Steve McQueen

porsche 917 by Cep Goldia

Steve McQueen (1930 – 1980) was an American movie actor. He was nicknamed ‘The King of Cool.’ His ‘anti-hero’ persona, which he developed at the height of the Vietnam counterculture, made him one of the top box-office draws of the 1960s and 1970s.

His popular films include ‘The Magnificent Seven,’ ‘The Great Escape,’ ‘The Thomas Crown Affair,’ ‘Bullitt,’ ‘The Getaway,’ ‘Papillon,’ and ‘The Towering Inferno.’ In 1974, he became the highest-paid movie star in the world. Although McQueen was combative with directors and producers, his popularity put him in high demand and enabled him to command large salaries.

He was an avid racer of both motorcycles and cars. McQueen also designed and patented a bucket seat and transbrake for race cars. While he studied acting, he supported himself partly by competing in weekend motorcycle races and bought his first motorcycle with his winnings. He is recognized for performing many of his own stunts, but one of the most widely claimed and cherished examples of this—that he did the majority of the stunt driving for his character during the high-speed chase scene in ‘Bullitt’—was revealed not to be true by his most trusted stuntman and stunt driver Loren James.

He was born Terrence Stephen McQueen in a suburb of Indianapolis. His father, a stunt pilot for a barnstorming flying circus, abandoned McQueen and his mother when McQueen was six months old. His mother, Julia Ann (née Crawford), was a young, rebellious alcoholic. Unable to cope with bringing up a small child, she left him with her parents (Victor and Lillian) in Missouri in 1933. Shortly thereafter, as the Great Depression set in, McQueen and his grandparents moved in with Lillian’s brother Claude to the latter’s farm in Slater.

He had good memories of the time spent on his great-uncle Claude’s farm. In recalling Claude, McQueen stated ‘He was a very good man, very strong, very fair. I learned a lot from him.’ On McQueen’s fourth birthday, Claude gave him a red tricycle, which McQueen later claimed started his interest in racing. At age 8, he was taken back by his mother and lived with her and her new husband in Indianapolis. McQueen retained a special memory of leaving the farm: ‘The day I left the farm Uncle Claude gave me a personal going-away present; a gold pocket watch, with an inscription inside the case.’ The inscription read: ‘To Steve — who has been a son to me.’

McQueen, who was dyslexic and partially deaf as a result of a childhood ear infection, did not adjust well to his new life. Within a couple of years he was running with a street gang and committing acts of petty crime. Unable to control McQueen’s behavior, his mother sent him back to Slater again. A couple of years later, when McQueen was 12, Julia wrote to Claude asking that McQueen be returned to her once again, to live in her new home in Los Angeles.

This began an unsettled period in McQueen’s life. By McQueen’s own account, he and his new stepfather ‘locked horns immediately.’ McQueen recounted him as ‘a prime son of a bitch’ who was not averse to using his fists on both McQueen and his mother. As McQueen began to rebel once again, he was sent back to live with Claude a final time. At age 14, McQueen left Claude’s farm without saying goodbye and joined a circus for a short time, after which he slowly drifted back to his mother and stepfather in Los Angeles, and resumed his life as a gang member and petty criminal. On one occasion, McQueen was caught stealing hubcaps by police, who handed him over to his stepfather. The latter proceeded to beat McQueen severely, and ended the fight by throwing McQueen down a flight of stairs. McQueen looked up at his stepfather and said, ‘You lay your stinkin’ hands on me again and I swear, I’ll kill ya.’

After this, McQueen’s stepfather convinced Julia to sign a court order stating that McQueen was incorrigible and remanding him to the California Junior Boys Republic in Chino, California. Here, McQueen slowly began to change and mature. He was not popular with the other boys at first: ‘Say the boys had a chance once a month to load into a bus and go into town to see a movie. And they lost out because one guy in the bungalow didn’t get his work done right. Well, you can pretty well guess they’re gonna have something to say about that. I paid his dues with the other fellows quite a few times. I got my lumps, no doubt about it. The other guys in the bungalow had ways of paying you back for interfering with their well-being.’

Ultimately, however, McQueen decided to give Boys Republic a fair shot. He became a role model for the other boys when he was elected to the Boys Council, a group who made the rules and regulations governing the boys’ lives. He eventually left Boys Republic at 16 and when he later became famous, he regularly returned to talk to the boys there. He also personally responded to every letter he received from the boys there, and retained a lifelong association.

After McQueen left Chino, he returned to Julia, now living in Greenwich Village, but almost immediately left again. He then met two sailors from the Merchant Marine and volunteered to serve on a ship bound for the Dominican Republic. Once there, he abandoned his new post, eventually making his way to Texas, and drifted from job to job. He worked as a janitor in a brothel, as an oil rigger, as a trinket salesman in a carnival, and as a lumberjack.

In 1947, McQueen joined the United States Marine Corps and was quickly promoted to Private First Class and assigned to an armored unit. Initially, he reverted to his prior rebelliousness, and as a result was demoted to private seven times. He went UA (unauthorized absence) by failing to return after a weekend pass had expired. He instead stayed away with a girlfriend for two weeks, until the shore patrol caught him. He resisted arrest and as a result spent 41 days in the brig.

After this, McQueen resolved to focus his energies on self-improvement and embraced the Marines’ discipline. He saved the lives of five other Marines during an Arctic exercise, pulling them from a tank before it broke through ice into the sea. He was also assigned to an honor guard responsible for guarding then-U.S. President Harry Truman’s yacht. McQueen served until 1950 when he was honorably discharged.

