gigatos | February 18, 2022
Terrence Stephen McQueen, known as Steve McQueen, born March 24, 1930 in Beech Grove (Indiana) and died November 7, 1980 in Ciudad Juárez (Mexico), is an American actor and film producer, also car driver and motorcycle racer.
Nicknamed “The King of Cool,” his anti-hero roles developed at the height of the 1960s counterculture and made him one of the most popular actors at the box office in the 1960s and 1970s.
McQueen first came to public attention with the television series In the Name of the Law (1958-1961), and received an Oscar nomination for his role in the film The Yangtze River Gunboat (1966). His other popular films include The Cincinnati Kid (1965), The Thomas Crown Affair (1968), Bullitt (1969), Watchtower (1972), and Butterfly (1973), as well as choral films featuring several major actors, such as The Magnificent Seven (1960), The Great Escape (1963), and The Towering Inferno (1974).
In 1974, he became the highest paid movie star in the world, although he didn”t make any more films for four years. McQueen was combative with directors and producers, but his popularity made him an actor in high demand, which allowed him to get big fees. Embodying more than any other the freedom and individualism dear to Americans, his motto confirms the personality of the actor: “I live for myself and answer to no one.
Childhood, training and beginnings
Terrence Stephen McQueen was born in Beech Grove Hospital, Indiana on March 24, 1930. His mother, Julia Crawford (1910-1965), age 19, was the daughter of Victor Crawford and Lilliam Thomson of St. Louis.
An only child, he never knew his father, William McQueen, an aerobatic pilot and former Navy serviceman who left his mother six months before his birth. A cabaret dancer and prostitute, his mother, an alcoholic (like his father), abandoned him at birth on a farm. He was raised by his great-uncle, Claude W. Thomson (1873-1957), in Slater, Missouri, on the Thomson Farm. His great uncle owned some forty dairy cows. In a 2014 documentary, Neile Adams recounts that McQueen would later search for his father, but would not find his whereabouts until days after his father”s death.
When he is twelve, his mother returns from Indianapolis to take him back, but young Terrence does not forgive her for abandoning him. He goes to live with her in Los Angeles. As an uncontrollable teenager, he mingles with the gangs of thugs in Los Angeles. He spends his time escaping from the Boys Republic home in which he is placed, and borders on delinquency. He left school at an early age, joined the Merchant Marine and traveled to the Dominican Republic. He returned to the United States in Port Arthur, Texas. After a stint with his great-uncle in Slater, he moved to Ontario, Canada and worked for a season as a lumberjack. He returned to the United States and participated in a traveling circus.
In April 1947, at the age of 17, he did his military service with the Marines in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, where he was a tank pilot and mechanic in the 2nd Marine Division.
In 1950, he arrived in New York and, with his soldier”s pay, moved to Greenwich Village where he rented a room with a sink for $19 a month. He met his mother, who had also moved to New York. He worked as a dockworker during the day and went door-to-door selling encyclopedias at night.
It was at this time that he befriended a drama student, Mark Rydell. Without a vocation, McQueen decides to embrace the acting career when his friend Rydell tells him that in Hollywood there are many girls. As an ex-Marine, he can benefit from financial aid from the G.I. Bill to study, so he enrolls in June 1951 at the Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theatre of Sanford Meisner, then studies at the HB Studio for 2 years, and at the Actors Studio in New York.
In 1955, he made his Broadway debut in the play A Hatful of Rain. In June 1956, he met the professional Broadway dancer Neile Adams, whom he married on November 2, 1956. The same year, the couple left New York for Las Vegas, where his wife found a job as a dancer at the Tropicana Las Vegas casino. She left the casino in 1958, and the couple moved to a house in North Hollywood. It was then that television producer Vincent M. Fennelly and talent agent Abe Lastfogel spotted him and signed him to his first contract to star in a western television series called Trackdown.
In 1956, Steve McQueen turns in his first film, Marked by hate under the direction of Robert Wise. His appearance in the film is not very important and he does not appear in the credits. Insolent and uncontrollable, he is condemned for a long time to be an extra.
