By on March 24, 2010

Terrence Steven McQueen was born to a stunt pilot father and an alcoholic mother on this day in 1930. His father left them both halfway to Steve’s first birthday. In the ensuing years he would find a home on his Uncle’s farm in Indiana, be moved to Indianapolis and L.A. where he was shipped off to a Junior Republic by an abusive stepfather, lumberjack, be a Marine guard for President Harry Turman’s yacht and become the highest paid movie star in the world.

School didn’t seem to be his thing. It’s not so easy when you’re abused, dyslexic and partially deaf from a childhood ear infection, one imagines. Frustrated and rootless young men rarely do the world any favors, and McQueen fell in with street gangs and got popped for minor crimes.

He followed his mother across the country to New York, when he almost immediately jumped aboard a Merchant Marine vessel and wound up in Texas, where he worked as a towel boy in a brothel, roughnecked on oil rigs, and was a carny for a brief period. The types of jobs available to kids with no schooling and small but noticeable criminal background. The great Paul Newman played Cool Hand Luke to perfection, while McQueen simply lived it.

Too young to join during WWII, he signed up for the Marines in 1947. He was initially promoted quickly, but every time it happened he was busted right back down for the kind of disregard for authority he would later occasionally demonstrate to directors. He once did 41 days in the brig for fighting with MPs when they came to collect him at a girl’s house a week after his leave had expired.

Somehow he pulled that duty covering the President’s yacht, and was given an honorable discharge in 1950, at which point he used his G.I. Bill money to study method acting under Sandy Meisner, and race motorcycles on the side to support himself. Turned out he was pretty good at both.

His first movie, Somebody Up There Likes Me, starred Paul Newman, and Steve would later get noticed on Broadway and find a few roles, including a leading character in The Blob. From there things sped up.

Westerns were huge in the “Us versus Them” Cold War and McQueen played a slightly dark character as bounty hunter in over 90 episodes of the TV series Wanted: Dead or Alive, which got him noticed by none other than Frank Sinatra. The Chairman liked what he saw, and gave McQueen Sammy Davis Jr.’s role in his next Rat pack movie Never So Few. Very few people have any real idea about what the Candyman thought of this, but the director of that movie, John Sturges, liked McQueen so much he decided to give the young actor a role his next movie, The Magnificent Seven. Stardom was immediate.

Steve McQueen became the guy studios called when they needed an outsider for a military role, a grunt with a bit of punk in him. He played a Lieutenant, and two Captains before depicting a rebellious (of course) Naval engineer in The Sand Pebbles; a role for which he was nominated for an Academy Award in 1966. The whole time, Steve took the money and went racing.

Motorcycles had long been his thing, and by the middle sixties he was racing in professional events, mostly off-road, like the International Six Days Trial (where he raced on the U.S. team) and the Baja 1000 – the longest off-road race int he world. He would actually hold patents in off-road racer mechanical design before his death, most notably a racing bucket seat and transbrake.

That’s right.

His real world experience racing motorcycles made him so much better than most of the stunt drivers while filming the famous chase in The Great Escape that it looked laughably undramatic. He simply torched his pursuers. Knowing this wouldn’t do for an action movie, the producers had to film him as his own character, then have him come back, change into a Nazi uniform, and film him “chasing” himself just to add some tension to the scene.

So McQueen played heroes who were anti-heroes and lived the life when he wasn’t playing them. You could talk about him driving with Peter Revson in the 1970 12 Hours of Sebring and coming in second place to Mario Andretti. You could mention how, even though it was a flop, LeMans is still the single best movie about racing in history, and how McQueen almost died several times making it. But that’s been done to death, so to speak, and you always get some shrill ninny yelping about how Revson drove most of Sebring. While McQueen may not have won Sebring, he didn’t lose it, either, and he did his hours with a left foot recently broken in a motorcycle accident.

