Steve McQueen: Remembering the “King of Cool”

MCQUEEN, STEVE 2With his piercing blue-eyed gaze, athletic mien and an approach to his craft that was deceptive in its seeming effortlessness, Steve McQueen epitomized leading-man cool for film fans of the ’60s and ’70s.

Born Terence Steven McQueen in a central Indiana farming town on March 24, 1930, he struggled through a turbulent childhood; his father abandoned the family while he was an infant, and his mother was seldom attentive, often leaving him in the care of her parents and uncle on a farm in northern Missouri. the gift of a red tricycle from his great-uncle started McQueen’s lifelong love of racing. Moving back with his mother once in Indianapolis and once in Los Angeles–each time to confront a different antagonistic stepfather–young Steven began committing petty crimes and wound up in a California reformatory as a teen. The rigorous life there seemed to help straighten him out, and after visiting his mother in New York at age 16, he got a job as a merchant seaman. After spending time at various odd jobs (oil rigger, carny, lumbrjack), he joined the Marines and 1947 and served for three years, going AWOL more than once but ultimately leaving with an honorable discharge. Once he was out of the service, Steve decided to pursue acting as a career, and enrolled in New York’s Neighborhood Playhouse.

BLOB, THEOne of two out of 2,000 applicants accepted to the Famous Actors’ Studio in 1955, McQueen soon got his first breaks on Broadway (replacing Ben Gazzara in A Hatful of Rain), on TV (in such anthology series as Studio One and Alfred Hitchcock Presents), and in Hollywood (debuting as an extra in 1953’s Girl on the Run, followed in 1955 by Somebody Up There Likes Me). After receiving opportunities in various low-budget efforts–most notably the hero in the 1958 sci-fi fave The Blob and the crime caper The Great St. Louis Bank Robbery the next year, he won his name-making assignment as bounty hunter Josh Randall, whose weapon of choice was a sawed-off rfile he dubbed “Mare’s Laig,” in the popular late ’50s TV western Wanted: Dead or Alive.

MAGNIFICENT SEVEN 4A co-starring role alongside Frank Sinatra and Gina Lollobrigida in the WWII actioner Never So Few (1959) was followed by his breakout screen turn as one of the mercenaries defending a Mexican village from bandits in The Magnificent Seven (1960). After a rare comic turn in The Honeymoon Machine (1961), he led a squad of American G.I.s on an attack on German forces in 1962’s Hell Is for Heroes, and found himself among other Allied POWs the following year as the “Cooler King” in The Great Escape. By the way, McQueen wanted to perform the dramatic motorcycle leap near the end of The Great Escape himself, but the film’s insurance wouldn’t allow for such a risky stunt, do Steve’s friend and fellow cycle enthusiast Bud Ekins stood in for the actor.

The balance of the ’60s proved to be his most fertile period, highlighted by the romantic Love with the Proper Stranger (1963) with Natalie Wood; the high-stakes poker drama The Cincinnati Kid (also ’65) opposite Edward G. Robinson and Ann-Margret; Nevada Smith (1966), a western saga with McQueen playing the title character first portrayed by Alan Ladd in The Carpetbaggers. A turn as a sailor in 1920s China in 1966’s The Sand Pebbles brought Steve his only Academy Award nomination, for Best Actor.  Two iconic roles came in 1968, as a bank executive looking to pull off the perfect heist in The Thomas Crown Affair, with Faye Dunaway, and as the title San Francisco cop in Bullitt, whose breathtaking chase scenes down the hilly streets of the City by the Bay still rank as some of the greatest in action movie history.

MCQUEEN BULLITT CARA change of pace role came in 1969, when Steve starred in the Southern-fried seriocomedy The Reivers, based on a William Faulkner story. Along with appearing as himself in the 1971 motorcycling documentary On Any Sunday, moviegoers in the early ’70s saw got to see McQueen in the Hollywood auto racing drama Le Mans (1971) and as a rodeo cowboy coming home to visit his estranged family in Junior Bonner (1972). In Sam Peckinpah’s 1972 chase saga The Getaway, the on-screen romance between Steve and leading lady Ali MacGraw would lead to a real-life marriage from 1973 to 1978 (she was the second of his three wives). Next came the fact-based Devil’s Island prison tale Papillon (1973) with Dustin Hoffman (about whom McQueen was once quoted as saying, “If a guy like him can become a star, what’ll happen to guys like Newman and me?” The answer came in 1975, when Steve teamed up with his old Somebody Up There Likes Me pal Paul Newman (with whom he almost co-starred in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid) in producer Irwin Allen’s high-rise disaster epic The Towering Inferno.

HUNTER, THE 1980After this, however, McQueen apparently wearied of the Hollywood grind, limiting his output to a 1978 pet-project adaptation of Ibsen’s stage play An Enemy of the People before returning to familiar genres in 1980 with the frontier drama Tom Horn and as a bounty hunter in The Hunter. The Hunter would prove to be his last performance, as he was already suffering from mesothelioma, a rare form of lung cancer perhaps caused from exposure to asbestos during his merchant sailor days (McQueen was also a heavy smoker but quit following his 1978 diagnosis). While undergoing experimental treatments at a Mexican clinic, the actor died from cardiac arrest in November of 1980 at age 50.

“In my own mind,” McQueen once said in an interview, “I’m not sure that acting is something for a grown man to be doing.” More than three decades after his passing, action movie fans around the world are grateful that the man known as the “King of Cool” stayed with it for as long as he did.