March 24, 1930 – Steve McQueen:
In my own mind, I’m not sure that acting is something for a grown man to be doing.
He was an independent, sexy movie star whose sense of cool defined the era.
McQueen’s father abandoned him when he was very young. His mother was an alcoholic and a prostitute who sexually seduced him. His mother remarried, and his new stepfather beat him, and nine-years-old, he left home to live on the streets. He moved in with his grandparents for a while before ending up in a California youth reformatory, where he was gang raped. Upon release, he enlisted in the Merchant Marines, but he jumped ship in Santa Domingo where he got a job in a brothel. Then he joined the Marine Corps. He was just 17-years-old.
He did well with his duties as a mechanic, but he continued to have trouble with authority figures. After three years in the Marines, he drifted around, sometimes selling himself for sex.
McQueen ended up in NYC, where he hustled around Times Square to support his two greatest loves: acting and motorcycles. He took classes at Sanford Meisner’s Neighborhood Playhouse.
When he finally became a big star, sex was his weapon. McQueen:
The last thing I want is to fall in love with a broad.
Among his conquests: Jacqueline Bissett, Faye Dunaway, Lauren Hutton, Sharon Tate, Mamie Van Doren, Ava Gardner, Rita Hayworth, Lana Turner, Tuesday Weld, Natalie Wood, and Marilyn Monroe. He married one of them, Ali MacGraw, for whom he abandoned his wife of 16-years, the mother of his two children, actor Neile Adams.
While married to MacGraw he kept a suite at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel just for quickies and had sex with groupies on set in his trailer. MacGraw has written that he would disappear for nights at a time on his motorcycle, fueled by piles of cocaine. MacGraw claimed that he was ”somewhat stoned every day of our relationship”.
Publicly, McQueen was a homophobe, yet, I have it on good authority that he had sex with James Dean, Peter Lawford, Montgomery Clift, Sal Mineo, Rock Hudson, Chuck Connors, and George Peppard. And, there is that long rumored affair with Paul Newman. J. Edgar Hoover and Richard Nixon saw him as a potential subversive and tried to smear him by releasing tid-bits about his same-sex affairs.
He did drugs, drank to excess, smoked three packs a day and was overwhelmed with self-destructive urges. His drug choices included cocaine, peyote, LSD and lots of amyl nitrate.
He made his Broadway debut in 1955 in A Hatful Of Rain, starring Ben Gazzara. But, McQueen really got his start doing television. His role as a bounty hunter on the series Dead Or Alive (1958-1961) made him a big star. The Blob (1958), was his first film as a lead. At 29-years-old, McQueen got a big break when Frank Sinatra chose him for the film Never So Few (1959). Sinatra saw something special in McQueen and made sure that his small role got plenty of closeups. Critics and audiences took notice, McQueen’s character loved driving at high speed.
His next film was The Magnificent Seven (1960). McQueen’s focused performance catapulted his career. He stole scenes from co-stars Yul Brynner, Eli Wallach, Robert Vaughn, Charles Bronson and James Coburn.
In Hollywood in the 1960s, McQueen frequented the Whisky a Go Go on the Sunset Strip where he met hairdresser Jay Sebring. The pair met Sharon Tate there, and the trio enjoyed drug and booze-fueled threesomes. He was supposed to have dinner at Roman Polanski‘s on the night Tate and Sebring were murdered by Charles Manson‘s gang in 1969, but he canceled at the last minute. He later learned he was on Manson’s Death List.
McQueen carried a concealed, loaded Magnum pistol at all times, which could have been disastrous considering his crazy temper. He once pulled the gun on his first wife and demanded to know if she had ever had an affair. Fed up with McQueen’s cheating, she confessed to having slept with Academy Award-winning actor Maximilian Schell.
