Steve McQueen: A Big Wheel

I just spent two hours trying to find the perfect image to head this post about Steve McQueen (b.1930). In my mind’s eye I’m picturing something from the classic year of 1968, perhaps a still from The Thomas Crown Affair or Bullitt, but in the end, none of them quite captured what I was going for. I settled for the neutral look above, because in the end most photos express a facet without revealing the whole. Hence, the metaphor in our title — a motorcycle wheel, with many spokes.

McQueen was one of the few movie stars of the late 20th century whose stardom was something like that of the biggest stars of the silent era. He wasn’t just an actor. His life was just as exciting off screen — he raced cars and motorcyles, flew airplanes and gliders, built his own horse ranch. He studied martial arts with Bruce Lee, worked out two hours a day, skied, went scuba diving. Thus his films had a certain legendary quality, real or imagined. It didn’t seem as much like a character having adventures but the real Steve McQueen doing so. So, this is what reminds me of the silent and early screen era, for it evokes guys like Douglas Fairbanks and Houdini and Tom Mix, and later athlete actors like Buster Crabbe and Johnny Weissmuller. There was a legend that surrounded him, much larger than any one film. This special quality was enhanced by the scarcity of his product. McQueen’s cinematic output wasn’t very voluminous to begin with. Then, when I was about nine years old, fresh off the financial windfall that was The Towering Inferno (1974), he went into a kind of semi-retirement at the age of 44, adding a skein of mystery to his image. I love hearing that he was considered for the title role in The Great Gatsby (1974). He would have been way, way way better than Robert Redford in that film, as he would have been way, way, way better than Redford in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), which he was also offered. He was a guy who loved to play hard to get, and everyone loves that. Like Fitzgerald’s character (and his writing, for that matter), McQueen was both simple and complex. He was down-to-earth and sophisticated. All-American but as stylish as his counterparts in Rome and Paris and London.

At any rate, I have divied up diverse facets of these elusive man into six spokes on a wheel.


McQueen’s father was a barnstorming stunt pilot with a flying circus, and McQueen himself was born in Beech Grove, Indiana, about five miles from the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, site of the Indianapolis 500. It seems like he was born with gasoline in his blood. He raced competitively in his private life, and in the 1960s it began to show up in his films: the motorcycle stuff in The Great Escape (1963); numerous vehicles, including a dune buggy and a hang glider in The Thomas Crown Affair (1968), the famous car chase in Bullitt (1968), and the entirety of Le Mans (1971). John Frankenheimer had wanted him for Grand Prix (1966) but McQueen did not get along with his representative so the part went to James Garner. He was also wanted for The French Connection, a film with a car chase scene that ranks with the one in Bullitt. McQueen didn’t want to make another cop movie, and it’s just as well. Gene Hackman is indelible as Popeye Doyle, and that car chase might have seemed redundant with McQueen at the wheel.


Long stretches of McQueen’s youth were spent on his great uncle’s Missouri farm, experiences he would draw on for his roles in many westerns. Most younger fans are not aware of this, but McQueen first came to fame as the star of the TV show Wanted: Dead or Alive (1958-61), one of the many TV westerns sent up by Quentin Tarrantino in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. This is something he had in common with Clint Eastwood, who came to fame on Rawhide; and Burt Reynolds, who had co-starred on Riverboat, and been a regular on Gunsmoke. Wanted: Dead or Alive led to his breakout role in The Magnificent Seven (1960). Later westerns included Nevada Smith (1966), Junior Bonner (1972) and Tom Horn (1980). The western genre suited his taciturn temperment; he was at his best playing a man of few words. As we said, he was in negotiations to co-star with his fellow race car driver Paul Newman in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, but they couldn’t come to an agreement about top billing. (The solution they later came to on The Towering Inferno was equal billing.) He was also considered for The Plainsman (1966) and McKenna’s Gold (1969). McQueen was a John Wayne fan, and believe it or not, a conservative who voted for Richard Nixon in 1968. My friend and I used to love to quote his line in Tom Horn, “New things are no good.”


