Sixties Photos Flash Back
Abbott Vaughn Meader (March 20, 1936 – October 29, 2004) was an American comedian and impersonator whose achievement of fame with The First Family album spoofing President John F. Kennedy was equalled only by his obscurity after Kennedy's assassination in 1963.
Meader was born in Waterville, Maine, during one of the worst floods ever to hit New England (he often said he was born on "the night the West Bridge washed out"). He enlisted in the United States Army directly out of Brookline High School near Boston, was posted in Germany, and married a German woman. While in the Army, he joined a GI band.
Meader began his career in entertainment as a singer and piano player. Upon his return from Germany, he began a stand-up comedy act in New York City, where he discovered his skill at impersonating Kennedy. With his New England accent naturally close to the Kennedy's familiar (and often parodied) Harvard accent, he needed to adjust his voice only slightly to sound almost exactly like the President. Meader also mastered the facial expressions that allowed him to bear a passable resemblance to Kennedy.
On October 22, 1962, Meader joined writers Bob Booker and Earle Doud and a small cast of entertainers and recorded The First Family, which would become the fastest-selling record in history of the United States. By that Christmas, one million copies of the album had been sold; by the following year, it had sold an astonishing 7.5 million copies—unprecedented for any album, let alone a comedy album. Still in his 20s, Meader was suddenly famous, rich, and in constant demand. He was profiled in Time and Life magazines, appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show, and played to packed houses in Las Vegas.
At the time, many Americans could recite favorite lines from the record (including "the rubber schwan [swan] is mine," and "move ahead ... with great vigah [vigor]," the latter lampooning the President's own words). The album poked fun at Kennedy's PT-109 history; the rocking chairs he used for his back pain; the Kennedy clan's well-known athleticism, football games and family togetherness; children in the White House; and Jackie Kennedy's soft-spoken nature and her redecoration of the White House; among many other bits of knowledge that the public voraciously consumed.
The parody was fairly good-natured. Kennedy himself was said to have given copies of the albums as Christmas gifts, and once greeted a Democratic National Committee group by saying, "Vaughn Meader was busy tonight, so I came myself." At one press conference, Kennedy was asked if the album had produced "annoyment [sic] or enjoyment." He jokingly responded, "I listened to Mr. Meader's record and, frankly, I thought it sounded more like Teddy than it did me. So, now he's annoyed."
Other sources, such as Thomas C. Reeves' A Question of Character: A Life of John F. Kennedy, state that Kennedy was upset with the parodies, and that Jacqueline Kennedy was furious, even demanding that the President keep Meader off radio and television.
Meader later revealed, "A lot of people don't know this, but we recorded The First Family on the night of October 22, 1962, the same night as John F. Kennedy's Cuban Missile Crisis Speech. The audience was in the studio and had no idea of the drama that was taking place. But the cast had heard the speech and our throats almost dropped to our toes, because if the audience had heard the Cuban Missile Speech, we would not have received the reaction we did."
The First Family album won the Grammy Award for Album of the Year in 1963. That March, Meader recorded a follow-up album, The First Family Volume Two, a combination of spoken comedy and songs performed by actors and comedians portraying members of the President's family and White House staff. The sequel was slated for release before Christmas, 1963.
After John F. Kennedy was killed in Dallas, Texas on November 22, 1963, sales of The First Family albums plummeted, and stores removed the records from their shelves as the nation went into mourning. A JFK-related Christmas single by Meader was released by Verve Records shortly before the assassination; it was quickly withdrawn. Meader and others commented through the years that the assassin's bullet killed not only Kennedy, but also Meader (or, Meader's career). His act was no longer in demand and even appearances that were already booked—including those for the Grammy Awards show, the Joey Bishop show, and To Tell the Truth—were canceled.
According to several sources, avant-garde comedian Lenny Bruce appeared at a New York nightclub the day of Kennedy's assassination. As if testing his audience's readiness to find something funny so soon after tragedy, Bruce was silent for several moments before announcing, "Vaughn Meader is screwed!"
