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Back in 1979, on the set of The Hunter, a spirited high school kid named Rick Kraus had the
guts to ask the infamously reclusive movie legend Steve McQueen
for an interview for his school newspaper. McQueen hadn't given an interview in 10 years, but he liked kids,
and where he had rejected offers from Time, Life
and Newsweek to put him on the cover, the kid got the interview. |
It was McQueen's last interview before his death.
McQueenOnline presents an exclusive 2006 interview with Rick,
and reprints the original '79 interview for your enjoyment.
|The 2006 Rick Penn-Kraus Interview|
MO: Hi Rick, could you start by telling how it was that you came to get the chance to interview Steve McQueen?|
RPK: I was a senior at Alexander Hamilton High School in Los Angeles at the time, and editor in chief of the school newspaper, 'The Federalist.' I had finished a track workout for the last period of the day and saw trailers parked in the school quad area. As I walked back into school to see what was going on, Steve McQueen walked right by me going the other direction. I thought I had just blown my big chance with a celebrity before it had even begun.
I went over to a group of guys from the crew who were sitting nearby, taking a break. When I asked what movie was filming, they told me it was The Hunter, starring Steve McQueen. I asked if they thought he would give me an interview and let me take some photos of him. One of the guys, who turned out to be stuntman Loren James, said, "Steve never lets people take his picture, and he never, ever, gives interviews."
For some reason, the possibility of failing just didn't enter my thoughts. The short answer to your question is that I didn't let any blocks get in my way, like James' comments about McQueen's history of not giving interviews. If someone had asked me at that point if I thought I would get an interview with McQueen, I really think I would have said yes. Why wouldn't he? And I didn't allow much time to think about the situation, either. I just jumped at the opportunity.
I saw that McQueen had gone into the food trailer, so I followed him in. As he was handed his food I said something like, "Excuse me Mr. McQueen. I write for the school newspaper here. Would you be willing to let me interview you and take your picture?" He said, "Sure. Write up some questions for me, then come back later. We'll be finished filming around 6pm."
So I walked home, very excited, and sat down with my family to write questions for him. The only films of his I remember having seen were The Towering Inferno, and maybe Papillon. I had no experience interviewing celebrities, so the questions were pretty general. I think I was pretty worked up at the prospect of interviewing him, and only had a couple of hours to prepare.
I went back to the school later that day and filming was underway in the science building on the second floor. This was the scene where McQueen heads toward the science lab that would soon explode. I stood in the back of the crew, trying not to get in the way, but when he saw me he stopped the filming and called me over. We walked over to the stairs and sat down, me up a few stairs, McQueen on the first step. He told me to start asking questions. But before I even started, most of the crew gathered around us and were sitting in a semi-circle around him, watching the interview. I didn't realize at the time that they were particularly interested in seeing this interview because it would be an exclusive — he told me he had not given an interview for ten years.
MO: So even though, as you say, you hadn't had much exposure to the McQueen film legacy, you still recognised Steve immediately when he walked by you?
RPK: I definitely knew who he was, and I recognized him immediately. But I'd have been hard pressed to name his movies.
MO: Were your mum and dad Steve McQueen fans? What was their response when you said you had an exclusive interview with Steve McQueen?
RPK: I don't remember them being fans, or us even talking about it. They're more Masterpiece Theatre fans. But they were very supportive, and helped me write some questions.
MO: What impression did Steve have on you during and immediately following the interview?
RPK: He seemed embarrassed to have the attention on him. I got the feeling he was a pretty private guy. When I asked him to pose for a photo he did so reluctantly, just standing there at the top of the stairs, alone, posing for this high school kid. I continued taking pictures for as long as he would stand there. I think I shot 5 or 6 before he said enough already. And after that I got handed a B&W 8x10 photo of him to sign, so I asked for his autograph and he just rolled his eyes and signed it. I still have the photo, but it has faded over the years.
