Wikipedia tells us that the “property master” of a film, television or theatrical production is responsible for purchasing, acquiring, properly placing, and / or overseeing any props needed for a production. The property master is one of the first to arrive, using the pre-production period to determine which props will be needed and how they will be acquired, and also one of the last to leave, disposing of the props at the end of filming.
For Don Nunley, who was the property master of the movie Le Mans, it is fair to say that the end of filming only marked the beginning of what would end up being one of his most important responsibilities – keeping track of the Heuer Monaco chronographs worn by Steve McQueen and the other timepieces used during the production. Yes, it was Don Nunley who first put a Heuer Monaco on Steve McQueen’s wrist.
And it was Nunley who kept track of all the Monacos and other timepieces during the filming, even as actors and extras may have been tempted to snag a souvenir of the filming. But over the past 20 years, Nunley played an important role for the community of watch collectors – telling the story of the filming of Le Mans and helping to sort out which of the watches were actually “worn by Steve” and which were the impostors.
Don Nunley passed away on Thursday, February 11, 2021, at the age of 81.
Steve McQueen’s Monaco
To understand the role taken by Don Nunley after the filming of Le Mans, we start with the “elevator version” of his Le Mans / McQueen / Monaco story. After success in television and film in the 1960s, in 1970, Don Nunley was retained to serve as the property master for the film Le Mans. For almost a decade, Steve McQueen had wanted to make the ultimate racing movie and Le Mans would this passion project for McQueen. McQueen wanted to wear an appropriate watch in the movie, so Nunley offered him several choices, all laid out on a table at Le Mans. Based on Nunley’s suggestion, McQueen selected the Heuer Monaco, a large, square chronograph with a blue dial, and Nunley had charge over six of these chronographs that were worn by McQueen at Le Mans. [Below, Jack Heuer and Don Nunley, during the filming of Le Mans.]
Of course, to offer even the quick version of the story is to raise many of the questions that Don Nunley would spend his years answering. Which other watches were on the table? Where were these watches sourced? Did Nunley have a preexisting relationship with Heuer or did the relationship begin with McQueen’s selection of the Monaco chronograph? How many Heuer chronographs and other timepieces were used in the filming? What happened to all these timepieces when the filming was completed? Don Nunley was generous with his time in answering these questions for today’s watch collectors, demonstrating that a property master can play an important role, long after the last scene has been shot.
The Property Master
Don Nunley was born in March 1939, the son of Hollywood property master Willard (Bill) Nunley. Don got his first Hollywood job in 1959, at age 20, explaining that with the emergence of television, the Hollywood studios were determined to improve the quality of movies, for example, through the use of better props and production. Over his first decade in the movie business, Don had worked for Disney, Paramount, Universal and Warner Brothers, and his television credits included Chrysler Theater, McHale’s Navy, Mannix, Maverick and The Rifleman. Nunley suggests that by 1969, he had reached the top of his field, serving as property master for Little Big Man, a major film starring Dustin Hoffman and Faye Dunaway, produced by CBS Cinema Center films.
After finishing his work on Little Big Man, Cinema Center executive Bob Rosen asked Nunley whether he would serve as property master for the next Steve McQueen film, Le Mans, a joint venture between Cinema Center and McQueen’s company, Solar Productions. Steve McQueen was also at the top of his game in 1970. Nunley suggests that following the success of The Thomas Crown Affair and Bullitt, both released in 1968, McQueen was the biggest movie star in the world. When Nunley told Rosen that he didn’t know anything about racing, Rosen assured him that he would be able to figure it out quickly. In fact, Nunley suggests that it was his enthusiasm for learning about racing that landed him the job. As it turned out, being familiar with racing would be the least of Nunley’s worries.
Nunley’s work on Le Mans would occupy him for six months, from May 1970 (when he attended the endurance race at Spa with McQueen and his colleagues) through the end of filming, in November 1970. As property master of Le Mans, Nunley was responsible for almost 20,000 different props, including all the equipment that would be used by the racing teams (such as timing equipment and spare parts). Nunley was also responsible for the race cars used in the movie, working closely with the dozens of professional drivers who were on hand for the filming, including Derek Bell, Jacky Ickx, Vic Elford, Richard Attwood and Divid Piper.
