The Life of Steve McQueen

The King of Cool – The Life of Steve McQueen

On the 7th of November 1980, Steve McQueen died at just 50. At the Plaza Santa Maria clinic in Mexico. Witnesses to his untimely departure were all at a loss to explain the subtle grin on his face, making it as though even death couldn’t erase his charm.

It may have been because McQueen believed he’d overcome his illness. After all, William Kelley, the experimental cowboy doctor behind McQueen’s cancer treatment, claimed, “Steve was cancer-free for the last six months of his life.” Kelley proceeded to outline his theory that it was, in fact, a coagulant injected by an unknown party that had precipitated McQueen’s demise.

As a result, the medical profession would label Kelley as a crackpot, an attack to which Kelley would respond, “The medical establishment was freaked, shit-scared of being exposed.”

Steve McQueen as Lt. Frank Bullitt
Steve McQueen as Lt. Frank Bullitt

To a more detached public, that final facial tic would be no more or less than appropriate; it’d launched a career, it was the actor’s enduring image, and he’d done more in 50 years than most people could dream of.

McQueen himself would probably be a little more humble in his explanation: `” I get more pussy than Sinatra.”

In truth, the last years of his life – away from the public spotlight, a Hollywood studio system he detested – was McQueen’s most content. Ever since his harsh reform school education, this guy had anger.

It was why his screen presence was so magnetic, why his first two wives often sported bruises and even legendary sons of bitches like Sam Peckinpah were treated to a cursory “fuck you” if they opposed him.

Steve McQueen in Papillon (1973)
Steve McQueen in Papillon (1973)

McQueen didn’t pussyfoot about; he wanted it all. And quickly. So when the autumn of 1958 came around, his unflinching self-promise to “get some sugar out of this business” meant a literal collision.

John Sturges and his Kurosawa re-working, THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN, were calling, and McQueen’s TV show commitments on WANTED: DEAD OR ALIVE required some stealthy re-negotiating.

“Have an accident,” was the advice of McQueen’s manager Hilly Elkins, well aware that the network wasn’t about to let its star go. With cheery impudence, Steve promptly wrote off a rental car by hurling it into a bank.

Fuck you very much.

He couldn’t work; of course he couldn’t, he’d just suffered major automotive trauma – McQueen took off to shoot THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN shortly after.

McQueen’s chicanery on set was the first big-time example that the role he ever played was himself.

Steve McQueen in The Magnificent Seven (1960)
Steve McQueen in The Magnificent Seven (1960)

In one particular scene, Yul Brunner perched himself atop a pile of earth to look impressively tall in shot, earth which McQueen nonchalantly kicked away, giving the impression that Yul was actually shrinking – which wasn’t too far from the truth.

It was perhaps the most subtle tactic McQueen had used, given that shortly afterwards, he would issue a far more unmistakable warning to an over-excited fan: “Get your stinking hands off me, or I’m taking you down to the pavement.”

The McQueen iconography was developing fast, particularly in the extracurricular realm, which mostly involved smoking shit-loads of dope and bedding half the female extras.

Even with just the one major-league success, he was the man all women wanted to bed (if they paid no mind to the notches in his bedpost) and all the men wanted to be.

There was always a peculiar honesty to McQueen’s actions, a sanctioned madness. It was what the public admired and what most who worked with him were forced to respect.

Steve McQueen and Robert Vaughn in Bullitt (1968)
Steve McQueen and Robert Vaughn in Bullitt (1968)

If he felt like setting ablaze the curtain in his Savoy Hotel suite, he’d damn well do it. Of course, he’d be asked to leave; he’d politely tell them to fuck off.

“Why does he act that way?” Asked Richard Attenborough on the set of THE GREAT ESCAPE, by now a little tired of being referred to as a “candyass limey”. He should have known that he’d designated himself as a threat by daring to share screen time. McQueen was a fierce bastard but a deeply insecure one.

So when the studio issued its decree that there was no way in hell McQueen would be performing the infamous escape jump himself, the star’s response was unsurprising. An Eloquent “fuck you” clawing its way through the exhaust fumes afterwards.

His brass didn’t elevate him enough to actually make the jump but tangled up in the fence with a sorry-looking Triumph beneath him, he took the shame with grace: “I could have busted my melon.”

Steve McQueen in The Great Escape
Steve McQueen in The Great Escape

The blaring success of THE GREAT ESCAPE meant stardom was his – that morally dubious pasture that’d eventually see his motivation shift in focus.

Producers would begin to slide scripts his way, accompanied by bags of high-quality cocaine – a little something extra to give the project due consideration. He’d accept the coke, if not always the project.

The personal descent was drawing focus; it wasn’t;t necessarily pretty, but it made McQueen an irresistible contraction. One minute he’d be the doting father of two, the next shacking up in a hotel room for some girl-on-girl action, with a drinking buddy sitting on the recliner opposite, providing a little light encouragement.