His film Bullitt (1968) contains one of the most iconic car chases in film history. Screeching through the streets of San Francisco, McQueen, in a 1968 green Ford Mustang Fastback, chases a 1968 black Dodge Charger. McQueen, an accomplished race car driver, overshot a turn and smoked the tires, and producers decided to replace him with a stunt driver. The Mustang’s interior rearview mirror gives clues as to who is behind the wheel. When the mirror is up, McQueen is behind the wheel, and when it is down, it is the stunt driver. It took nearly a month to shoot the footage that took up nine minutes of screen time.
Like his onscreen characters, McQueen went his own way and pretty much did what he wanted. In 1968, he turned down the film Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid because he refused second billing to Paul Newman. He also turned down the lead in Apocalypse Now, Dirty Harry, The French Connection and One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest.
At his apex, with a salary of $5 million a film plus 15% of the gross, more than Marlon Brando, Robert Redford or Clint Eastwood, making McQueen the highest paid actor in the world. In 1974, he became the number one box-office star in the world, although he did not act in films again for four years. If you want to see him at his best, watch Love With The Proper Stranger (1963) where he is sexy and appealing, and The Getaway (1972), hot, tough and violent. McQueen was a good actor and a true style icon.
McQueen made everything he wore cool: Polo shirts and khakis or a three piece suit, swim trunks, jeans and a tee-shirt, he epitomized style and bridged the gap between the Golden Age and the more modern movies of the 1960s and 1970s.
He mixed casual sunglasses with suits. McQueen loved his Persol 714, wayfarers and aviators. He preferred canvas sneakers and leather boots.
Almost everything he wore had clean lines. He rarely wore ties and favored bomber jackets. He liked wearing blues which emphasized his eyes and worked against his bad boy image. He looked especially hot in denim on denim, my favorite of his looks. The best part about his style was his nonchalant coolness.
McQueen lived life at full speed, just like the motorcycles and cars he raced so famously. Noted for being a difficult diva on film sets, he fired cast, crew and writers on a whim. He was arrested for drunk driving in Alaska in 1972, posted bail and then left the state. He owned garages filled with Ferraris, Porsches, Jaguars and Lotuses.
In his last five years, McQueen only made three films, all self-produced. Maybe he burned too many bridges by that point. He began and ended his career playing a bounty hunter, two decades apart; his final film was The Hunter (1980).
At the end of 1979, he was diagnosed with Pleural Mesothelioma, a cancer associated with asbestos exposure. McQueen believed that asbestos used in film sound stage insulation and race-drivers’ protective suits and helmets contributed to his cancer, along with massive exposure while removing asbestos lagging from pipes aboard a troop ship when he was in the Marines.
After doctors told him they could do nothing to prolong his life, McQueen traveled to Mexico where he received controversial treatment that used coffee enemas, frequent washing with shampoos, daily injections of fluid containing live cells from cattle and sheep. Later, he checked into a small Juárez clinic under the name “Sam Shepard”, where the doctors and staff were unaware of his real identity. He had surgery to remove a tumor on his liver that weighed five pounds, despite warnings from his doctors that the tumor was inoperable, and his heart could not withstand the surgery. He died of heart failure at the clinic, 12 hours after surgery.
His estate was estimated at $30 million, and McQueen continues to make millions, with lucrative licensing deals with stylish brands such as Persol, Barracuta G9 Harrington jackets, and Barbour. He never actually wore the Rolex model that is now known as the “Steve McQueen Explorer”, but he did own a Rolex Submariner. He would charge producers of his films $250 for the watch if he wore it onscreen. His 1976 Porsche 930 Turbo sold for $1.95 million in 2012.
His son Chad McQueen and his grandson, Steven R. McQueen both became actors and race car drivers.
Some may be shocked by all the sex and violence in his life, but I was shocked that at the end of his life, he was Republican and evangelical Christian. He died holding a Bible given to him by Billy Graham. Yet, I remain rather certain that he never really repented. His ashes were scattered over the Pacific Ocean.
For more, check out Steve McQueen, King Of Cool: Tales Of A Lurid Life (2009) by Darwin Porter.