful effect this chance encounter with Steve McQueen had on her libido that evening. For that, and for his friendship when we were both young men, I am grateful.