Sometimes McQueen used his pull with the studios to make odd demands. His contracts sometimes included 500 pairs of blue jeans, or 1000 safety razors. He had enough star power to ignore the questions. Eventually people found out he was returning to the Chino Hills California Junior Boys Republic, donating the goods, and telling the boys how the place helped him turn around his life and put him on a productive path.

It’s no mystery why, when Hollywood needed a talented actor with equal parts looks, cool, and credibility to play the eponymous thief in The Thomas Crown Affair, they chose him. Not only did he bring those traits to the production, he worked in a dune buggy scene to scare the hell out of both the producers, insurers and co-star Faye Dunaway. When they needed an anti-establishment type to play a cop who could just drive the wheels off a car, they cast him as Bullitt. He was always believable, always capable, in his roles. Watch The Towering Inferno, where he was reunited with Dunaway and Newman, and tell me your palms don’t sweat.

As a movie star, McQueen knew that he had to keep up his appearance, becoming an avid runner, weigh lifter, and training in Tang Soo Do in the early 70’s when everyone in Hollywood was getting into martial arts* thanks to Bruce Lee, who taught McQueen’s son, Chad. Another one of Chad’s teachers, Chuck Norris, was persuaded by Steve to take acting classes. McQueen would later be a pallbearer at Bruce Lee’s funeral.

McQueen wasn’t a health nut, though. He has been reported to do all the things you’d imagine a movie star in the 60’s and 70’s to be capable of ingesting, and sometimes he’d roll his empty beer cans down the hill on which he and friend James Garner lived into Garner’s driveway and yard just to aggravate the other, more meticulous, actor. Having a few too many got him popped for DUI in Anchorage, Alaska, of all places in 1972; resulting in one of the greatest mug shots of all time. Steve also smoked prodigiously. That wasn’t what caught up with him, though.

Mesothelioma, probably seeded by the asbestos insulation on merchant marine and actual Marine ships on which he served, started to cause painful tumors by the late 70’s. He was convinced by a quack named William Donald Kelley, join me in cursing his name, an orthodontist, that his cancer could be cured at his clinic in Mexico. McQueen’s condition, amazingly not cured by coffee enemas, shampoo, and live sheep cell injections, worsened. Terrified, he became devoutly religious. Surgery in Ciudad Juarez to remove several five-pound tumors was too much, and that’s where he died in 1980.

The Man, the absolute Man, would have been 80 years old today.

*Seriously: watch Lee training James Coburn some time, it’s funnier than a stoned cat.

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32 Comments on “Happy 80th Birthday, Steve McQueen...”

  • avatar

    I don’t know how truthful it is, but I heard that before he died McQueen tracked down the surviving Bullitt stunt car to some barn but the owner wouldn’t sell it.

    I don’t think I could ever say no to Steve McQueen, king of cool if he was buying my car no matter what the car was.

    • 0 avatar

      It’s true, McQueen tired to buy it, but the owner refused him.

      There were actually two identical Mustangs used for the movie (consecutive VIN’s). Both with 390’s and triple deuce carb set-up. One car was used for the chase scene, and the other for the balance of the filming — movie scenes are not filmed sequentially.

      The chase car was very badly damaged, and was hauled off to the crusher after filming. The studio didn’t want to sell the remains of either chase car(Mustang or Charger), fearing a potential liability lawsuit.

      The other Mustang was sold, first to a studio employee, who kept it a few years. The studio employee eventually sold the car to a police detective from New Jersey. The Jersey cop sold the car to a collector. It was this auto collector who McQueen tried to purchase the car from. As of 2010, the surviving Bullit Mustang is still in the hands of the third owner’s(not counting the movie studio) family. The current owners are very secretive. Their names can not be confirmed, and they refuse to sell the car or put it on public display. At one point they were offered a million dollars for the car. According to someone who knows the family, the car is stored in a barn in Kentucky. The car is still in it’s original condition, and has not been messed with, but is deteriorating very badly, and is in need of professional restoration.

