Happy 80th Birthday, Steve McQueen

James Gribbon
by James Gribbon
happy 80th birthday steve mcqueen

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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2 of 32 comments
  • Jeffrey Semenak Jeffrey Semenak on Mar 25, 2010

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

  • BigDuke6 BigDuke6 on Mar 26, 2010

    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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