Over the period from 1971 through 1984, Nunley would serve as property master for approximately 25 movies, including Save the Tiger (1973), Semi-Tough (1977), The Deer Hunter (1978) and The Amityville Horror (1979). After his 20-year career as a property master in television and film, in 1979, Nunley created Hollywood’s first product placement company, with that company being responsible for ET drinking Coors beer and Tom Cruise wearing Ray-Ban sunglasses in Top Gun and Risky Business. Nunley retired from this business in 1989, enjoying travelling and fishing in his retirement years. Nunley was a frequent speaker on various aspects of his Hollywood career, including his work as a property master and in product placement.
Happy to Tell the Story
I first met Don Nunley by email in September 2003, after he had sold two of the Monaco chronographs that had been worn by Steve McQueen. Nunley sold these watches on eBay and with those listings he became the target of every vintage watch collector who was either seeking information about these particular watches or wondering whether Nunley might have a few more of them available for sale. In fact, Nunley had other Heuer Monacos put away, as well as stopwatches and dashboard timers that were used at Lee Mans. Nunley was an approachable source of information, showing great patience in describing his role in the filming of Le Mans and telling the story of the watches.
In our conversations, Don always conveyed a genuine enthusiasm for his work and for life itself. Don was engaging, whether chatting about his career, his travels or his hobbies. He spoke with authority in recalling the facts, but always with a sense of humility and gratitude for the life that he had lived. We may think that a property manager is responsible for working with objects, but Don Nunley was a “people person”, whether managing Steve McQueen or sharing the story of Le Mans with a watch collector.
After 14 years of chatting intermittently with Don by phone and email, in July 2017, I had the pleasure of meeting Don and his wife, Suzie, in person. My wife and I were visiting Seattle, Washington and during a day-trip to the Olympic Peninsula, I realized that we were near Don’s hometown of Port Angeles and gave him a call. We had not made any plans for a get-together, but Don invited us to his house, on a beautiful lake, adjacent to Olympic National Park.
During the one-hour drive to Don’s house, I was imagining how we would spend the afternoon, looking through photos and memorabilia from Le Mans. Sure, he had already parted with most of the marquee items, but like so many optimistic collectors I imagined some hidden treasures. Less than a mile from his house, however, the road was blocked by a massive tree that had fallen across the road. It turns out that not only had this tree blocked traffic for miles, but it had knocked out the power to Don’s house. So there we were, in a house full of movie memorabilia, all of it left to my imagination, because in a house with no electricity, it was impossible to see any of it. Yes, they say that “men plan and God laughs”, so we spent a wonderful afternoon on the Nunleys’ dock, admiring the lake and the scenery, with the rooms full of memorabilia being left to my imagination.
Don Nunley, the Author
In our conversation in July 2017, Don was especially proud that at age 78, he was making his debut as an author, with the recent publication of Steve McQueen: Le Mans in the Rearview Mirror. In the book, co-authored with Marshall Terrill, Nunley provided his unique perspective on the making of Le Mans.
Sixty years after the fact, the idea of filming a racing movie with Steve McQueen and dozens of other racers may sound like every enthusiast’s dream, but Nunley describes an experience that one reviewer has called “a miserable experience for everyone involved”. Yes, this was McQueen’s passion project, but those working on the film soon realized that more than passion was required to make a movie. The production would also require a budget, a script, and effective collaboration between the studios and the crews. (And, yes, it would also be worthwhile to have a leading lady opposite McQueen; Elga Andersen was hired several weeks after the commencement of shooting.)
