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Steve McQueen: The King of Cool

With the release of the new documentary Steve McQueen: The Man and Le Mans, we’re taking a look at the life and career of Hollywood’s King of Cool.

Thirty-five years after his death, Steve McQueen retains a certain cache as a hipster movie star. He was dubbed the “King of Cool” during his lifetime, and no one since has come along to seriously challenge the title. His screen performances, particularly in his iconographic roles in The Magnificent Seven, The Great Escape, The Thomas Crown Affair, and Bullitt, are marked by an unflappable, even emotionless exterior that suggested a core of steel but also hidden depths. Compact, blond and blue-eyed, he generally looked great, and exuded an effortless masculinity and sense of style. And he was a racer, associated more than any other movie star in film history with fast cars and motorcycles.

The racing obsession is showcased in a new documentary, Steve McQueen: The Man and Le Mans. At the top of his career, the actor met his Waterloo with the 1971 flop Le Mans, a portrait of the 24-hour French endurance race McQueen starred in for his company Solar Productions. Opting for a semi-documentary style, McQueen and his producing partners neglected to come up with a script before production started, and the actor’s legendarily difficult diva behavior on set led to the early departure of director John Sturges, who had more than a decade earlier given the star his most crucial breaks. Despite its failure, the film is highly regarded in racing circles, especially for its substantial footage from Le Mans itself. The new documentary, directed by Gabriel Clarke and John McKenna, makes use of considerable behind-the-scenes footage and features interviews with McQueen’s first wife Neile Adams and son Chad.

The Man and Le Mans may provide an exhaustive look at one aspect of McQueen’s persona, but his infatuation with racing was perhaps a symptom rather than the key to the actor’s psyche. The facts of his life point to a complexity that resists simple analysis.

McQueen, who was born in Indiana in 1930, had a textbook-level traumatic childhood. His roustabout father abandoned him at six months, and his mother, an alcoholic sometime-prostitute, soon left Steve in the care of her parents and uncle, a Missouri farmer. The boy joined his remarried mother in Indianapolis, and again after her second remarriage in Los Angeles, but suffered beatings at the hands of both stepfathers. Steve escaped to the streets and juvenile delinquency, eventually ending up at California Junior Boys Republic, a progressive reform school, where he resolved to straighten himself out.

The GI bill and Yiddish theatre gave him his start in acting. After being released from Boys Republic at age 16, Steve joined the merchant marine and then the United States Marines, where he spent a fair amount of time in the brig. After his discharge, he studied acting at Sanford Meisner Playhouse on the GI bill, and made his stage debut with a small role in Yiddish opposite Molly Picon. Broadway roles (The Member of the Wedding, A Hatful of Rain) followed, and then a relocation to Hollywood. McQueen made his film debut with a bit in Somebody Up There Likes Me (1956), which starred that other blue-eyed icon, Paul Newman. Steve’s first lead movie role came in the 1958 shock programmer The Blob, and TV stardom was his with the Western series Wanted: Dead or Alive, in which the actor played a bounty hunter. 

Sammy Davis, Jr. didn’t break his leg, but McQueen did go on in his place. A falling out with pally Frank Sinatra got Davis nixed from the cast of John Sturges’ 1959 Never So Few, leaving McQueen with a major supporting role. The next year, the actor became one of Sturges’s Magnificent Seven, a smash that left him itching to leave TV for good. His series cancelled, Steve took some time to gain his film-star footing, but in another ensemble piece for Sturges, 1963’s The Great Escape, a climactic motorcycle chase catapulted him to the A-list and set his daredevil image in cool-cucumber stone. Other movies included Love with the Proper Stranger, The Cincinnati Kid, and The Sand Pebbles, which earned him an Oscar nomination in 1967. Then, in 1968, a one-two punch—stylish caper The Thomas Crown Affair and lean detective story Bullitt—landed McQueen firmly in the superstar pantheon. The latter film’s car chase (in a Ford Mustang GT fastback) through the streets of San Francisco became the prototype for all movie car chases to follow.

Steve McQueen Photo

Steve McQueen behind the wheel as police lieutenant Frank Bullitt in the 1968 thriller Bullittt.

But was that Steve behind the wheel? McQueen prided himself on doing his own stunt work, but in his two most famous action scenes—the 60-foot motorcycle jump in The Great Escape, and the often-airborne hot pursuit in Bullitt—he was largely absent from the vehicles in question. The actor was willing, but the productions’ insurance companies decidedly were not. His desire to drive in the actual 24-hour Le Mans event was similarly nixed. McQueen had to content himself with competing in a few lesser auto races and generally driving like a maniac (with attendant crashes, tickets, and arrests) in his private life.

Steve was on Charlie Manson’s hit list. The actor’s best friend and favorite partner in bad behavior (drugging, womanizing) was hairdresser Jay Sebring. According to McQueen, a tryst with a beautiful blonde was all that kept him from accompanying his friend to Sharon Tate’s house one night in August 1969. The next morning, Sebring was one of those found murdered. After Manson and his gang were arrested, a list of celebrities the cult leader intended to kill surfaced with McQueen’s name on it.

During his last decade, Steve was a reluctant movie star. The failure of Le Mans seemed to zap the actor’s taste for making films; starring roles in Papillon and The Towering Inferno were strictly money jobs. He retreated to his beach house with second wife Ali MacGraw (met during shooting of Sam Peckinpah’s 1972 The Getaway), continued to indulge his penchant for pot and peyote, and packed on the pounds. After divorcing MacGraw, he married model Barbara Minty and made three more films (again playing a bounty hunter in his last project, The Hunter)

Steve McQueen Photo

McQueen met his Waterloo with the 1971 flop Le Mans, a portrait of the 24-hour French endurance race. His racing obsession is showcased in a new documentary, Steve McQueen: The Man and Le Mans.

In 1980, McQueen became gravely ill with mesothelioma, a cancer associated with asbestos exposure. He seemed to rally after pursuing a controversial treatment regime in Mexico involving coffee enemas, full-body shampoos, and the drug laetrile, but he died following surgery on November 8, 1980, at age 50. He left $200,000 to Boys Republic in his will. His personal possessions, slated for auction, reportedly included almost 100 cars and 200 motorcycles. The aura of cool is attached to every one.