How Faye Dunaway Thought Norman Jewison Saved the ‘Thomas Crown Affair’ Shoot

The more you get into it, the uglier Steve McQueen’s behavior on the set of The Thomas Crown Affair (1968) looks. After directing him in The Cincinnati Kid (1965), Norman Jewison had initially tried to talk McQueen out of Thomas Crown. But McQueen got Jewison to take him on for the second of the two classic films they made together.

Though Faye Dunaway didn’t know what her co-star was doing behind the scenes, she saw McQueen challenge Jewison in the most extreme way during the shoot. However, as the cast and crew braced for Jewison’s reaction, the director didn’t take McQueen’s bait. Dunaway later said Jewison likely saved the film with that move.

Faye Dunaway saw Steve McQueen’s brazen challenge to Norman Jewison on ‘The Thomas Crown Affair’

Steve McQueen and Faye Dunaway embrace in a scene from 'The Thomas Crown Affair.'
‘The Thomas Crown Affair’ | FilmPublicityArchive/United Archives via Getty Images

Looking back on the Thomas Crown shoot in her memoir Looking for Gatsby, Dunaway recalled McQueen ruining a day’s shoot for Jewison for no reason in particular. On the day in question, Jewison and his cinematographer had prepped a shot on the beach for the evening’s golden hour, just before sunset.

When they were finally ready to roll film and get the stars involved, McQueen drove off in his beach buggy. He didn’t turn up on the set again until after dark. In short, shooting was out of the question, and McQueen had done it only to assert himself. Everyone on the set — McQueen included — waited to see Jewison’s reaction.

“It was a classic standoff, the kind that happens so often between leading actors and directors,” Dunaway wrote. “In these moments, a director can lose control of an entire movie if he’s not careful. At the same time, he can irrevocably damage his relationship with an actor.”

Dunaway called Jewison ‘wise’ for ignoring McQueen’s provocation

What Jewison did next impressed Dunaway. He didn’t berate McQueen for blowing the afternoon’s shoot and wasting all that money. Instead, he quietly walked off down the beach alone.

When Jewison returned, he invented some story about finding a magical feather that gave its holder the special power to direct films. Then he handed the feather to McQueen. The star broke out laughing and stuck it back in Jewison’s cap.

Thus the standoff ended — and the film continued. “It was exactly the way to handle Steve,” Dunaway wrote in her memoir. “He would have fought to the death if Norman had decided to assert his authority as director rather than trying to make peace.”

McQueen had been needling Jewison in all sorts of ways on ‘Thomas Crown’

Steve McQueen and Faye Dunaway relax on the set of 'The Thomas Crown Affair', circa 1968.
Steve McQueen and Faye Dunaway shooting ‘The Thomas Crown Affair’ | Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images

Dunaway couldn’t have known what McQueen had already put Jewison through at that point in the Thomas Crown shoot. On top of his extravagant contract demands, McQueen had taken to calling Jewison in the middle of the night during the shoot.

In Norman Jewison: A Director’s Life, Ira Wells wrote about McQueen’s paranoia on Thomas Crown. The star had been smoking weed, and McQueen began reporting suspicious activity outside his home to Jewison at all hours. Later, when McQueen sensed Jewison wasn’t confident about a scene, he’d call late to ask about it — just to make him squirm.

McQueen clearly had deep insecurities, and the way it came out made Jewison’s life close to miserable at point of the Thomas Crown shoot. But the great director never cracked. Jewison’s demeanor is clearly one of the reasons he enjoyed such a long and successful career.