Selling Steve McQueen – Pressbook for “Nevada Smith” (1966)

Truth never stopped producer Joe Levine. Not finding in the film the requisite image to encapsulate the struggle of Nevada Smith he just invented one. The iconic poster of Steve McQueen with rifle over his shoulders did not appear in the movie. Yes, in the early part of the picture Nevada Smith trekked through the wasteland. But that was minus any weapon, unless you count the broken pistol he had found under a wrecked wagon. Naturally enough, if he did have a rifle at that point, presumably Levine surmised, that’s exactly how he would have carried it.

Levine was an unusual character even by Hollywood standards. He was pretty much the first to invent the metaverse, the extended world within which a main character revolved, having sourced Nevada Smith from the Harold Robbins bestseller The Carpetbaggers which he had turned into a blockbusting film in 1964, and by dint of picking up the story of Nevada Smith at an earlier age than in the movie created a “prologue,” better known these days as a prequel or an origin story. Better still, it was two pictures for the price of one book.

Of course, it wasn’t Levine’s idea to make a prequel, or at least that’s how the publicists spun it. “It doesn’t happen very often,” begins the Pressbook, “but it happens, a character in a motion picture intrigues the fancy of fans to such an extent that they write the producer and beg more of him. Instead of wanting to know more about this fascinating character, the public wrote in asking how this intriguing character got that way.” 

Levine took quite a different approach to marketing a movie than other producers. He tended to concentrate on one central image, creating a single core advertisement rather than, as other studios did, churning out a host of different adverts to meet the various perceived needs of exhibitors. And he also liked to fix subsidiary characters in the audience’s mind by providing nuggets of information about their personalities in the poster.

Assuming McQueen was such a big star, exhibitors didn’t need any more juicy nuggets, so the first two editorial pages of the Pressbook concentrate on everything but McQueen. And given that the star’s production company, Solar, was involved in the making, it seems McQueen was exactly of the same opinion. The biggest plug went to Henry Hathaway (The Sons of Katie Elder, 1965), “one of Hollywood’s most celebrated directors,” credited with inventing the action picture three decades before with Lives of the Bengal Lancers. But “action was never permitted to get in the way of the story which, Hathaway always insisted, was of prime interest.”

Five-time Oscar nominee Arthur Kennedy, rather than the second-billed Oscar-winner Karl Malden, came next in the promotion stakes. Kennedy epitomized the importance of a stage training for actors, borne out by the fact that, except for McQueen, all the main players received their training in the theatre. Brian Keith, however, addressed the downside of being in a long-running play. “It means you’re tied down,” he complained, “nothing to do every afternoon, can’t go anywhere or do anything, you have to keep yourself fresh for the evening.”

The Pressbook was surprisingly short on the kind of journalistic snippets that an exhibitor might feed to a local newspaper. That Suzanne Pleshette had a pathological terror of snakes, that Pat Hingle had nearly died after falling down an elevator shaft, and that Hathaway had given Karl Malden his big break were the closest the Pressbook came to anything that might interest a newspaperman.

The iconic image of McQueen shouldering the rifle was mostly used on its own in teaser adverts. For the main advert, that was placed centrally above a montage of scenes from the picture and at the foot came the one-liners about the other characters. Tom Fitch (Karl Malden) was described as “he treated Nevada like a kid – then spent a lifetime regretting it” (not true as it happens). Jonas Cord (Brian Keith) – “he taught Nevada how to kill – then got out of the way.” Bowdre (Arthur Kennedy) – “the bravest man in the world with a gun – and a coward when he faces one” (not true either). Pilar (Suzanne Pleshette) – “she found Nevada in jail and he loved his way out.”

While the main advert, outside of the teasers, was the only advert, there were more taglines. And quite wordy at that. “Some call him savage – and some called him saint…some felt his hate – and one found his love…some had to run – and three had to die…and there never was another like Nevada Smith.” (Incidentally, he had two lovers, not one.) A second tagline ran: “From the California gold fields to the Louisiana bayous, he drank and killed and loved and never forgot, how to hate!”  There was a third, briefer, tagline – “Now a name…soon a legend” and that sometimes prefixed the other taglines.

In terms of tie-ins, there was little. Possibly The Carpetbaggers had already done the work for Levine. The novel had been the biggest-selling fiction since the turn of the decade, around six million copies printed, so it was the ultimate “pre-sell” with a movie tie-in edition, front and back covers bearing testament to Nevada Smith. Pocket Books was one of the biggest publishers in the country and there were over 20,000 outlets for paperbacks including book stores, drug stores, and newsstands. Window banners, rack cards, counter displays and dump displays meant pedestrians would be passing an artillery of promotion every day.

Author: Brian Hannan

I am a published author of books about film - over a dozen to my name, the latest being "When Women Ruled Hollywood." As the title of the blog suggests, this is a site devoted to movies of the 1960s but since I go to the movies twice a week - an old-fashioned double-bill of my own choosing - I might occasionally slip in a review of a contemporary picture.

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