In 1958, he gets the first major role of his film career with Danger planétaire (The Blob), a horror and science fiction film. Film of limited interest (the actor will joke later, saying that it is his “best role”), it will however be decisive because it will be spotted by the producer Dick Powell who will ask to view the film.
Impressed by the performance of the actor who plays a lone rebel and fearless, Powell will get him a role in the television series In the Name of the Law where McQueen plays Josh Randall, a bounty hunter in the American West armed with a Winchester rifle model 1892 with sawed-off stock and barrel. Determined not to let his chance pass, he brings his experience, making changes to the scenarios and his dialogue to make his character more credible. From 1958 to 1961, he played in all 94 episodes of the three seasons of the series. From one day to the next, he met with success and, in a short time, became one of the most famous television figures in America.
In the 1960s, he turns several times with John Sturges, first in The Prey of Vultures (1959), which reveals him to moviegoers. But he is especially part of the cast of the film The Seven Mercenaries (1960) alongside Yul Brynner, Charles Bronson and James Coburn, among others. Yul Brynner, the star of the film, is the “target” for McQueen, who, because of his competitive nature, tries to “steal the scenes” where he appears with the star, multiplying the stratagems to disconcert Brynner. For this film, McQueen had to simulate a car accident in order to free himself from the shooting of the series In the Name of the Law. With this role, he is one of the first television actors to make a successful transition to film.
Released from his contract for In the Name of the Law at the end of 1960, he replaces Cary Grant for the comedy Down in the Casino (1961), then turns in two war films, Hell is for Heroes (1962) and, the same year in England, The Man who loved war.
In the summer of 1962, he found John Sturges in Germany for The Great Escape. Having now the favor of film producers, the actor understands that to remain at the top, he must make his mark in his roles. Not wanting to be a simple actor in a choral film, he seeks to give importance to his character. Disappointed, he slams the door of the studio. Panic-stricken, United Artists agreed to hire a screenwriter to enhance his character, McQueen had some scenes rewritten. Ivan Moffat, the scriptwriter, adds to his request additional details, such as the use of the ball and the baseball glove, which will contribute to his success. A motorcycle fan and privateer, McQueen also integrates his passion into the film by suggesting personal ideas, as in the scene of the escape of his character on a motorcycle. He performs several stunts himself, the others being performed by the Hollywood stuntman Bud Ekins (en) to whom he is close, including the scene where his character jumps over the barrier of the German-Swiss border with his motorcycle, a scene that remained in the memories. The film was a success and confirmed McQueen as one of the most popular actors of the moment.
Back in the United States, we find him for the first time in a romantic comedy, A Certain Meeting (1963) by Robert Mulligan where he has for partner the heroine of The Fury of Life, actress Natalie Wood. Followed, the same year, two minor films mixed, The Last Fight and The Wake of Violence, which will make his fans doubt for the continuation of his career.
At the end of 1964, he returned to the movie set in The Cincinnati Kid, playing the role of Eric Stoner, a professional poker player in the 1930s. For his first collaboration with Norman Jewison, who replaces Sam Peckinpah, fired by the producer, this film is an opportunity for McQueen to confront the legendary Hollywood actor Edward G. Robinson. Always driven by his competitive spirit, he asks Jewison for an opinion on Robinson, not being sure if he is a good fit. In the scene where the two actors play poker against each other, the tension is palpable. Other actors in the film complain to the director about McQueen”s mannerisms, as he purposely does not look them in the eye when he plays. McQueen”s apparent casualness, reserve and self-control actually conceal a lack of self-confidence, with Jewison telling him that he needs an older director, a sort of surrogate father, to keep him going. This is the beginning of a fruitful and loyal partnership between the two men. In this film, McQueen shows the magnetic and chilling side of his acting, linked to his personality that originated in his difficult childhood and youth.
In 1965, he signed with Paramount a western, Nevada Smith, directed by veteran Henry Hathaway, before embarking on a very long shoot with the director of his debut, Robert Wise in The Yangtze River Gunboat (1966). The film, a dramatic epic set in 1920s China, was shot partly in Hong Kong and Taiwan. In 1967, The Yangtze River Gunboat was nominated for eight Oscars, with McQueen receiving his only nomination for Best Actor of his career. Drawing on his experience in the military for this role, the film evoked aspects of his own life, and he managed to convey emotions without saying a word, acting instinctively, dropping many of his lines of text to emphasize certain important lines. In 1966, the New York Daily News called it the best performance of his career.