Certainly, Meader discovered that he was so completely typecast as a Kennedy impersonator that he could not find anyone willing to hire him for any of his other talents. He recorded comedy albums for Verve Records, including sketches on almost anything except the Kennedys, but sales were virtually nonexistent.
Meader sank into depression as employment was virtually non-existent, and income evaporated, and newfound friends and associates stopped calling. His non-Kennedy albums and act interested almost no one, because the public associated his face and voice with the late President. He began using his given name, Abbott, and vowed to never again do a Kennedy impersonation (a vow he kept until his death). He also began using alcohol, cocaine, and heroin.
Meader tried several times to revive his career, but achieved only moderate success, and then mostly outside of show business. He appeared briefly in the 1974 movie Linda Lovelace for President and on the 1981 Rich Little comedy album, The First Family Rides Again, which both parodied Ronald Reagan and paid homage to the original The First Family album. Both the Kennedy and Reagan First Family albums were produced by Earle Doud.
Eventually, Meader resumed a career in bluegrass and country music, becoming a popular local performer in his native Maine. Meader was married four times, the last for 16 years to wife Sheila, until his death. The couple lived briefly in Gulfport, Florida, from 1999 to 2002, but eventually returned to Maine.
Steve McQueen was born Terrence Steven McQueen in Beech Grove, Indiana, a suburban community bordering Indianapolis, in Marion County. His father, William, a stunt pilot for a barnstorming flying circus, abandoned McQueen and his mother when McQueen was six months old. His mother, Julia, was a young, rebellious alcoholic Unable to cope with bringing up a small child, she left him with her parents (Victor and Lillian) in Slater, Missouri, in 1933. Shortly thereafter, as the Great Depression set in, McQueen and his grandparents moved in with Lillian's brother Claude on the latter's farm in Slater.
McQueen had good memories of the time spent on his Great Uncle Claude's farm. In recalling Claude, McQueen stated "He was a very good man, very strong, very fair. I learned a lot from him." On McQueen's fourth birthday, Claude gave him a red tricycle, which McQueen later claimed started his interest in racing. At age 8, he was taken back by his mother and lived with her and her new husband in Indianapolis. McQueen retained a special memory of leaving the farm: "The day I left the farm Uncle Claude gave me a personal going-away present; a gold pocket watch, with an inscription inside the case." The inscription read: "To Steve-- who has been a son to me."
McQueen, who was dyslexic and partially deaf as a result of a childhood ear infection, did not adjust well to his new life. Within a couple of years he was running with a street gang and committing acts of petty crime. Unable to control McQueen's behavior, his mother sent him back to Slater again. A couple of years later, when McQueen was 12, Julia wrote to Claude asking that McQueen be returned to her once again, to live in her new home in Los Angeles, California. Julia, whose second marriage had ended in divorce, had married a third time.
This would begin an unsettled period in McQueen's life. By McQueen's own account, he and his new stepfather, "locked horns immediately." McQueen recounted him as "a prime son of a bitch", who was not averse to using his fists on both McQueen and his mother. As McQueen began to rebel once again, he was sent back to live with Claude a final time. At age 14, McQueen left Claude's farm without saying goodbye and joined a circus for a short time, after which he slowly drifted back to his mother and stepfather in Los Angeles, and resumed his life as a gang member and petty criminal. On one occasion, McQueen was caught stealing hubcaps by police, who handed him over to his stepfather. The latter proceeded to beat McQueen severely, and ended the fight by throwing McQueen down a flight of stairs. McQueen looked up at his stepfather and said, "You lay your stinkin' hands on me again and I swear, I'll kill ya."
