Hand color tinted photo of Steve McQueen, from the 1963 movie, The Great Escape
Terrence Steven “Steve” McQueen (March 24, 1930 – November 7, 1980) was an American movie actor nicknamed “The King of Cool.” His “anti-hero” persona, which he developed at the height of the Vietnam counterculture, made him one of the top box-office draws of the 1960s and 1970s. McQueen received an Academy Award nomination for his role in The Sand Pebbles. His other popular films include The Magnificent Seven, The Great Escape, The Thomas Crown Affair, Bullitt, The Getaway, Papillon, and The Towering Inferno. In 1974 he became the highest paid movie star in the world. Although McQueen was combative with directors and producers, his popularity put him in high demand and enabled him to command large salaries.
He was an avid racer of both motorcycles and cars. While he studied acting, he supported himself partly by competing in weekend motorcycle races and bought his first motorcycle with his winnings. He is recognized for performing many of his own stunts, especially the majority of the stunt driving during the high-speed chase scene in Bullitt. McQueen also designed and patented a bucket seat and transbrake for race cars
McQueen was born Terrence Steven McQueen in Beech Grove, Indiana, a suburban community bordering Indianapolis, in Marion County. His father, William, a stunt pilot for a barnstorming flying circus, abandoned McQueen and his mother when McQueen was six months old. His mother, Julia, was a young, rebellious alcoholic. Unable to cope with bringing up a small child, she left him with her parents (Victor and Lillian) in Slater, Missouri, in 1933. Shortly thereafter, as the Great Depression set in, McQueen and his grandparents moved in with Lillian’s brother Claude on the latter’s farm in Slater.
McQueen had good memories of the time spent on his Great Uncle Claude’s farm. In recalling Claude, McQueen stated “He was a very good man, very strong, very fair. I learned a lot from him.” On McQueen’s fourth birthday, Claude gave him a red tricycle, which McQueen later claimed started his interest in racing. At age 8, he was taken back by his mother and lived with her and her new husband in Indianapolis. McQueen retained a special memory of leaving the farm: “The day I left the farm Uncle Claude gave me a personal going-away present; a gold pocket watch, with an inscription inside the case.” The inscription read: “To Steve– who has been a son to me.”
McQueen, who was dyslexic and partially deaf as a result of a childhood ear infection, did not adjust well to his new life. Within a couple of years he was running with a street gang and committing acts of petty crime. Unable to control McQueen’s behavior, his mother sent him back to Slater again. A couple of years later, when McQueen was 12, Julia wrote to Claude asking that McQueen be returned to her once again, to live in her new home in Los Angeles, California. Julia, whose second marriage had ended in divorce, had married a third time.
This would begin an unsettled period in McQueen’s life. By McQueen’s own account, he and his new stepfather, “locked horns immediately.” McQueen recounted him as “a prime son of a bitch”, who was not averse to using his fists on both McQueen and his mother. As McQueen began to rebel once again, he was sent back to live with Claude a final time. At age 14, McQueen left Claude’s farm without saying goodbye and joined a circus for a short time, after which he slowly drifted back to his mother and stepfather in Los Angeles, and resumed his life as a gang member and petty criminal. On one occasion, McQueen was caught stealing hubcaps by police, who handed him over to his stepfather. The latter proceeded to beat McQueen severely, and ended the fight by throwing McQueen down a flight of stairs. McQueen looked up at his stepfather and said, “You lay your stinkin’ hands on me again and I swear, I’ll kill ya.”
After this, McQueen’s stepfather convinced Julia to sign a court order stating that McQueen was incorrigible and remanding him to the California Junior Boys Republic in Chino Hills, California. Here, McQueen slowly began to change and mature. He was not popular with the other boys at first: “Say the boys had a chance once a month to load into a bus and go into town to see a movie. And they lost out because one guy in the bungalow didn’t get his work done right. Well, you can pretty well guess they’re gonna have something to say about that. I paid his dues with the other fellows quite a few times. I got my lumps, no doubt about it. The other guys in the bungalow had ways of paying you back for interfering with their well-being.” Ultimately, however, McQueen decided to give Boys Republic a fair shot. He became a role model for the other boys when he was elected to the Boys Council, a group who made the rules and regulations governing the boys’ lives. (He would eventually leave Boys Republic at 16 and when he later became famous, he regularly returned to talk to the boys there. He also personally responded to every letter he received from the boys there, and retained a lifelong association.)
