The Man In The Yellow Hat
Steven Spielberg wore a North Carolina Highway Patrol hat while directing an Indiana Jones movie 34 years ago. You asked me to find out more. I found the man who gave it to him.
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Well, here’s a picture I hadn’t seen before:
Rabbit Hole reader Brian Gracely flagged this one for me. If you’re wondering, that’s director Steven Spielberg on the left, legendary stuntman Vic Armstrong in the middle, and Indiana Jones himself on the right. I know! The stuntman looks just like Harrison Ford. Also, you’re fixated on the hat! No, not that hat! The yellow hat!
Again, that’s Steven Spielberg wearing a North Carolina Highway Patrol trucker hat. In the late 80’s. During the filming of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. He looks like a director. Or a really chill cop.
I had a lot of questions, but they all boiled down to this: What’s up with the hat? I was supremely curious, but I wasn’t sure if I should take this on. I was worried that the answer would be either unbelievably obvious or impossibly hard. However, I was informed that I had no choice.
I took this one seriously. Very seriously. I sent a lot of emails. Made a bunch of phone calls. Asked several strangers for help. A lot of people did a lot of checking on my behalf. Folks, I went on a JOURNEY. I delved into auteur couture, hardcore Indiana Jones fandom, and highway patrol history. For a while, the yellow hat had everybody stumped. And then finally, one man unlocked the mystery of how a peculiar hat went from a small town in North Carolina to the heights of Hollywood, or at least to the heights of a legendary Hollywood director’s head.
The First Crusade: Clues from the Picture
I had a little bit of a head start. I’ve seen Last Crusade maybe a dozen times, and I can quote every other line from it because I was born in 1980 and now have Big Dad Energy. So I immediately recognized the outfits and desert backdrop from the tank scene late in the movie, where Indiana Jones has to rescue his father from “the belly of that steel beast.”
From there, I figured out the where and the when. The picture was taken in the desert outside of Almeria, Spain in May 1988. The scenes there were the first ones filmed for Last Crusade, and a little extra sleuthing turned up another picture of Spielberg wearing his yellow hat. The highway patrol lettering is clearly visible.
An auteur who loves large, awkward hats
As you may have noticed, the picture above comes from an Instagram account that has one mission and one mission only: To curate pictures of multi-millionaire Steven Spielberg wearing comically cheap hats. Spielberg sort of perfected the modern director-in-a-ballcap look, one that got him some weird fashion accolades. Why does he do it? Nobody’s really sure. I emailed Spielberg biographer Joseph McBride to ask if there’s any rhyme or reason for the trucker hats. The answer: Not that he knows!
Lately he has been wearing what I guess one could call Irish tweed caps. He is balding, but I think he started wearing the caps because he clung to his boyishness. Baseball caps are part of the Hollywood “uniform,” and immaturity is part of the modern Hollywood ethos. But he has matured as an artist, of course. And the change of caps may be one result.
I searched, but couldn’t find any interviews where anyone asked Spielberg, plainly, “what’s up with the hats?” I asked for insight in the r/movies Subreddit, but my question was highly downvoted and at least one commenter wondered what kind of an idiot would ask any prominent movie director about his or her choice in headwear. Fair enough.
But the hats clearly do signal… something. He’s sported hats related to movies that he or his friends have made, but he’s also conspicuously worn ballcaps from USC Cinema and Brown University (his stepdaughter went there). He’s been spotted in caps related to NASA, the 1989 Boy Scout Jamboree, and the LAPD. Unfortunately, I don’t have the kind of access that allows me to ask him about his hats directly, so I tried the next best thing: Indiana Jones superfans.
Into the Indyverse
I joined a private Facebook group called the Indiana Jones Picture Gallery, which is exactly what it sounds like: A group of people that posts pictures from the films. The group has more than 3,100 members, and puts out more than just screengrabs. A decent amount of the photos are from behind the scenes, and the group members include crew members, actors, and people who worked at Industrial Light & Magic, which provided the special effects for the series. I messaged the group’s founder, Pedro Penella, who said he’s been collecting pictures from the Indiana Jones movies for more than 30 years. Fairly quickly, he confirmed my hunch about the pictures being taken in Spain, and sent a few more that I hadn’t seen:
Spielberg wore that hat more than once during his time in Spain. It was on his head while shooting at a school that doubled as the palace in the Republic of Hatay and in the desert while shooting the tank scene. But that’s about it. Now, far be it from me to question another man’s choices in fashion. But Spielberg really loved to wear hats with the name of the movie he was currently shooting (meta!). He did wear Last Crusade ballcaps later in the filming process. Why not in Spain?
Another group member, Daniel Ramallo, filled me in. The filming in Spain happened before the movie had an official title. “For this reason, he also wore a Stunts Incorporated Indy III cap and another from Dive BVE Virgin Gorda British Virgin Islands, where Spielberg had spent the summer,” he said in a message. “The official crew cap [from the] Last Crusade appeared later during filming in the U.K., but not in Spain.”
It turns out that the yellow highway patrol hat is an extremely niche and hard-to-find Indiana Jones totem for some people in the group. “You can find it on eBay, but you have to be patient. Very rare,” says a member named Dragone Andreas, who lives in Switzerland. “Sometimes pops up.” And somehow, he snagged one:
So what makes it so rare? How did Spielberg get one? Why did he have it? And who gave it to him? Answering those questions became my last crusade.
The Yellow Hat and The Color Purple
Before the Last Crusade came another Spielberg movie: The Color Purple. It was based on the Alice Walker novel, starred Whoopi Goldberg, Oprah Winfrey, and Danny Glover, and was shot in 1985 in Anson and Union Counties.
