Bright Lights Film Journal

Happy Happy Birthday Baby! Steve McQueen (b. 3/24/30): Fifty Years of the King of Cool

Steve McQueen in Bullitt. Screenshot

This profile appeared originally in Bright Lights in 2009; we reprint it here as a tribute to this singular star on the 85th anniversary of his birth.

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“Steve understood real people, particularly misfits, like nobody else.It was just the Hollywood brass he loathed.”

In a June 1962 letter I turned up in the “Steve McQueen Archive” (all right, actually more of a soggy cardboard box) stored in the basement of the Margaret Herrick Library in Los Angeles, the 32-year-old actor’s accountant supplies him with a “nut projection,” as well as some more ad hoc professional guidance. The figures show that McQueen was then spending the rather precise amount of $3,009.55 a month, or some $36,114 a year, which you could multiply by roughly twelve to get today’s rates. According to the accountant, his client had a healthy $66,500 in the bank, as well as two houses and various other investments, for a total net worth of $172,000. The letter goes on to offer a shrewd and personal overview to the bottom line. “You are in great condition and considering the tempo of your career, are well on the way to building a comfortable fortune. Just keep your feet on the ground.”

It was good advice, which McQueen more or less took for the next ten years — at which point the familiar formula of coke, uncomplicated sex, and rampant megalomania took over. For him, acting was something like (but inferior to) his pet love of motor racing: it took skill, timing, stamina, and a certain amount of guts. As with a great Formula 1 driver, McQueen seemed unbeatable at the height of his career, only to crash, spectacularly, as age or perhaps vanity led him to overreach himself. McQueen’s career followed a classic — as the film-writing courses say — “arc”: quickly up and slowly down, like a bad golfer’s swing.

He was born, possibly illegitimate, on March 24, 1930, in the Indianapolis suburb of Beech Grove. McQueen’s first twenty-plus years weren’t so much bleak as they were positively Dickensian. His mother was a 19-year-old party girl called Julia Ann Crawford, popularly known as Julian, who occasionally brought up her son, but more often than not dumped him with a succession of eccentric relatives. He never knew his father. In February 1945, McQueen began a 14-month stretch at Junior Boys Republic in Chino, a sort of combined work farm-juvenile hall, which led in turn to a series of dead-end jobs, a stint in the Marines, and an extended period hustling around New York in which he displayed what I was authoritatively told by a girlfriend of his named Dora Yanni were “the morals of a bisexual alley-cat.” More or less as a lark, in 1951 he signed up for classes at the Neighborhood Playhouse, slouched through a few auditions, slept with most of his fellow students, and eventually married an Asian-American showgirl named Neile Adams. Neile got him on the books of her agent, Hilly Elkins, who smoothed out McQueen’s hair, bought him his first pair of tan chinos, and sent him up to audition for the lead in a TV western called Wanted Dead or Alive. He got the part.

Two years and 117 episodes later (having also gamely appeared as a 28-year-old teenager fleeing the amorphous slime in The Blob), McQueen, whose perfectionism had already driven most of his directors nuts, got on his motorbike and drove up Hollywood Boulevard to read for a small part in John Sturges’ The Magnificent Seven (right). Again, he got the job. On set, McQueen was the most fiercely competitive of an overadrenalized cast, constantly “catching flies,” as Sturges put it, waving his white hat or rattling his bullet-casings around behind Yul Brynner’s head. On another occasion, Elkins told me, “Yul built himself a mound of dirt to stand on in one of his scenes with Steve. McQueen, during the shot, began accidentally-on-purpose kicking away at the pile, so Yul began looking shorter and shorter. By the end of the take, Brynner was disappearing down a hole.” The Magnificent Seven opened worldwide on October 23, 1960; long after the last Panavision shot of the range, and the climactic chord of Elmer Bernstein’s score, there was the physicality and intelligence of McQueen’s performance, not to mention those scenes stolen from behind Brynner’s back. The two actors never spoke again.

