‘The King of Cool’ is a moniker that many Hollywood actors would have loved during their time in the limelight. However, it is reserved for a figure who truly embodied the wild excess of La-La-Land, the one and only Steve McQueen. At once an iconic symbol of the golden age of cinema, and a reminder of the toxic masculinity that raged throughout the industry at the time. Famed as much now for his abuse as his roles, McQueen certainly lived a life on the edge.
His work in films such as The Great Escape, The Cincinnati Kid and Bullitt confirmed McQueen as a star, but it was his presence off-camera that made him into an icon. Never one to be held down, McQueen operated as a perennial rebel within Hollywood, often showing himself to be the working man’s agent undercover. He’d not only race motorcycles and try to bed as many famous actresses as he could, but he also did silly things like demand bulk loads of razors or jeans when he agreed to do a picture— something, it turns out, he constructed so he could send care packages to his former boarding school.
Though he would soon work his way up to the lofty heights of Hollywood’s finest, despite being received poorly by critics for his performances, it was away from the studios that McQueen truly garnered attention. As such, we’re bringing you some of his wildest moments.
Steve McQueen will always be remembered for his iconic film performances and the legendary persona he constructed. Though it may seem trivial, his refusal to bend to commercial wishes, McQueen taught people to question cultural norms. He was posthumously inducted into the Hall of Great Western Performers and the Motorcycle Hall of Fame. His legacy remains as strong as ever, even with the reframing of his actions in the 21st century.
There’s a lot to dislike about Steve McQueen’s actions. He was a violent and abusive partner, a serial adulterer and, by the end, a very difficult man to be around. However, what he inspired in others, how he made regular folks feel, is surely worth something too.
Steve McQueen’s wildest moments
He loved to race just about anything
Most actors these days are quickly ruled out of stunts and real-life driving because they’re simply too valuable or too precious. But for McQueen, the chance to get behind the wheel was never one he turned down, and he would race just about anything.
The actor took part in gruelling endurance racing, manic off-road motorcycle experiences and everything in between. No doubt, inspired by his father William McQueen, a stunt pilot in the circus, Steve McQueen would take his love of motor racing into Hollywood and beyond.
He was part of a street gang in his pre-teens
Steve McQueen’s home life was rotten. Abandoned by William McQueen, he and his mother Julia struggled to find a harmonious relationship as Julia made bad choice after bad choice, usually regarding Steve’s stepfather. Beaten mercilessly by most of the men who frequented his mother’s bedroom, McQueen began acting out and found solace in the life of a street thug.
McQueen was committing petty crimes and generally falling with a bad crowd. It had become clear that he was on a path to jail. Julia McQueen decided to ship him back to her family in Missouri. Out in the country, McQueen could breathe a little easier, but it wouldn’t be long until his mother was back to pick him up and put him back in Los Angeles and the harm’s way of her newest beau.
It was a cycle that continued throughout much of McQueen’s life until he went to boarding school and found himself a home.
He ran away to join the circus
It’s a tale as old as time but nobody expects anybody to actually do it, do they? Running away from home is one thing but joining the circus is something very different indeed.
Inspired by his father’s connection to the travelling show, at 14-years-old, McQueen snuck away from his great-Uncle’s farm and pursued a life on the road.
Naturally, it wouldn’t last long and McQueen was soon back in L.A. and under the watchful eye of his mother.
He tried to buy the ’68 Mustang from Bullitt twice
The film Bullitt will go down in history as one of the greatest driving movies of all time. Raging with endorphins and testosterone, it has become the archetypal display of McQueen’s machismo and charisma. But while McQueen topped the bill, it was the car that was the real star.
The 1968 Ford Mustang 390 GT was the fastest thing on screen and helped turn McQueen into a hero. The green car became such an iconic vehicle that it has since become a mainstay of historical car shows worldwide. But, it could have all been so different, as it was revealed McQueen tried to buy the car twice.
Writing to the owner, he said: “I would like very much to keep it in the family in its original condition as it was used in the film, rather than have it restored; which is simply personal with me.”
