One of the Hollywood’s Kings of Cool. Steve McQueen is one of the most enduring symbols of modern movies.
Born in 1930 in Indiana to a single mother, Terence Steven McQueen grew up in a constantly shifting home environment. Raised by his grand-parents and uncle until the age of 8. He was taken back by his mother who had relocated to California. He soon had to deal with violent abuse by his step-father and ran away from home. Soon falling in with a juvenile gang and committing a variety of petty crimes and misdemeanors. Sent back to his grand-parents several times and finally being labeled incorrigible by the courts after encounters with the police and a violent fight with another stepfather. He was sent to a youth camp.
When he first arrived he described himself as learning to pay his dues and went from being one of the worst inmates to a model prisoner.
After his release he briefly returned to his mother and quickly moved on to a variety of transient jobs on oil rigs, a merchant ship and as a lumber jack. Joining the Marine Corps in 1947, he reverted back to his previous rebelliousness and was a frequent guest in the brig. Later he mended his ways, even becoming a member of the honor guard tasked with protecting Harry Truman’s presidential yacht. He was honorably discharged in 1950.
In the movies
In 1952 McQueen used benefits from his GI bill to begin studying acting in New York at Sanford Meisner’s Neighborhood Playhouse. At the same time his other passion for racing led him to compete in motorcycle races for extra cash.
After several minor roles in theater he made his Broadway debut in 1955 in the play A Hatful of Rain. Later that year he headed west to try his luck in the movies. First appearing in a string of Television roles and B-pictures. His first leading role was in the memorable sci-fi thriller “The Blob” in 1958.
Steve McQueen on the set of The Blob
This plus a starring role as bounty hunter Josh Randall in the western series Wanted Dead or Alive starting the same year, catapulted the 28 year old McQueen into stardom.
On the set of Wanted Dead Or Alive
The anti-hero role of a bounty hunter became typical for McQueen in the 1960s and he became famous for his authority bucking characters. Hi signature squint and deep, gravelly voice added to an already formidable screen presence.
His first big role in the next decade was in 1960 with The Magnificent Seven. Following were hits such as ww2 POW epic The Great Escape, revenge western Nevada Smith and crime thriller Bullitt.
Still from The Great Escape
You can see the development of his tough guy persona in this era. Dropping the last vestiges of his earlier youthful roles. Most of his roles are of the authority challenging tough guy type seen in The Sand Pebbles and Bullitt. A noteable exception is The Thomas Crowne affair where he plays a debonair criminal more akin to James Bond than Frank Bullitt. But even in this role you can see the steel underneath the expensive suits.
Steve McQueen and Yul Brynner on set in The Magnificent Seven
McQueen entered the 1970s as one of the best paid and famous of the eras super-stars. Fame and other interests such as auto racing led to a much reduced output with only 7 releases starting with racing epic Le Mans, as bank robber Doc McCoy in The Getaway with then wife Ali MacGraw and disaster epic Towering Inferno.
Always an avid racer and adventurer, McQueen frequently performed his own stunts, much to the distress of the film crew and studio heads. This can be seen in the epic Bullitt chase scene. Some crews went to the extreme of filming dangerous scenes with stuntmen before he arrived on set. He personally owned a large collection of cars and airplanes. Some of this considerable collection can be seen at: http://www.mcqueenonline.com/carsandbikes.htm
His rebellious streak continued throughout his life and a resulted in more than a few brushes with the law including an arrest, mugshot and booking for drunk driving in Alaska. He was also known for a fairly serious drug habit around the same time.
Steve McQueen manages to make an arrest and mugshot look cool
Health issues began to plague him in the late ’70s, always a heavy smoker, he developed a persistent cough and shortness of breath that was diagnosed as cancer in 1979.
His decline can unfortunately be seen in his last film, The Hunter, released in 1980. While McQueen performs heroically in the role, as usual performing many of his own stunts. His physical decline is obvious and you can see him literally fighting for breath in most of the scenes.
Tragically this cancer resisted treatment and Steve McQueen died of pleural mesothelioma in 1980. Possibly as a result of exposure to asbestos during service in the Marine Corp or later during his racing career.
While only active in films and TV for 27 years, Steve McQueen leaves behind a formidable collection of performances that cement his reputation as the King of Cool.