MO: I imagine that some of the teachers at the school were quite envious of you when they read your article? What sort of experiences did you have around the school as a result of interviewing Steve McQueen?
RPK: I wrote up the interview and dropped it on my journalism teacher’s desk nonchalantly. He didn’t get around to reading it for almost a week! I couldn’t believe it. Then one of the students wanted to bump the interview for his book review. I literally had to convince people on the staff to make room for this exclusive interview.
MO: I find it amazing that the school newspaper wouldn't be eager to publish a story on a movie star whose latest production was happening in their own science rooms...
RPK: In all fairness to the students writing for the paper, each person had his or her own agenda. The book reviewer wanted his review in, the news guys wanted more room for news, etc. I felt pretty strongly that an exclusive interview should be published in the next issue, even if it wasn't my interview.
MO: Did you get much attention from the outside world (non school related) as a result of the interview?
RPK: I don’t remember what the teachers said about it, but I did start to get phone calls from all over the country, including from McQueen’s agent Warren Cowan and a Newsweek reporter who came to interview me. Even the National Enquirer came out to ask some yellow journalism-type questions. The news item about me getting the interview got published in a lot of magazines and newspapers.
MO: The National Enquirer? What sort of nasty information were they trying to extract from you?
RPK: The reporter asked me if McQueen was mean to me, and a few other questions in the same vein. I had only positive things to say. I'm pretty sure they never printed anything.
MO: Can you tell me about your experience with Warren Cowan?
RPK: The first time I heard from Warren Cowan I was in my journalism class at Hamilton High School and he called me there. He said he'd been trying to get McQueen to do an interview for years — he had cover stories lined up with Time, Newsweek, Life, you name it, if McQueen would just sit down with them, but he wouldn't do it. And here a high school kid gets the scoop. He asked me to bring the copy of the newspaper to his office when it came out. About a week later I went to his office with the article. As he read it he kept yelling to employees walking by, "Hey, come in here! This is the kid who interviewed Steve McQueen!" Cowan was very nice to me. His office sent me some clippings from the interview. I've always been curious to see where else the news about the scoop was printed.
MO: Steve said that he gave you the interview because he had a "certain respect for youth". I imagine that he also admired you for having the courage to approach him in the way you did. In retrospect, considering his 10 years of press silence, why do you think he gave you the interview?
RPK: Since the interview, and after reading about McQueen's respect for youth in Terrill's book (and other places), I definitely think that's why he agreed to the interview. He seemed to have a strong disliking for the crap that adults pull (especially in the film business), and I believe he found it refreshing to have the opportunity to deal with young people in different ways — especially when they have the guts to approach him like that. When I finished the interview he asked me if he could add something, and of course I said yes. He put his arm around my shoulders and walked me down the hallway, away from everyone else, and talked to me about the importance of staying in school, that sort of thing. It was at that point that his feelings about youth came through the strongest.
Looking back on the experience, I'd like to comment on one issue that I've thought about a lot since then. While adults have many opportunities to succeed in life as adults, young people — especially those in junior and senior high schools — have great opportunities to stand out, in part because of their youth, even though they might not think so. In my case, if an adult reporter had gotten the McQueen interview, it wouldn't have been such a big story, even if it was an exclusive. But the fact that a high school student got the interview made it stand out. It was unusual, but in reality, it wasn't difficult. It just took some guts. Reminds me of how people often say their biggest regrets are the opportunities they passed up, rather than the things they did that didn't work out. I would have had serious regrets if I'd not approached McQueen to ask for the interview.
MO: Only one year later Steve had died from cancer. Did you get any sense during the interview that he was not physically well?
RPK: I didn't notice anything.
MO: Did you get offers to enter the journalism field on a professional level (as a result of the interview)?
