I can think of many leading men who can be called The King of Cool, but only one Hollywood star deserves the title, and that’s Steve McQueen. He was one of the greatest movie stars in Hollywood during his time. From cop films to Westerns to war and heist films, McQueen’s good looks and swagger were unforgettable to moviegoers in the ’60s and ’70s. But McQueen was a man of action outside of just acting.
He had motorcycles, cars, planes; you name it. His star power led to hostile interactions with his costars and crew if things didn’t go his way. McQueen spoke to therapist Brugh Joy about the life he led towards its end, which was reportedly his last interview. That conversation revealed a lot of McQueen’s insecurities, like never being loved by his parents, which only led to a life of rebellion.
This is the life and death, and everything in between, of The King of Cool.
Terrence Stephen McQueen was born on March 24th, 1930, in Beech Grove, Indiana. McQueen came from Scottish descent and was raised Roman Catholic. His father was a stunt pilot for a barnstorming flying circus (of all things) and left McQueen’s mother six months after meeting her. According to several biographers, his mother was an alcoholic and a teenage prostitute.
Unable to cope with taking care of a small child, she left McQueen with her parents in Slater, Missouri, in 1933, just as the Great Depression was setting in. McQueen recalled good memories of living on that farm, saying how his great-uncle Claude “was a very good man, very strong, very fair. I learned a lot from him.” He can thank Claude for sparking in him an early interest in racing as he gave McQueen a red tricycle on his fourth birthday.
When McQueen reached the age of eight, his mother took him to Indianapolis to live with her and her new husband. “The day I left the farm”, he remembered, “Uncle Claude gave me a personal going-away present—a gold pocket watch, with an inscription inside the case.” The inscription on the watch read: “To Steve, who has been a son to me.”
But McQueen didn’t adjust so well to his new life away from the farm. He was dyslexic and partially deaf due to an ear infection he had as a child. As if that wasn’t hard enough for a young kid, his stepfather beat him so much that when he was nine, he left home to live on the streets. It didn’t take long for him to find himself in a street gang committing petty crimes.
His mother, Julia, who just couldn’t handle parenting, decided to send him back to Slater. When McQueen was 12, Julia wrote a letter to Claude, asking to take her son back again. This time, he was to live in her new home in Los Angeles. Her second marriage ended, and she was then in her third marriage. According to McQueen, he and his new stepfather “locked horns immediately.”
McQueen remembers him as “a prime son of a b****” who didn’t mind using his fists on the boy and his mother. But as patterns tend to repeat themselves, McQueen began to rebel again, and his mother sent him back to live with Claude for the last time. But even his loving uncle wasn’t enough to keep McQueen in the home.
When McQueen was 14, he left his uncle’s farm without even saying goodbye. He joined a circus for a short time, and slowly drifted back to his mother and stepfather in Los Angeles. There, he quickly got back to the being a gang member and petty criminal. The police caught him stealing hubcaps and handed the teenager over to his stepfather.
The poor teenager was beaten severely by his stepfather, who ended up throwing McQueen down a flight of stairs. McQueen remembered looking up at the man and saying, “You lay your stinking hands on me again, and I swear, I’ll kill you.” After that incident, his stepfather convinced Julia to sign a court order stating that her son was irredeemable. Still a minor, he was then sent to the California Junior Boys Republic in Chino.
It was at the school for troubled boys that McQueen began to mature and essentially grow up. It took a while for him to feel like he was part of the group. But eventually, he became a role model and was elected to the Boys Council, where he would help set the rules and regulations of the boys’ lives. McQueen stayed there for two years, and by the time he was 16, he left.
That period of his life had a major impact on him in a positive way. When he later became famous, McQueen regularly returned to talk to the boys and maintained a lifelong association with the place. At 16, McQueen returned to his mother, who was now living in Greenwich Village in New York.
In New York, McQueen met two sailors from the Merchant Marines. He decided to volunteer to serve on a ship bound for the Dominican Republic. But once he got there, he abandoned his post and went rogue. He worked for a bit in a brothel, eventually making his way to Texas, going from job to job. He worked as a carnival barker and a lumberjack at times.