After McQueen left Chino, he returned to Julia, now living in Greenwich Village, but almost immediately left again. He then met two sailors from the Merchant Marine and volunteered to serve on a ship bound for the Dominican Republic. Once there, he abandoned his new post, eventually making his way to Texas, and drifted from job to job. He worked as a towel boy in a brothel, on an oil rigger, as a trinket salesman in a carnival and as a lumberjack.
In 1947, McQueen joined the United States Marine Corps and was quickly promoted to Private First Class and assigned to an armored unit. Initially, he reverted to his prior rebelliousness, and as a result was demoted to private seven times. He went UA (unauthorized absence) by failing to return after a weekend pass had expired. He instead stayed away with a girlfriend for two weeks, until the shore patrol caught him. He resisted arrest and as a result spent 41 days in the brig.
After this, McQueen resolved to focus his energies on self-improvement and embraced the Marines’ discipline. He saved the lives of five other Marines during an Arctic exercise, pulling them from a tank before it broke through ice into the sea. He was also assigned to an honor guard responsible for guarding then-U.S. President Harry Truman’s yacht. McQueen served until 1950 when he was honorably discharged.
In 1952, with financial assistance provided by the G.I. Bill, McQueen began studying acting at Sanford Meisner’s Neighborhood Playhouse. He also began to earn money by competing in weekend motorcycle races at Long Island City Raceway and soon purchased the first of many motorcycles, a used Harley Davidson. He soon became an excellent racer, and came home each weekend with about $100 in winnings, which is around $805 in 2009 dollars adjusted for inflation.
After several roles in productions including Peg o’ My Heart, The Member of the Wedding, and Two Fingers of Pride, McQueen landed his first film role in Somebody Up There Likes Me, directed by Robert Wise and starring Paul Newman. He made his Broadway debut in 1955 in the play A Hatful of Rain, starring Ben Gazzara. When McQueen appeared in a two-part television presentation entitled The Defenders, Hollywood manager Hilly Elkins (who managed McQueen’s first wife, Neile) took note of him and decided that B-movies would be a good place for the young actor to make his mark. McQueen was subsequently hired to appear in the films Never Love a Stranger, The Blob, and The Great St. Louis Bank Robbery.
McQueen’s first breakout role would not come in film, but on TV. Elkins successfully lobbied Vincent M. Fennelly, producer of the Western series Trackdown, to have McQueen read for the part of a bounty hunter named Josh Randall in a new pilot for a Trackdown companion series. The Randall character, played by Robert Culp, was introduced in Trackdown, after which McQueen filmed the pilot episode. The pilot was approved for a series titled Wanted: Dead or Alive on CBS in September 1958.
McQueen would become a household name as a result. Randall’s holster held a sawed-off Winchester rifle nicknamed the “Mare’s Leg” instead of the standard six-gun carried by the typical Western character. This added to the anti-hero image infused with a mixture of mystery and detachment that made this show stand out from the typical TV Western. Ninety-four episodes, filmed at Apacheland Studio from 1958 until early 1961, kept McQueen steadily employed.
At 29, McQueen got a significant break when Frank Sinatra removed Sammy Davis, Jr. from the film Never So Few and Davis’ role went to McQueen. Sinatra saw something special in McQueen and ensured that the young actor got plenty of good close-ups in a role that earned McQueen favorable reviews. McQueen’s character, Bill Ringa, was never more comfortable than when driving at high speed — in this case at the wheel of a jeep.
After Never So Few, director John Sturges cast McQueen in his next movie, promising to “give him the camera.” The Magnificent Seven (1960), with Yul Brynner, Robert Vaughn, Charles Bronson and James Coburn, became McQueen’s first major hit and led to his withdrawal from Wanted: Dead or Alive. McQueen’s focused portrayal of the taciturn second lead catapulted his career.
McQueen’s next big film, 1963’s The Great Escape, told the true story of an historical mass escape from a World War II POW camp, Stalag Luft III. Insurance concerns prevented McQueen from performing the film’s widely noted motorcycle leap, which was instead done by his friend and fellow cycle enthusiast Bud Ekins who resembled McQueen from a distance. When Johnny Carson later tried to congratulate McQueen for the jump during a broadcast of The Tonight Show, McQueen said, “It wasn’t me. That was Bud Ekins.” This film established McQueen’s box-office clout and cemented his status as a superstar.
In 1963, McQueen starred with Natalie Wood in Love With The Proper Stranger. He later appeared in a prequel as the titular Nevada Smith, a character from Harold Robbins’ The Carpetbaggers who had been portrayed by Alan Ladd two years earlier in a movie version of that novel. McQueen also earned his only Academy Award nomination in 1966 for his role as an engine room sailor in The Sand Pebbles, in which he starred opposite Richard Attenborough and Candice Bergen.
