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King of Cool: The life of Steve McQueen

I would rather wake up in the middle of nowhere than in any city on earth.” – Steve McQueen

American actor Steve McQueen’s illustrious legacy has come to be defined by his antihero acting persona that influenced the counterculture of the 1960s. Known for his rugged good looks and nicknamed “The King of Cool”, McQueen shot to fame with his work in films like The Great Escape and The Cincinnati Kid. It has been 40 years since he passed away but we revisit his iconic career as a celebration of the actor’s contribution to popular culture and the world of cinema.

Born in Beech Grove, Indiana in 1930, McQueen had an unconventional childhood. his father was a stunt pilot for a barnstorming flying circus who left McQueen and his mother (several biographers have claimed that McQueen’s mother was an alcoholic) when he was only a few months old. Unable to manage raising a small child, she left her son with McQueen’s grandparents. When the Great Depression hit, he moved to his great-uncle Claude’s farm in Slate, Missouri who McQueen greatly admired, “[Claude] was a very good man, very strong, very fair. I learned a lot from him.” Claude considered McQueen as a son and sparked the actor’s lifelong interest in racing when he gifted the young boy a red tricycle on his fourth birthday.

As a child, the actor moved around a lot and reunited with his mother in Indianapolis after she remarried. McQueen was dyslexic and partially deaf due to a childhood ear infection which impaired his ability to adjust properly to his rapidly changing life, moving from Indianapolis back to Slater and then eventually, Los Angeles. McQueen lost his way and soon became involved with local gangs. He even got caught stealing hubcaps from cars twice in his early life and was handed over to his second stepfather who beat the teenager severely, throwing him down a flight of stairs. McQueen told his new stepfather, “You lay your stinking hands on me again and I swear, I’ll kill you.”

McQueen’s mother was persuaded by her new husband of McQueen’s issues and the teenager ended up in reform school, the California Junior Boys Republic in Chino where he began to mature and learn leadership values. Looking back on the time he spent there, McQueen reflected:

“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 my 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.”

At the school, he finally found a place where he felt he could he connect to his peers was elected to the Boys Council, a group who set made the policies for the students who attended the school. Although McQueen left the school at the age of 16, he continued his association with the boys throughout his life and did not let his eventual fame get in the way. Later, McQueen developed an unusual reputation for demanding free items in bulk from studios when agreeing to do a film, such as electric razors, jeans, and other items which he would donate to the Boys Republic reformatory school. He also returned to the school occasionally to spend time with the students, often to play pool and speak about his experiences

Once he left school, he returned to his mother in New York where he met two sailors from the Merchant Marine and volunteered to serve on a ship bound for the Dominican Republic. He wasn’t satisfied with his job on the shop and he abandoned his post when he reached the Dominican Republic to work at a brothel there. However, McQueen was not able to find a sense of stability as he drifted from place to place and eventually landed up in Texas where he as a roughneck, a carnival barker and a lumberjack. At the age of 17, McQueen enlisted in the Marines and was sent to Parris Island for boot camp. While he was there, he often found himself revisiting his prior rebelliousness and was repeatedly demoted to the rank of private. At one point, he was even subjected to a military arrest for 41 days after he took a leave of unauthorised absence to stay with his girlfriend for two weeks. However, McQueen eventually conformed to the rigid life of military discipline and 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 honourably discharged in 1950 and later confirmed that he cherished the time he had spent in the Marines.

After being discharged from the Marines, McQueen spent some time in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, and Washington, D.C., before returning to New York City. It was yet another period of aimless transition where he frequently moved and changed jobs. Steve McQueen finally discovered what he was destined to do in 1952. With the help of his then-girlfriend who was an aspiring actress and the financial assistance of the G.I. Bill, McQueen began studying acting in New York at Sanford Meisner’s Neighborhood Playhouse and won a scholarship to study at HB Studio under Uta Hagen.