McQueen’s upbringing was pretty dodgy. He was constantly shifted about between his mother (and a succession of stepfathers, some of whom beat him), as well as his maternal grandparents, and his great uncle. He dropped out of school, and was essentially a juvenile delinquent throughout his youth, running with gangs, stealing, and committing other minor crimes. He spent some time in reform school. He bummed around a bit and even worked in a circus! In light of this, I find it interesting that he very rarely plays policemen, one of the ordinary mainstays of movie and tv actors. His characters are more typically rebels running afoul of the law in one way or another. When he is on the right side of the law, it is usually in some kind of mercenary position (i..e., bounty hunter). His first well known role, in The Blob (1958), evokes James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause. He plays criminals in The St. Louis Bank Robbery (1959), The Honeymoon Machine (1961), Baby the Rain Must Fall (1965), Nevada Smith (1966), The Thomas Crown Affair (1968), The Getaway (1972) and Papillon (1973). He’s a professional gambler in The Cincinnati Kid (1965), a car thief in The Reivers (1969), and he gets hung for murder in Tom Horn (1980).

Soldier, Sailor and Marine

McQueen served in the U.S. Merchant Marines and the U.S. Marines and, though he initially had some disciplanary problems, he credits these experiences with eventually turning his life around. The WW2 picture Never So Few (1959) with Frank Sinatra and Peter Lawford was his first major movie. He also played men in uniform in Hell is for Heroes (1962), The War Lover (1962), The Great Escape (1963), Soldier in the Rain (1963), and The Sand Pebbles (1966, pictured above). He was wanted for A Bridge Too Far (1977) but turned it down because he didn’t want to be in an ensemble picture. (A shame because two of his best remembered movies today are The Magnificent Seven, and The Great Escape — ensembles in which he in particular stood out). He was also considered for the part of Kurtz, the Brando role, in Apocalypse Now (1979). If he’d been younger he’d have been PERFECT for Martin Sheen’s part Willard, which is very similar to his part in The Sand Pebbles. But perhaps that was part of Coppola’s concept. After all, Kurtz was a guy like Willard who had gone “upriver” years ago. The Sand Pebbles connection would have made it almost like stunt casting.


That crazy picture above is from McQueen’s 1978 performance in Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People. It seemed almost like a prank on his part, for this action star to come out of retirement and waive his deal-breaking salary demands to do this intimate, serious chamber piece. But it’s not completely out of left field. After McQueen’s hitch in the service he attended acting schools on the G.I. Bill. He studied with Lee Strasberg, Sanford Meisner and Uta Hagen — in other words, the best acting teachers of his day. In 1952 he was in a Yiddish play with Molly Picon. In 1955 he went into the original Broadway production of A Hatful of Rain as a replacement. A lot of his early professional work was on live tv dramas of the sort where Method Actors cut their teeth at the time, things like Goodyear Playhouse and the U.S. Steel Hour. As a screen actor he has often been compared to Spencer Tracy (one of heroes) for his simplicity and his stillness. A quality not unrelated to…

Specimen of Manhood

Steve McQueen was a man whose attractiveness was so great that even straight men will admit to being susceptible to it. And if they won’t admit it in words, they’ll often do so through the gesture of emulating him (pre-eminently and most obviously Brad Pitt). I always thought McQueen was a bit odd looking, with a face sort of like a praying mantis, but even so that’s the same kind of appeal that Buster Keaton had, with these huge, slowly blinking eyes, and a graceful economy of movement. Naturally, women loved him, and he had a long succession of famous girlfriends, and three wives, the best known of whom is Ali McGraw, his co-star in The Getaway. In the ’60s, he was the muse of fashion designers and photographers, and graced the covers of magazines. He’s one of the few American stars who had a quality approaching Sean Connery’s as James Bond (and indeed was considered as the lead for a screen adaptation of Ian Fleming’s The Diamond Smugglers, though it never came to pass). I also can’t help noticing that McQueen became a big style icon at the very moment Cary Grant passed from the scene, as though a generational torch had been passed.

But…McQueen’s enviable body betrayed him in the end. In 1980 he discovered he had an inoperable cancer. He eventually did attempt to have a tumor removed (all five pounds of it) across the border in Mexico, and the strain killed him. The cancer would have killed him anyway, but I guess he thought the operation was worth the gamble. His last film was The Hunter (1980). As things panned out, he dodged a bullet. If he’d lived a few months more he might have appeared in When Time Ran Out, which would have been the second film in his two picture deal with Irwin Allen. Paul Newman got stuck with that one, and in this particular case, McQueen got the better bargain.