EXCLUSIVE: Jacqueline Bisset was a young starlet when she was chosen to work opposite the "King of Cool" – and drive him.
The film was "Bullitt," a 1968 crime thriller about a lone wolf San Francisco cop, played by Steve McQueen, who’s determined to find the underworld kingpin that killed the witness in his protection. The blockbuster hit became one of Hollywood’s most celebrated films and it’s now being featured in the 2021 Turner Classic Movies (TCM) Film Festival. The actress, 76, will be introducing the film to audiences.
Bisset spoke to Fox News about what it was like meeting the late McQueen for the first time, what he thought of her driving skills, and why she believes "Bullitt" continues to have a lasting legacy.
Fox News: How does it feel to be part of the TCM Film Festival this year?
Jacqueline Bisset: It feels good. I did it one other time for a French film called "Day for Night" and that was onstage in real life. But we’re managing quite well [virtually] and it’s been fun.
Fox News: This year you’ll be introducing "Bullitt." What was the audition process like for the role of Cathy?
Bisset: I don’t remember the audition. I remember reading with Steve McQueen. I remember my first impression of Steve McQueen was that he’s terribly handsome. We read together and it was quite straightforward. I’m sure there were many others testing for the role. I remember hair and makeup. It was very uneventful. I really didn’t know enough about the whole Hollywood thing, such as setups and such, to really focus on it particularly.
I just went through with it and I found out that I got the part. I learned that Steve was quiet, charming and thoughtful. I wouldn’t say shy exactly, but not introverted either. I just felt he was a normal guy. He treated me like a normal woman and it was pleasant. I was really just worried about the work because one wants to be good and one wants to get it right.
I also got to know the director and his wife a little bit once I got the part and they were very pleasant. I remained friends with them. I’m still friends with Peter Yates’ wife Virginia. I saw her the other night actually. It was a good cast. Everyone was respectful even though I was just a youngster and not really experienced. I took it pretty seriously, so I was a professional. And it all went quite smoothly.
Fox News: You must have many, but what’s your favorite memory from the set?
Bisset: My favorite time on set was the eating *laughs*. We were in San Francisco and they’d break for lunch when we were doing the preparations. We didn’t have caterers. We actually went to restaurants, so that was always an adventure. But it was so fun to get to know everyone. I wasn’t alone.
We would go to various places together and eat. Steve would always be in the back because he didn’t like to be seen. So it would be the six or eight of us, or four of us, and a private dining room. Because it didn’t seem like he wanted to be out there with a crowd. He was a really big star at the time and people would just go nuts when they saw him. He seemed to endure that OK, but not great, I would say.
Fox News: You got to witness those legendary driving scenes. What was that experience like for you?
Bisset: It was a combination of things. I knew I was going to have to drive Steve myself. I was nervous about that because I knew he loved driving and I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I thought, "For God’s sake, you’ve got to keep calm." We were actually out there on the freeway and people were spotting us as we drove. He had his eyes closed most of the time. I don’t think he was relaxed at all when I was driving him. But I remember watching the other people drive. I was astounded that a car could do what those cars did on the streets and those hills.
I had never seen that before and a lot of what was in the film hadn’t really been done before to that extent. I thought it looked terribly dangerous, but it was exciting. I had great difficulty on the hills because I never knew how to come to a full stop. And then when the car started off again, I had to try and not go backward. My car would always go back before it would come forward again. I was scrambling a bit. I just thought I couldn’t live here *laughs*.
Fox News: What did Steve McQueen say about your driving skills?
Bisset: He said to me, "You are a very good driver for a girl." And I went, "Oops." *laughs*. But I was thrilled he thought I was a very good driver. I mean think about it, me, driving Steve McQueen? This huge star? But I did it.
Fox News: What surprised you the most about Steve McQueen in getting to know him?
Bisset: I didn’t get to know Steve very well. He’d come rushing up to me and throw some drive talk to me which I didn’t understand because I didn’t know the lingo. I had no idea what he was talking about. I would just nod and he’d be gone again. He’d rush off. He was hyper. And he obviously was proud of this project and he liked the people he was working with. But he was great. He was charming, attentive and helpful. And he had a lot of patience.
Fox News: When did you realize that "Bullitt" had become such an iconic film?
Bisset: At the time, I didn’t think much of it. I was on with the next film. But when Steve became unwell and he died, I remember thinking, "God, what a terrible waste. He was so talented." And then when I was asked to be part of the 50th anniversary, I thought, "My God, how did this happen so quickly?" I couldn’t believe so much time had passed. But it stayed on people’s minds.
Fox News: What do you believe has been the secret behind the film’s lasting success?
Bisset: Steve McQueen. It’s a good film. There’s amazing stuff in it. But it was Steve. People loved him. He attracted men’s admiration. He’s the "King of Cool" for a reason. And look, I’m not a car person. I don’t really know one thing about a car. I just don’t have that kind of fascination. But I am fascinated by men’s fascination with cars. And he brought that out of people.
Fox News: What’s inspiring you today? What makes you say yes to a certain role or script?
Bisset: Well, if I feel something, if I feel it’s about something… if it amuses me. I like things that are amusing. I like drama, I like playing with subtext. I’m attracted to that and the characters. I’m learning a part now at the moment that I’m hoping to do in the next few weeks. It’s got wonderful subtext and it’s been a pleasure to learn it. I’m just so enjoying it.
I love words, I love emotion. I don’t mind action movies to watch, but I don’t particularly want to be in them. But, I also wouldn’t mind playing a really tough character in an action film. I think that could be fun. I think most actors are just drawn to a story. There has to be enough of a story. If nothing’s going on, if it’s empty, you just don’t want to do it. You don’t want to be repeating yourself and making yourself and your audience bored. There’s got to be a wall to climb.
Fox News: What do you hope viewers will get from "Bullitt" as they watch the film?
Bisset: I hope they’ll rediscover Steve McQueen and enjoy him. His talent made the film.