      I hope the family pays for a proper restoration, or sells the car to someone who will do a proper restoration before the world loses a very valuable piece of automobile history.

    • 0 avatar

      I read an article a few years ago about that. The writer reportedly was able to interview the owner on the condition that he not reveal his name. Additionally, the magazine (I belive it was Mustang Monthly) was not even allowed to take any pictures of the car. the owner sounds a little touched in the head.

  • avatar

    On Any Sunday rules.

    Also check out the credit from IMDB for Le Mans

    Transportation Department:

    1. Le Mans (1971) (driver: racing cars)

    • 0 avatar

      On Any Sunday, one of the best bike movies ever. Every time I watch it I wanna stab the lever on an ill-mannered Bultaco, and smell the Bel-Ray burn as I haul some ass with 6 inches of suspension travel.


      You are a very lucky man. I’ve been in some wicked fast E-Types, but I’ve never even seen a real XKSS. Congrats on the ride.

    • 0 avatar

      Thanks porschespeed. I’ve actually been lucky enough to have seen 6 of the original 16 XK-SS cars. I guess I’ve been in the right places at the right times. If you look at my website I have lots of XK-SS photos (just search the term), and I have a few videos of them too if you search my name on YouTube.

  • avatar

    Check out some great photos of McQueen in the current issue of Life:

  • avatar

    And that XK SS is just about the coolest thing to ever be sold as a street legal car. Basically a left-over D-type Jaguar racing car fitted by the factory with windscreen, bumpers, a flimsy top, and turn signals. I’ve have the great privilege of riding in one and they are far closer to racing car than a street machine. Phenomenally lightweight, with very tall gears (1st goes up to about 70 MPH!) they are capable of 0-60 in ~5 seconds (from mid-50s technology!!) and tops speeds over 170.

    Jaguar only completed 16 of them before the rest of them burned up in a factory fire, making them exceedingly rare and very valuable today.

  • avatar

    great bio and you didn’t even mention ali macgraw…

  • avatar

    I find bizarre that he went to Mexico to have surgery.

    • 0 avatar

      FDA requirements that medical procedures be proven effective have long driven quacks south of the border to practice dubious medicine, and desperate patients without any real options from mainstream treatments follow them hoping for some sort of miracle. Cancer was nearly untreatable back in the ’70s, and many sufferers wound up down there in a last ditch effort to stave off imminent death. Chemo and radiation therapies have only come along in the last 20 years or so.

  • avatar

    “he worked as a towel boy in a brothel”

    You just don’t see that in a resume very often.

    As a young hoon, when confronted with a driving decision to make, I subscribed to the “What would Steve McQueen do?” school. And his version of Thomas Crown was sooo much cooler than Pierce Brosnan’s.

    Happy birthday, Steve. We miss you.

    • 0 avatar

      We certainly miss Him, I remember those action movies of the late 60s and 70s, seeing Mc Queen on the cast was almost a guarantee of a fine movie.

      Btw this other gallery on Life is kinda interesting;

    • 0 avatar

      “And his version of Thomas Crown was sooo much cooler than Pierce Brosnan’s.”

      In the “Tao of Steve” Steve McQueen was the pinnacle of coolness, how true.

  • avatar

    Steve and James Coburn were the coolest cats back in the day. I just got done watching Nevada Smith, and then LeMans on Turner Classic and Bullitt still deserves a watch every time it comes on.
    RIP Steve.

  • avatar

    I am nearly 40 and have actually never seen a Steve McQueen movie, except The Great Escape… after reading this I am going to correct that oversight. Great reading, I forwarded the link to friends.

    • 0 avatar

      “The Great Escape” was the best, IMO. Wonderful acting all around. Bullitt was kind of corny, but it deserves a watch just for the car chase. The sound of those cars tearing around SF during those scenes has never been surpassed in any car chase before or since.