He followed his Oscar nomination with 1968’s Bullitt, one of his most famous films, co-starring Jacqueline Bisset and Robert Vaughn. It featured an unprecedented (and endlessly imitated) auto chase through San Francisco. McQueen did all his own stunt driving with the exception of the Chestnut Street flying jumps (with Ekins again doubling McQueen) and the gas-station crash gag (Carey Loftin doubling him for that).
McQueen went for a change of image, playing a debonair role as a wealthy executive in The Thomas Crown Affair with Faye Dunaway in 1968. He made the Southern period piece The Reivers in 1969, followed by the 1971 European auto-racing drama Le Mans.
Then came The Getaway during which he met future wife Ali MacGraw. He worked for director Sam Peckinpah again with the leading role in Junior Bonner in 1972, a story of an aging rodeo rider. He followed this with a physically demanding role as a Devils Island prisoner in 1973’s Papillon.
By the time of The Getaway, McQueen had become the world’s highest paid actor. But after 1974’s The Towering Inferno, co-starring with his long-time personal friend and professional rival Paul Newman and reuniting him with Dunaway, became a tremendous box-office success, McQueen all but disappeared from Hollywood. and the public eye. He did not return until 1978 with An Enemy of the People playing against type as a heavily bearded, bespectacled 19th Century doctor, in this adaptation of a bleak Henrik Ibsen play. The film was little seen.
His last films were both loosely based on true stories: Tom Horn, a Western adventure about a famed scout who captured Geronimo, and then The Hunter, an urban action movie about a modern-day bounty hunter, both released in 1980.
McQueen was offered the lead role in Breakfast at Tiffany’s but was unable to accept due to his Wanted: Dead or Alive contract (the role went to George Peppard). He also turned down Ocean’s Eleven, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (his attorneys and agents couldn’t agree with Paul Newman’s attorneys and agents on who got top billing), The Driver, Apocalypse Now, California Split, Dirty Harry and The French Connection. (McQueen didn’t want to do another cop film.)
He was the first choice for director Steven Spielberg for Close Encounters of the Third Kind. According to Spielberg on a documentary on the Close Encounters DVD, Spielberg met him at a bar, where McQueen drank beer after beer. Before leaving, McQueen told Spielberg that he could not accept the role because he was unable to cry on cue. The role eventually went to Richard Dreyfuss.
McQueen expressed interest in starring as the Rambo character in First Blood when David Morrell’s novel appeared in 1972, but the producers eventually rejected him because of his age. He was offered the title role in The Bodyguard (with Diana Ross) when it was first proposed in 1976, but the film didn’t reach production until years after McQueen’s death. Quigley Down Under was in development as early as 1974, and both McQueen and Clint Eastwood were considered for the lead, but by the time production began in 1980, McQueen was too ill and the project was scrapped until a decade later, when Tom Selleck starred. McQueen was offered the lead in the Raise the Titanic but felt the script was flat. He was under contract to Irwin Allen after appearing in The Towering Inferno and was offered a part in a sequel in 1980, which he turned down. The film was scrapped and Newman was brought in by Allen to make When Time Ran Out, which turned out to be a huge box office bomb, ending the careers of many involved. He died shortly after passing on “The Towering Inferno 2”.
McQueen was an avid motorcycle and racecar enthusiast. When he had the opportunity to drive in a movie, he performed many of his own stunts.
Perhaps the most memorable were the car chase in Bullitt and motorcycle chase in The Great Escape. Although the jump over the fence in The Great Escape was actually done by Bud Ekins for insurance purposes, McQueen did have a considerable amount of screen time riding his 650cc Triumph TR6 Trophy motorcycle. According to the commentary track on The Great Escape DVD, it was difficult to find riders as skilled as McQueen. At one point, due to clever editing, McQueen is seen in a German uniform chasing himself on another bike.
Together with John Sturges, McQueen planned to make Day of the Champion, a movie about Formula One racing. He was busy with the delayed The Sand Pebbles, though. They had a contract with the German Nürburgring, and after John Frankenheimer shot scenes there for Grand Prix, the reels had to be turned over to Sturges. Frankenheimer was ahead in schedule anyway, and the McQueen/Sturges project was called off.