So what does the North Carolina Highway Patrol have to do with a movie set in the early 20th century, decades before it was founded? Rabbit Hole reader Jamie McNeill sent me an article that provided a clue: Spielberg himself has always been private and concerned about his security, and had some very specific requests when he came to North Carolina to scout locations:
Spielberg had had death threats against him and wanted permission to have his two bodyguards carry concealed weapons while he was in the state. The Film Office found this was against federal law, but did manage to get the governor to
assign a Highway Patrol officer to guard Spielberg while he was in North Carolina. For the actual shooting, the Film Office arranged to have the Anson County Sheriff's Department deputize Spielberg's bodyguards so they could carry their weapons legally.
During the shoot, Spielberg was made an honorary Anson County sheriff’s deputy “and proudly wore his deputy hat every day after that,” one local told the Anson Record.
(Anson County folks got mad when The Color Purple didn’t win any Oscars, so they created their own awards, called, ahem, the Felixes. “We made only one movie in Anson County last year, but it got 11 Academy Awards nominations,” said the local arts council president in 1986. “No telling how many the next one will get.”)
A bunch of people pointed out this potential Spielberg/Color Purple/North Carolina connection to me, but there was just one problem: The North Carolina Highway Patrol hat Spielberg was wearing doesn’t actually seem to exist in nature. Even today, you can get a Highway Patrol hat fairly easily in a bunch of colors—except yellow.
For help, I contacted Sgt. Chris Knox in the North Carolina Highway Patrol’s public information office. He, too, was stumped, and started making a lot of calls. “I have already talked to the most avid collector of NC State Highway Patrol memorabilia and he has never even seen this hat before!” he replied in an email. Knox went looking through old yearbooks and talked to troopers who worked in Anson and Union counties in the mid-1980s. A week-and-a-half later, he told me to get in touch with Marcus Hammonds, a former patrol sergeant who lives in Polkton.
“Yup,” Hammonds tells me. “I gave him that hat.”
The Holy Grail of Highway Patrol Trucker Hats
Hammonds was a trooper based in Anson County for 30 years, from 1976 until 2006. When I called him, he first wanted to tell me about a woman he pulled over a very long time ago. “In June of 1977, I stopped a red Monte Carlo for speeding” he said. “A rather attractive little brunette was driving that Monte Carlo. I did issue her a citation. And come August, we will have been married for 44 years with five grandchildren.”
After he retired from the patrol, he was elected as the Clerk of Superior Court from Anson County, an office he still holds today. He’s 70 now and talks like the small-town public figure that he is. “Spielberg was real personable,” he says. “For someone of that notoriety, with that expertise, that power if you will, he was pretty down to earth.”
During the filming, Hammonds was 33. He and his fellow troopers from Anson and the surrounding counties were largely in charge of traffic control, keeping modern cars from driving through scenes set in the early 1900s. “At lunchtime, we’d go down to what they called the Buddy House, down at the Huntley farm,” he says. “They had this big shed out there. The production had chefs on the staff, and they had a full-course meal every day.
“I said all that to say this: There were maybe a half-dozen troopers working that assignment. We would sit together. But Spielberg would get up and make his rounds. His thing was: Everybody here had a job. He wanted everybody to feel that they were necessary and important. He’d talk with the troopers. He’d always come over and sit down and have conversations with us about whatever we wanted to talk about. He’d answer questions if we had any. So, I’d see Spielberg wearing a hat and I thought, ‘You know what, I’d kinda like for Spielberg to have something to remember the highway patrol by.’”
Hammonds tried to get one of the patrol’s standard issue black hats, but his request didn’t seem to be going through. So he asked his wife to go out and buy a plain yellow trucker-style mesh hat. The color closely matched the gold outline of the logo on an official patrol patch. “I had a couple of old shirts sitting in the closet,” Hammonds says. “I got my pocketknife out, and very delicately cut the stitches on one of the patches. My late mother-in-law was pretty accomplished in cooking and sewing and all of the things that the country ladies did. And she actually took that patch and put it on there.”
One day, Hammonds made his move. “I said ‘Mr. Spielberg, I have a little something in my patrol car that I want to give to you.’ He said okay. We walked over to the car, I reached in and grabbed the hat, and a big grin came over his face. He thanked me and he put it on. And as best I remember, he wore it most of the rest of the time.”
So why did Hammonds do this? Why did he go to such great lengths to give Steven Spielberg a custom made trucker hat? “I can’t tell you why,” he says. “I just had this feeling come over me.”
The filming of The Color Purple is starting to fade as a memory around Anson County, but not to Hammonds. “We met one of the most famous directors of all time, and he turned out to be just a really nice guy,” he says. And he’s shocked that the hat turned up again on another film set on another continent, three years later. “The fact that he had it on during Indiana Jones? It really makes me feel he thought it was a prized possession.”
Ever after all of that, I still have more questions. I always do. I’d still like to interview Steven Spielberg about it (Steven, my DMs are open). But after talking with Marcus Hammonds and hearing what this small moment meant to him, I finally hear a voice in my head uttering one of my favorite lines from the Last Crusade:
Let it go.
I was one of the Troopers working on the set of Color Purple in 1985. Two Troopers, both now deceased, had roles in the movie. Spielberg, a very down to earth guy, was a bit of a practical joker and was in on a joke played on me during the filming of Oprah slapping the Mayor. He even rode with a couple of local Police Officers.
Fascinating. Given that the hat appears to have been custom made, never-sold, I have to wonder about the apparent cottage industry for counterfeit hats that leads them to be rare rather than nonexistent, and whether your friend from the Facebook group has a counterfeit cap or if Spielberg sold it at some point (and if he ever does DM you, I'd love to know why if so).