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McQueen, Steve

McQUEEN, Steve

(b. 24 March 1930 in Indianapolis, Indiana; d. 7 November 1980 in Juarez, Mexico), the highest-paid actor of the 1960s and 1970s, whose rugged, intense, and brooding on-screen and off-screen persona made him an icon of rebellion, action, and the style of the era.

McQueen was born Terence Stephen McQueen to William McQueen and Julia (Crawford) McQueen. His father, a former stunt pilot, deserted the family when McQueen was six months old, leaving a wound that never healed. McQueen's mother left her son to be raised on an uncle's ranch in Slater, Missouri, where he worked the fields, herded pigs, and fantasized about being a cowboy. He began his racing career at age four—on his tricycle. Racing motorcycles and sports cars became an obsession for McQueen, who claimed it curbed his aggression. His mother took him back to Indianapolis when he was nine, but he never adjusted to the move. He was a terrible student, joined a street gang, and spent his time stealing hubcaps and shooting pool. Having lost his uncle, the one person who he felt loved him, McQueen was often in trouble with the law and had to endure his stepfather's beatings after his mother remarried. His mother finally sent him to the California Junior Boys' Republic, a reform school in Chino, California, when he was fourteen. There he found a mentor who helped him channel his rebellious energy and build his self-esteem. McQueen left the school in 1946 with only a ninth-grade education. After he became a star, he set up a scholarship program at the school and visited the facility often.

Following a brief and bitter reunion with his mother after his stepfather's death, McQueen drifted. He worked as a deckhand aboard the S.S. Alpha, a towel boy in a Texas brothel, a "grunt" laborer on Texas oil rigs, a carnival barker, and a member of a lumber crew in Canada. Only a year after leaving his mother at seventeen, he enlisted in the U.S. Marines. Upon receiving an honorable discharge, McQueen went to New York City. At a girlfriend's suggestion, he studied acting on the GI Bill. Although, at first, acting seemed to him "a silly game, a waste of time and energy," he soon discovered that he had a talent for it and that it gave him a sense of self-respect. McQueen entered Sanford Meisner's Neighborhood Playhouse in 1952. He also studied with Herbert Berghof and was accepted into the Actors Studio by Lee Strasberg. He progressed as a stage actor, earned several minor television roles, and had parts in such films as Somebody up There Likes Me (1956), Never Love a Stranger (1958), The Great St. Louis Bank Robbery (1958), The Blob (1958), and Never So Few (1959). He married the dancer Neile Adams in November 1956, with whom he remained for a tumultuous fifteen years and had two children.

Despite his initial distaste for westerns, they were McQueen's bread and butter for several years. Playing the bounty hunter Josh Randall on the television series Wanted—Dead or Alive (1958–1961) launched McQueen's career. He gave his best cinematic performance to date in the legendary western The Magnificent Seven (1960). McQueen was ecstatic when his television series was cancelled, as it freed him to pursue his film career. By this time, McQueen himself saw that he had a "real chance to grab that big brass ring." For him, stardom meant financial success and the stability that had been missing from his life.

McQueen turned in a self-conscious performance in the comedy The Honeymoon Machine (1961). Hell Is for Heroes (1962), a grim World War II drama and his eighth film, brought him more solid critical reviews but did nothing to advance his career. Frustrated, he went to Europe to film The War Lover (1962). McQueen once again played a dangerous loner, the headstrong pilot Buzz Rickson, who betrays his best friend for a woman and then crashes his plane. The film was produced entirely in England, the hub of international racing. Upon hearing of his plans to race some of Britain's top circuits, studio lawyers informed McQueen that he would be sued for the entire cost of the film—$3 million—if an injury postponed production. He ignored them and began to pal around with the legendary racing champion Stirling Moss. The friendship led to numerous high-profile driving seats for McQueen, including an impressive run in the twelve-hour Sebring, Florida, race for the British Motor Corporation (BMC). He fared so well in racing that he was forced to choose between his acting career and accepting an offer to race for BMC in Europe.

