A bright Southern California day in 1967, and the movie star Steve McQueen is inside his shady Brentwood home leisurely knocking around billiard balls. Alone. Smoking a joint and running the table — without being too concerned about running the table. Being McQueen.
McQueen and Natalie Wood on the set of “Love with the Proper Stranger” (1963). McQueen never really made it in romances
Irresistible charm meets immovable cool.
“I think it’d be perfect for us,” Newman told McQueen, as they sat with beers out at the pool, sliding across a table the screenplay his friend William Goldman had just written. The working title: “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.”
McQueen had known Newman peripherally through social circles, exchanging nods at events. Both enjoyed racing cars and dirt bikes, and McQueen had once appeared in an uncredited bit part a decade earlier in Newman’s “Somebody Up There Likes Me.” Newman, five years McQueen’s senior, was the biggest star in Hollywood. Newman, of course, would play Butch.
“Let me think it over,” was about all McQueen said on the subject. And you can imagine him flipping without commitment through the script with a wary squint in his eyes.
Before his beer was even below the bottle’s neck, McQueen knew there was no goddamn way he’d ever make this movie. Not if it meant playing a sidekick, taking second billing to Newman — the very actor he’d secretly, almost obsessively, been pursuing in fame and prestige for his entire young acting career.
“Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” grossed $103 million domestically in 1969 dollars, when tickets were $3.50 apiece, bagged multiple Oscar nominations and made Robert Redford a star while pushing Newman’s status even higher.
McQueen, instead, would go it alone. Like always. Like in his runaway teenage years that landed him in street gangs. Like in his early breakthrough days of stealing scenes from established A-listers like Yul Brynner that led to on-set scuffles. And like his eternal defiance of directors, the perpetual rebel at one point driving “Great Escape” helmer John Sturges to scream in frustration to the entire crew on the prison-camp set, “Steve McQueen is no longer on this picture!”
Terrence Steven McQueen was born March 24, 1930, the result of a one-night stand. Dad was a philandering stunt pilot with a traveling circus who’d be gone for good by the time Steve was 7. Mom was an alcoholic teenage prostitute. Soon enough, the boy went to live with an uncle on a Missouri farm.
“These early traumatic events helped shape the fragile, needy psyche that for the rest of Steve McQueen’s life would bubble just beneath the deceptively smooth surface of his very good-looking exterior,” writes Marc Eliot in his new biography “Steve McQueen,” out Tuesday.
At 14, Steve split from his Uncle Claude’s farm, running off with a traveling circus. Hitchhiking and hopping freight trains with hobos, he made his way to Los Angeles, where trouble with street gangs landed him in reform school. By 16, he was part of the Merchant Marines, destined for the West Indies. He swabbed the deck, cleaned pipes, drew garbage detail. “Taking orders still bugged me,” McQueen would say later of the experience. So he jumped ship and disappeared in the Dominican Republic, where he worked as a towel boy at the most notorious bordello on the island.
Back in the US, McQueen worked for a lumber company and other odd jobs before a stint in the Marine Corps.
It was in 1950 when his life turned to acting. After moving to Greenwich Village, he hung with a beatnik scene. He loved smoking pot (it’s said he smoked every day for the rest of his life, along with a pack or two of cigarettes), shoplifted to make ends meet and even tried boxing to make a few bucks but was knocked out in the third round of his first fight. He made $65.
A bohemian actress girlfriend suggested McQueen try acting and dragged him along to a class at the Neighborhood Playhouse. For the lithe ladies man, the main attraction to acting was, of course, all the pretty young aspiring actresses. Plus he could study for free under the G.I. Bill.
In 1958, a third of all network programming was westerns. After a handful of off-Broadway roles, McQueen landed a TV lead on the bounty-hunter show “Wanted: Dead or Alive” in which his character drew a sawed-off rifle from a hip holster. He boasted, “I can put a book of matches on the back of my hand, drop it from waist level, draw and fire two shots into it before it hits the ground.”
One day, Sinatra set firecrackers off behind McQueen, and the young actor jumped. The next time, he didn’t jump. A few days after that, McQueen said, “Hey, Frank” and when Sinatra turned, McQueen fired a prop gun full of blanks directly at his chest. Everyone awaited the knucklefest to follow, but Sinatra broke into a grin and laughed.
McQueen’s defiant bravado — or egocentric neediness, depending on your take — only grew.