In 1968, he turned in one of his most famous films: The Thomas Crown Affair, for which he found Norman Jewison again and gave his partner Faye Dunaway the longest kiss of the cinema (crowned at the Oscars). In this film, the actor shows a new facet of his game by playing the role of a divorced millionaire and seducer who prepares a heist, far from his roles of cowboy, soldier or his passion for motorcycling. But, stimulated by this challenge, although he was not initially the favorite actor, he managed to convince his friend Jewison to take the role. He excelled once again by his ability to express his game through the unspoken, the games of looks, especially during the scene of the chess game, one of the highlights of the film. In addition, he manages to fit his passion for speed and driving with the scene where he drives a dune buggy on the beach with a Faye Dunaway petrified of fear at his side.
The same year, he played a policeman in Bullitt by Peter Yates, a film that contains a cult sequence of car chase through San Francisco and which will be a landmark. Indicated in the script only by two words: “chase”, the actor imagined the scene, having carte blanche to do what he wanted. He thought about the type of vehicle a cop could afford at the time, choosing a Mustang GT 390 to chase the “Mopar” Dodge Charger. He hired stuntman Bill Hickman (en) and began training with him at the Cotati racetrack, north of San Francisco. The scene, very realistic, is the highlight of the film. With Bullitt, released in 1968, the actor will become an icon of the counter-culture.
In 1969, he appeared in Reivers, with a screenplay inspired by William Faulkner”s last novel.
Thereafter, he tried to link his love for speed and car racing with the cinema. He had already proposed to John Frankenheimer to have a role in Grand Prix, but Frankenheimer refused, stating that he wanted to put forward the car show and not an actor. He then decided to make a film about Formula 1 racing in motorsport, Day of a Champion, a project that will never see the light of day because the producers found the script by Tom Purdy, Playboy”s car critic, too light, and also following some health problems of the actor during the shooting of The Yangtze River Gunboat. From this aborted project was born the film Le Mans in 1970.
The lack of a script for Le Mans and the excessive expense of shooting led the director, John Sturges and the editor, Ferris Webster to resign, following pressure from the production. Moreover, McQueen”s obsession with the film caused him to lose his mind, the actor spending his time with the film”s crew of drivers, then not shooting his scenes following an altercation with Sturges. Lee H. Katzin resumed directing under difficult conditions. The shooting of the film is also delayed by serious accidents, including one of the pilots who will lose a leg. The filming also proved to be trying and demoralizing for McQueen since he was deprived, because of the refusal of the film”s insurers, of a participation in the real 24 Hours of Le Mans, yet the main reason for his coming to France to shoot this film. Originally, McQueen wanted to participate in the real 24 Hours of Le Mans and to include in the film images and sequences from the real race. Moreover, in charge of the film since Sturges” departure, McQueen did as he pleased and made bad decisions, no one having the courage to contradict him. Finally, his behavior off the set, especially with his various female conquests and his use of drugs, contributed to the deterioration of the atmosphere on the set, as well as the couple he formed with Neile Adams.
The commercial failure of Le Mans will cause the bankruptcy of his production company, Solar production. In the meantime, he co-produced in 1971 the cult film about motorcycle racing, On Any SundayOn Any Sunday, directed by Bruce Brown.
During the 1970s, Steve McQueen is the highest paid actor in show business and turns in important films. He plays, in quick succession, in two films under the direction of Sam Peckinpah. First Junior Bonner (1972), a comedy-drama in which he plays a rodeo champion, then Guet-apens (1972), a rather violent thriller. It was during the shooting of the latter film that he met the actress Ali MacGraw, then wife of Robert Evans, the boss of Paramount. Unable to resist the charisma of the actor, the young actress falls under his magnetic charm, McQueen married him in second marriage.