RPK: Wouldn't that have been nice! Getting the interview was newsworthy, but I don't pretend that it was an indepth investigative piece by any means. I did submit the piece to the UCLA Daily Bruin when I tried to get a job there, and in addition to getting the job, they asked to reprint the interview — which they did my first summer in college, center truk. My interests in college were all things related to the newspaper, including doing photography, writing music reviews, drawing cartoons, that sort of thing. I've always enjoyed variety, so I never focused on just journalism writing. When I first got to UCLA one reporter on the staff told me I'd have to pick one thing to focus on, but instead I did a bit of everything. That's served me well in my career. But I did get to photograph some pretty interesting people: Governor Jerry Brown, Reverend Jerry Falwell, Robert MacNamara, John Dean, to name a few.
MO: And you draw celebrities as well. Who are your subjects?
RPK: I don't just draw them. When I see a celebrity (famous or infamous), or author, or artist, or someone I consider to have historical significance, I pull out whatever I have on hand — a sketchbook, the back of a business card, a note pad — and make a sketch of them. If I see them in a store, I might only have a few seconds to sketch a likeness. That's what happened with Steven Tyler of Aerosmith. Sometimes they're at a book reading, in which case I have about an hour, which is what happened with author Norman Mailer. I sketched Sean Penn as he was walking away and about to get into his car. But the fun part comes next: I approach them with my drawing and ask them to write a comment about it and sign the drawing. I have hundreds of sketches of celebrities, and most of the time they'll write a note. Sometimes they're critical, writing that I made their nose too long or didn't give them enough hair. It really doesn't matter to me what they write, as long as they write something. Often the artists I draw will add their own drawing to mine. Some of my favorites include director Billy Wilder, author Salman Rushdie, Rodney Dangerfield, Gregory Peck, Monica Lewinsky, UCLA coach John Wooden, and a panel of cartoonists from the New Yorker. I look at the drawings like a journal entry: they're a moment in time for me that's personal. But I try to be considerate about asking for the autographs. Plenty of times I've passed on the opportunity because I didn't want to bother the person.
A big one that got away was Ringo Starr. I saw him in a market in Beverly Hills, and was so star struck I just went up and asked for his autograph. He said no. A couple of years later I saw him again in the same market. This time I made a quick sketch of him on the back of a business card, then went up to him and asked if he'd autograph the drawing. He looked at it and said, "That doesn't look like me." I asked him if he'd write that on the card, explaining I collect them. He said no again. If I see him again I'll give him one more chance, then he's out of luck.
A few years ago McQueen's ex-wife Ali MacGraw was sitting behind me at a diner on Montana in Brentwood. I didn't want to bother her with an autograph request but I did introduce myself and tell her about our connection. We talked for a long time and she was very nice and wanted to hear all about my meeting with Steve. Turned out I had other professional connections with some of her other ex-husbands as well. Then she gave me an autograph.
MO: How many Steve McQueen films have you seen since the interview, and which ones are your favourites?
RPK: I never counted. Maybe five. Of course I saw The Hunter, and I enjoyed that a lot. The Great Escape was also very good. I recently saw Bullitt for the first time, but I didn't like it as much as some of his other films. I know it's supposed to be a classic, but it just didn't hit me that way.
MO: Having since read Marshall Terrill's biography of Steve, what are your personal feelings about Steve McQueen today?
RPK: I don't think it's easy to come to a single conclusion about almost anyone based on a summary of their life. You can pick any celebrity who has had a book written about them, and depending on the author and who was chosen to speak about the celeb, you'll probably come away with vastly different opinions.
The parts I choose to focus on regarding McQueen were his independence and his desire to help young people. How many people do you know who would turn down cover story interviews with the biggest media in the world? Or who among us would do a good deed and then demand that your publicist not publicize it? It's not easy to buck the system , especially when it will hurt your wallet.
I'm also distrustful of much of what I see and read. In my own case, I've read articles about my interview that got it all wrong, starting with as simple a thing as the name of the high school I attended. If the media can't even get that right, imagine if they were telling my life story. A grain of salt is in order. There's an old saying that the closer you are to a story, the more you find wrong with it.