Nunley describes the difficulties of working with McQueen, at the peak of his career but also fully consumed by a mid-life crisis that left him acting like a rebellious and hormone-driven teenager. It was the Age of Aquarius, with the area around Le Mans becoming a free for all of drugs, sex, liquor and other dangerous living. The six months of filming was plagued by accidents on the track and on the public roads, conflicts between cast, crew members and studios, and constant delays and shut-downs in the shooting. Nunley concludes that the human cost of Le Mans cannot be measured, with horrible injuries to drivers, lost friendships and broken professional relationships. Le Mans hardly fared better upon its release, with critics and audiences expressing their disappointment.
Steve McQueen: Le Mans in the Rear View Mirror is a beautiful book, presenting 422 photographs, with approximately 350 of these photos being previously-unpublished photos taken by Nunley at Le Mans. This is far more than a “coffee-table book”, however, as Nunley draws on his documentary records and his excellent recall to tell us how the movie was made.
Nunley was dyslexic and spoke of how he struggled in school as a child. As he told the story in his Cars Yeah podcast, he might have made a “D” on a test, but his friends who asked him for the answers walked away with “A”s. But rather than considering his dyslexia to be a handicap, he believed that it contributed to his tenacity and determination, as well as his excellent recall.
The Property Master to the Very End
Don cataloged six Heuer Monacos that had been used as props in the filming of Le Mans and, over the period from 2003 through 2018, five of these watches were sold or given away. Other stopwatches and dashboard timers that had been at Le Mans were also sold over these years. In each instance, the authentication by Don Nunley was an important part of the sale.
But as we watched these five Monaco chronographs change hands over the years, there was always the question about the last of the six watches. This sixth Monaco was the one that Steve McQueen had given to his personal mechanic, Haig Alltounian, at the end of filming, as a “thank you” for keeping him safe these six months. Rumor suggested that Alltounian kept the watch locked away in his safe and over the years he turned down a constant flow of offers, suggesting that he would never sell the watch.
Finally, in Fall 2020, after owning the watch for 50 years and now in his 80s, Alltounian decided that he would sell the watch to provide financial security for his family. Phillips sold the watch in an auction on December 12, 2020, at a price of $2,208,000 (including the buyer’s fee), and once again information provided by Nunley about the history of the watch was important to the success of the sale.
Don and I spoke in Fall 2020, both before and after the sale of Haig Alltounian’s Monaco. Yes, Don was surprised by the $2.2 million price achieved in the auction, but there was no sense of regret regarding the worn-by-Steve watches that Don had previously sold. We marveled at the current demand for Hollywood memorabilia and reflected on the previous sales and gifts of these other Monacos.
To those of us who knew Don as the property master of Le Mans, there is some sense of completion in his passing away two months after the sale of the Alltounian Monaco. In Spring 1970, Don Nunley was responsible for Steve McQueen selecting the Monaco to wear in Le Mans and he took charge of the watches during the filming. Fifty years after Nunley completed this assignment, he closed out the next chapter in the “Monacos at Le Mans” story, seeing all six of the Monacos sold, gifted or otherwise disposed of, in each instance, with the provenance confirmed by Don Nunley.
Yes, Don Nunley was the property master of Le Mans to the very end. From May to November 1970, on the movie set, and again from the first eBay sale of one of McQueen’s Monacos in 2003 through the sale of the Alltounian watch in 2020. It was only with this last sale that Don’s work was complete. The community of vintage Heuer enthusiasts thanks Don Nunley for his diligent execution of these assignments. More than that, we thank Don for telling the story of Steve McQueen and Le Mans, and the story of how the Heuer Monaco chronograph became the “McQueen Monaco”.
Regarding Don Nunley, we can say “may his memory be for a blessing”. As Don created goodwill and good feelings with the memories that he shared, may Suzie and Don’s family and friends find comfort in our memories of this wonderful man.
Additional Reading and References
IMDb profile of Donald B. Nunley is HERE.
Podcast / interview of Don Nunleey on Cars Yeah.
OnTheDash posting providing an overview of the Monaco chronographs worn by Steve McQueen at Lee Mans.
Photos in this posting from the filming of Lee Mans are from Steve McQueeen: Le Mans in the Rearview Mirror; used with permission.
February 15, 2021