In 1973, he turns in Butterfly by Franklin J. Schaffner, adaptation of the auto-biographical story of Henri Charriere where he plays the title role alongside Dustin Hoffman. For his role, once again against the grain, McQueen gives body and soul by playing a man who collapses and whose humanity is damaged, far from his usual roles of hard and virile men. The filming, done in Jamaica, is difficult and physically demanding (muggy and torrid heat, mud, 12-hour shooting days). One of the scenes of the film shows McQueen jumping from a sheer cliff into the sea; the actor does the stunt himself. He finished the shooting exhausted and retired from the set for a while.
Guet-apens and Papillon will be successes, and will show that the actor has digested the failure of the film Le Mans while maintaining an intact popularity.
In 1974, he turns in The Towering Inferno under the direction of John Guillermin. Choral disaster film that brings together a plethora of stars and is a huge commercial success, it is also an opportunity for the actor to confront Paul Newman, which allows him to revive a rivalry he had with him since his first role in the cinema, in Marked by hate in 1956, one of the first great successes of Newman. Out of jealousy, McQueen insists on having the same number of lines as him. McQueen had previously missed the opportunity to shoot with Newman in Butch Cassidy and the Kid in 1969. This film will also be the last of McQueen to have a real impact with the public. Having negotiated favorable financial conditions for his role (percentage of profits), the actor pocketed, thanks to the success of the film, the sum of 14 million dollars at the time (between 60 and 80 million for 2018). After this film, his image changes. He gained weight, wore a beard and rumors described supposed problems of drug addiction.
On the advice of Ali MacGraw, he undertakes in 1976 on a very austere film, An Enemy of the People, based on the play by Henrik Ibsen, which will be distributed only in 1978 in a very small number of theaters. But his health deteriorates, he is in fact eaten away by lung cancer.
As with his previous wife, he gets Ali MacGraw to stop her career, the actress becoming a prisoner of their residence in Trancas Beach in Malibu. But his marriage to MacGraw is crumbling. The face puffed up, the hair bleached, he remains three years without turning, refusing a lot of scenarios (including the first role of Apocalypse Now, demanding an astronomical fee because he does not want to spend sixteen weeks in the jungle of the Philippines), before appearing in a twilight western, Tom Horn. His career ends with The Hunter, released in 1980.
Divorced from Ali MacGraw in 1978, he married the model Barbara Minty (en) on January 16, 1980. She remains with the actor until his death, a few months later.
Illness and death
Steve McQueen develops a persistent cough in 1978. He stopped smoking and underwent antibiotic treatment, but his condition did not improve. On December 22, 1979, after the filming of The Hunter, a biopsy reveals pleural mesothelioma, an incurable cancer of the pleura, typically associated with the inhalation of asbestos dust, particles to which he was regularly exposed during his motorcycle races, where he wore suits and scarves treated with asbestos to be non-flammable. In a 2014 documentary, his widow Barbara Minty (en) claims that his disease was contracted while he was in the military with the Marines, having had to clean during a punishment of boat hulls and, on that occasion, accidentally inhaling asbestos particles.
In February 1980, metastases were discovered in his body. In July 1980, the actor, who refused chemotherapy, went to Rosarito Beach, Mexico, to undergo unconventional treatment, after American doctors told him that they could do nothing more to prolong his life. The trip was controversial, as McQueen sought treatment from William Donald Kelley. Kelley recommended a therapy that involved coffee enemas, frequent shampooing, daily injections of fluid containing cattle cells, and the use of amygdalin, a compound that turns to cyanide during digestion and is often misrepresented as a cure for cancer. Kelley”s only medical training is a degree in orthodontics, and his license to practice was revoked in 1976.
The actor returns to the United States in early October 1980. Despite the cancerous metastases present throughout his body, William Kelley announced publicly that McQueen was in remission. However, his condition deteriorated and huge tumors developed in his abdomen.
At the end of October 1980, he returned to Mexico, to Ciudad Juárez, to have an abdominal tumor of more than two kilos removed from his liver, despite the warnings of American doctors that the tumor was inoperable and that his heart could not withstand such surgery.
On November 7, 1980, Steve McQueen died in his sleep of cardiac arrest at 3:45 a.m., 12 hours after the operation to remove his numerous abdominal tumors. His body is cremated and his ashes are scattered in the Pacific Ocean.
