The King of Cool

I believe I can trace my mid-1980s to the early 90s fixation on the actor Steve McQueen, to an article in a magazine (The Face/Arena?)  about the John Simons shop when it was located in Covent Garden.

In the piece, the journo had compiled from the stock available in the store, a very close approximation of the outfit that McQueen wore when portraying Virgil Hilts in the film ‘The Great Escape.’ If memory serves, there was a pair of natural colour chinos, a grey Russell athletic sweat, a brown leather ‘flight’ jacket and the obligatory suede high top boots. Of course, I was down there like a shot not long after and bought most of it.

I was told I wasn’t the only one who had done so since the article ran. I realised I wasn’t alone in looking beyond McQueen the actor. I found I was examining closely what he wore, his haircut, his mannerisms and even his way of talking. I was buying books on his life story and picking up as many of his films, on VHS back then, as I could find.

Let’s not forget that he had died in 1980 aged just 50, and in that relatively short life, he had certainly packed a fair amount in, and done it all with a swagger that would eventually earn him the nickname ‘The King of Cool.’

Behind the glamorous Hollywood facade, he was a complicated, highly competitive man however, with a need to prove he was the best at whatever he attempted. His insecurity came from his background, which was one of a broken home which led to him being sent to a children’s correction facility, before leaving there and joining the Marines at just 17.

Terence Steven McQueen was born in 1930 in Indiana. His father William was a stunt pilot who abandoned his mother Julia, an alcoholic, a few months before Steve was born. He was then farmed out to his maternal grandparents at the age of three during the tough times of the Great Depression. His mother came back for him eventually when he was aged 8, so he could go and live with her and her new husband.

Suffering from severe dyslexia and partially deaf, he struggled to cope with this new set up. His stepfather beat him regularly and he left home aged just 9. He was soon involved in petty crime and to save him from getting into more serious problems, his mother sent him back to her parents. When he was 12 though, she once again got him back to live with her and her third husband. However a similar pattern emerged and he was soon in trouble with the police again.

His stepfather had him remanded to the Boys Republic School, the correctional facility for wayward youth mentioned earlier. It was here he slowly began to mature, though he still had a mischievous streak in him. The school made a mark on him however and it was somewhere he would return to over his life, becoming a patron of the institution. In fact, when signing up to make a new film, McQueen would insist on free items in bulk as part of his contract, such as jeans and razors, among other things. These, it later transpired, were then sent by McQueen to the boys at the centre.

Upon leaving there, he began a couple of years of drifting his way through the merchant navy, and picking up a succession of ‘interesting’ jobs, such as working as ‘towel boy’ in a brothel and being a lumberjack.

Aged 17, he joined the Marine Corps. After being involved in a succession of disciplinary scrapes at first with those in authority, he finally settled down serving in an armoured vehicles unit. Honorably discharged in 1950, he began studying acting in New York. To supplement his earnings, he raced motorbikes competitively on weekends, which cemented his love of all forms of motor racing.

Having already sampled most of what life had to offer by a very young age, it was now time for a new chapter. In 1956, he married actress Neile Adams, going on to have two children with her, daughter Terry Leslie and a son, Chad.  Early acting work was mainly performed on the stage, before picking up TV work once he moved out to California. His first film role was a small bit part in ‘Somebody Up There Likes Me’ starring Paul Newman. His first leading role, even though he only had five lines or so of dialogue, was in the B Movie ‘The Blob.’

His first major TV role was as Josh Randall, a bounty hunter in the series ‘Wanted Dead or Alive” which ran for 94 episodes until 1961.

He then starred with Frank Sinatra in the film ‘Never So Few’ and he made the most of a small part as Vin Tanner in ‘The Magnificent Seven’ alongside Yul Brynner, Charles Bronson and James Coburn. Once again, he only had a few lines, but stole scene after scene with his screen presence, much to the annoyance of Brynner. He later said ‘I’m the greatest con man in the business. But it’s hard – every script is an enemy I have to conquer.’

1963 saw him in the film that set him on the path to superstardom, ‘The Great Escape’. The films insurers prevented him from making the now legendary motorbike jump over barbed wire seen towards the end of the film, so his racing buddy Bud Ekins took care of it. The film was a massive box office hit, and McQueen was on his way.

Also in 1963, he starred opposite Natalie Wood in ‘Love With A Proper Stranger’ a personal favourite of mine. Check his hair cut in that – perfection. In 1965 he was the ‘Cincinnati Kid’ and 1966 he earned an Academy Award nomination for his role in ‘The Sand Pebbles.’

1968 gave us both ‘Bullitt’ and ‘The Thomas Crown Affair’, with both being big box office. McQueen was now simply a superstar.

The 70’s however started shakily, with his epic motor racing drama ‘Le Mans’ being poorly received and critically derided. He was then in ‘Junior Bonner’ in 1972, playing the part of a slightly over the hill rodeo rider.

This was followed in 1973 by both ‘The Getaway’ for director Sam Peckinpah, and here he fell in love with co-star Ali McGraw who became his second wife. This film marked him out as the world’s highest paid screen actor. Also in 1973, he starred in ‘Papillion’, alongside Dustin Hoffman.

‘Towering Inferno’ was a massive box office hit in 1974 and saw McQueen finally catch up with his longtime rival Paul Newman. It is said there was a dispute as to who had top billing on the film poster with Newman eventually giving way to McQueen. When it was finally printed however, Newman’s name was slightly higher than that of his co-star. Touché!

Then McQueen simply withdrew from the film world. He spent time on his collection of vintage motorbikes and travelled around the US living out of a motorhome. Films that he is said to have turned down include ‘Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid’, ‘Apocalypse Now’ and ‘Dirty Harry.’

When he did finally reappear in the 1978 film ‘The Enemy of The People’, he was virtually unrecognizable. He was much heavier in weight and now sported long hair and a full beard.

His final two films of the 27 he made, ‘Tom Horn’ and ‘The Hunter’ faired pretty badly at the box office, but something much more serious awaited him.

He had developed a heavy cough in 1978 and this was eventually diagnosed as a rare form of terminal cancer associated with exposure to asbestos. It is thought that he came into direct contact with the substance whilst removing it from ships, and his tank, during his time in the Marines. He tried a variety of expensive and unconventional treatments in Mexico, all to no avail.

He died from a heart attack, aged 50 after surgery to remove several tumours on November 7th 1980. For years he had maintained he knew he would die at 50, just like his mother and father.

Some prediction that.

Born into a world of no hope, he had turned his life around. So much so that his estate now turns over enough money to put it in the same bracket as that of John Lennon and Marilyn Monroe.

That five foot eight kid from ‘nowheresville’, he did alright.

The Mumper of SE5