He had an incredible list of careers
Most actors arrive on set with very little in the way of real-life experience in modern cinema. Usually lined up to be a part of the acting world from a young age, few will even have had another job during their training. For Steve McQueen, that was a little bit different.
McQueen has had some incredible jobs in his career. Ignoring his roles within the circus and as a street gang member, he also joined the Merchant Marines, he was a clerk at a brothel, and he worked in Canada as a lumberjack, to name a few.
It all speaks of a man who not only refused to be tied down but, it appeared, was purely incapable of being so.
He chased himself in one of his most loved films
The Great Escape will go down in history as one of the greatest movies of all time. Epitomised by the moment McQueen jumps the fence on his motorcycle. While most actors would use stunt doubles for these moments, McQueen was always keen to be behind the wheel whenever he could.
McQueen could simply ride or drive better than most stunt performers, and therefore, he was gaining roles quicker than most.
He even has the curious accolade of being one of the few heroes in Hollywood history who has chased himself on screen, as he donned a German soldier uniform to chase Captain Virgil in the pivotal scene.
He was lined-up for the Manson murders
The recent Quentin Tarantino film Once Upon A Time in Hollywood has a host of incredible stars. Either as members of the cast, which includes Leonardo Di Caprio and Brad Pitt or as drifting figures of a time in Hollywood that is, for the most part, best forgotten. One such figure is ‘The King of Cool’ Steve McQueen.
Years of hedonism in Hollywood had put McQueen’s name on the invite list to almost every party either Tate, Polanski or Sebring would throw – and they threw a lot. He would’ve likely met the same fate as Tate and Sebring had he not followed his legendary libido down another path. As Neile Adams, his first wife, remembers, McQueen “ran into a chickie and decided to go off with her instead”.
As adulterous as it was, the act would indeed save his life as he later learned that he was dangerously high on Charles Manson’s infamous ‘Kill List’. While Manson would never get to fully achieve his ambitions of total chaos, the horrific event would have a lasting impression on McQueen. “Going off with that girl saved his life. After that, he became more paranoid and wouldn’t let me go anywhere without a gun,” says Adams.
His mid-life crisis was captured on film
Though he may well have been one of the most widely-adored Hollywood stars around, continuously being lauded as the working man’s favourite actor, he still struggled like everybody else to come to terms with his own mortality. Like many men, when approaching the age of 40, McQueen turned his undivided attention to cars.
While most men would pick up a silly red sportscar, McQueen, quite naturally, took things one step further and decided to make Le Mans a film that would note his downfall from the pinnacle of Hollywood. McQueen was behind the wheel of the entire project, directing and starring in it.
The picture would be a huge financial flop and compound McQueen’s personal and professional life into an unfathomable mess.
He was a bonafide hero
Though he would later take on the perennial rebel role, McQueen was actually straightened out by his time with the Navy. He struggled initially to find his feet in the forces but, soon enough, gained respect and authority, thanks in no small part to one act of bravery.
During a tortuous Arctic exploration, McQueen’s ship hit a sandbar and sent several men overboard. Without a second thought, McQueen jumped into the freezing waters and pulled five men to safety who will have certainly perished without him.
McQueen was only 22 at the time and a new career was beckoning.
He was Keith Moon’s neighbour from hell
After a wild ride of success with The Who, Keith Moon treated himself to a luxurious pad out in Malibu and he was hellbent on partying morning, noon and night there. While his neighbour, the one and only Steve McQueen, might have portrayed himself on screen as this all-action, true American hero, he wasn’t prepared to accept any of the bullshit that his new acquaintance had lined up for him.
Tony Fletcher’s biography of Keith Moon goes into detail about how Moon made the first impression from hell after trying to invite McQueen to his housewarming party. “Somewhere in the middle of arranging the event, Keith Moon walked the 50-odd yards next door to the McQueens’. The intention was apparently to issue an invitation,” Fletcher writes.
“But encountering only Chad, McQueen’s 16-year-old son from his previous marriage, Keith succeeded in antagonising the boy no end through offers of – or a request for – drink and drugs. There were reports that Keith pushed into the house, that a fight broke out, that the McQueens’ dog bit Keith and Keith bit it back. Certainly, a confrontation took place.”