Marriages and descendants
From 1956 to 1972, Steve McQueen was married to Neile Adams. From their union were born two children: a girl, Terry Leslie (1959-1998) and a boy, Chad McQueen (born December 28, 1960). From 1973 to 1978, he was married in second marriage with Ali MacGraw and, on January 16, 1980 with Barbara Minty (en). He is the grandfather of Steven R. McQueen, who plays the role of Jeremy Gilbert in the television series Vampire Diaries.
With an undeniable power of seduction, the actor has the reputation of being a heartbreaker. He likes to have fun and, on the screen as in the city, has the most beautiful actresses on his arm. Sometimes the line between his career and his private life blurs, especially because of the period of the 1960s, synonymous with “free love” at that time. He found it hard to resist temptation, although he loved his wife and children. His wife, Neile Adams, let him; but when his affair with the actress Barbara Leigh came to light, she accepted it with difficulty and their marriage fell apart. When the actor thinks that his wife cheats on him, she confirms her short affair with another actor, to avenge his infidelities. Because of his drug consumption, McQueen becomes more and more paranoid and gets carried away easily. Finally, Neile, taking fear of his reactions, asks for a divorce in 1972.
In 1972, the actor began shooting the film The Getaway, during which he met the actress Ali MacGraw, then married to the producer Robert Evans, and married her for the second time after his divorce on August 31, 1973. But his paranoia and violence grow more and more and his addictions take a large place in his life, despite his desire to stop. Richard MacGraw, Ali MacGraw”s father, likes his new son-in-law: they get drunk on beer together and feel close because of the similarities of their difficult childhood filled with rage. Although he loves his wife, McQueen does not cease to accumulate the liaisons and has a rather serious adventure with the model Barbara Minty. After five years of a tumultuous union, Ali MacGraw and he divorced in August 1978, and as he had made her sign a marriage contract that did not provide money in case of divorce and had confined to the home, she found herself without a penny. Immediately after the departure of his second wife, he installs the young Barbara at his place. She will become his third and last wife in January 1980 until the death of the actor.
A fierce believer in privacy, Steve McQueen said in an interview, “I have a deep conviction: I want to live my life the way I want to live it; in other words, my private life is mine alone and I will fight to keep it that way. An individualist, he never resolved like other actors to fit into the “Hollywood mold” to pretend to fit an image; his world was rather that of bikers, racing, speed; the acting profession was more of a “fight” for him.
Very close to his wife Neile Adams and his children, attentive father, he always took his family with him on the sets of filming, everywhere in the world. But, because of his possessive character, violent and jealous, with a strong machismo, he will maintain all his life with his wives, his mistresses and his companions a chaotic relationship.
Endowed with sex appeal, he possessed a rare mix of qualities: a physique, a look, an apparent calm, a casual reserve mixed with a “street kid” side, a “dangerous” virility and a nervous charisma, such a combination being “coveted by men and admired by women”.
He did two hours of exercise daily, including weight lifting and a five-mile run. He also learned Tangsudo, a martial art from Pat E. Johnson (en), a ninth-dan black belt, and trained with him, Chuck Norris and Bruce Lee. In addition to learning to fight, martial arts were used to improve his self-discipline and self-control, because of his impulsive nature.
However, he was also known for his drug abuse (William Claxton said he smoked marijuana almost every day, others say he snorted cocaine since the early 1970s). In addition, like many actors of that time, he was a heavy smoker. He sometimes drank to excess, and was arrested for drunk driving in Anchorage, Alaska in 1972.
In a 2014 documentary where several personalities are interviewed about the actor (including Robert Vaughn), Gary Oldman talks about the fascination of Steve McQueen, nicknamed the “King of Cool”: “As soon as he pops up on screen, he grabs you. You can”t help but look at him. Pierce Brosnan adds: “He loved women, he loved living dangerously. He was always on the edge, because he had a tumultuous life path,” summing up the life of a temperamental, perfectionist man who “pushed the limits, broke the rules and lived as he pleased.” McQueen, because of his damaged and impoverished childhood, has always demonstrated a “permanent survivor” attitude, fighting with producers and directors to impose his views in his films. At the height of his fame, he said, “If I hadn”t been an actor, I might have ended up a crook.