  • avatar

    also Ayrton Senna would have been 50 a few days ago

    the greatest ever

  • avatar

    When I was a kid, watching On Any Sunday made me want to ride motorcycles. I thought Malcolm Smith or Mert Lawwill were cooler than McQueen. But when I was a teenager I saw Bullitt and McQueen became the King of Cool, a title he holds to this day.

    I never met McQueen but I did meet Smith at a MX race and Lawwill at the Springfield Mile. And I’ve always driven Mustangs.

    • 0 avatar

      On Any Sunday spawned the BMX bicycle industry. After watching On Any Sunday, a California man noticed that this son was riding around on a Schwinn Stingray making motorcycle noises. This gave dad an idea. He used his welding and metal fabrication skills to alter the Schwinn so it would look like a peddle powered dirt bike. After the other kids in the neighborhood saw the BMX’ed Stingray, a cottage industry was born. When word got back to Schwinn headquarters in Chicago, they sent a couple of suits out to California to see for themselves. The suits reported back to the corporate mother ship that it was just some loony California fad, and the people involved were probably all on drugs, and normal people in the rest of the country would never go for such a goofy idea. Other bike makers latched on to the BMX craze and proceeded to eat Schwinn’s lunch.

  • avatar
    Martin Schwoerer

    Very nice write-up — perhaps a little too positive (about the guy as opposed to the actor), since according to most accounts, McQueen spent most years of the 1970s behaving like an typical asxhole cocaine user. Nonetheless, I still love the magic he did in Bullitt, Papillon, JR Bonner, The Getaway, and The Cincinnatti Kid. All these movies have aged very well, I would say. Surprisingly, Ebert never liked any of his performances, but what the heck.

    • 0 avatar

      I recall reading that during this phase he went all Joaquin Phoenix, got fat, grew a beard, became a recluse, then turned himself around … made The Hunter (which I saw in the cinema), then died.

      Was wondering why they were showing Bullitt on Austrian TV tonite (watched it), now I know … RIP Mr. Cool!

      BTW, read the Wiki bio on Bill Hickman (was the guy that looked like an IBM manager who drove the Charger in Bullitt) to learn his connection to McQueen and James Dean, very interesting.

  • avatar
    Cougar Red

    No one’s ever been cured of mesothelioma. It’s a lung cancer that takes decades to manifest from initial asbestos exposure. Once it manifests, there’s nothing to be done except try to ease the pain. Steve could have gone to Tahiti for medical treatment and it would not have mattered a month.

  • avatar

    Thank You!

  • avatar

    Thanks for the trip down memory lane, and honoring McQueen with such a thoughtful post.

  • avatar

    I remember back in ’79 or ’80 I was working at an airport in Mojave CA, and Steve landed his Stearman with another guy. They taxied to the apron and I just stood and watched. I was in awe, but didn’t want to think I was staring at him. He’ll always be the coolest cat to me.

  • avatar

    Steve was “a man’s man” – the guy you wanted to be, not only in movies, but in real life as well.

    There was a steep-ramped bridge over the RR tracks a few miles from my house; I used to lay on the throttle of my Honda 750 coming up to it – I’d usually get a foot of air on that jump. Yes, I was a fan of “The Great Escape”.

    I tell my younger friends that if they haven’t seen “The Sand Pebbles” and “Papillon”, they’re missing one of the best leading actors ever.

    Thanks, Steve.

  • avatar


  • avatar

    “Surprisingly, Ebert never liked any of his performances, but what the heck.”
    That’s not a bug, It’s a feature.

  • avatar

    I wonder what the Cool One would be doing if he turned 80? Still flying his Stearman around or would he have moved on to a P-51? Driving a Porsche in American LeMans or be a team owner? Making movies like ole Clint Eastwood, or just become a mayor of some little CA town (Santa Paula maybe). We’ll never know. He is frozen forever in that cool “who gives a sh*t” status he left in.

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