In 1947, McQueen, who got permission from his mother since he was only 17 years old, enlisted in the Marines. He was sent to Parris Island for boot camp and got promoted to private first class. But his rebellious side was still calling him and was demoted to private all but seven times. It was all downhill from there…
McQueen took an unauthorized leave of absence when he failed to return after a weekend pass expired, as he was staying with a girlfriend for two weeks. That is until the shore patrol caught him. He resisted arrest and spent 41 days in a military prison. Only after his stint in the “brig,” did he resolve to focus his energy on self-improvement.
He learned to embrace the Marines’ discipline. McQueen ended up saving the lives of five other Marines during an Arctic exercise. He pulled them out of a tank before it broke through the ice and into the sea. After that event, he was assigned to the honor guard and was responsible for guarding the yacht of then-President Harry Truman. McQueen served in the Marines until 1950 when he was honorably discharged at the age of 20.
McQueen later reflected on his time in the Marines as a period that he actually enjoyed, which was a stark contrast to a string of rebellious acts he found himself in leading up to that point. Journalist Marshall Terrill, who wrote several books on the screen icon and collaborated with his widow, Barbara Minty, on a photo book, explained this part of McQueen’s life.
“He talked about that when he was younger, he didn’t receive any love from his mother or father,” Terrill explained. McQueen told him that he did all those crazy things in his youth to prove to himself that he was worthy. McQueen looked back on his life with many regrets. One of the regrets he spoke about was, building friendships about drugs and alcohol, wishing he would have built foundations on solid ground instead.
McQueen held countless random and brief jobs before he discovered acting. He actually never gave acting a thought. But in 1952, two years out of military service, when he was 22 years old, the young and eager star-to-be chose to make his next move and study acting in New York. The way he saw it, there’s a lot of women in acting, and so it was a way for him to meet a woman.
“Then, of course, he found out eventually that there was money involved, too,” Terrill said. But on the other hand, this was a street kid who eventually made it big. He wanted to know everything there was about show business. Why? Because that way, he would never be taken advantage of.
McQueen delivered his first dialogue on a Yiddish theater stage in a 1952 play. His character spoke just one brief line: “Alts iz farloyrn,” which translates to “All is lost.” In those days, McQueen also studied acting with the famous Stella Adler. In her class, he met the Italian-American actress and model, Gia Scala.
A few years later, in 1956, McQueen married Filipina-American actress Neile Adams. The two had a daughter, Terry Leslie, and a son, Chad. The couple ended up getting a divorce in 1972. In her autobiography, “My Husband, My Friend,” Adams wrote about having needed to get an abortion in 1971, during a time when their marriage was already on the rocks.
While he was studying acting, McQueen earned money by competing in motorcycle races on the weekends at Long Island City Raceway. He then bought the first of many motorcycles, a Harley-Davidson. He became an excellent racer in no time, taking home about $100 in winnings (equivalent to $1,000) every weekend.
McQueen ultimately became known for being an avid motorcycle and race car enthusiast. Whenever he had the opportunity to drive in a film, he performed most of his own stunts, including car chases in ‘Bullitt’ and the motorcycle chase in ‘The Great Escape.’ It proved difficult to find riders as skilled as McQueen.
But before he ever got to the top, he had to work his way up the show biz ladder.
McQueen landed minor roles in productions like Peg o’ My Heart, The Member of the Wedding, and Two Fingers of Pride. His Broadway debut came in 1955 in the play A Hatful of Rain. By 1955, at the age of 25, he left New York and made his way to Hollywood to look for acting jobs. McQueen appeared in a two-part television presentation called The Defenders – something manager Hilly Elkins took note of.
Elkins decided that B-movies would be a good place for the young McQueen to make his mark. He then landed his first film role in Somebody Up There Likes Me, which starred Paul Newman. After that, McQueen was hired for the films Never Love a Stranger and The Blob, which was his first leading role.
The King of Cool’s first breakout role was on TV. He appeared in the NBC western series, Tales of Wells Fargo as Bill Longley. McQueen then landed a part in another western show, Trackdown, playing Josh Randall. McQueen became a household name thanks to Trackdown. When he was 29, in 1959, McQueen got a big break when Frank Sinatra got rid of Sammy Davis, Jr. in the film Never So Few.
