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As an actor, Mel Novak has appeared on screen with many of Hollywood's|
most famous tough guys, including Chuck Norris, Bruce Lee, Yul Brynner, Daniel Bernhardt and of course, the toughest of them all... Steve McQueen.
Mel is also an ordained minister.
In an exclusive interview Mel talks with McQueenOnline about the
times he spent with Steve and his experiences making Tom Horn.
MO: Thank you very much for talking to me. A lot of people will be really interested to hear your memories.
Can you tell me how you came to know Steve?|
Mel: Well, I had a friend, Pat Johnson, who was Steve's very close friend and karate instructor, and in fact Pat was the one who started teaching me karate. In Black Belt Jones and through other pictures when I had to do something, I'd work with him. And Pat's son had a birthday party there. And that's where I met Steve. And you know at the time he was really a big star, but you would've never known it, he was just a real gracious friendly person. I had my daughters with me. Steve and I talked about a lot of things that night, about life, but not much about the industry.
MO: Steve had an active interest in martial arts...
Mel: He sure did, and that was a passion for him, and also it was an outlet. And many times, when we're struggling with things of the past, we need an outlet like that.
MO: A lot of people don't realise that Steve had the equivalent skills of a 3rd Dan Black Belt.
Mel: He was very good. Pat Johnson was the one who really worked with him. I'm suprised that he never showed that off in films. That was something that I've always wondered about.
MO: You once attended a martial arts award ceremony with Pat, Steve and Ali McGraw...|
Mel: It was over in the San Fernando Valley, and Pat Johnson was involved in it, and that's how I went. I sat there with Steve and Ali McGraw, who was his wife at that time. You know, again, it was always refreshing to see this huge star, just... like one of the guys, it was very impressive. I just didn't see that arrogance and ego like some of the stars have here in the States. And I shared my walk with Jesus Christ with him that night.
MO: You're an ordained minister...
Mel: Yes, since 1993. I have a skid row and prison ministry. I've been in 12 different states in the United States with very maximum security penitentiaries, and I'm well recieved there because I usually played one of them. I've died 19 times 13 different ways in movies playing the villain, which is very favourable (laughs) when I go into the penitentiaries. What I do is I preach Christ crucified. I back up everthing with verse and scripture. They call me "machine gun". I don't candy coat it. I don't walk on egg shells.
And in Los Angeles we have a huge skid row where there's homeless, you've got drugs, I think about 66 percent have aids, hepatitis, TB, and 6 out of 7 prostitutes have aids. It's just a heart rending place to minister. And I have been doing that for a long time. I average 22 - 23 services a month.
MO: Steve McQueen, as you would know, had spent a lot of time on the streets in his youth.
Mel: Yeah, in fact, I was recently up at Pelican Bay penitentiary, which is the second worst penitentiary in the country, and there was an inmate there... I guess he's been in and out of prison... who knows how long... but he told me that when he was at this 'youth authority camp', Steve used to come and talk to these kids. He'd talk to them about the problems that he had growing up.
He (Steve) told me that he had a rough childhood, but he didn't really get into it deep with me. You know, when I was talking to him, I remember, I could tell, because I counsel and stuff, there were a lot of wounds underneath... he shared them later with me, when I used to talk with him on the phone, when he was very ill. His childhood sometimes haunted him.
MO: Steve, like Chuck Norris, Bruce Lee and Yul Brynner would be popular in the pen for having played tough guys roles?
Mel: Oh yeah, yeah for sure. More than all of them. I had a picture there with Yul Brynner and me fighting in a movie... but they'll always mention Steve McQueen and Bruce Lee.
MO: Has knowing Steve influenced you in the way you minister?
Mel: To the point to where I like to bring that person to present time and... there's a scripture in Isaiah 43: 18 and 19 says "Remember not the former things, nor consider the things of old. God said, behold I will do new things." And that's the thing. If you live in the past, you have no future.
I know that if he'd been alive today, he'd go down to skidrow with me. He'd go to the service, or he'd go into one of the prisons with me. Cos he had a heart to reach out to those people, 'cos he knew...
MO: He knew where they'd been?
Mel: Yeah, I've never been in prison. I've never been drunk or drugged out, I never did that, so I don't understand that part of it, and... he did.
MO: On a lighter note... You had an interesting experience with Steve at the shooting range once...