In 1952, with financial assistance provided by the G.I. Bill, McQueen began studying acting at Sanford Meisner’s Neighborhood Playhouse. He also began to earn money by competing in weekend motorcycle races at Long Island City Raceway and purchased the first of many motorcycles, a used Harley Davidson. He soon became an excellent racer, and came home each weekend with about $100 in winnings.

After several minor roles Hollywood manager Hilly Elkins (who managed McQueen’s first wife, Neile) took note of him and decided that B-movies would be a good place for the young actor to make his mark. McQueen was subsequently hired to appear in the films ‘Never Love a Stranger,’ ‘The Blob’ (his first leading role), and ‘The Great St. Louis Bank Robbery.’

‘The Magnificent Seven’ (1960), with Yul Brynner, Robert Vaughn, Charles Bronson and James Coburn, became McQueen’s first major hit. McQueen’s focused portrayal of the taciturn second lead catapulted his career. His added touches in each scene, such as shaking a shotgun round before loading it and wiping his hat rim, which annoyed co-star Brynner, who protested that McQueen was trying to steal the scene. In his autobiography, Eli Wallach, who acted as the movie’s villain, Calvera, reports struggling to conceal his amusement while watching the filming of the funeral-procession scene where Brynner’s and McQueen’s characters first meet: Brynner was clearly furious at McQueen’s shotgun-round-shake, which effectively diverted the viewer’s attention to McQueen.) Brynner also refused to draw his gun in the same scene with McQueen, not wanting to have his character outdrawn.

McQueen played the lead in the next big Sturges film, 1963’s ‘The Great Escape,’ which gave Hollywood’s depiction of the otherwise true story of an historical mass escape from a World War II POW camp, Stalag Luft III. Insurance concerns prevented McQueen from performing the film’s widely noted motorcycle leap, which was instead done by his friend and fellow cycle enthusiast Bud Ekins who resembled McQueen from a distance.

1968’s ‘Bullitt,’ one of his most famous films, featured an unprecedented (and endlessly imitated) auto chase through San Francisco.

After 1974’s ‘The Towering Inferno,’ co-starring with his long-time personal friend and chief professional rival Paul Newman and reuniting him with Faye Dunaway, became a tremendous box-office success, McQueen all but disappeared from Hollywood and the public eye, preferring to focus on motorcycle racing and traveling around the country in a motorhome and on one of his vintage Indian motorcycles. He did not return to acting until 1978 with ‘An Enemy of the People,’ playing against type as a heavily bearded, bespectacled 19th-century doctor in this adaptation of a Henrik Ibsen play. The film was shown briefly in theaters and was never released on home video.

McQueen considered becoming a professional race car driver. In the 1970 12 Hours of Sebring race, Peter Revson and McQueen (driving with a cast on his left foot from a motorcycle accident two weeks before) won with a Porsche 908/02 in the 3 liter class and missed winning overall by 23 seconds to Mario Andretti/Ignazio Giunti/Nino Vaccarella in a 5 liter Ferrari 512S. The same Porsche 908 was entered by his production company Solar Productions as a camera car for ‘Le Mans’ in the 1970 24 Hours of Le Mans later that year. McQueen wanted to drive a Porsche 917 with Jackie Stewart in that race, but his film backers threatened to pull their support if he did. Faced with the choice of driving for 24 hours in the race or driving the entire summer making the film, McQueen opted to do the latter. ‘Le Mans’ is considered by some to be the most historically realistic representation in the history of the race.

McQueen had a daily two-hour exercise regimen, involving weightlifting and at one point running five miles, seven days a week. McQueen also learned the martial art Tang Soo Do from ninth degree black belt Pat E. Johnson. However, he was also known for his prolific drug use (William Claxton claimed he smoked marijuana almost every day; others said he used a tremendous amount of cocaine in the early 1970s). In addition, like many actors of his era, he was a heavy cigarette smoker. He sometimes drank to excess, and was arrested for driving while intoxicated in Anchorage, Alaska in 1972.

McQueen had an unusual reputation for demanding free items in bulk from studios when agreeing to do a film, such as electric razors, jeans and several other products. It was later found out that McQueen requested these things because he was donating them to the Boy’s Republic reformatory school for displaced youth, where he had spent time during his teen years. McQueen made occasional visits to the school to spend time with the students, often to play pool and to speak with them about his experiences.

McQueen was conservative in his political views and often backed the Republican Party. He did, however, campaign for Democrat Lyndon Johnson in 1964 before voting for Republican Richard Nixon in 1968. He supported the Vietnam War, was one of the few Hollywood stars who refused numerous requests to back Presidential hopeful Robert Kennedy in 1968. When McQueen heard a rumor that he had been added to Nixon’s Enemies List, he responded by immediately flying a giant American flag outside his house. Reportedly, his wife Ali McGraw responded to the whole affair by saying, ‘But you’re the most patriotic person I know.’

McQueen developed a persistent cough in 1978; he gave up smoking and underwent antibiotic treatments without improvement. Shortness of breath became more pronounced and in 1979, a biopsy revealed pleural mesothelioma, a type of cancer associated with asbestos exposure to which there is no known cure. McQueen traveled to Rosarito Beach, Mexico for unconventional treatment after U.S. doctors advised him that they could do nothing to prolong his life.

Controversy arose over McQueen’s Mexican trip, because McQueen sought a very non-traditional treatment that used coffee enemas, frequent shampoos, injection of live cells from cows and sheep, massage, and laetrile (a supposedly ‘natural’ anti-cancer drug available in Mexico, but not approved by the U.S. FDA).

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