Davis’ role then went to McQueen. Apparently, Sinatra saw something special in the rising star and made sure to get plenty of close-ups of McQueen. His character, Bill Ringa, suited the new racecar lover as he was never more comfortable than he was when driving high speed (this time in a jeep).
1960’s The Magnificent Seven was McQueen’s first major hit and led to his withdrawal from the western show he was on at the time – Wanted: Dead or Alive. McQueen’s portrayal as the second lead sent his career soaring. He made certain moves in the film’s shots that annoyed costar Brynner, who claimed that McQueen was trying to steal scenes.
McQueen would shake his shotgun around before loading it, repeatedly checked his gun when he was in the background, and wiped his hat rim. Reportedly, Brynner refused to draw his gun when he was in the same scene with McQueen because he didn’t want his character to be outdrawn. The up-and-coming star was just too cool for school.
McQueen played the lead role in 1963’s The Great Escape. Due to insurance concerns, he was prevented from performing the movie’s notable motorcycle leap, which was instead performed by his friend and fellow cycle enthusiast Bud Ekins. Luckily, he looked like McQueen from a distance. Later on, when Johnny Carson tried to congratulate McQueen for the jump on The Tonight Show, McQueen surprised both Carson and the audience. He simply said, “It wasn’t me. That was Bud Ekins.”
Either way, The Great Escape secured McQueen’s status as a superstar. Three years later, after starring in The Cincinnati Kid, McQueen earned his first and last Academy Award nomination for his role as an engine-room sailor in The Sand Pebbles.
1968’s Bullitt, one of McQueen’s best-known films, featured a first-time (and endlessly imitated) car chase through the streets of San Francisco. McQueen did the driving in the close-ups, but it was about 10% of the film’s car chase. The rest of the driving was done by stunt drivers Bud Ekins and Loren Janes.
McQueen and his stunt drivers spent several days before the shoot practicing high-speed, close-quarters driving. The film went so far over budget that Warner Bros. canceled the contract on the rest of McQueen’s films, seven in all. Then, when Bullitt became a massive box-office success, Warner Bros. tried to woo him back, but McQueen refused. The following year, he did a Southern period piece called The Reivers.
McQueen got cast as the leading role in The Getaway in 1973, which was where he met his costar and future wife, Ali MacGraw. But in the years prior (1971–1972), while separated from Adams and before meeting MacGraw, McQueen had a relationship with actress Barbara Leigh. That fling included pregnancy and, subsequently, an abortion. Actress and model Lauren Hutton also said that she had an affair with McQueen in the early ’60s.
Mamie Van Doren claimed to have had an affair with McQueen, too, and supposedly tried hallucinogens with him. But in 1973, McQueen married Ali MacGraw. Within five years, they were already divorced. MacGraw had suffered a miscarriage while they were married. According to their friends, MacGraw was McQueen’s one true love. A classic case of the one who got away. “He was madly in love with her until the day he died.”
In 1973, McQueen was the world’s highest-paid actor, but the following year, after starring in The Towering Inferno with his long-time professional rival Paul Newman, McQueen basically disappeared from the public eye. He wanted to focus on motorcycle racing and traveling across the country in a motor home and on vintage Indian motorcycles.
McQueen made a comeback in 1978 with An Enemy of the People, playing a very atypical character – with a beard and glasses – as a 19th-century doctor. Then, in January 1980, less than a year before his death, McQueen married a model named Barbara Minty. His third wife then wrote about her husband in her book, “Steve McQueen: The Last Mile.” She wrote about his choice to become an Evangelical Christian toward the end of his life.
According to Minty, becoming an Evangelical was due in part to the impact his flying instructor, Sammy Mason, had on him, as well as Mason’s son Pete, and Barbara herself. McQueen started going to his local church and was visited by evangelist Billy Graham not long before his death. He may have had a newfound religion, but women were never lost on McQueen’s mind.