Depressingly often, a brilliant early film is a cul-de-sac, not a road to greater things: as they say, you’ve got a lifetime to make your first movie and three months to make your second one. As a further judgment-impairer, massive amounts of pot were now being smoked by both McQueen and his immediate circle, which may explain his decision to follow up The Magnificent Seven with a sub-Jerry Lewis alleged comedy called The Honeymoon Machine. Pretty well unwatchable today, its one worthwhile joke is McQueen’s attempt to periodically speak his lines in Italian, which largely consists of him mumbling variants of “Mucho grassy” while looking suitably sheepish. He was back in form playing an insubordinate GI, Reese, whose death wish spirals into a suicide mission in Paramount’s Hell Is for Heroes, directed by Don Siegel. One of (again) seven American soldiers set on destroying an enemy bunker, McQueen, the unit’s sullen, word-at-a-time sociopath, provides the main spark and delivers the film’s sharpest lines, if not its bluntest, largely consisting of “Yep,” “Nope,” “Uh-huh,” “Scram,” and “You show up, I’ll blow yer head off.” Throughout he’s in permanent fuck-you mode, committed to self-definition through self-destruction by taking out the Nazi pillbox. It might be stretching it a bit to say that McQueen was really playing himself, but there were similarities. When not required on the set, he tended to avoid lengthy artistic discussions with his fellow cast members and instead take off into the hills on a dirt bike. In the first two weeks of filming he wrote off a total of three vehicles, told Paramount they were “fuckheads” when they queried the bills, and publicly assessed one colleague, the ex-teen idol Bobby Darin, as “a pussy.” The movie, shot on a shoestring, is an unsung classic: McQueen would rarely be cooler, smarter, or nastier in his whole career.

He soon reprised the role, more or less, in 1962’s The War Lover (right), translating Reese into a World War II bomber pilot. McQueen’s fee was $75,000 for the four-month shoot, at the end of which, now a rich and famous man, he sent the film’s producers a letter:

With the completion of The War Loverit has been called to my attention that there are several items that have been checked out to me and so that I will not be charged for them, I should like to clarify the position regarding these said items:

One pair of flight boots; one light blue crew-neck sweater and one dark blue crew-neck sweater which I am sorry to say I know nothing about. There was also the case of the two teapots that where [sic] purchased for me so that I should be able to have tea early in the morning. Unfortunately, one tea pot was stolen from my dressing room before it had even been taken out of the box and this I reported immediately I discovered there had been foul play. The other tea pot was confiscated by one of the Assistant Directors in making tea for the crew in the morning before they started production. This was quite alright by me, [but] as for the other teapot, again, I know absolutely nothing about it other than that it was quietly removed from my dressing room on or about December 12th, along with [the] miscellaneous cups, saucers, and spoons. . . .

and so on, over four pages, copied by McQueen to thirteen parties. He was not a man to spend money rashly. The upshot was that a firm of lawyers, along with the William Morris Agency and the unit accountant, kept up a five-way correspondence with Columbia and U.S. Air Force security police for most of 1962, eventually writing off the cost of the boots and sweaters, though the knotty problem of the teapots remained: McQueen would duly be docked a total of $7.50, one ten-thousandth of his fee, and complained about it, often bitterly, for the rest of his life.

Meanwhile, John Sturges had reassembled some of The Magnificent Seven troupe, along with Richard Attenborough, Donald Pleasance, and James Garner, to star in the more-or-less true story of The Great Escape on location in southern Germany. The first real hint of trouble came with the Brits, toward whom McQueen appears to have had both a superiority and an inferiority complex at the same time. By all accounts, most of his scenes with Attenborough would present the distressing spectacle of a well-heeled poodle attempting to interact with a pit bull. McQueen was also disenchanted, putting it mildly, with Garner, who played an amiable spiv — much like his later stint in The Rockford Files — while wearing both a fluorescent smile and an eye-catching white sweater. Neile Adams told me that “when Steve saw the early rushes, he just tore off in a car by himself for the night — at least I’m assuming it was by himself. Stan Kamen from William Morris had to take the next flight from L.A. to Munich, calm Steve down, then fly home again. Everything was in turnaround.” It was 5,000 miles to get from the Morris office to the set, the last 25 of which were the worst. McQueen met his agent on a vintage motorbike and took off with the frail Kamen bouncing up and down in the sidecar. They made the run in twenty minutes.

Two days later McQueen saw some more footage, and still didn’t like it. Sturges’s heart sank. Back in L.A., Kamen heard his name being paged as he staggered through the airport terminal toward a taxi. He made the call, drank numerous cups of coffee, and then he, too, found himself in turnaround. Kamen’s return flight to Germany that night was his third Atlantic crossing in 72 hours.

Eventually they finished the film, with McQueen’s friend Bud Ekins doubling for him in the famous wire fence-jumping scene, for which he was paid his standard daily fee of $60. McQueen (right, with Sturges) himself vaulted into a permanent and starring role as the King of Cool. Forty-five years later, his performance still stands up. Without descending too far into the briar patch of psychiatry, it would be fair to say he became the vicarious realization of people’s dreams. Soon he was everyone’s — or every man’s — best secret image of himself: the self-sufficient rebel slicing clean through the system, the survivor, the alpha wolf who finally chooses a glorious exit rather than ignominious surrender. It was seductive, and it had the added bonus of being nearly true. “The Steve of The Great Escape was the man I knew for twenty years,” says Don Gordon, his co-star in Bullitt. “Like his character in the film, he was cool, together, abstracted from the group, his own guy. Of course he could also be a shit, too, but that was all part of the appeal.”