After this, McQueen's stepfather convinced Julia to sign a court order stating that McQueen was incorrigible and remanding him to the California Junior Boys Republic in Chino Hills, California. Here, McQueen slowly began to change and mature. He was not popular with the other boys at first: "Say the boys had a chance once a month to load into a bus and go into town to see a movie. And they lost out because one guy in the bungalow didn't get his work done right. Well, you can pretty well guess they're gonna have something to say about that. I paid his dues with the other fellows quite a few times. I got my lumps, no doubt about it. The other guys in the bungalow had ways of paying you back for interfering with their well-being." Ultimately, however, McQueen decided to give Boys Republic a fair shot. He became a role model for the other boys when he was elected to the Boys Council, a group who made the rules and regulations governing the boys' lives. (He would eventually leave Boys Republic at 16 and when he later became famous, he regularly returned to talk to the boys there. He also personally responded to every letter he received from the boys there, and retained a lifelong association.)
After McQueen left Chino, he returned to Julia, now living in Greenwich Village, but almost immediately left again. He then met two sailors from the Merchant Marine and volunteered to serve on a ship bound for the Dominican Republic. Once there, he abandoned his new post, eventually making his way to Texas, and drifted from job to job. He worked as a towel boy in a brothel, on an oil rigger, as a trinket salesman in a carnival and as a lumberjack.
In 1947, McQueen joined the United States Marine Corps and was quickly promoted to Private First Class and assigned to an armored unit. Initially, he reverted to his prior rebelliousness, and as a result was demoted to Private on seven different occasions. Additionally, he went UA (unauthorized absence) by failing to return after a weekend pass had expired. He instead stayed away with a girlfriend for two weeks, until the shore patrol caught him. He responded to his captors by resisting them and as a result spent 41 days in the brig.
After this, McQueen resolved to focus his energies on self-improvement and embraced the Marines' discipline. He saved the lives of five other Marines during an Arctic exercise, pulling them from a tank before it broke through ice into the sea. He was also assigned to an honor guard responsible for guarding then-U.S. President Harry Truman's yacht. McQueen served until 1950 when he was honorably discharged.
In 1952, with financial assistance provided by the G.I. Bill, McQueen began studying acting at Sanford Meisner's Neighborhood Playhouse. He also began to earn money by competing in weekend motorcycle races at Long Island City Raceway and soon purchased the first of many motorcycles, a used Harley Davidson. He soon became an excellent racer, and came home each weekend with about $100 in winnings, which is around $805 in 2009 dollars adjusted for inflation.
After several roles in productions including Peg o' My Heart, The Member of the Wedding, and Two Fingers of Pride, McQueen landed his first film role in Somebody Up There Likes Me, directed by Robert Wise and starring Paul Newman. He made his Broadway debut in 1955 in the play A Hatful of Rain, starring Ben Gazzara. When McQueen appeared in a two-part television presentation entitled The Defenders, Hollywood manager Hilly Elkins (who managed McQueen's first wife, Neile) took note of him and decided that B-movies would be a good place for the young actor to make his mark. McQueen was subsequently hired to appear in the films Never Love a Stranger, The Blob, and The Great St. Louis Bank Robbery.
McQueen's first breakout role would not come in film, but on TV. Elkins successfully lobbied Vincent M. Fennelly, producer of the Western series Trackdown, to have McQueen read for the part of a bounty hunter named Josh Randall in a new pilot for a Trackdown companion series. The Josh Randall character, played by Robert Culp, was introduced in an episode of Trackdown, after which McQueen filmed the pilot episode. The pilot was approved for a new series now titled Wanted: Dead or Alive, on CBS, in September 1958.
McQueen would ultimately make this role his own and become a household name as a result. Randall's holster held a sawed-off Winchester rifle nicknamed the "Mare's Leg" instead of the standard six-gun carried by the typical Western character. This added to the anti-hero image of an offbeat-looking hero infused with a mixture of mystery, alienation, and detachment that made this show stand out from the typical TV Western. Ninety-four episodes, filmed at Apacheland Studio from 1958 until early 1961, kept McQueen steadily employed in television.