Then the often affectionate, occasionally monogamous husband would be stroking his wife’s hair, only to take to LSD-saturated sex sessions with the likes of Mamie Van Daren the following evening.

It’s hardly surprising that by the time BULLITT had wrapped in 1968, McQueen sat with his head held low, his voice tired. “I’m fucking running out of gas, man.”

Steve McQueen in The Getaway
Steve McQueen in The Getaway

The actor began having blackouts on set, memory lapses and most of the unpleasant symptoms that suggest impending self-destruction. Yet the performance remains one of his most measured of his career, hitting every beat perfectly and maintaining the trademark McQueen glare.

McQueen decided to kick his escalating habit into touch because Detective Frank Bullitt was a role that really mattered to him. The plot may have centred on police corruption, but to McQueen, it was a chance to portray a man battling against the system.

All his contempt for Hollywood spilled out on the screen, all the characteristics of a man tortured by contradictions. It was familiar territory.

If it was contempt for the system, the production of LE MANS would turn it into pure hatred. It was McQueen’s dream – a chance to share a racetrack with the best drivers in the world, creating an epic motion picture in the process.

Steve McQueen and his wife Neile Adams
Steve McQueen and his wife Neile Adams

What, in fact, became was an unscripted nightmare that’d see Steve alienate friends. And hit his wife.

McQueen had been married to Neile Adams for 14 years attending to his manly needs, even though McQueen was playing away with roughly 200 women a year. But now, with the apparent conjugal discontentment, the time had come for Steve to ask Neile a question: “Have you had an affair?”

After numerous denials, Neile admitted to a fling with Austrian actor Maximilian Schell. If it wasn’t bad enough that McQueen had to imagine another man inside his wife, his competitive streak also had to handle the fact that, unlike him, Schell had won an Oscar in his lifetime.

The yelling began shortly after, comments like “Dirty fucking cunt,” standing alongside the force of the blows.

McQueen insisted to his production team that Schell be offered a role as a driver in the movie – solely with the idea of smashing him into the track wall. Schell declined the generous offer, and Neile, tearful and broken, left McQueen shortly after with the words, “I’m going to leave you. I must because if I don’t, you’ll kill me someday.”

Steve McQueen and the cast in The Magnificent Seven
Steve McQueen and the cast in The Magnificent Seven

As LE MANS bombed, so did its lead. It would take quite a project to reverse the damage to McQueen’s ego, and he chose THE GETAWAY firmly on its merits. “She had the greatest ass of all time,” he said of his new co-star. He was, of course, referring to his future wife, Ali McGraw.

But if proof were ever needed that Steve McQueen was the very best at playing ‘real’, the character of Doc McCoy was it. All his seething malice for his cuckolding, estranged spouse was channelled onto the screen. It shows.

“She was looking at me and thinking of Steve McQueen’s cock,” spat producing legend Robert Evans, a little bitter that his wife wasn’t strictly adhering to her marriage vows. The McQueen/MacGraw romance grew infamous, threatening to overthrow any actual interest in the film itself.
The publicity actually helped the film at the box office, and Evans hated McQueen forever.

But amid all the chaos, there was an event taking place, a largely untold event that certainly made a lot more difference for McQueen than the wraith of a pissed-off husband.

Steve McQueen and Ali MacGraw
Steve McQueen and Ali MacGraw

After a particularly nasty bout of what McQueen thought was laryngitis, McQueen went to the hospital for a supposedly routine throat investigation. Although not formally diagnosed, it was the first sign of cancer that would eventually consume him. 

He gave up smoking, and life continued, although the cough persisted. A year later, in 1979, he was diagnosed with pleural mesothelioma, cancer associated with asbestos exposure. 

McQueen stated that he believed it was due to asbestos used in movie sound stage insulation. Race-driver protective suits and helmets could have been involved. Still, he thought it more likely that his illness directly resulted from massive exposure while removing asbestos lagging (insulation) from pipes aboard a troop ship while he served in the Marines.

McQueen’s last few films never hit the infamous heights as before. THE TOWERING INFERNO may have netted him millions. Still, as he saw it, it was purely by chance to prove that he’d become bigger than that “fuckwit” Paul Newman. 

It was that rivalry again, that unparalleled mixture of bravado and uncertainly that paradoxically made him an icon. In his last years, as he saw his marriage to MacGraw dissolve after five tumultuous years and his third marriage begin, McQueen would soothe his rage with religion. Indeed, clutched in his hand in his final moments was a copy of the Bible.

“Whosoever believers in Him should not perish but have everlasting life,” was the philosophy McQueen clung to – mainly because the prospect of growing old terrified him.

Yes, he’d made mistakes, but that final smirk was indeed a little self-recognition that he’d achieved everything on his own terms. Steve McQueen, the “King of Cool.”

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