Mel: There was an attorney friend of mine, Frank Gassman, who would take me trap shooting with Steven Spielberg, John Milius, Ken Hyman and a couple of others. One night we were there, we would go there on Thursday nights, and I saw this guy come down, who had a huge full beard, hair really long (laughs), and then I realised, after I saw the steel blue eyes, it was Steve..
The thing was, he never shot trap. So he borrowed my shotgun, and it was unbelievable... you would have thought he was one of these trap shooting champs. He was really accurate.
MO: What was he doing there that night?
Mel: Well, Coppola talked to John Milius to be intermediatory with Steve. Copolla offered Steve that role that Robert Duvall eventually played in Apocalypse Now. The offer was 1 million dollars for 2 weeks work in the Philippines... and Steve said "Oh thanks John, thanks, but I don't want to go out of town, I don't want to go out of the country at this time." And he wasn't working in any films at all at that time. He was just chillin'.
MO: That's how you indirectly came to buy a gun from Steve, which you recently sold...
Mel: I talked to him that night about...I was supposed to do this movie called Baby and Me, and it was about this detective who always talked to his gun, and that's how, as I was telling you about.... I've got to get a real good gun that would really be noticable, so he said "well I've got one here", so I went up to Trancas with this director Tom Jensen, we met at a coffee shop, and that's where I got it, and I've had it ever since.
The strange thing was, we were in pre-production, and I'm really working on my character and everything, and BOOM, one of the investors had a... I don't know if it was a fistfight or what... with the producer or director, and the picture never got made. So I just hung onto that gun all this time, and because of my ministry there's no income, there's places I have to go.. travel, needing bibles and everything else, so I'm selling my gun collection. See LINK
MO: Can you tell me how you came to get the part in Tom Horn?
Mel: Well I thought I was going to be able to play the sherriff, and Steve said he would have liked to have
me to play that, but the director, who worked with Billy Green Bush on Electra Glide in Blue, wanted Billy Green,
so Steve said well, you know, the director wants him... So I understood, I understand that's how things go... |
So I was home, and I get a call from Fred Weintraub the producer at 3 O'Clock in the afternoon, and he said, "Steve just fired a couple of actors, and as he was walking to his trailer he said 'give Mel a call'", so Fred called me and I said, "well, when do I have to be there?" He said, "you have a plane that leaves at 6."
And I said, "well when do I get the script, am I gonna have the script waiting for me? Cos I don't want to screw up, I want to do good for him, he's fired somebody...." He said, "don't worry it will be right there"... well it wasn't there, I didn't get it till next morning. On our way, it took an hour to drive to the old Touson ranch, and I'm in wardrobe, and Bobby Bass, the stuntman, said, "who's Mel Novak?" I said "me", he said, "Steve and the director want you to do the other role, the one with all the dialogue. Hurry up, were ready to start shooting." Well you know that's... (LAUGHS)
MO: So they switched characters on you at the last minute?
Mel: Yeah 'n I had the other one locked down, but now I'd never even looked at what they wanted me to do, and they said, "hurry up, where ready to start shooting." So I said, "Lord I need help here". So we go do the rehearsal in the street there, but we had our scripts and John Alonso said to me ... he was really a great camera man... and he said, "hey that's great, that's exactly what Steve wants"... I said, "John, they just gave me this, they just switched characters", and he said, "well you'd better hope we get a lunch break!" And we go in there, we're ready to start shooting, and finally someone said, "you know what, we'd better take the lunch break", so that's when I went in my trailer, I didn't even eat, and I worked on it... and when I did it, you know, Steve was very happy with what I did.
MO: Steve fired the director, William Guercia, shortly into filming, and effectively directed the film himself.
Mel: Yeah, right. You know, this was Steve's vision, and this director, he gets hired, and during those 2 weeks he was changing everything that they agreed on. You don't do that with someone like Steve McQueen. Well he fired his butt. Steve had every right to fire that director, because when you agree on something that should be it.
He brought this other guy who was basically a television director, and so Steve was the one who was behind it. He knew what he wanted and he'd tell the director this's what I want. And that's OK, because it's his picture.
MO: There were also on-set tensions with Billy Green Bush?
Mel: The first day of shooting, Billy Green Bush apparently tried to upstage him, and he took him aside and said "don't fuck with me, I'll fire your ass". You just didn't do that with Steve.
MO: Did you see Steve's riding skills demonstrated during filming of Tom Horn?