I know certain things first hand. I know McQueen rarely gave interviews. I also know that when he saw me in that food trailer and heard my request, he didn't hesitate to agree to the interview. I know he kept his word when he easily could have forgotten all about me and focused instead on shooting his movie. I know he answered every question I asked, and even went above and beyond by adding more to the interview when we walked down the hall, away from everyone else. He treated me with great respect and thoughtfulness, and as a novice interviewer, I guess I expected nothing less. His simple act of agreeing to do that interview gave me a boost of confidence that stays with me to this day, and a story I never tire of telling to anyone who will listen. It didn't cost him anything, and it wasn't anything earthshaking, but it made a huge mark in my life, and that's something I wonder if he anticipated when he told me to come back later that day.
When I asked him for an interview, I didn't have to stand in line. There were no other reporters in that trailer, adult or otherwise, elbowing me out of the way to get to him. I didn't worry what I would do if he said no, and there were no legal papers to sign or restrictions placed on publication. It was just a very famous movie star at the end of his career agreeing to sit down for an interview with a gutsy student who had not even begun to figure out what his major might be, let alone a career. When I look back on it, I see a wonderful moment that was good for both of us.
MO: Thanks for reliving these great memories with me Rick.
|The Original 1979 Steve McQueen Interview|
Q. What was your first movie?|
A. (Before McQueen could respond, one of the crew yelled out, "The Blob." Steve was slightly embarrassed.) Let's not talk about that. I don't want to talk about that movie. Next question.
Q. Do you have any plans in the near future for any more movies?
A. That's a big question mark. When I finish this film I'd like to sit down and enjoy breakfast for once and then see from there. I'd like to make my next picture an action-adventure film. I enjoy variety. I liked Love with the Proper Stranger, which was a comedy. I had fun making The Sand Pebbles, which was mainly drama, and also Bullitt, an action film. So you see, I like different types of roles. The first film I was in was The Blob…no, I wasn't the blob. I played the part of a young boy. That was when I was about twenty-five. I was a late bloomer in the acting world.
Q. What about your background?|
A. A lot of stuff I got into trouble for when I was a kid, people wouldn't even blink today. I got into trouble with robbery and booze, but not really drugs, because they weren't considered bad at the time.
Q. Does being famous disrupt your private life?
A. Yes, it does. The important thing is to have your identity, but never blow your obscurity. That's the key to the kingdom--but the money makes me feel better.
Q. You have not been in the public eye for the past few years, but even when you did make movies, you didn't give any interviews. What was the reason for your silence?
A. For one thing, I don't have anything to say. Also, I think the press is full of shit. But I do have a certain respect for youth, and that's why I agreed to do this interview for your paper.
Q. When was the last time you were interviewed?
A. How long is a decade? (Someone blurts out "ten years.") Then it's been ten years. I don't even remember who interviewed me.
Q. What advice do you have for young people today who want to get into acting?
A. It's very expensive to act, in both time and money. I don't advise going into acting at all. I'm one of the lucky ones. But if you decide to go into acting, be prepared to give all else up and live a straight life. That includes eating and sleeping right. You should see some of life so that you can peel life, and put it to use in your acting. Learning stuff on the streets helped my acting a lot. I'm not a "studied actor." You've got to be prepared to be rejected five time a day. That's where the importance of family comes in. The family gives you your rock strength.
Q. Who were some of your idols when you were a teenager?
A. Well, I don't think you'd remember any of my idols.
Q. But teachers read our paper, also.
A. But this isn't for the teachers. It's for the students.
|Reprinted with the permission of Rick Penn-Kraus.|
Rick is currently design director at the international public relations agency Hill & Knowlton in Los Angeles. He has had numerous gallery showings of his art and photography, creates cartoons and editorial illustrations, teaches design, and collects autographs that are signed on his drawings of celebrities.