Steve McQueen was a friend of Sharon Tate and Jay Sebring (en). Learning of their murder on August 9, 1969 by members of Charles Manson”s “family” while he had planned to spend the fateful evening at their home, McQueen is shocked, especially since his name was on Manson”s blacklist. He buys weapons to protect Neile and their children, becomes suspicious, the drug taking making him paranoid.
Close friend of Bruce Lee, who taught him Jeet Kune Do, when the latter died in 1973, McQueen carried his coffin with James Coburn, Robert Lee (en), Taky Kimura and Dan Inosanto.
Steve McQueen had an unusual reputation for demanding free items in bulk from studios when he agreed to make a film, such as electric razors, jeans and other items. It was later discovered that McQueen donated these items to the Boys Republic School where he spent part of his childhood. The actor made occasional visits to the school to spend time with the students, often playing pool and talking about his own experiences.
A motorcycle and car racing fan, Steve McQueen collected some of the most beautiful motorcycles and sports cars of his time throughout his career: Shelby Cobra, Jaguar XK-SS, Porsches (Speedster 58), Ferraris, Lotuses, etc., as well as the Mini or the Ford Mustang Fastback GT 390 (in) (as used in Bullitt)
The actor also collected during twenty-five years all kinds of objects, ranging from children”s toys, through weapons, posters, photos and clothing. On November 11, 2006, this collection was dispersed by his widow, Barbara McQueen Brunsvold (née Minty). The sale, organized by Bonhams & Butterfield, consisted of 216 lots, including the pair of Persol sunglasses that the actor wore in the film The Thomas Crown Affair, which sold for $70,200. There was also the Winchester Model 1892 rifle from In the Name of the Law, which went for $2,016; his collection of Indian motorcycles, including the 1920 Powerplus Daytona, which went for $150,000; the Tom Horn movie script engraved with his name, which went for $35,100; and an engraved knife “To Steve from Dutch,” which went for $38,025. For the latter, the donor was none other than Von Dutch, aka Kenny Howard, a painter and father of Kustom Kulture.
Steve McQueen was a great fan of motor sports and performed several stunts in his films. It is this passion which is at the origin of the film Le Mans. He also had a private collection of the greatest sports cars of his time.
As early as 1962, his presence is reported in Californian races organized under the aegis of the Sports Car Club of America (SCCA), notably at Laguna Seca at the wheel of a Cooper T56 (en) single-seater (also called MKII FJ).
In 1970, during the 12 Hours of Sebring, he drove a Porsche 908 with Peter Revson. After leading the race for a while, they arrived in second place, 23 seconds after the Ferrari 512 S of Mario Andretti. Steve McQueen will participate in this race with a leg in plaster, following a motorcycle accident that occurred only two weeks earlier.
Also a motorcycle racer, he competed in many “Baja” desert races in the 1960s, before being selected in 1964 by the U.S. federation to be part of “Team USA” at the World Enduro Team Championships, the International Six Days of Trial (ISDT). The American team was made up of his friend Bud Ekins (en), the stuntman who did the motorcycle jump in the movie The Great Escape, his younger brother Dave Ekins and Cliff Coleman. It takes place in Erfurt, East Germany, and attracts a large number of reporters from around the world, due to McQueen”s presence behind the “Iron Curtain”. Riding a 650 cc Triumph motorcycle, the actor will give up on the 4th day of the competition, following a violent fall.
In the early 1970s, he participated in various races, such as the “Elsinore Grand-Prix”, riding a Husqvarna 400cc, 2-stroke engine, alongside his friends Malcolm Smith and Mert Lawwill, very high level riders who participated with him in the filming of On Any SundayOn Any Sunday. He was then seen in an advertisement for the new Honda Elsinore motocross bike, a bike that he did not use in competition. At that time, the film production companies forbid him to enter motorsport competitions, so he uses an assumed identity to participate, that of “Harvey Mushman”, which will not prevent journalists from informing the general public.
In France, Jacques Thébault was the regular French voice of Steve McQueen. There was also occasionally Marc Cassot who dubbed him three times.