McQueen’s first role as an actor was a tiny part in a Yiddish theatrical production where he only had one line (“All is lost”) which was cut from the show after four nights. A few years later, he was accepted to the prestigious Actors Studio, where he studied with Lee Strasberg but was forced to supplement his income by competing in weekend motorcycle races at Long Island City Raceway and purchased the first two of many motorcycles, a Harley-Davidson and a Triumph. It was evident that McQueen was an excellent racer, going home each weekend with about $100 in winnings (equivalent to $1,000 in 2019).

During this time, McQueen began making appearances as a performing artist with minor roles in productions, including Peg o’ My Heart, The Member of the Wedding, and Two Fingers of Pride. He made his Broadway debut in 1955 in the play A Hatful of Rain, starring Ben Gazzara. Later that year, McQueen left New York and moved to California in order to look for openings in Hollywood. He was noticed by Hollywood manager Hilly Elkins who told him that B-grade films are a good starting point for a young actor like him. The actor made his feature film debut with a bit part in Somebody Up There Likes Me (directed by Robert Wise and starring Paul Newman) but he only experienced his first taste of stardom in 1958 with the lead role of Steve Andrews in the sci-fi film The Blob, which became a cult classic. The same year, he headlined the television western Wanted—Dead or Alive as bounty hunter Josh Randall which proved to be his breakout role and attracted a lot of attention from Hollywood. The role solidified his antihero persona and kept McQueen steadily employed from 1958 until early 1961.

This is where it all came together for McQueen. Frank Sinatra removed Sammy Davis Jr. from the film Never So Few after Davis supposedly made some mildly negative remarks about Sinatra in a radio interview and cast Steve McQueen as Bill Ringa. The next year, McQueen got a starring role in The Magnificent Seven, with Yul Brynner and Charles Bronson, which paved his way towards the top of his field. He followed it up with an op-billed lead role in what is arguably the most iconic film of his career, John Sturges’ The Great Escape (1963). A dramatised depiction of the true story of a historic mass escape from a World War II POW camp, the film transformed McQueen into one of the biggest stars in the country.

His successful film career kept going with more box office hits, including the gambling drama The Cincinnati Kid (1965) and the western Nevada Smith (1966). McQueen received his only Academy Award nomination for his work on the military drama The Sand Pebbles (1966), playing a Naval engineer stationed on a gunboat in China during the 1920s. In 1968, he starred in another one of his well-known films as a San Francisco cop in Bullitt. The film is famous for its unprecedented (and endlessly imitated) car chase through San Francisco. That very year, the growing icon went for a change of image with the role of a wealthy executive in the romantic crime caper The Thomas Crown Affair, with Faye Dunaway as his love interest.

Although McQueen was subjected to poor critical reception with his 1971 auto-racing drama Le Mans, he went on to find more success as the title character of Junior Bonner (1972), a well-received family drama directed by Sam Peckinpah. He also starred in The Getaway, with Ali MacGraw (his future wife). McQueen went on to garner accolades for his performance in the prison drama Papillon (1973), opposite Dustin Hoffman, and played a hero in the disaster epic The Towering Inferno (1974). McQueen had been known to consume cocaine from the early ’70s and smoked marijuana “almost every day”. However, his drug habits and alcoholism contributed to his deteriorating health and problems with his wife MacGraw (they divorced in 1978). He did not return to acting until 1978 with An Enemy of the People, playing against type as a bearded, bespectacled 19th-century doctor in this adaptation of a Henrik Ibsen play.

McQueen’s final film was The Hunter (1980) but he had already been diagnosed with a tumour in his right lung in 1979. He died on November 7, 1980, in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, after undergoing surgery to remove several tumours.McQueen was cremated and his ashes were spread in the Pacific Ocean.

Steve McQueen will always be remembered for his iconic film performances and the legendary persona he had constructed which taught people to question cultural norms. He was posthumously inducted into the Hall of Great Western Performers as well as the Motorcycle Hall of Fame. His legacy is still alive, a recent tribute being the Quentin Tarantino film Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019) where is portrayed by Damian Lewis.

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