In my own mind, I'm not sure that acting is something for a grown man to be doing.

Troubled Teen

Terrence Steve McQueen was born March 24, 1930 in Beach Grove, Indiana. He had a very arrested childhood, his father abandoning the family when Steve was barely six months old, and his mother leaving Steve with his uncle in Missouri before his second birthday. Steve worked on his uncle's ranch until he was twelve, when his mother sent him a bus ticket to come live with her in L.A..

Steve was a troublemaker, joining a gang and getting arrested twice for petty theft. His exasperated mother finally sent him to the California Junior Boys Republic in Chino. Here, Steve was molded into the charming and successful man of his older years (but not before being caught escaping twice!). He never forgot the teachings and help Boys Republic gave him, creating the Steve McQueen scholarship fund for the Republic's best student, and visiting the school frequently after he had become famous.

By the time Steve had finished school there in 1946, his mother had relocated to New York City with her new husband-to-be. Another bus ticket arrived - only this time, the reunion was very short-lived. That same year he ditched New York City for a new residence on the sea. Getting an illicit seaman's card from some working friends, he started working on a tanker, the SS Alpha. The life didn't suit him much, though, and when the ship docked in Cuba, Steve exited.

Steve spent two years moving first from Cuba to Bermuda, and then to the Dominician Republic before returning to the States. He served as a handyman, doing all kinds of odd jobs to get by. Steve said of himself, "I was an old man at seventeen." Finally, after he grew bored of his transient lifestyle, Steve decided to join the Marines, and enlisted on April 12, 1947, just one month after his seventeenth birthday.

Straightening Up

The ever-ephemeral Steve was frequently in trouble with his commanding officers - he spent two months in the brig for going AWOL for two weeks and fighting with the patrolmen sent to pick him up. However, Steve proved he was not just the rowdy and undisciplined boy of his youth. While training near the Arctic Circle, Steve's transport ship struck a sandbank, sending several tanks and their crews into the icy waters. Steve leapt into the water and saved five men, earning him a medal for heroism and a position on Harry S Truman's at-sea Honor Guard. Three years after joining the Marines, Steve was honorably discharged.

Steve continued to travel around, doing whatever jobs were available - a heavy lifter on an oil derrick in Texas, a lumberjack near Ottawa, and finally settling again in New York City delivering TV sets for a mere pittance. Steve was unhappy with always being nearly broke, and when his actress girlfriend suggested Steve try his hand on the stage, he agreed and joined the Neighborhood Playhouse acting school, where he studied for two years. The school itself was very pricey, so Steve took on a second job hauling mail from a postal center in Trenton to the City. "I would drive all evening until two-thirty a.m., then be in school the next morning. I did that for a year. It almost killed me," Steve remarked later, with his typical detached cool. He also became something of a poker shark to make extra cash on the side, and developed a love for motorcycling, taking part in weekend races.

The Big Break

Finally, Steve got his first break as part of a repertory playing various lead roles on Second Avenue. He also began taking lessons on scholarship at the Herbert- Bergoff Drama School, finally earning one of two exclusive spots at the Actors Studio (along with Martin Landau). He got his first Broadway role in 1955, replacing Ben Gazzara for the lead role in the Michael Gazzo's play "A Hatful of Rain". Here he met Neile Adams, one of the understudies for the play, and they hit it off wonderfully. When Steve decided to move to Los Angeles to get into movies, Neile moved with him. They eventually married in 1956.

Steve's movie career, like so many others, began in low budget flicks, and Steve seemed particularly suited as the straight man in two cheapies that were churned out in the mid 1950s - Never Love A Stranger with John Barrymore, Jr., and the now famous The Blob. Steve also won many television roles, appearing on "Alfred Hitchcock Presents", the weekly teledrama "Climax!," and the western series "Tales of Wells Fargo." His appearance here led him to TV western director and writer Gene Reynolds, who cast the bronzed young star as Josh Randall in a new series, "Wanted: Dead Or Alive." As Randall, McQueen was a cool cigarette-smoking bounty hunter, evoking Marlon Brando as much as John Wayne. His first child, daughter Terry, was born on November 19, 1959.

The Big Star

The show's success gave McQueen stronger movie roles - he led an amazing group of co-stars in the Frank Sinatra war flick Never So Few, and was given the lead in The Great St. Louis Bank Robbery, a true-life crime story about a heist gone wrong. He then received perhaps his most famous role, that of Vin in John Sturges' The Magnificent Seven. Playing alongside Yul Brynner, James Coburn, Robert Vaughn, and Eli Wallach, McQueen's cold blue-eyed killer Vin was a masterpiece of Old West rough and tumble mentality mixed with a sweet solitude.