Coming from his third wife, “He was a moody guy. He was definitely a difficult guy to live with. I talked to two of his wives, and they said that he came from that old school [mentality] where he was the man, and they were the woman. They were there to serve him dinner and make love to him at night.”
Journalist Terrill said, “His three wives took on different roles. The first wife gave him that emotional support he needed and was the mother to his children, and understood him the best, giving him a long leash. Unfortunately, their marriage ended at the end of the ’60s because he wanted to screw around so much and wanted to be free.”
Then came MacGraw, who represented “pure, unabashed passion.” But she was also a very smart woman who had her own ideas. They pretty much complete opposites, so they clashed often, despite their mutual passion. By the time he married Minty, he completely mellowed out. She was also about 25 years younger than he was by the time he did his 180.
When Minty came along, at the age of 48, there was just no fight left in him, at least regarding women. He found a woman that liked what he liked, did what he did, and served him hand and foot. “He was at his most peaceful with Barbara,” Terrill said. Terrill also explained that even before marrying Minty, there were times when McQueen considered leaving Hollywood for good.
“He had become a big star and had just gotten burned out of it. He and McGraw moved to Malibu, and he just wanted to get away. He had talked about getting out of the business completely, but I don’t think that would have been the case. The money was too good.”
When he married Minty in 1980, McQueen was thinking about life beyond the cameras. Terrill’s spun it like this: MacGraw represented the Malibu years when he started dropping out of Hollywood. Minty represented this peaceful version of Steve McQueen, where he came to find peace with himself. It only took 48 years…
Sure, he made a couple of movies, but Hollywood and movies weren’t his priority anymore. What was his priority? Flying planes and enjoying life. In a 1966 interview, McQueen himself even claimed that his goals weren’t solely based on getting screen time. “I’ve leveled off in some respects, plan my business and my career ahead now and try to schedule my work so I’ll have time off,” McQueen mentioned.
“I just want the brass ring and the pine trees and my kids and the green grass. I want to get rich and fat and watch my children grow,” McQueen said back in 1966. Some believe that McQueen might have had a conflicting relationship with his fame. Yet the man is still celebrated as one of the most important actors in the history of film. Terrill insists that there are lessons to be learned from his relatively short, fast-paced life.
“There is just so much legacy there,” Terrill said. “But I think the lasting legacy is this individual who represents freedom, who represents pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps. A street kid that made it big. And that’s sort of the American dream, isn’t it?”
By 1978, McQueen developed a persistent cough. So he gave up cigarettes and underwent antibiotic treatments, but there was no improvement. His shortness of breath got worse, and on December 22nd, 1979, after having filmed The Hunter, a biopsy revealed some disconcerting results. He had pleural mesothelioma, cancer that results from asbestos exposure. Cancer for which there is no known cure.
A few months later, McQueen gave an interview where he publically blamed his condition on asbestos exposure. He believed that the asbestos used in film sound stage insulation and race-drivers’ protective suits and helmets were a possible part of it. But he said that it was more likely that his cancer was a direct result of his time in the Marines when he was exposed to asbestos insulation from pipes on a troopship.
By February 1980, widespread metastasis was found in his body. He attempted to keep the condition a secret, but on March 11th, the National Enquirer exposed that he had “terminal cancer.” In July, after American doctors told him they couldn’t do anything to prolong his life, McQueen traveled to Mexico for unconventional treatment.
His trip to Mexico proved to be controversial because McQueen sought treatment from William Donald Kelley, who was offering a variation of the Gerson therapy. The controversial treatment involves coffee enemas, frequent shampoo washing, massages, daily injections of fluid that contains live cells from cattle and sheep, and laetrile (an anti-cancer drug available in Mexico, but known to be toxic and ineffective).
McQueen paid in cash payments, which were reported to have been around $40,000 per month ($124,000 in today’s dollars). And he was in Mexico for three months. William Donald Kelley’s only medical license (before it was revoked in 1976) was for orthodontics. His methods created a sensation in both the traditional and tabloid press when the public found out that the one and only Steve McQueen was a patient.