At 29, McQueen got his most significant break when Frank Sinatra removed Sammy Davis, Jr. from the film Never So Few, and Davis' role went to McQueen. Sinatra saw something special in McQueen and ensured that the young actor got plenty of good shots and close-ups in a role that earned McQueen favorable reviews. McQueen's character, "Bill Ringa", like the characters he would come to play, brought a new kind of "cool" to the screen and was never more comfortable than when driving at high speed — in this case at the wheel of a jeep. John Sturges directed this film and then used McQueen in The Magnificent Seven a year later and as the lead in The Great Escape in 1963.
After Never So Few, director John Sturges cast McQueen in his next movie, promising to "give him the camera." The Magnificent Seven (1960), with Yul Brynner, Robert Vaughn, Charles Bronson and James Coburn, became McQueen's first major hit, and led to his withdrawal from his own successful television series, Wanted: Dead or Alive. McQueen's focused portrayal of the taciturn second lead catapulted his career.
McQueen's next big film, 1963's The Great Escape, told the true story of an historical mass escape from a World War II POW camp. Insurance concerns prevented McQueen from performing the film's widely noted motorcycle leap, which was instead done by his friend and fellow cycle enthusiast Bud Ekins who resembled McQueen from a distance. When Johnny Carson later tried to congratulate McQueen for the jump during a broadcast of The Tonight Show, McQueen said, "It wasn't me. That was Bud Ekins." It was this film that established McQueen's box-office clout.
In 1963, McQueen starred with Natalie Wood in Love With The Proper Stranger. In 1966 McQueen appeared in a prequel as the titular Nevada Smith, a character from Harold Robbins' The Carpetbaggers who had been portrayed by Alan Ladd two years earlier in a movie version of the novel. McQueen also earned his only Academy Award nomination in 1966 for his role as a ship's mechanic in the film The Sand Pebbles.
He followed his Oscar nomination with another successful film, 1968's Bullitt, which is perhaps his most famous film featured an unprecedented (and endlessly imitated) auto chase through San Francisco. McQueen did all his own stunt driving with the exception of the Chestnut Street flying jumps (with Bud Ekins again doubling McQueen) and the gas-station crash gag (Carey Loftin doubling McQueen).
McQueen starred in The Thomas Crown Affair with Faye Dunaway in 1968 as well as The Reivers in 1969. McQueen also appeared in the 1971 car race drama Le Mans. He starred in The Getaway with future wife Ali MacGraw and played the leading role in Junior Bonner in 1972, and in 1973's Papillon.
By the time of The Getaway, McQueen was the world's highest paid actor. After 1974's The Towering Inferno, co-starring with his long-time personal friend and professional rival Paul Newman and reuniting him with Faye Dunaway, McQueen did not return to film until 1978 with An Enemy of the People playing against type as a heavily-bearded, bespectacled doctor, in this adaptation of the Henrik Ibsen play. The film was little seen. His last films were Tom Horn and The Hunter, both released in 1980.
McQueen was offered the lead role in Breakfast at Tiffany's but was unable to accept due to his Wanted: Dead or Alive contract (the role went to George Peppard). He also turned down Ocean's Eleven, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (his attorneys and agents couldn't agree with Paul Newman's attorneys and agents on who got top billing), The Driver, Apocalypse Now, California Split, Dirty Harry, and The French Connection (McQueen didn't want to do another cop film).
He was also the first choice for director Steven Spielberg for his film Close Encounters of the Third Kind. According to Spielberg on a documentary on the Close Encounters DVD, Spielberg met McQueen at a bar, where McQueen drank beer after beer. Before leaving the bar, McQueen told Spielberg that he could not accept the role because he was unable to cry on cue. The role eventually went to Richard Dreyfuss.
