McQueen, Steve (1930-1980)

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McQueen, Steve (1930-1980)

The highest-paid movie actor of the 1960s and early 1970s, Steve McQueen was thought to be the most popular star of his generation. The essence of early 1960s cool, McQueen established his reputation as America's heroic anti-hero in films such as The Magnifi-cent Seven and The Great Escape. The charismatic and macho McQueen went on to become one of the decade's most sought-after leading men, helping to forever define the qualities looked for in cinematic action heroes. Following his untimely death at age 50, McQueen has remained an enduring pop culture icon—that rare performer whose work transcends the era in which he lived and becomes timeless.

The early life of Terence Steve McQueen reads like a movie script—a single mother raises her only child during the Depression after being abandoned by her husband, and young Steve grows up a troubled boy with little interest in schooling. When his mother remarried, his stepfather beat him and the teenager rebelled by getting into trouble with the law. At age fifteen, he was sent to a reform school called Boys Republic in Chino, California. A year and a half later, he left the school and hit the road, working as a sailor, lumberjack, and later in the oil fields of Texas. At 17, McQueen joined the Marines for three years. Although he did 41 days in the brig for going AWOL (absent without leave), he received an honorable discharge and decided to move to New York City. There he underwent a revelation that transformed his life.

Twenty-year-old Steve McQueen loved New York City. He would later say, "For the first time in my life, I was really exposed to music, culture, a little kindness, a little sensitivity. It was a way of life where people talked out their problems instead of punching you." When he was introduced to famed drama coach Sanford Meisner by one of his girlfriends—an aspiring actress—McQueen became intrigued with acting and decided to audition for a play. With his ruggedly handsome, blond, good looks, McQueen was cast in a bit part and fell in love with the theatre. He enrolled in Meisner's Neighborhood Playhouse and began earnestly to work at learning the craft of acting. With his tuition paid by the GI Bill, McQueen went on to study with Uta Hagen, Herbert Berghof, and finally Lee Strasberg, where he was one of five students out of 2,000 applicants selected to join the prestigious Actors' Studio. A student of the classics, McQueen honed his craft in summer stock and in touring companies before finally making it to Broadway.

Offstage, however, Steve McQueen remained a rebel—riding motorcycles, having serial affairs with countless women, and generally living the bohemian life in Greenwich Village, before meeting and falling in love with dancer Neile Adams. Steve was smitten with the beautiful and talented Adams, and the couple moved in together almost immediately. Not long thereafter, the 26-year-old actor was cast in his first movie. Originally hired as an extra in Somebody Up There Likes Me, the story of Rocky Graziano starring Paul Newman, McQueen was noticed by director Robert Wise, who gave McQueen a small speaking role.

But it was not McQueen's movie debut that prompted the young actor to move to Hollywood a few months after the wrap of the film. McQueen loved New York and seemed content to find acting work there. But when Neile Adams was cast in Robert Wise's next film, which was to be filmed in California, McQueen reluctantly agreed to head West. After a difficult period of adjustment, McQueen and Adams decided to get married and, while his wife was making pictures, Steve began to find steady work in television. Then, in 1958, he landed his first supporting role in a film, Never Love a Stranger, playing a lawyer. His next film, the cult classic, The Blob, starred McQueen as a handsome high school loner. Both films were only moderately successful but, six weeks after their release, Steve McQueen became a household name as the star of television's Wanted: Dead or Alive, playing bounty hunter Josh Randall.

Capitalizing on his newfound fame, McQueen began to receive above-title billing in his films. But it was not until he was cast in the 1960 Western, The Magnificent Seven, that McQueen found his niche playing Vin, a quiet but deadly gunslinger. Inspired by Kurosawa's The Seven Samurai, and featuring an all-star cast that included Yul Brynner, Eli Wallach, James Coburn, Charles Bronson, and Robert Vaughn, The Magnificent Seven became a huge hit and McQueen, playing the second lead, began to mold his public image.

Although the handsome McQueen would continue to be cast in romantic leads, film audiences particularly loved him as the defiant anti-hero in films such as Hell Is for Heroes and The Great Escape (1963), which catapulted him to international stardom. As Judith Crist wrote in her review for the New York Herald Tribune, "Steve McQueen plays a familiar American war-movie type—brash, self-interested, super-brave emoter. For sheer bravura, whether he's pounding a baseball in his catcher's mitt in solitary or stumping cross-country on a motorcycle with scores of Germans in pursuit, Steve McQueen takes the honors. McQueen's likable machismo captured the public imagination and landed him on the cover of Life magazine.

For the remainder of the 1960s and well into the 1970s, Steve McQueen would be one of Hollywood's most popular leading men. As noted in Katz's Film Encyclopedia, "He was one of that rare breed of film stars who didn't have to act or do anything else to mesmerize a screen audience. He could dominate the screen and fill the box-office coffers on the force of his personality alone." Starring opposite some of Hollywood's most beautiful actresses—from Natalie Wood in Love with the Proper Stranger to Candace Bergen in The Sand Pebbles and Ali McGraw (whom he would later marry) in The Getaway —McQueen's rugged good looks made him a top leading man. But still it was in his role as action hero that McQueen continued to carve out a unique niche for himself, in films such as The Cincinnati Kid and Bullitt.

Throughout his career, McQueen continued to surprise fans and critics alike with the depths of his acting ability. Nominated for an Academy Award for The Sand Pebbles, McQueen later more than held his own co-starring with Dustin Hoffman in Papillon in 1973. But after starring in The Towering Inferno in 1974, McQueen decided that he only wanted to act opposite his new wife, Ali McGraw. When no offers surfaced for the couple, McQueen hoped to begin directing. His efforts, however, were thwarted and a disgruntled McQueen began to let himself go, gaining more than 30 pounds and refusing to cut his hair or beard. One of Hollywood's most popular movie stars for more than a decade, McQueen did not make another movie until 1978, and when he finally reappeared on screen; it was in an unlikely role. Longing to return to his theatrical roots, McQueen brought Henrik Ibsen's classic play, An Enemy of the People, to the screen. But having been out of the public eye for almost five years, McQueen's popularity had begun to wane and even a return to an action role in The Hunter (1980) did nothing to restore McQueen's stardom.

Diagnosed with cancer later that same year, McQueen, who had long been afraid of doctors, refused to consent to ordinary medical treatment and instead sought out questionable alternative therapies in Tijuana, Mexico. Hounded by the press, McQueen eventually succumbed to his illness in November 1980. Despite his early death, Steve McQueen has remained one of Hollywood's most enduring stars. His influence on film and popular culture helped to jumpstart the action movie craze of the 1980s and 1990s.

—Victoria Price

Further Reading:

Katz, Ephraim. The Film Encyclopedia. New York, Harper Perennial, 1994.

St. Charnez, Casey. The Films of Steve McQueen. Secaucus, New Jersey, Citadel Press, 1984.

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McQueen, Steve (1930-1980)

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