Mel: Yeah, he was an excellent horseman. Excellent.
MO: Did you meet Barbara Minty on the set of Tom Horn?
Mel: I met his wife there, she was very nice, a very nice person, and gracious, and really was there for him. See I had a wife that bailed out on me 18 years ago, so I like the fact that she was just there at every turn for him.
MO: What did you learn from Steve about acting?
Mel: He said, "Hey Mel, don't worry if someone's got more lines than you, just get the ones that are really good ones. He told me that I do underplay, and my eyes... he told me, "you say a lot through your eyes, that's good!" He was meticulous about even the wardrobe for his character, I learned that from him.
The thing that gets me, he was a brilliant actor, and a lot of people say, "well you know, he was a 'personality'", no, he was a brilliant actor, he was very very talented. In every facet of film he could just stand there and LOOK, and there goes twelve sentences just through his eyes. It's just tragic that he did die so young.
MO: You have the rare honor of beating Steve McQueen up on screen...
Mel: There was also stuff that was shot that wasn't in there... remember when he threw that plate of eggs in
the stuntman's face, then it cuts back to him being all beat up in that barn?|
Well there were scenes where we were beating him up, and he'd say "Mel can do this. Mel can..." Well, people were wondering 'who in the hell's Mel?'
That was kind of funny, but, yeah, it was fun.
MO: What quality do you think it was as an actor that made Steve want to hire you?
Mel: Well he liked people who weren't actor actors, he didn't like people who were prima donnas and all that other stuff. He knew I was just an ordinary guy who loved his kids. I'm sure that's the main reason. And like I say we had that time together.
And I worked with Fred before... The Ultimate Warrior and Black Belt Jones... Fred Weintraub was producer, so he knew my work. They also knew I never did drugs... I never drank in my life.
MO: Steve also wanted you for his next film The Hunter...
Mel: He wanted me to play that crazy guy with the flame thrower. I was assigned to do this picture called Satellite in England and Germany, and they were gonna have 3 big stars in a big budgeted picture, so I called Steve and he said "hey, you gotta take that, that'll be great for your career. We'll work together down the road, don't worry about it". And then 3 days before we left for Germany, the German government wouldn't accept the tax shelter, and the thing fell apart.
When I called Chicago, everything else was cast, so that was that.
MO: It was around this time that Steve was diagnosed with cancer... Did you stay in touch during this time?
Mel: When I new he was really really sick, is when I would call him, I'd call him every 2 - 3 days and encourage him. I'm very big on scripture, there's a lot of healing scriptures in the bible, and you know... Luke 1: 37, I'd tell him "nothing's impossible for God", Jeremia 32 - 17 and 27, "nothing's too hard for God", so these were the times that someone needs to be encouraged and given scripture, not just, you know, empty words.
And he also knew of my testimony.. I've almost died 4 times, I've had 21 surgeries, I've been crippled, lived with brutal pain a third of my life, I could go on and on there... but ah, one of the days when I was giving him a bunch of scriptures (laughs) he said, "hey Mel, you sound just like my pastor", and I said, "well Steve, we read the same book", and he really really laughed.
But you know I can still remember when he coughed, I got chills, it was haunting, I've never heard a cough like that.
MO:Do you remember the last time you spoke to Steve?
Mel: The last time I talked to him, he was coughing so hard, that ah.... he just says, you know - "wait".... that was the hard part, just to see how bad that was, and then I sent a card that same day, I put it out and I kept writing in there, and that was the last time I talked to him. And he eventually went to Mexico, and those places...
MO: Do you believe that Steve died with peace in his heart?
Mel: I know that I know what I know that I know, Steve McQueen is in glory with the Lord. Jesus was in Steve's heart and that's the bottom line. I didn't have a lot of time in life with him, but I was blessed to know him and to minister to him, which was the most important thing. He's someone that you never forget.
MO: What was it about Steve that left the strongest impression on you?
Mel: He really had an affinity as a human being, and you felt good about being around him.. There's a lot of people I dont trust in this business, there's a lot of people that talk out of both sides of their mouth. He didn't man, he'd put it right out, BOOM, there was no tapdancing with him.
MO: Thank you Mel.
Mel: Take care, it was really nice to meet you, and God bless you.
|You can also visit Mel's website to see information on his mission work, and view pics and video clips from his many film roles: www.melnovak.com|