McQueen expressed interest in starring in First Blood when David Morrell's novel appeared in 1972, but the producers eventually rejected him because of his age. He was offered the title role in The Bodyguard (opposite Diana Ross) when it was first proposed in 1976, but the film didn't reach production until years after McQueen's death. Quigley Down Under was in development as early as 1974, and both McQueen and Clint Eastwood were considered for the lead, but by the time production began in 1980, McQueen was too ill and the project was scrapped until a decade later, when Tom Selleck played the starring role. McQueen was offered the lead role in the film Raise the Titanic. However, he felt the script was flat and turned down the offer. McQueen was under contract to Irwin Allen after appearing in The Towering Inferno, and was offered a part in "The Towering Inferno 2" in 1980 which he turned down. After turning down the role, the film was scrapped and Paul Newman was brought in to make When Time Ran Out, which turned out to be a huge box office bomb and critical failure, ending the careers of many involved with the production (including Irwin Allen). Steve McQueen never made another Irwin Allen film, he died shortly after passing on "The Towering Inferno 2".
McQueen was an avid motorcycle and racecar enthusiast. When he had the opportunity to drive in a movie, he often did so himself, performing many of his own stunts. Perhaps the most memorable were the classic chase in Bullitt and the motorcycle chase scene in The Great Escape. Although the jump over the fence in The Great Escape was actually done by Bud Ekins for insurance purposes, McQueen did have a considerable amount of screen time riding his 650cc Triumph TR6 Trophy motorcycle. According to the commentary track on The Great Escape DVD, it was difficult to find riders as skilled as McQueen and at one point in the film, due to clever editing, McQueen is seen in a German uniform chasing himself on another bike.
Together with John Sturges, McQueen planned to make Day of the Champion, a movie about Formula One racing. He was busy with the delayed The Sand Pebbles, though. They had a contract with the German Nürburgring, and after John Frankenheimer shot scenes there for Grand Prix, the reels had to be turned over to Sturges. Frankenheimer was ahead in schedule anyway, and the McQueen/Sturges project was called off.
During his acting career, McQueen considered becoming a professional race car driver. In the 1970 12 Hours of Sebring race, Peter Revson and McQueen (driving with a cast on his left foot from a motorcycle accident two weeks before) won with a Porsche 908/02 in the 3 litre class and missed winning overall by a scant 23 seconds to Mario Andretti/Ignazio Giunti/Nino Vaccarella in a 5 litre Ferrari 512S. The same Porsche 908 was entered by his production company Solar Productions as a camera car for Le Mans in the 1970 24 Hours of Le Mans later that year. McQueen wanted to drive a Porsche 917 with Jackie Stewart in that race, but his film backers threatened to pull their support if he drove. Faced with the choice of driving for 24 hours in the race or driving the entire summer making the film, McQueen opted to do the latter. However, the film was a box office flop that almost ruined McQueen's career. In addition, McQueen himself admitted that he almost died while filming the movie. Nonetheless, today, Le Mans is considered to be the most historically realistic, accurate, and dramatic representation of one of the most famous periods in the history of the race, as well as being considered one of the greatest auto racing movies of all time.
McQueen also competed in off-road motorcycle racing. His first off-road motorcycle was a Triumph 500cc that he purchased from friend and stunt man Bud Ekins. McQueen raced in many of the top off-road races on the West Coast during the '60s and early 1970s, including the Baja 1000, the Mint 400 and the Elsinore Grand Prix. In 1964, with Bud Ekins on their Triumph TR6 Trophys, he represented the United States in the International Six Days Trial, a form of off-road motorcycling Olympics. He was inducted in the Off-road Motorsports Hall of Fame in 1978. In 1971, Solar Productions funded the now-classic motorcycle documentary On Any Sunday, in which McQueen himself is featured, along with racing legends Mert Lawwill and Malcolm Smith. Also in 1971, McQueen was on the cover of Sports Illustrated magazine riding a Husqvarna dirt bike.
McQueen was interested in collecting classic motorcycles. By the time of his death, his collection included over 100 motorcycles and was valued in the millions of dollars. In a segment filmed for The Ed Sullivan Show, McQueen drove Sullivan around a desert area in a dune buggy at high speed. At the end of the trip, all the breathless Sullivan could say was, "That was a helluva ride!"