McQueen joined the supporting cast for 1960’s “The Magnificent Seven,” starring Yul Brynner. The 29-year-old McQueen resented Brynner’s star treatment, his black limo and extra-large trailer. Steve would get high with James Coburn in their shared trailer and ridicule Brynner’s aloofness.
The scene stealing began with the very first sequence filmed — the seven gunmen riding horses single file across a narrow creek. Brynner, on cue, doffed his hat to reveal his trademark bald head and wiped off his brow. McQueen, directly behind Brynner, immediately swung down out of the saddle, scooped up stream water and doused himself. Within days, the two had to be separated by crew from pummeling one another off camera. “When you work in a scene with Yul,” McQueen said, “you’re supposed to stand perfectly still 10 feet away. Well, I don’t work that way.”
After a run-in with star Bobby Darin on the “Hell is for Heroes” set, a Hollywood columnist tried to calm the aggravated “Mack the Knife” singer-actor by telling him, “Steve McQueen is his own worst enemy.” Darin responded: “Not while I’m still alive.”
When pre-production began for 1963’s “The Great Escape,” McQueen was offered top billing for the role of Capt. Virgil Hilts, the “Cooler King,” the embodiment of the indomitable spirit of the WWII POWs in the story. In short, he was the consummate pain in the ass. That goes for Hilts and the man who signed on to play him.
As filming began in Germany, McQueen grew frustrated with what he perceived to be a secondary role — convinced another suave young actor, James Garner, had a more interesting part as Hendley, the “Scrounger.”
“As far as Steve was concerned, Garner was less a charmer than a schemer, doing his best to make the movie his own,” writes Eliot. McQueen walked out, insisting his part be rewritten. Director Sturges hollered in frustration across the set that McQueen was off the movie.
Naturally, the suits back in Hollywood got involved. Two writers were added to the “Great Escape” shoot and a solution was hashed out. First, Sturges promised that the baseball-and-mitt routine would run throughout the whole film. But most significant was the addition of McQueen’s own idea of a climactic cross-country motorcycle chase that became the film’s most memorable scene.
In his personal life, McQueen lived just as fast, on racing loops and desert motocross rallies, and even more so in the Hollywood fast lane.
He was a scene staple in the early, more exclusive days at LA’s Whiskey a Go Go club. At the Whiskey he’d share coke with pals like Bruce Lee and hair stylist Jay Sebring, who was later a victim of the horrific Manson killing at Sharon Tate’s home on Cielo Drive — a party that McQueen told pal Sebring he’d attend before choosing at the last minute to meet up with a mistress instead.
It was after another fling, with Jacqueline Bisset on the set of “Bullitt” that his wife, Neile, finally had enough. After his countless extra-marital affairs, she admitted to one — reportedly with actor Maximilian Schell.
McQueen held a gun to her head, a pistol he’d carried since the Manson killings. His biggest supporter and mother of his two children, Neile filed for divorce a year later, in October 1971, ending 15 years of marriage.
McQueen however was only placated by a movie-poster solution that gave equal weight to the two actors’ names. “Steve McQueen” was first, on the left, but lower than “Paul Newman” on the right. Furthermore, McQueen insisted the fire chief and the architect have the exact same number of words in the script. And, of course, McQueen had the last line in the film.
“The Towering Inferno” was the biggest blockbuster of 1974, raking in $116 million. McQueen, in his own way, felt like he’d reached Newman’s level at last. He’d remarried a young movie star, Ali McGraw, whom he’d wooed on the set of “The Getaway,” and they settled into a tranquil life on the beachfront near Malibu. McQueen put on a few pounds and acted only enough to pay the bills.
After his professional and social withdrawal, appreciation rose.
Roger Ebert wrote: “Steve McQueen is sometimes criticized for playing ‘himself’ in the movies. That misses the boat, I think. Stars like McQueen, Bogart, Wayne or Newman aren’t primarily actors, but presences.”
In December 1979, while getting a physical at Cedars-Sinai Hospital, doctors found a sizeable, malignant tumor in his right lung. McQueen was a heavy smoker, but doctors guessed it was more likely the result of exposure to asbestos, which lined his many race cars. He died on Nov. 8, 1980 at a hospital in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. He was 50 years old, still nobody’s pushover. Nobody’s sidekick.
As his director on “The Cincinnati Kid,” Norman Jewison, summed it up: “Of all the actors I’ve worked with, he was the most alone.”