McQueen followed his big breakthrough with another war picture, a minor career oddity and faux-Bilko screwball comedy called Soldier in the Rain, in which he fought nonstop with his co-star Jackie Gleason. That led to the ill-advised romancer Love with the Proper Stranger, where again the chief drama was offstage. The essential backdrop was that McQueen was sleeping with his co-star Natalie Wood, with whom his wife Neile was also friendly. Wood, meanwhile, was divorcing Robert Wagner, who was one of McQueen’s few close friends in the industry, and dating Warren Beatty, who was another. Back in a small bungalow in San Francisco, a third woman was pregnant with McQueen’s baby, and was living just a few streets away from the actor’s estranged mother, to whom he sent a regular monthly check but never visited: all proof, perhaps, that show people can be just a bit unorthodox in their private lives.

In another whimsical career choice, McQueen then shot the starkly black and white Baby, the Rain Must Fall, in which he’s as dim and stolid as an introverted ox. More backstage dramas. Between times, McQueen managed to get himself selected as part of the U.S. team for the international six-day motorcycle trials in East Germany. One of his colleagues, Cliff Coleman, told me

Taking Bud Ekins as a ten, I’d say McQueen was a seven or eight as a bike racer. That good, although I always felt he held back for fear of hurting his face, where he knew his fortune lay . . . Steve could and did do wonderful things for his friends, but, God, the man was cheap. That particular trip, the five of us were renting a house in London on the way to Germany . . . The first day there, McQueen held a meeting to tell us, in no uncertain terms, we were splitting expenses evenly down the line. There I was dossing in the attic, while Steve’s downstairs in the master suite ordering in champagne. What an operator. With the women, too. One afternoon we were tooling down the motorway in England in a rental car. Steve looks over, sees a pretty girl in the next lane, and waves at her. She waves back. Without a word McQueen pulls over and so does the girl. He calmly got in her car and that was the last we saw of him for two days.

He must have returned just in time for his next picture, the first in a line of five box office smashes: The Cincinnati Kid, Nevada Smith, The Sand Pebbles, The Thomas Crown Affair, and Bullitt. The last, long overdue a remake, is still the best one-stop example of what made McQueen, in his day, a great actor. A dedicated professional when the mood struck, promptly at six every morning he’d become one of the crowd that gathered around the director’s trailer in a downtown San Francisco parking lot to map out the day’s work. He had been “clinically obsessive” about the minutiae of such things as camera angles and lighting, Don Gordon assured me. In a sudden shift on “Action!,” McQueen would plunge up and down the city streets in his green GT Mustang, flinging it around at 90 mph (he did most of the film’s famed chase scene himself), pause to mutter a few technical complaints about the car’s performance, and then retire early with a groupie, a motor magazine, and a case of his favored Old Milwaukee. Bullitt was financed and shot entirely by McQueen’s own production company. If anyone from Warners, the film’s distributors, happened to stop by, he had them physically evicted from the set. His business partner Bob Relyea recalls one morning on location when a “wild-looking guy in combat fatigues broke loose in a crowd scene and started making trouble, scaring the shit out of people.” Everything seemed set fair for a confrontation, possibly even gunplay, until McQueen “glanced over and casually said, ‘Hey, lemme talk to him,’ took the guy into his trailer, and in two minutes flat calmed him down . . . He had a lot of good qualities like that. Steve understood real people, particularly misfits, like nobody else. He had incredible street smarts. It was just the Hollywood brass he loathed.”

Following the success of Bullitt, McQueen could have had the lead in any major studio shoot-em-up project he wanted (including, as it turned out, the Robert Redford role in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid). He chose, instead, to make a slight William Faulkner novel entitled The Reivers. Of the end result it’s perhaps kindest to be quiet, although there’s enough in McQueen’s performance as one Boon Hogganbeck, the man-child on a leisurely jaunt from Mississippi to Memphis, to suggest that there was an actor of some substance struggling to get out. True to form, he followed it by yet another abrupt career shift, at the head of a $20 million, 200-strong crew, titanically self-indulgent flop called Le Mans. As Bob Relyea recalls,

For about six months, all we were really doing was laboriously moving Car 22 in front of Car 23 and vice-versa . . . Hours would pass while Steve agonized over the color of his helmet, or the precise size of the dead bugs he wanted glued to his windscreen . . . You could pretty well say without fear of contradiction that this was where Steve’s perfectionism degenerated into something like madness . . . It was excruciating.