McQueen considered becoming a professional race car driver. In the 1970 12 Hours of Sebring race, Peter Revson and McQueen (driving with a cast on his left foot from a motorcycle accident two weeks before) won with a Porsche 908/02 in the 3 litre class and missed winning overall by a scant 23 seconds to Mario Andretti/Ignazio Giunti/Nino Vaccarella in a 5 litre Ferrari 512S. The same Porsche 908 was entered by his production company Solar Productions as a camera car for Le Mans in the 1970 24 Hours of Le Mans later that year. McQueen wanted to drive a Porsche 917 with Jackie Stewart in that race, but his film backers threatened to pull their support if he did. Faced with the choice of driving for 24 hours in the race or driving the entire summer making the film, McQueen opted to do the latter. However, the film was a box office flop that almost ruined McQueen’s career. In addition, McQueen admitted that he almost died while filming the movie. Nonetheless, Le Mans is considered by some to be the most historically realistic representation in the history of the race.
McQueen also competed in off-road motorcycle racing. His first off-road motorcycle was a Triumph 500cc that he purchased from friend and stunt man Ekins. McQueen raced in many top off-road races on the West Coast, including the Baja 1000, the Mint 400 and the Elsinore Grand Prix. In 1964, with Ekins on their Triumph TR6 Trophys, he represented the United States in the International Six Days Trial, a form of off-road motorcycling Olympics. He was inducted in the Off-road Motorsports Hall of Fame in 1978. In 1971, Solar Productions funded the now-classic motorcycle documentary On Any Sunday, in which McQueen is featured along with racing legends Mert Lawwill and Malcolm Smith. Also in 1971, McQueen was on the cover of Sports Illustrated magazine riding a Husqvarna dirt bike.
McQueen collected classic motorcycles. By the time of his death, his collection included over 100 and was valued in the millions of dollars.
In a segment filmed for The Ed Sullivan Show, McQueen drove Sullivan around a desert area in a dune buggy at high speed. All the breathless Sullivan could say was, “That was a helluva ride!”
He owned several exotic sports cars, including:
Porsche 917, Porsche 908 and Ferrari 512 race cars from the Le Mans film.
1963 Ferrari 250 Lusso Berlinetta
Jaguar D-Type XKSS (Right-Hand Drive)
Porsche 356 Speedster
To his dismay, McQueen was never able to own the legendary Ford Mustang GT 390 that he drove in Bullitt, which featured a highly-modified drivetrain that suited McQueen’s driving style. There were two cars used. According to the October 2006 issue of Motor Trend Classic, in its cover story on the film, one of the Mustangs was so badly damaged it was judged to be beyond repair, so it was scrapped. The second car still exists, but the owner has consistently refused to sell it at any price.
McQueen’s height is disputed. He was officially listed as 5’10” (178 cm), but some people, including film critic Barry Norman, have said McQueen’s height was in fact only 5’7″ (170 cm). He had a daily two-hour exercise regimen, involving weightlifting and at one point running five miles, seven days a week. McQueen also learned the martial art Tang Soo Do from ninth degree black belt Pat E. Johnson. However, he was also known for his prolific drug use (William Claxton claimed he smoked marijuana almost every day; others said he used a tremendous amount of cocaine in the early 1970s). In addition, like many actors of his era, he was a heavy cigarette smoker. He sometimes drank to excess, and was arrested for driving while intoxicated in Anchorage, Alaska in 1972.
McQueen served as one of the pallbearers at Bruce Lee’s funeral in 1973. Chuck Norris and Bruce Lee taught McQueen’s son, Chad, Taekwondo and Jeet Kune Do, (respectively). Later on, McQueen persuaded Norris to attend acting classes.
After Charles Manson incited the murder of five people, including McQueen’s close friends Sharon Tate and Jay Sebring, at Tate’s home on August 9, 1969, it was reported that McQueen was another potential target of the killers. According to his first wife, McQueen then began carrying a handgun at all times in public, including at Sebring’s funeral.
McQueen had an unusual reputation for demanding free items in bulk from studios when agreeing to do a film, such as electric razors, jeans and several other products. It was later found out that McQueen requested these things because he was donating them to the Boy’s Republic reformatory school for displaced youth, where he had spent time during his teen years. McQueen made occasional visits to the school to spend time with the students, often to play pool and to speak with them about his experiences.
After discovering a mutual interest in racing, McQueen and his Great Escape co-star James Garner became good friends. Garner lived directly down the hill from McQueen and, as McQueen recalled, “I could see that Jim was very neat around his place. Flowers trimmed, no papers in the yard … grass always cut. So, just to piss him off, I’d start lobbing empty beer cans down the hill into his driveway. He’d have his drive all spic ‘n’ span when he left the house, then get home to find all these empty cans. Took him a long time to figure out it was me”.