By this time the father of two, McQueen opted—narrowly—to take a role in what became his "big picture," The Great Escape (1963), based on the true story of the greatest Allied prison break in World War II history. Upon the film's release, McQueen became a white-hot Hollywood property. He followed it up with a turn in his most romantically appealing role to date, playing opposite Natalie Wood in the tough and tender love story Love with the Proper Stranger (1963). That year McQueen won the best actor award at the Moscow Film Festival for The Great Escape, and Newsweek called his performance in Love with the Proper Stranger "brilliant … deserving of an Academy Award." He was featured on the cover of Life magazine. Men and women alike found something compelling about the quiet, moody man of honor that the actor seemed to be both onstage and off. After eleven years, McQueen had achieved international stardom. He then formed Solar Productions, through which he could also produce some of his pictures and exert more creative control.

Soldier in the Rain (1963), a comedy, fared poorly at the box office—the film's dramatic elements undermined its comic scenes. His next film, the downbeat drama Baby, the Rain Must Fall (1965), proved another disappointment. To escape the frustrations of acting, McQueen threw himself into a heavy schedule of cycling events, taking home five trophies in 1964 alone and turning down several films so that he could race. Determined to prove himself internationally, he accepted a spot on the American team for the International Six-Day Trials in East Germany, a prestigious event. Notoriously averse to the favored attention he received in Hollywood, McQueen was just another competitor in the field, holding his own against world-class riders.

McQueen returned to acting after a year-long break to shoot The Cincinnati Kid (1965), about a young poker player trying to defeat the game's champion. The director, Norman Jewison, guided a superb performance from the actor; the poker-table scenes are electric with tension, and McQueen's romantic scenes with the actresses Tuesday Weld and Ann-Margret are equally powerful. The film was an international hit. He next starred in and produced Nevada Smith (1966), his first western in years, about a man seeking to avenge his parents' murders. The film's many action scenes involved fist-, gun-, and knife fights as well as chases through swamps. It was a rugged and demanding role for McQueen, who always performed his own stunts.

McQueen's most ambitious film to date, the monumental production The Sand Pebbles, was released in 1966. In it he played another loner, a cranky gunboat engineer in 1920s China who dies to save the life of the schoolteacher with whom he has fallen in love. Among the many international honors for his role, McQueen was nominated for the Academy Award for best actor in 1966. The ordinarily scruffy actor then underwent some refining to portray a suave, wealthy intellectual who plans a robbery in The Thomas Crown Affair (1968), playing opposite Faye Dunaway. After years of performing his own daredevil stunts, McQueen crashed a sky glider during filming, though only his pride was injured. The film was a hit and broadened his range as an actor.

McQueen went from criminal to cop for the title role in Bullitt (1968), which he also produced. In the action-packed film, which became his fifth box-office hit in a row, he played a tough cop investigating a mobster's death. The film's edgy car-chase scene, in which McQueen himself careens through the streets of San Francisco, is a classic. Although he had sworn off comedies after Soldier in the Rain, McQueen wanted to do "something fresh," and so he took a role in the film based on William Faulkner's lighthearted novel The Reivers (1969). Again he regretted doing a comedy, though the film was popular. In 1969 McQueen attended the Le Mans twenty-four-hour race in France with his Solar camera crew. They shot thirty thousand feet of footage for a prospective film about the famous event. He had lost the opportunity to do a racing film, Day of the Champion, years before, but he had more clout now and was hungry to "make the best damn racing movie ever." Le Mans (1971) was a bad decision that cost McQueen millions as well as his marriage—Adams had long disapproved of McQueen's dangerous racing and stunt driving. After years of fighting about the subject, she finally left him.

The 1960s were McQueen's best years. By 1970 he was ranked with John Wayne and Paul Newman as one of the top box-office stars. He went on to make a spate of boxoffice hits and misses, including On Any Sunday (1971), Junior Bonner (1972), The Getaway (1972), Papillon (1973), The Towering Inferno (1974), An Enemy of the People (1977), Tom Horn (1980), and The Hunter (1980). In 1971 he married his Getaway costar, Ali McGraw; they divorced in 1978. In January 1980 he wed his third wife, Barbara Minty, a model. During the last decade of his life, McQueen gave no interviews. He died of a heart attack while undergoing experimental treatment in Mexico for mesothelioma, a rare lung cancer. McQueen was cremated, and his ashes were scattered over the Pacific Ocean.

Biographies of McQueen include William F. Nolan, McQueen (1984); Penina Spiegel, McQueen: The Untold Story of a Bad Boy in Hollywood (1986); and Neile McQueen Toffel, My Husband, My Friend (1986). Obituaries are in the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times (both 8 Nov. 1980).

Brenna Sanchez

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