By October 1980, McQueen returned to the United States. Despite the spreading of cancer throughout his body, Kelley announced that McQueen would be cured and would return to his normal life. But whaddayaknow, McQueen’s condition got worse. Soon, huge tumors developed in his abdomen.
In late October, McQueen flew back to Mexico for surgery – to have his abdominal tumor on his liver (which weighed around five pounds) removed. This was despite the warnings from his American doctors that the tumor was essentially inoperable, and his heart wouldn’t be able to withstand the surgery.
So what did McQueen do? He used the name “Samuel Sheppard” and checked himself discreetly into a small clinic where the doctors and staff there were unaware of his identity. Sadly, it was the last place McQueen would be seen alive. On November 7th, 1980, Steve McQueen died of heart failure at 3:45 a.m. at the Juárez clinic in Mexico. It was 12 hours after surgery was done to remove (or reduce) metastatic tumors in his neck and abdomen.
He was 50 years old, and according to the El Paso Times, he died in his sleep. McQueen was then cremated, and his ashes were spread in the Pacific Ocean. Forty years later, McQueen is still a widely popular name. But his estate limits the licensing of his image in order to avoid commercial saturation that is often experienced by other deceased celebrities.
As of 2007, Steve McQueen’s estate entered the top 10 highest-earning dead celebrities. What a category to be included in. Also in 2007, he was inducted into the Hall of Great Western Performers. Speaking of Halls of Fame, in 1999, McQueen was inducted into the Motorcycle Hall of Fame and was credited with contributions including funding the film On Any Sunday, supporting off-road riders, and enhancing the public image of motorcycling in general.
There was a film based on unfinished storyboards and notes by McQueen, which was slated for production before his death. The movie, Yucatán, was described as an “epic adventure heist” film. It was supposed to be released in 2013, and by 2016, it was still unreleased. The movie never came to fruition.
Team Downey, Robert Downey, Jr. and his wife Susan Downey’s production company, expressed an interest in making Yucatán a movie. But only time will tell if it will ever find its way to the big screen. Steve McQueen: The Man & Le Mans, is a 2015 documentary that examines the late star’s quest to make the 1971 auto-racing film Le Mans. His son Chad and former wife Neile Adams are some of the people interviewed.
Steve McQueen was known for his long lists of demands on set. Beyond being one of the highest-paid stars of the ’60s, he insisted on getting multiple electric razors and pairs of jeans whenever he showed up to a new film production. Only much later was it discovered that McQueen had been donating these items all along to the Boys Republic School, where he used to stay back in the day.
Some things he didn’t donate, however, were his motorcycles. McQueen owned many motorcycles and cars during his lifetime. His collection included a 1958 GMC Pickup Truck, a 1956 Jaguar XKSS, a 1951 Chevrolet Styline De Lux Convertible, and a 1958 Porsche 356 Speedster 1600 Super.
While living in Malibu, McQueen was next-door neighbors with Keith Moon, the drummer in The Who. And Moon was a party animal who infuriated McQueen by constantly leaving his bathroom light on at night, making it impossible for McQueen to sleep. He had to confront Moon about it, but nothing changed.
So the King of Cool finally grabbed a shotgun and literally shot out Moon’s bathroom light from his bedroom window!
Speaking of other famous people, McQueen was a martial arts student, and a friend, of Bruce Lee. Both men were very competitive. Lee made it clear that he wanted everything McQueen had. But upon Lee’s early death, McQueen was one of his pallbearers at his funeral in 1973.
McQueen’s TV contract with Wanted: Dead or Alive meant that he had to reject a role in the classic film, Breakfast at Tiffany’s. And if you’re wondering, he was offered the role that George Peppard played in the final product – yes, the lead male role. McQueen also turned down parts in Ocean’s 11 and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.
With Butch Cassidy, his lawyers and agents couldn’t agree with Paul Newman’s lawyers and agents on top billing. McQueen rejected even more roles, such as The Driver, Apocalypse Now, California Split, Dirty Harry, A Bridge Too Far, The French Connection (because he didn’t want to do another cop film), and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. That’s quite a few.