On December 28, 1960, Neile and Steve had their second child, Chad. McQueen continued to act in a string of films with war as the backdrop - The Honeymoon Machine, Hell is For Heroes, The War Lover, and finally culminating in the greatest war film ever made, The Great Escape. Set in a German prisoner of war camp after the D-Day invasion, it tells the story of the "Cooler King" Virgil Hilts (McQueen) and the other captives who plan a daring escape to keep the homeland Germans busy. Hilts, the defiant American captain, sacrifices himself throughout the movie to secure vital information and logistics for the escapees - only to have the entire scheme end in failure. A haunting movie, and McQueen's vitality and determination shine throughout. By his next picture, Soldier In The Rain, McQueen was the highest paid actor in Hollywood.

In 1965, he put his early poker skills to work as the title star of The Cincinnati Kid, and returned to Westerns again as Nevada Smith in 1966. That same year, McQueen made another leading performance in The Sand Pebbles with Great Escape co-star Richard Attenborough. For McQueen's role as a newly-arrived engineer to a United States boat stationed in 1920's revolution-ravaged China, he was nominated for his first and only Academy Award.

The King Of Cool

Two years later, McQueen made the first of his "cool" movies, starring as Thomas Crown alongside Faye Dunaway in the crime caper classic The Thomas Crown Affair. That same year, he rode a Mustang Fastback to eternal movie magic glory in Bullitt, as a tough San Francisco cop. Next, Steve made an odd turn by playing Boon Hogganbeck in the 1969 adaptation of William Faulkner's The Reivers, delivering the famous line, "Sometimes you have to say goodbye to the things you know and hello to the things you don't." It is perhaps the most underrated and unwatched Southern drama of all-time, and McQueen shines in the unheralded role.

Steve McQueen's love of cars almost caused the end of his Hollywood career - he had talked seriously about joining an auto racing circuit in California. He even entered the famous 12-race in Sebring with the equally famous (and tragic) Formula One driver Peter Revson, finishing second. Finally agreeing to make more movies, Steve did what came naturally, and did a movie about racing. 1971's Le Mans, shot in France as a pseudo-documentary about car racing, is a gorgeous picture, but Steve seemed distracted in the role. Perhaps this was due to his failing marriage (he and Neile divorced in 1972) or his eagerness to leave the industry for good. One famous story about Steve during this era is that despite his high wages, he had a notoriously demanding rider, often asking for dozens of pairs of jeans and razorblades in his trailer. After his death, it was revealed he donated all of these extras to the Boys Republic who had helped him so many years ago.

1972 saw him in another eerily-similar to real life role as Junior Bonner, a man who recently left his family and was heading back to the days of his youth as a rodeo rider. He also played Doc McCoy in the crime comedy The Getaway, opposite Ali McGraw. The two really took a liking to each other, and were married in 1973. That same year saw Steve's good friend and part-time martial arts instructor Bruce Lee die unexpectedly of a cerebral edema. Steve served as a pallbearer, but little did he know his own fate was to be cut short.

Following Lee's death, Steve took on his most challenging role, that of Henry Charriere, the infamous Papillon, who was wrongly convicted of murder and sentenced to various French penal colonies. His attempts to escape were valiant, but McQueen internalized the role brilliantly, showing a man more sinned against than sinning. By the end of the film, McQueen's character is physically broken, but spiritually intact. It seemed almost a perfect continuance from his role as The Cooler King in The Great Escape.

The Dark Decline

Steve's next role was as Chief O'Hallorhan in the Irwin Allen disaster flick The Towering Inferno. An all-star cast of McQueen, Paul Newman, William Holden, Richard Chamberlain, and, yes, O.J. Simpson couldn't save the fated office building at the center of the movie from crashing and burning. It would be McQueen's last role for four years. Steve began dabbling in all kinds of drugs - cocaine being the worst - and his womanizing was too much for Ali to take. He would return in 1978 (after a second divorce) to play Dr. Stockmann in the celebrated Henrik Ibsen drama An Enemy Of The People, a cautionary tale about commercialism versus public safety.

Using his time off, Steve earned his small craft pilot's license, and in late 1979, Steve met and married model Barbara Minty. Only two months later, he was diagnosed with mesothelioma, a rare form of lung cancer. Hearing of a new treatment in Mexico, he and his wife headed south of the border. Steve was put on a program where he took over 100 vitamins a day, and was injected with animal cells with the hopes it would stop and remit the cancer. It appeared to be working, and several of McQueen's benign tumors actually vanished, thanks to the Laetrile. But things weren't perfect. Finally, on November 6, 1980, an abdominal tumor he had became so large it had to be removed. The surgery was a success, but complications from the cancer caused Steve's condition to worsen, and he passed away one day later of a heart attack. He was 50 years old.

Two movies, Tom Horn, and The Hunter were posthumously released. Largely looked over by critics in his own time, his legend has grown greatly since his untimely death. He was, however, always considered Mr. Cool, and he played by his own rules. His life is the virtual blueprint for the man who's done it all and has something to show for it. The Tao of Steve lives on in his movies, as does the actor, star, and king of hip - Steve McQueen.

I don't believe in that phony hero stuff.

Sources

  • http://members.tripod.com/~stvmcqueen/
  • http://us.imdb.com/Name?McQueen,+Steve
  • http://tedstrong.com/stevethomson.html

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