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L.A. THEN AND NOW

Steve McQueen's life as average Joe

He was a pilot, not a celebrity, at the Santa Paula Airport. Friends recall his kindness and love of cheap beer.

November 30, 2008|Steve Chawkins | Chawkins is a Times staff writer.

One day in 1979, the King of Cool decided to fly.

Before anyone knew it, Steve McQueen was living with his girlfriend in a hangar at the Santa Paula Airport. During the day, he learned to pilot a World War II-era biplane. In the evening, the tough-guy superstar would crack open cold beers with grease monkeys, fledgling pilots and aging flyboys who still had a few loop-de-loops left in them.

McQueen and his girlfriend, a stunning model who would become his third wife, slept on a four-poster brass bed amid his vintage motorcycles and airplane parts. His bright- yellow Stearman biplane loomed over their cramped quarters, its wings close enough to create a head-whacking hazard for someone groping through the dark.

But life was good: On Saturday nights, the couple kicked back in their hangar -- really a big storage shed -- to watch "The Love Boat" and "Fantasy Island" on a black-and-white TV. Dinner was often a feed at the local Chinese restaurant.

"It was a sweet time in a sweet place," said Barbara McQueen, the last woman in his life. "We just loved it."

Those days will be celebrated next weekend at a fundraiser for an aviation museum under construction at the 78-year-old airport.

Barbara McQueen, author with Marshall Terrill of a memoir called "Steve McQueen: The Last Mile," will tell some stories and sign some books. Vintage planes, the longtime specialty at the privately owned airport, will be on display, along with period cars and motorcycles.

The airport, 50 miles northwest of Los Angeles, has long been a draw for celebrities. Cliff Robertson still has a hangar there, and stars such as Gene Hackman and Leonard Nimoy used to show up frequently.

But McQueen was a different order of star. His characters -- as rugged, sullen and tightly wound as he was himself -- set a new standard for macho men of action. He was volatile on-screen and off, and, since his death in 1980, his charisma has only grown. Even so, the legend has its limits.

"I hate to sound nonchalant about it," said his widow, with more than a hint of McQueen's famed cool, "but to me he was a normal guy -- a guy with a fun job."

She said she never asked him why he poured himself into flying. After he died, some said that his father, who abandoned the family when McQueen was a baby, had been a barnstormer with an aerial circus. As with other McQueen myths, there is no evidence to support it, said biographer Terrill.

Around the airport, the highest-paid actor of his day was known as an ordinary Joe. People took pleasure in shielding him from the paparazzi that trooped to the small citrus town.

"The main thing he enjoyed is that he wasn't idolized here," said Pete Mason, a pilot who, with his wife, runs a business repairing airplane fabric.

Mason's father, Sammy Mason, was a renowned test pilot who was approached by McQueen for lessons. Pete had to tell his dad that the Steve who called him really was the actor he claimed to be. "Dad!" he recalled saying in exasperation. " 'The Great Escape'? The guy on the motorcycle?"

An expert at car and motorcycle racing, McQueen proved to be an adept pilot. With only a ninth-grade education, he struggled to pass the written test and succeeded on his third try.

Mike Dewey, a retired movie stunt flier who also helped instruct McQueen, was impressed with his "incredible discipline" as he practiced grueling aerobatic moves.

But Dewey's warmest memories were of the after-hours get-togethers and McQueen's fondness for Old Milwaukee beer, an inexpensive brew known as an acquired taste.

"He was in character drinking that awful stuff," Dewey said. "It just brings a smile to my face."

A reform school alumnus with a well-deserved bad-boy reputation, McQueen is said to have mellowed by the time he touched down in Santa Paula.

When a medical emergency required two friends in town to leave for a week, McQueen volunteered to care for their seven children. When a young man who worked at the airport died suddenly, McQueen paid off his family's mortgage.

"He was very generous but never wanted credit," said Mike Egan, who used to restore McQueen's motorcycles at his Santa Paula shop. "Unlike other Hollywood types, he never put it out there."

After six months of hangar living, McQueen bought a small ranch a few miles from the airport, hauling out juke boxes, lanterns, ancient gas pumps and other memorabilia from his vast, warehoused collections. He and Barbara planned to eventually move to Idaho, but this would turn out to be his final home.

"Santa Paula is my kinda country club," he told friends, a scraggly beard hiding his chiseled face.

It was in his century-old farmhouse that he married Barbara, then 26. It was there, as he was stricken with a rare form of lung cancer, that evangelist Billy Graham prayed with him in November 1980.

Inspired by flight instructor Sammy Mason, McQueen had recently become a born-again Christian. Four days after Graham's visit, the actor died in a hospital in Juarez, Mexico, after surgery.

Chronicled at every turn by the tabloids, his treatment at a Mexican clinic had involved unorthodox methods: prayer, vitamins, coffee enemas and laetrile, a controversial preparation made from apricot pits.

At a memorial service on his ranch, seven small planes from the Santa Paula Airport flew overhead, dipping their wings in tribute. They went on to scatter McQueen's ashes in the Pacific.

For more information on next weekend's Steve McQueen event, go to www.amszp.org /mcqueen.html.

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steve.chawkins@latimes.com

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