Being a rugged Hollywood star with such a strong appeal to both men and women, Steve McQueen had to keep up an intense exercising regimen. His routine consisted of workouts that lasted two hours every day. Aside from the weightlifting, McQueen also ran five miles a day at one point in his life. But working out religiously wasn’t his only pastime.
According to photographer William Claxton, the star smoked marijuana pretty much every day. And biographer Marc Eliot stated that McQueen also used a lot of cocaine in the early ’70s. Not to mention that he was also a heavy cigarette smoker. McQueen, like many Hollywood folk, enjoyed his alcohol and sometimes drank to excess. One time in 1972, he was arrested for driving while intoxicated in Anchorage, Alaska.
One of the main reasons why McQueen landed the role of Vin in The Magnificent Seven was thanks to the film’s star, Yul Brynner. Brynner personally requested that McQueen will act in the film. Ironically, Brynner regretted his decision when they majorly clashed on set. It was Brynner that got annoyed with all the moves that stole Brynner’s thunder.
With time, Brynner became paranoid about McQueen’s on-screen movements, and he also wanted to look taller than McQueen in the film. Even though Brynner was already an inch taller than McQueen, he made it so that he would stand on a small mound of the earth whenever they would stand beside each other in a scene.
One of the most star-studded movies that Steve McQueen starred in was The Towering Inferno. One of his costars was his long-time rival, Paul Newman, who was himself an established movie star at the time. Despite that, McQueen was still given a larger role with more lines than Newman. Ironically, though, McQueen insisted that Newman get an equal amount of lines in the film.
It was because McQueen was convinced that he was better than Newman, and so it was his way of proving it without any advantages on his side. To add another layer of irony, McQueen was supposed to costar with Newman in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, as we know now, an argument over billing and star power meant it didn’t work out.
The Getaway, the neo-noir crime film that turned out to be one of the biggest commercial hits of both McQueen’s and director Sam Peckinpah’s careers, wasn’t an easy production to work on. For one thing, there was the whole scandal regarding McQueen and his costar, Ali McGraw, who began an affair which led to McGraw divorcing her then-husband to marry McQueen.
Another issue that came up during the filming of The Getaway was the fact that McQueen had earned the rights to have final cut privileges on the film, and this infuriated the director. McQueen and Peckinpah, who was at the time struggling with alcoholism, frequently got into heated arguments. One time, a fight led to McQueen throwing a champagne bottle at Peckinpah’s head!
Speaking of the love affair between McQueen and McGraw in the early ’70s, it’s been rumored that their romance had a far-reaching consequence for McQueen’s career. The year after their affair, McQueen gave what many people said was his best on-screen performance in the prison movie, Papillon. But despite the universal praise, McQueen didn’t get an Oscar nomination for his troubles.
Many said that it was because McGraw’s ex-husband, the then-powerful Hollywood producer Robert Evans, who was the man behind The Godfather and many other classics, had something to do about it. Allegedly, Evans caused McQueen to get blackballed. It also didn’t help McQueen’s case that he was romantically involved with several other married women in Hollywood.
On August 8th, 1969, Steve McQueen was invited by Hollywood’s famous hairdresser, Jay Sebring, to come over for dinner at his friends’ home, which belonged to Roman Polanski and Sharon Tate. McQueen initially agreed to join them, but a rendezvous with a famous lady led to him backing out at the last minute.
Late that night, Tate and Sebring were murdered by the Manson Family. Two months after Charles Manson provoked the murder, the media reported that police found a hit list with Steve McQueen’s name on it. According to his first wife, after that, McQueen started carrying a handgun at all times in public, even at Sebring’s funeral.
One of the last movies of McQueen’s career was the western, Tom Horn, which was released in 1980. The production was problematic from the get-go. McQueen was already sick due to his cancer, but at the time, he incorrectly thought that it was a serious case of pneumonia. Another problem was the fact that McQueen either alienated or fired five different directors from the project.
It’s long been rumored that McQueen directed most of the movie by himself. McQueen’s final film was The Hunter. During filming, McQueen suffered a health-related issue as he performed a scene where his character ran down the street and around a corner. When he didn’t show up again after the “cut” was called, McQueen was then found unable to breathe.