He owned several exotic sports cars, including:
Porsche 917, Porsche 908 and Ferrari 512 race cars from the Le Mans film.
1963 Ferrari 250 Lusso Berlinetta
Jaguar D-Type XKSS (Right-Hand Drive)
Porsche 356 Speedster
To his dismay, McQueen was never able to own the legendary Ford Mustang GT 390 that he drove in Bullitt, which featured a highly-modified drivetrain that suited McQueen's driving style. There were two cars used for filming. According to the October 2006 issue of Motor Trend Classic, in its cover story on the film, one of the cars was so badly damaged during filming it was judged to be unrepairable, and scrapped. The second car still exists, but the owner has consistently refused to sell it at any price. The owner plans a "minimal restoration" to make the car roadworthy, yet still retain the original paint.
McQueen's height is disputed. He was officially listed as 5'10", but some people, including film critic Barry Norman, have said McQueen's height was in fact only 5'7". He had a daily two-hour exercise regimen, involving weightlifting and at one point running five miles, seven days a week. McQueen also learned the martial art Tang Soo Do from ninth degree black belt Pat E. Johnson. However, he was also known for his prolific drug use (William Claxton claimed he smoked marijuana almost every day; others said he used a tremendous amount of cocaine in the early 1970s). In addition, like many actors of his era, he was a heavy cigarette smoker.
McQueen served as one of the pallbearers at Bruce Lee's funeral in 1973. Chuck Norris and Bruce Lee taught McQueen's son Chad Taekwondo and Jeet Kune Do, (respectively). Later on, McQueen persuaded Norris to attend acting classes.
After Charles Manson incited the murder of five people, including McQueen's close friends Sharon Tate and Jay Sebring, at Tate's home on August 9, 1969, it was reported that McQueen was another potential target of the killers. According to his first wife, McQueen then began carrying a handgun at all times in public, including at Sebring's funeral.
McQueen had an unusual reputation for demanding free items in bulk from studios when agreeing to do a film, such as electric razors, jeans and several other products. It was later found out that McQueen requested these things because he was donating them to the Boy's Republic reformatory school for displaced youth, where he had spent time during his teen years. McQueen made occasional visits to the school to spend time with the students, often to play pool and to speak with them about his experiences.
After discovering a mutual interest in racing, McQueen and his Great Escape co-star James Garner became good friends. Garner lived directly down the hill from McQueen and, as McQueen recalled, "I could see that Jim was very neat around his place. Flowers trimmed, no papers in the yard ... grass always cut. So, just to piss him off, I'd start lobbing empty beer cans down the hill into his driveway. He'd have his drive all spic 'n' span when he left the house, then get home to find all these empty cans. Took him a long time to figure out it was me".
McQueen was conservative in his political views and often backed the Republican Party. He did, however, campaign for Democrat Lyndon Johnson in 1964 before voting for Republican Richard Nixon in 1968. He supported the Vietnam War, was one of the few Hollywood stars who refused numerous requests to back Presidential hopeful Robert Kennedy, in 1968, and turned down the chance to participate in the 1963 March on Washington. When McQueen heard a rumor that he had been added to Nixon's Enemies List, he responded by immediately flying a giant American flag outside his house. Reportedly, his wife Ali McGraw responded to the whole affair by saying, "But you're the most patriotic person I know."
McQueen commanded such celebrity status in the United Kingdom that when visiting Chelsea Football Club to watch a match, he was personally introduced to the players in the dressing room during the half-time break.
Barbara Minty McQueen in her book, Steve McQueen: The Last Mile, writes of McQueen becoming an Evangelical Christian toward the end of his life. This was due in part to the influences of his flying instructor, Sammy Mason and his son Pete, and Barbara. McQueen attended his local church, Ventura Missionary Church, and was visited by evangelist Billy Graham shortly before his death.
Jean Paul Belmundo