The Biography of Chicago’s Marina City

Welcome to Marina City. Don’t forget where you parked.
September 21, 1979

Paramount Pictures
In the 1980 Paramount Pictures film The Hunter, Steve McQueen plays a bounty hunter who chases a fugitive up the spiral parking ramp on Marina City’s west tower before the villain loses control and drives off into the Chicago River.

The stunt was performed on Friday afternoon, September 21, 1979. McQueen kept mostly to the parking ramp that day, venturing out once but returning when spectators got too close. About 1,500 people gathered near Wacker Drive to watch the stunt.

Chicago Sun-Times The car was a green 1980 Grand Prix Pontiac. With a dummy and a movie camera in the front seat, the car moved at 40 miles per hour, guided by a stunt man running behind it. He then locked a throttle that was rigged to the trunk. The car crashed through a fake cable barrier made of wood on the 17th floor of the ramp and dived hood-first into the Chicago River, landing halfway across.

When it landed, it sounded like a cannon blast. The car floated for a few seconds and then disappeared into the dark river. Six camera crews filmed the stunt, including one from a helicopter hovering over the Dearborn Street Bridge.

In the script, the driver was supposed to survive the crash. But the impact was so severe that producer Mort Engelberg changed the story. “If it had surfaced,” he told the Chicago Tribune, “we could have gotten him out.”

The car was later salvaged. If the stunt had not worked, filmmakers were ready with two more cars.

While in Chicago, McQueen visited an antique store on Wells Street to look for antique airplane memorabilia, which he collected. While speaking with antiques expert Anita Gold, he said he was glad the stunt at Marina City was over and he was relieved that no one was injured.

It was McQueen’s last film. He died on November 7, 1980, of mesothelioma.

(Left) Chuck Kirman captured this image for the Chicago Sun-Times. It shows a crowd gathered on the Dearborn Street Bridge at lower left to watch the stunt. People can also be seen peering from the restaurant at lower right. The sign in the middle is for the marina that was leased by Phillips Petroleum Company. The building at left was replaced in 1987 by what is now the 20-story Westin Chicago River North.

(Right) Outside what is now House of Blues, a crowd watches actor Steve McQueen prepare for a car chase, only for this movie, The Hunter, he will be driving a red and white tow truck. Former Marina City resident Paul Huebl snapped this photo with a Rollei 35S on September 20, 1979, the day before a brand new 1980 Grand Prix Pontiac sailed off the west tower parking ramp at Marina City and into movie history. Steve McQueen prepares for a scene for The Hunter. (Paul Huebl, 20-Sep-79.)

Released on August 1, 1980, the film grossed more than $16 million.

(Right) Watch the Marina City scene from The Hunter, starring Steve McQueen. Duration: 3:09.

(Below) Highlights of the stunt. Click on images to view larger versions.

Paramount Pictures Paramount Pictures
(Above) The area in center frame is now occupied by Renaissance Chicago Hotel. Unitrin Building (now Kemper Building) is at left. The Chicago Theatre sign is visible in the distance... least until the car blocks the view.

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Directly below the flying car, the empty area is now a Smith & Wollensky restaurant. Directly behind the car is the present location of Sheraton Chicago Hotel & Towers. The car is falling past two large signs – for Marina City Restaurant and Marina City Marina.

Paramount Pictures Photo by Steven Dahlman
The green 1980 Grand Prix Pontiac crashes into the Chicago River. How this area looks today.

In case you blinked...

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Thomas Rosales Jr., in his portrayal of villain “Bernardo,” climbs over planters – still there today – between the State Street bridge house and the present location of Smith & Wollensky. Rosales has appeared in hundreds of films and television shows, mostly as a stunt performer and villain. He runs north, parallel to State Street, toward the east tower, through an area that is now in front of the restaurant and includes an access ramp for the disabled. Steve McQueen, as Ralph “Papa” Thorson, has also climbed over the planters and runs toward the east tower. The area at left is now the restaurant. There is a large awning – in the distance at right, connected to the office building – that has since been taken down.

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Bernardo steals a car idling on the ground floor of the east tower parking ramp. He drives clockwise toward the State Street entrance but a truck and cars block his path. Bernardo has backed up and is turned toward the west parking ramp. McQueen borrows a tow truck and follows in pursuit. From inside the truck, we see a valet stand near the southeast corner of the theater building. This valet stand has since been moved to a larger glass-enclosed structure on the other side of the driveway.

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McQueen follows Bernardo up the west parking ramp. In the distance, what is now The Westin Chicago River North. The address on the awning is 310 North Dearborn Street, approximately where Ember Grille is located today. As Bernardo rounds a turn, he passes a sign for the marina leased by Phillips Petroleum Company. In the distance is Wacker Drive. With McQueen rounding a turn, the Dearborn Street Bridge and 55 East Wacker are visible in the distance.

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Shortly before Bernardo reaches the end of the ramp, he passes a sign for Stein & Thomas Realtors. He will back up, run into the tow truck, turn toward the south edge of the ramp, lose control, and make movie history. After the crash, McQueen passes a column with a number printed on it that identifies the parking space (and not the floor number). These numbers begin with 1 in the west tower and 2 in the east tower. He surveys the damage from the 17th floor.

Last updated 23-Jun-16

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