McQueen was conservative in his political views and often backed the Republican Party. He did, however, campaign for Democrat Lyndon Johnson in 1964 before voting for Republican Richard Nixon in 1968. He supported the Vietnam War, was one of the few Hollywood stars who refused numerous requests to back Presidential hopeful Robert Kennedy, in 1968, and turned down the chance to participate in the 1963 March on Washington. When McQueen heard a rumor that he had been added to Nixon’s Enemies List, he responded by immediately flying a giant American flag outside his house. Reportedly, his wife Ali McGraw responded to the whole affair by saying, “But you’re the most patriotic person I know.”
McQueen commanded such celebrity status in the United Kingdom that when visiting Chelsea Football Club to watch a match, he was personally introduced to the players in the dressing room during the half-time break.
Barbara Minty McQueen in her book, Steve McQueen: The Last Mile, writes of McQueen becoming an Evangelical Christian toward the end of his life. This was due in part to the influences of his flying instructor, Sammy Mason and his son Pete, and Barbara. McQueen attended his local church, Ventura Missionary Church, and was visited by evangelist Billy Graham shortly before his death.
Was an avid dirt bike rider. (see BSA Hornet)
Was to co-drive in a Triumph 2500 PI for the British Leyland team in the 1970 London-Mexico rally, but had to turn it down due to movie commitments. Owned and flew a 1931 Pitcairn PA-8 biplane, once flown as part of the U.S. Mail Service by famed World War I flying ace, Eddie Rickenbacker. It was hangared at Santa Paula Airport an hour northwest of Hollywood.
Marriages and bloodline
McQueen was married three times: to Neile Adams, Ali MacGraw, and Barbara Minty. He had two children with Adams (Terry and Chad) and allegedly at least one illegitimate child, Fred McQueen. MacGraw stated in her autobiography, Moving Pictures, that she had a miscarriage during her marriage to McQueen.
^ Actress; born in 1938; co-starred in The Getaway. Married August 31, 1973 and divorced in 1978
^ Barbara Leigh (actress/model; born in 1946) co-starred with McQueen in Junior Bonner and had a relationship with him in the 1970s
^ Actress; born in 1936. Married on November 2, 1956 and divorced in 1972
^ Model; born in 1955. Married on January 16, 1980, less than a year before his death
^ Born June 5, 1959; died at 38 on March 19, 1998 as a result of respiratory failure Death
McQueen died at the age of 50 in Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua, Mexico, following an operation to remove or reduce several metastatic tumors in his abdomen.
McQueen developed a persistent cough in 1978; he gave up smoking and underwent antibiotic treatments without improvement. Shortness of breath became more pronounced and in December 1979, after the filming of The Hunter, a biopsy revealed mesothelioma, a type of cancer associated with asbestos exposure. By February 1980, there was evidence of widespread metastasis. While he tried to keep the condition a secret, the National Enquirer disclosed that he had “terminal cancer” on March 11, 1980. In July, McQueen traveled to Playas de Rosarito, Baja California for unconventional treatment after U.S. doctors advised him that they could do nothing to prolong his life.
Controversy arose over McQueen’s Mexican trip, because McQueen sought a very non-traditional treatment that used coffee enemas, frequent shampoos, injection of live cells from cows and sheep, massage and laetrile, a supposedly “natural” anti-cancer drug available in Mexico, but not approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. McQueen was treated by William Donald Kelley, whose only medical license had been (until it was revoked in 1976) for orthodontics. Kelley’s methods created a sensation in both the traditional and tabloid press when it became known that McQueen was a patient. Despite metastasis of the cancer to much of McQueen’s body, Kelley publicly announced that McQueen would be completely cured and return to normal life. However, McQueen’s condition worsened and “huge” tumors developed in his abdomen. In late October 1980, McQueen flew to Ciudad Juárez to have the five-pound abdominal tumors removed, despite the warnings of his U.S. doctors that the tumor was inoperable and that his heart would not withstand the surgery. McQueen died of cardiac arrest one day after the operation.
Shortly before his death, McQueen had given a medical interview in which he blamed his condition on asbestos exposure. While McQueen felt that asbestos used in movie soundstage insulation and race-drivers’ protective suits and helmets could have been involved, he believed his illness was a direct result of massive exposure while removing asbestos lagging from pipes aboard a troop ship during his time in the Marines.
A memorial service was presided over by Leonard DeWitt of the Ventura Missionary Church. McQueen was cremated, and his ashes spread in the Pacific Ocean.