Relyea himself, along with several other long-time colleagues, was unceremoniously fired in the course of the year-long production. Stan Kamen, McQueen’s indefatigable and loyal agent of more than a decade’s standing, received his own notice in the form of a five-word telegram. It read: “Dear Stan, You’re canned. Steve.” The result was much like a minor Kubrick film, elegant and somehow empty and pedantic. McQueen’s own arrival on the screen was megalomaniacal, the camera pirouetting slowly around instead of allowing him, as the greats generally do, merely to walk on. He didn’t speak his first line of dialogue for forty minutes, and then only a muttered “Hello.” It was a dreadful film.

Sure enough, McQueen followed Le Mans by another genre leap, a gentle, pastoral, and thoroughly gripping character study of a fading cowboy called Junior Bonner. Not the least of the film’s charms is that it in some ways mirrors his own mid-life crisis. During the shooting of Bonner, McQueen divorced his wife, let his hair grow, and began doing LSD. The movie itself was universally judged a failure — one of those “honorable” failures, however, that endear a superstar to his critics, most of whom had by now been forced to concede that McQueen could “really act.” Here, his knack for emotional reticence offsets the athleticism one somehow associates with him from the signature roles like those in The Great Escape or Bullitt.

In another of those mildly schizophrenic moves that constitute the basic pattern of his career, McQueen followed Bonner with three commercially successful if artistically slight projects: The Getaway, Papillon, and The Towering Inferno. The last named, otherwise pretty much unbearable today, at least achieved the distinction of pairing McQueen with Paul Newman, an actor he simultaneously admired and loathed. There are entire sub-contracts in the film’s production file covering every conceivable typographical and stylistic nuance of the two men’s respective billing on the marquee, and almost psychotically detailed instructions on the exact font size to be used in the accompanying print advertisements.

When Inferno wrapped in September 1974, McQueen got on his motorbike and rode down the Pacific Coast Highway to his new hideout in Malibu, which he shared with Ali MacGraw (right, with McQueen in The Getaway). And that was essentially it for the next two years. Offered the leads in, among others, One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, The Bodyguard, Close Encounters, Raid on Entebbe, The Gauntlet, and Apocalypse Now, his invariable two-word reply (he had a stack of cards specially printed with the phrase) read: “Fuck it.” Now and then he seems to have glanced at People magazine and the trade papers, particularly the lies about himself, but for the most part McQueen sat in his hot tub overlooking the beach, taking dope, his hair frizzy, unkempt, a can of beer clamped in his hand, to all appearances an old hippie passing the time, each day an exact replica of the one before and the one that would follow. When producer Irwin Allen came calling to offer him $3 million to star in The Towering Inferno 2, McQueen barely bothered to tell him, too, to fuck off.

McQueen eventually emerged to appear as the overweight, heavily bearded star of an adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s somber 1882 fable An Enemy of the People. The idea of Hollywood’s best-known male superstar doing a Norwegian morality play was evidently a stretch for audiences. McQueen’s friend and occasional double Loren James remembers the two of them sneaking into a preview of the film, enduring two hours of collective sighs and yawns, and then overhearing a teenager say as he was leaving the cinema, genuinely flummoxed, “Well, hell, which one was Steve?” Warner Brothers ultimately decided not to distribute Enemy, which was shelved for more than three years, surfaced on cable TV in August 1980, and finally opened at New York’s Public Theater, an orphanage for lost films, a year later. To this day it has never had a general release.

There was time for McQueen to divorce MacGraw and appear in the underrated western Tom Horn, which enjoyed the distinction of having had no fewer than five directors: two were fired, two quit, and one, William Wiard, went the distance, in the course of which stress reduced his weight by 40 pounds. By then McQueen was clearly nearing the end of a distinguished career. The De Niros and the Hoffmans were the masters now, arch, post-Watergate ironists who marked the true end of the 1960s. McQueen was also beginning to show increased signs of the mesothelioma that would lead him first to a quack doctor named William Kelley, and then to a Mexican clinic of equally dubious repute. He had time for a poignant but otherwise unremarkable update of Wanted Dead or Alive called The Hunter, thus bringing his career full circle, before he married for the third time and moved onto a ranch in the remote hills northwest of Los Angeles. McQueen would spend his last year attending the local Catholic church, flying his vintage plane, and tinkering obsessively with his collection of 55 cars, 210 motorbikes, and more than 10,000 pocket knives, toys, appliances, gizmos, gas pumps, cash registers, jukeboxes, safes, ashtrays, and antique telephones. He died on November 7 1980, in Juarez, where he had gone to be treated by Kelley, a venue determined by the fact that Kelley, a trained dentist, did not have a license to practice medicine in the U.S. Steve McQueen was just fifty. By common agreement his last coherent line, spoken in Spanish, was “Lo hice” — or “I did it.”